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Hollywood, Nashville, New York, and Boston: In the battle for the best talent, the 'Avis strategy' doesn't work

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 3, 2011 06:02 PM

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If you are an ambitious young person and you want to make it in the movies, country music, or advertising, you know where to go: Hollywood, Nashville, and New York.

If you want to get in line to be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs, you head for the Valley.

Why do people come to Boston?

The most common answer you'd hear, I think, is to get an education.

And that's wonderful if you're employed by one of our city's great universities.

But not so great if you work outside of higher ed, or care about Massachusetts' economic health over the long haul.

Right now, Massachusetts has an Avis strategy without the Avis motivation: "We're #2, but our sense of entitlement keeps us from trying harder."

Keep that up, and in twenty years we'll all either be working for universities or the burrito shops nearby.

We're a second-tier financial services town. Second-tier tech town. Second-tier retail town. Second-tier defense contracting town.

That doesn't attract the best talent in the world, and it doesn't give you a strong position in the global economy. It leaves you to play a retention game — let's try our best to hold on to the people who grew up here, or who got a degree here — rather than an attraction game.

And it leaves you exposed to sniping from boosters of the top-tier locales, seeking to attract even more talent to their companies. For example, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, recently told The Economist that "a massive brain drain from Boston to the Valley... has all but gutted Boston as a place for high-tech entrepreneurship." (That didn't stop his venture capital firm from funneling money a few weeks later to a Boston mobile technology start-up...perhaps the last one left in town?)

Rather than letting others define us as past our Prime in industries like high-tech, we need to do a better job of explaining where we are leading the world.

I think Boston can make a compelling argument that we are the nucleus of the 21st century life sciences business. All the key players are here, from big pharma companies to small biotechs to teaching hospitals to e-healthcare pioneers to medical device makers. All are working hard to eradicate disease, extend lives, make the system more efficient, and distribute better healthcare everywhere it's needed. And the companies and research institutions based here can successfully lure the best scientists from around the world.

But we're way too quiet about it. The people running the Mass Biotech Council, Mass Medical Industry Council, and the Masssachusetts Life Sciences Center, unfortunately, lack a single strand of promotional DNA.

And we need to shape, support, and promote those other sectors where we can be world champs.

In digital marketing, the trade group MITX has done well in the past two years with its FutureM Week to position Boston as the epicenter of people and companies thinking about the future of marketing. The message that FutureM sends: "Madison Avenue and 'Mad Men' knew how to move product in the 20th century. We're thinking about how things get sold in the 21st."

There's obviously the potential for so much more: Boston can make a good case to be the nexus of thinking about how technology can improve the classroom we can produce energy and consume it in a cleaner, more efficient way...and developing next-generation robots for defense, manufacturing, logistics, and floor-scrubbing. Boston could also highlight itself as a hub for mission-driven entrepreneurs.

I'm not suggesting that we ought to neglect our Internet start-ups, our defense contractors, or our hometown financial services biggies. Those companies will continue to create jobs, and some of them are quite high-profile in their respective industries. (It also never hurts to explore how we can improve the environment for these types of companies.) I just don't think you get much attention — or become a global talent magnet — by boasting that your state is home to the #2 or #3 agglomeration of anything.

"Psychology makes such a huge difference," says Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Rhode Island, and a former economic development chief for the state. "Growing economies have positive psychology. They feel good about themselves. In Austin, for instance, there's a general positive attitude about what they're capable of doing collectively. But in New England, we have this innate cynicism. I don't think we're losing the war on talent, but we're losing the psychology game." Even when we're winning, it's not our style to wear the foam "We're #1" finger.

I don't think positive psychology is about being delusional, or being able to sell people on steering their careers to Boston when that may not be in their best interests.

It's about being able to say that Boston is the absolute best place in the world for people who want to make their careers in ______, and having that be irrefutably true.

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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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