What Boston’s Top Consumer Tech Leaders Think About Boston’s Consumer Tech Struggles [#BostonB2C Recap]
On Tuesday, July 21, we hosted the first-ever Boston Consumer Tech Summit. The invite-only event was attended by 300 of the area’s best tech leaders, founders, product managers, designers, developers, investors, engineers, salesmen and women, and more, all of whom are hard at work in consumer tech. This is a recap of the more insightful tweets and comments from the event.
At NextView, we invest across the US. We have companies in Chicago, San Francisco (and elsewhere in Silicon Valley), Omaha, and New York. But a large majority of our investments are in our backyard of Boston — and, aside from our work as investors, this city is near and dear to our hearts.
Over the past few years, the tech community has absolutely exploded locally (and if you’re new here or just want to take it all in, here’s our Hitchhiker’s Guide to Boston Tech microsite). But inescapable for all who call Boston’s tech community their own is one meme that simply won’t die:
“Nobody does consumer well in Boston.”
Now, plenty of digital ink has been spilled over the reasons why. Some say it’s a lack of risk-taking appetite. Some say it’s an investor problem. Some say it’s a marketing and story-telling problem. Still others point to the collective sensibility and logic of New Englanders as an operating philosophy. Regardless of the reason, we were just plain fed up. Half our portfolio is consumer. And many great consumer companies have indeed been launched and grown right here. (If you’re interested in this larger dialogue, here’s NextView co-founder Rob Go on this trend for the Boston Globe‘s tech blog, BetaBoston).
So rather than sprint to either of the two common responses — total, blind defense of our community in the face of criticism OR a defeatist attitude and desire to relocate, which is starting to become self-perpetuating and -fulfilling — we decided it was time to get productive about it. We pulled together a lineup of A-list speakers, healined by TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer, Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah, and Spark Capital founder and partner Bijan Sabet, among other very talented entrepreneurs and thinkers.
Here is some of the best commentary from the community…
For starters, why does Boston get a bad consumer rap anyway?
The tweet that really spoke the most truth to this discussion (just check the replies for proof), was from Mike Troiano, a well-known marketer and CMO of Actifio, which is considered to be IPO-bound in the next year or two. Here’s Mike’s comment:
Boston’s B2C problem is one of values. Too much math, rational value, Excel. Not enough soul, emotional impact, Adobe. #BostonB2C
— Michael Troiano (@miketrap) July 21, 2015
There’s also a certain flavor to the types of companies — even consumers companies — that Boston launches. They’re often less interested in growing a very broad user base and instead start “right next to the money,” in the words of Steve Kaufer. Said another way:
But in-line with the thinking behind launching this Summit was this comment from Nick Rellas, co-founder and CEO of Drizly (as tweeted by HubSpot’s Andy Cook):
To become a truly special consumer tech community, Boston needs more pillar B2C companies.
Two of the biggest and most successful are TripAdvisor and Wayfair — both big, independent, public companies built in Boston. Their CEOs book-ended the Summit as the opening and closing keynotes. First up was Steve Kaufer, CEO of TripAdvisor:
— NextView Ventures (@NextViewVC) July 21, 2015
— Raffaele Colella (@raf_col) July 21, 2015
The other pillar company CEO to speak closed the Summit — Niraj Shah, Co-founder and CEO of Wayfair:
Wayfair got to $250M revenue (7 yrs) without a very good idea which products were in supplier inventory and which weren’t. #BostonB2C
— Galen Moore (@galenmoore) July 21, 2015
And in a telling moment, Niraj hinted at what could be improved in Boston’s consumer tech community — doing a better job identifying broader, consumer-focused problems and applying those experiences to launching companies. Rather than identify problems at work to solve, identify them at home or in life more generally:
— Alex Cook (@aacook) July 21, 2015
Boston’s consumer tech success also requires the right investors with the right mentality.
While NextView certainly aspires to be among those investors, we have huge admiration for Spark Capital’s Bijan Sabet. He and Rob sat down for a fireside chat during the Summit:
— Scott Kirsner (@ScottKirsner) July 21, 2015
— Ben Yudysky (@BenYudysky) July 21, 2015
More functionally, Boston needs to improve its design, branding, and PR skills.
Talking design was Brian Kalma, design chief at Blade, a startup foundry launched by Paul English, former co-founder/CTO of Kayak. Brian briefly outlined his experiences doing UX for Zappos, Gilt Groupe, Gemvara, and more. “Happy cows make happy cheese,” he told the crowd — in other words, your ability to empathize and relate to designers, keep them happy, and treat them as problem solvers (which they are) rather than glorified mockup generators (which they are not) is one major piece of a great design team.
— Jules Pieri (@julespieri) July 21, 2015
For his part, Bijan seemed to agree that Boston needs more design-centric founders and thinkers to launch and grow successful B2C businesses, as he said:
— Maia Heymann (@MaiaHeymann) July 21, 2015
On the branding and PR front, Wayfair’s VP of Brand Marketing, Nancy Go, interviewed Gazelle’s CMO and EVP of Consumer, Sarah Welch. (Full disclosure: Nancy is Rob’s wife.)
— Jacqueline Hampton (@jacq_hampton) July 21, 2015
However, it’s important to be careful when thinking about brand advertising and/or PR. It’s about hits that can generate customers, not just hits on popular sites for the sake of ego-stroking. As Niraj later said (to mostly nods in the crowd):
— Founder Collective (@fcollective) July 21, 2015
But all of these things must be combined with an analytical approach.
DraftKings, which arguably is on its way to becoming the next great consumer pillar in Boston, is in the middle of a land-grab in the daily fantasy sports space. Co-founder and COO Paul Liberman helped the audience look under the hood in how they operate with such a data-obsessed tilt:
— Adam Sigel (@adamsigel) July 21, 2015
Lastly, Boston will ultimately succeed on the backs of its entrepreneurs and their companies.
The CEOs of Drizly and Scratch, Nick Rellas and Matt Zisow, were joined by Uber’s East Coast GM, Meghan Joyce, on a panel to talk about the challenges of their businesses and gaining footholds in Boston and beyond. (Full disclosure: NextView is an investor in Scratch.)
With all that said, the pipeline looks promising:
— Scott Kirsner (@ScottKirsner) July 21, 2015