RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live
Text size +

Help wanted: Boston needs more 'alpha users'

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 30, 2010 01:09 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Here's how I define an alpha user: someone who tries out new Web sites, mobile apps, and digital services, and then helps spread the word. 

Think of the person who first told you about Twitter, Foursquare, Evernote, or Vlingo. Alpha users are the folks who let you know what's worth checking out. They nudge you toward the new, via their blogs or Twitter streams, or when you bump into them in person.

And alpha users are crucial to Internet and mobile start-ups that are trying to build momentum: they serve as an unpaid PR minions, or what Seth Godin calls "sneezers," spreading the word through their networks. Some have thousands of followers on Twitter, or tens of thousands of blog readers. That can be incredibly powerful.

Silicon Valley is full of alpha users: people like Dave McClure and Robert Scoble. Sometimes, they may not explicitly be writing up their impressions of a new site or service they may simply start using it, or add it to their blog as a new feature (McClure's blog, for instance, is laden with all sorts of widgets from online services like Plancast, Slideshare, and Dopplr.)

Boston would benefit from an alpha user population explosion.

That's painfully obvious to me when I talk to Internet start-ups just coming out of the gate, and trying to get their first couple thousand users. "We're focusing on getting influencers and evangelists to start using our service," Sparkcloud's Nick Tommarello told me last week. He has a team member trying to develop a list of such folks locally, since Sparkcloud is focused on building critical mass in Boston first. Kabir Hemrajani of RiotVine told me it gave his site a boost when Scoble tweeted about it during South by Southwest, and also when Boston entrepreneur Laura Fitton used it to list all the parties she planned to attend at the Austin shindig.

I think just about anyone can evolve into an alpha user; rather than just blogging or tweeting about your own business (or social life), all it requires is checking out a new site or app every once in a while, and either sharing your reactions with your readers/followers, or simply integrating it into your blog/Web site for a while. Sometimes, alpha users may also be investors in the companies they're touting, and that's not a bad thing so long as they disclose the connection. (Many Boston investors I've spoken to recently about this topic fear the appearance that they're pimping their portfolio companies, but I think the new model of investor is someone like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures or Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital: they're both alpha users and investors, and entrepreneurs love 'em for it.)

Here's my list of ten influential alpha users in the Boston area. (I'd like very much to see it grow.)

- Venture capitalist Bijan Sabet (@bijan) of Spark Capital. Yes, he's an investor in some of the services he uses, such as Twitter and the blogging service Tumblr, but he's also an active user of Flickr,, Stickybits, and other novel stuff.

Antonio Rodriguez, an entrepreneur who just joined Matrix Partners as an investor. (@antrod on Twitter.) Rodriguez has written recently about why he felt compelled to order Apple's new iPad ... using the Nike+ run-tracking system... and hacking Google's NexusOne phone.

- Google Ventures executive (and former entrepreneur) Rich Miner talks not only about Google's Android operating system, which he helped develop, but services like Foursquare, Oneforty, Vitality's GlowCaps, and Google investments like SCVNGR. (@richminer on Twitter.)

- Laura Fitton (@pistachio) was an early consultant and speaker on the dynamics of social media; now, she's chief executive of the Boston start-up Oneforty, which manages a directory of Twitter-related software... and she has 52,000 Twitter followers.

Steve Garfield was among the first vloggers (video bloggers), someone who tested all sorts of new cameras and video-sharing sites. More recently, Garfield was one of the first Bostonians to regularly broadcast live video from his mobile phone using the Qik service. (@stevegarfield on Twitter.)

- Author, conference organizer, and social media consultant Chris Brogan thinks constantly about how technology is changing the way we talk to each other (and the way we interact with businesses); he has amassed 130,000 followers on Twitter, where he is @chrisbrogan.

- Omnipresent at social media gatherings, every time I see Joselin Mane (@joselinmane), he fills me in on a new site worth knowing about, like SpeakerRate  a way to share slides from your presentations, and let the audience rate you. Mane also runs BostonTweetUp, an online calendar and video series that keeps tabs on many of the social media oriented events in town. (Disclosure: Mane was just a speaker at a conference I helped organize in New York.)

- IBM technology architect Eric Anderson is a hard-core Foursquare user (he's mayor of nearly 100 spots around town); he's also good for tips on new mobile apps like Gatsby, which helps make introductions to people (in the real world) based on shared interests. (@eric_andersen on Twitter.)

- Angel investor, entrepreneur, and MassTLC board member Bill Warner tries out new technologies like Prezi and the blogging service Posterous (in which he is an investor), and frequently posts videos from local start-up events. (@billwarner on Twitter.)

- Performable CEO and co-founder David Cancel often mentions a new bookmarklet he's trying out, or a new start-up like Next Big Sound that he's helping get off the ground as an angel investor. (@dcancel on Twitter.)

And a few honorable mentions: Google exec Don Dodge (@dondodge) ... Betahouse co-founder Jon Pierce (@jonpierce) ... start-up advisor Sim Simeonov (@simeons) ... recruiter Tom Summit (@tsummit) ... HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah (@dharmesh) ... Dayna Grayson of North Bridge Venture Partners (@daynagrayson) ... techie and Lotus alum Chris Herot (@cherot) ... Mike Hirshland of Polaris Venture Partners (@vcmike.)

Now, I left out some people who may have a vast blog audience or Twitter following, but don't regularly test out new stuff. And others who may always tell you about some cool new Android app when you see them at a cocktail party, but don't have a public platform. Neither of those kinds of people qualify, to me at least, as true alpha users.

But who else would you add to the list? Post a comment if you would.

(Update: my entire list is now also on Twitter, where you can see what these alpha users are saying, or opt to follow them all in one fell swoop.)

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article



BetaBoston technology news logo
Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

On Facebook

Subscribe via e-mail

Get Innovation Economy updates via e-mail. Enter your address and click 'Subscribe':

More from Scott


March 3: Web Innovators Group
Demos, drinks, and schmoozing at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge.

March 7-8: MassDigi Game Challenge
Competition for aspiring game developers... plus panels and keynotes related to the business of play.

April 3-4: Mass Biotech Annual Meeting
Issues facing the region's life sciences community.