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Attention, all you crusty old doughnuts of the Massachusetts innovation economy: Show up or shut up

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 16, 2010 10:20 AM

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Listening to Governor Deval Patrick address a room full of venture capitalists last week, one string of comments bugged the heck out of me. The governor said that CEOs of big tech companies like EMC and Cisco, in comparing Massachusetts entrepreneurs and investors to their California counterparts, have told him that we:

  • Are too insular
  • Don't give entrepreneurs a second shot after a failure
  • Don't network enough.

The "spirit of collaboration is not as robust" here in Massachusetts, the governor said.

I wanted to jump out of my seat. What crusty old doughnut still thinks any of that is true?

(Instead, I turned to Jamie Goldstein of North Bridge Venture Partners and said, "Someone needs to remind the governor how many times Ric Fulop failed as an entrepreneur before he started A123 Systems," the battery company that North Bridge backed, and which was the most successful IPO of last year.)

Here is how someone living in the year 2010 and participating in this region's innovation economy sees things: we collaborate, converse, connect, and mix it up with a vengeance seven days a week.

Last Saturday, you could've been part of the packed crowd at MIT for Startup Bootcamp, soaking up lessons from successful entrepreneurs — including A123 co-founder Fulop. This past Monday was the 27th meeting of the Web Innovators Group in Cambridge, which brings together about 500 people to see demos from start-ups. Last night, you had Mass. Innovation Nights, an entirely different collection of demos. As part of programs like MassChallenge and TechStars Boston, start-ups get a chance to be mentored by an impressive bullpen of successful executives and entrepreneurs. At the annual Innovation Unconference organized by the Mass Tech Leadership Council, there's a lengthy roster of experts who'll offer advice to the entrepreneurs in attendance. (Funny, but no one from EMC or Cisco participates in any of those events.)

Next month, we've got FutureM Boston and Boston Region Entrepreneurship Week back to back. One emphasizes all of the activity around new approaches to marketing, and the other will feature a couple dozen events for start-uppers — and both are packed with so many events that it'll be tough to choose what to attend.

And earlier in September, Boston was named the top city for innovation anywhere in the world by an Australian research firm.

All this leads me to conclude that there are two kinds of people in Boston right now.

There are the crusty old doughnuts who like to keep repeating the same old garbage about how Boston is too insular... doesn't network enough... doesn't tolerate failure. All that may have been true the last time they were actually connected to reality — two or so decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of these people (likely senior execs at some of the state's bigger tech companies) seem to be filling the governor's ear with this obsolete data.

The second group of people actually go to an event or two every month to make new connections and share what they know. The more experienced folks among them think nothing of sitting down with an entrepreneur for an hour (maybe at OpenCoffee or the Venture Café) to offer some feedback and advice about a nascent business plan.

That first group is mired in the past. They're crusty, and getting staler by the minute. While they may have the dough to donate to Governor Patrick's re-election campaign, their outmoded take on the innovation economy here is not worth listening to.

That second group is shaping the future here. (Maybe we should call them the fresh, warm croissants. Isn't that so much better than a crusty old doughnut?) The new culture of entrepreneurship and creativity they're establishing — no, have already established — is about openness, sharing, and swinging for the fences. It's a culture of continual improvement, too, focusing on the things we can do better to retain the smartest students who come here to get degrees, and grow small start-ups into industry leaders.

You are welcome to be part of this new culture if you want. We'd love to have you.

But if you opt out, as lots of people with well-paying, secure gigs at technology companies will likely do, here's my one request: kindly stop jabbering on about the past.

Okay, doughnuts?

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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.

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