I have started to worry that instead of being in the press box for a Major League Baseball game, all of us who observe and cover the Boston tech scene are instead sitting in the aluminum bleachers of a Little League match that will end with a 24-19 score, and all of the players getting a trophy.
We have started to cheer when promising startups get bought for undisclosed amounts and folded into big tech giants like IBM, GoDaddy, and Teradata. We’ve started to boast about “mafias” being created by those acquisitions or the occasional IPO, when the reality is a handful of new angel investors cutting $25,000 checks. When companies born here raise money from West Coast investors, and then pull up stakes, some say that we should “celebrate when our ecosystem successfully supports these founders even if they don’t remain in Boston forever.” When a venture firm or accelerator program shifts its focus to Silicon Valley, oh well, we tell one another, their loss. When a year goes by, as 2013 did, with no tech IPOs by Massachusetts companies, we say, “Wait ’till next year.”
I just have a pretty clear definition of what I think about as a major league tech city. I’ve lived in San Francisco and spent lots of time in the Valley. Major league, obviously. I regularly visit New York. They’re in the batting cage day and night, intent on becoming major league fast. In Boston we too often act like parents cheering on Little Leaguers: “Yay, Jimmy! You got acqui-hired. Good at-bat!” Venture capital investment in Massachusetts was down in 2013 from 2011 or 2012? That’s OK; with our $3 billion invested into startups last year, at least we whomped Wyoming, the entrepreneurial equivalent of the Bad News Bears.
To be truly major league, we need to spawn more of what I call pillar companies. They set the agenda for their sectors. They import talent to the state, as opposed to only hiring people who already live here. They’re acquirers, not acquirees. Their market capitalizations are measured in billions, not hundreds of millions. EMC, iRobot, and TripAdvisor are all good examples. Demandware and Care.com, which went public in 2012 and 2014, respectively, may prove to be pillars in a few years. Wayfair, HubSpot, and Acquia are future candidates. (It is great to have branch offices of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft here. But a branch office does not have the same impact or influence as a home-grown pillar.)
I acknowledge that it may be a good outcome when investors sell a company and double their money, when a boot-strapped business gets bought for $5 million, or when a small team gets acqui-hired by a brand name like Dropbox or Cisco and shipped out to California. But I’m sorry — you won’t hear me cheering.
If you look at Boston through the lens of life sciences, you can clearly say that we’re not just major league, we’re the reigning champs. This year, we’ve already set a new record for the most biotech IPOs the state has ever seen. And that sector is a powerful global talent magnet.
I just happen to think Boston can and should aspire to play at a major league level in tech. That’s what I expect, that’s how I keep score, and that’s what gets me out of my seat and hollering.
Do you agree?
Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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