Boston Cool and Silicon Valley Cool: Which Do You Prefer?

This Kat is packing his bags and bracing himself for the 24-hour, door-to-door flight to San Francisco to participate in the 2011 INTA Annual Meeting. For those of you who may not recall, last year's INTA meeting took place in Boston. I thought about these antepodian locations, East Coast v West Coast, Atlantic v Pacific, in reading a piece that appeared this week on Entitled "The Road to Awesome" here, its author, Scott Kirsner, considers some reasons why Boston is playing an increasing second fiddle to Silicon Valley (and even New York City) as the leader in the innovation economy.

The problem, as Kirsner sees it, is as follows:
"Boston likes to see itself as a hive of innovation, and a fertile place for entrepeneurs with big ideas. But when it comes to young, first-time founders working on websites, mobile applications, and devices designed for consumers, the magnetic pull of San Francisco and [even] New York is strong."
The reason for Boston's relative decline can be summed up in one word--"coolness". As compared with Palo Alto and New York, Boston suffers from a "coolness deficit when it comes to retaining twentysomethings and newly minted college grads." When Kirsner says "coolness", that is what he wants it he means. Quoting one entrepreneur who moved his business from Boston to the Bay Area, "Boston doesn't have the star power or the glitterati." Intuitively, this Kat graps this: when the decide to do a "Big Brother-like" reality show following the every move of a budding innovator, the show will certainly take place in Silicon Valley and not on Route 128 in Boston.

Still, "coolness" is an atttribute that one identifies with the contents of People magazine and not with some young entrepeneur toling away on trying to create the next great high tech idea. How does "coolness" translate into a more fertile environment for innovation? The article lists several factors:

1. A critical mass of investors open to taking big gambles on seemingly wild notions.
2. Casual meeting places that just seem to attract both entrepeneurs and investors and which create an atmosphere that encourages "serendipitous meetings."
3. Enbdless office-launch and product-launch gatherings.
4. Products that your college classmates are likely use, or at least be familiar with.
5. CEOs with larger-than-life personalities.
6. Veteran entrepeneurs willing to mentor aspiring youngsters.
7. Skilled programmers and product designers.
8. An environment that enables one to enjoy an informal proximity with many other smart people also involved in trying to build successful start-ups.
[9. And though no one seems to have admitted, better weather.]

Significantly, issues more likely to attract attention in any discussion of policy considerations to encourage innovation are missing from the list, namely, (i) corporate tax rates (and tax policy in general); (ii) housing costs; (iii) traffic and (iv) California's increasingly dysfunctional public finances and services. The issues for the entrepreneur are much more focused and "here and now" in nature--develop the product and/or obtain necessary funding and/or create a self-propagating buzz about your innovation. The presence of a world-class marathon is equally irrelevant.

And what about IP? Interestingly, there is no mention of IP (or even lawyers) in the article's discussion of "innovation" and "cool." I think that there are a couple of reasons for this. First, as I have suggested elsewhere, social media is an underweight IP activity, where branding and matters of secrecy predominate. Second, the focus of the article, being on social media, downplays other types of innovative activity.

Take biotech, where Boston still seems to be equal to Silicon Valley (and certainly New York City) as a world-class hub. Freshly minted MBAs, and other other twentysomethings itching to establish a start-up, do not gravitate to biotech. There, you are more likely to find Ph.D. types grinding away on R&D and patent attorneys working hand-in-hand to protect their discoveries. But writing about biotech and alternative energy, as well as more traditional software and hardware, and the environments in which they flourish, would produce a much less cool article.
Boston Cool and Silicon Valley Cool: Which Do You Prefer? Boston Cool and Silicon Valley Cool: Which Do You Prefer? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, May 06, 2011 Rating: 5


  1. Jeremy

    Sounds strange, I know but in deciding which annual conference to go to I always see what is going on in Boston and then go there.

    Last time (but one) I went there I asked a woman to marry me and (to my utter amazement) she said yes! We married and so on ...


  2. "When Kirsner says "coolness", that is what he wants it he means."
    Say again?

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for picking this up, what I meant to say was--

    "that is what he intends it to mean...."

    Something went awry along the way.



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