The Lull, through Grapevine, Maine and running

The “Lull,” reality or perception

This week, there is no central feature for Utterly Biased. Just a question.

What is your current perception of the Boston startup community, tech ecosystem, or whatever else you may want to call it?

Is it robust and thriving? Are there some incredible companies on the cusp of making national headlines or are there a whole lot of small wins that we are going to be seeing?

Or, as a few people have put it to me lately, is Boston in a lull?

For such a small word, “lull” packs quite an emotional kick. Webster’s defines it thusly: “a temporary pause or decline in activity,” and more specifically, “a temporary calm before or during a stormor “a temporary drop in business activity.” Whichever meaning you choose, it is not something you’d like associated with your business, and, it’s especially not the type of branding you’d want to saddle on an entire region’s innovation economy.

A slew of recent conversations I’ve been having with operators, founders, investors, and service providers have turned at some point to the theme that the Boston startup scene is eerily quiet at the moment.

Is this reality or just perception?

So, I ask you to send your thoughts my way. Is Boston in a downturn, or is this just the belief of a few. Is the ecosystem actually evolving as it should?

Send your thought to dennis@utterlybiased.com. I will publish some responses (you can request to have your opinion remain anonymous to the Utterly Biased readership.)

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Under-the-radar

This week, Dave Balter, a man who wears many hats, suggested a local company that he’s tight with that he believes isn’t getting the love it should. Balter singled out Grapevine, saying that the social media influencer marketing platform is “crushing it right now.”

Balter backed Grapevine through Boston Seed, and he is the head of its board of directors. According to Balter, who spends most of his time on his own venture Mylestone, Grapevine has really thrived since partnering with Chinese billionaire Bruno Wu’s Sun Seven Stars. That would make sense, Sun Seven Stars is an international private media and investment conglomerate that can help Grapevine take its social content monetization platform to a global market.

The market for connecting brands with social media influencers has been burgeoning as of late, but there have been two trends to keep an eye on. For one, YouTube, long the king of leveraging influencer marketing, especially with teens, has been seeing some blowback from major advertisers on how much control they have on the branded content that appears alongside their own advertising. While this doesn’t impact the influencers, per se, it is a signal to the marketplace, which has led some brands to look at YouTube alternatives like Snapchat and Instagram.

Second, Instagram has grown exponentially as a place for both branded content and influencer marketing.

Grapevine serves both platforms and should be able to whether changes in consumer tastes better than others in the space.

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-4-00-23-pmWhat went down this week…

Maine – I met Kerry Gallivan, the CEO and founder of Chimani, a number of years ago at MIT’s VC conference. He looked a bit out of place hawking his outdoor adventure app, surrounded by three-piece suits and overly-eager to network aspiring venture capitalists. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to him and his story. That or the fact that here was this guy building a massive, aspirational project out of Portland, Maine — one of my favorite cities in the US — of all places.

Last year, Gallivan was listed in Outside Magazine as one of the “next pioneers” influencing the future of the America’s national parks. This week, Chimani announced a new product that should help it continue to dominate the national park tourist space.

  • The new Chimani Perks program is a membership savings club program for national park tourists. The program offers discounts on lodging, dining, activities, and more throughout the national park system, both inside the parks and in the neighboring gateway communities. Since its launch, Chimani — which has maps, content, and more for all 59 US national parks as well as those in the UK and Canada — has seen some rapid growth with more than 1.5 million downloads for its niche product. It customers aren’t the hardcore outdoor enthusiasts you might expect, but a large number of families, professionals, and retirees, what Gallivan called ‘windshield tourists’; a classification that makes up about 90 percent of national parks visitors according to the Chimani CEO. The number of active users each year is 750,000 according to Gallivan, and many of those use the park-specific apps to plan their trips rather than navigate them once they are there.  “Customers love our products, but we had to figure a way to make this business sustainable, which is the basis for this new Perks program,” Gallivan said. One thing is clear, its great to see some innovation happening in Portland and a good outdoor-focused business growing in New England.

FitRaceMenu, a platform for road race directors to manage, promote and grow their events, announced that it has sold off its race timing business to Second Wind Racing. RaceMenu, a stalwart of MassChallenge when it was at 1 Marina Park Drive, has quietly built a nice little business in the health and fitness space. Boston is actually a hub for these types of companies with Runkeeper, Inside Tracker, Spartan Races, Tracksmith, and more playing a major role in the active lifestyle and athlete industry.

I spoke with RaceMenu’s J. Alain Ferry, RaceMenu’s founder about the sale and how he is positioning the company moving forward. His response, “It may sound nuts, but it’s to compete against Square and Paypal.” He added that RaceMenu is “playing the long game.” Here’s more from Ferry, who seems to have figured out a way to actually bring innovation to the racing circuit:

  • “As of last week’s sale, we are singularly focused on software, and more specifically mobile payments. The endurance events industry offers a unique (and incredibly lucrative) opportunity for mobile payments. Ever wonder why every half/full marathon and large 5K under the sun has a pre-race expo but no post-race expo? The supply and demand are still there after the race, and even more so in many cases. But there’s no currency, nor will there be anytime soon. While increasing numbers of people run with their phone, that doesn’t really help all the merchants who want to sell to post-race “runners high” consumers. They’re willing to pay for better food, beer, race merchandise, running clothing, running shoes, massages, GPS watches, other race entries, etc. But how do they pay? There’s one thing which every single runner has on them after the race which can help. It’s their race bib. Timing companies use the race bib to identify the runner for scoring purposes. If you can connect their race bib to the credit card they used when registering online, you can also use the race bib for payments. Now you add this currency to an equation where supply and demand already existed and BOOM: you have a new market.”

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Jebbit and startup evolution, Skok on Zaius, UB on Medium

Do young founders evolve?

Last Thursday, Jebbit, an interactive marketing platform that has recently expanded into more data-driven products, held its first-ever customer conference, which featured talks from co-founders Tom Coburn and Jonathan Lacoste, as well as HubSpot’s Kipp Bodner.

The long-planned event, however, hit a bit of bad luck that, in the end, was quite fortuitous.

You see, the Jebbit Customer Conference 2017 was supposed to be held at Fenway. But when one of the Pirates-Sox games was rained out during opening week, that game was rescheduled to Thursday afternoon, and Jebbit’s inaugural event was without a home. With some help from the Sox, Jebbit was able to move its conference to the Commonwealth Hotel in Kenmore —  a spot with a great view of the Green Monster no less. At the event, Coburn and Lacoste unveiled a strategic shift that has been a long time in the making when it announced its Declared-Data Platform to the 100 customers in attendance — folks like Expedia, CBS, Gannett, Sonesta Hotels, and more.

If that wasn’t enough, Jebbit ended up with a whole bunch of tickets to the game up in the Budweiser Deck to bring over the conference attendees for quite possibly the greatest event after-parties ever.

Showing a lot of flexibility, Jebbit made the most of an unexpected turn of events on Thursday. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the company has been quietly adjusting to changes in online marketing for the past few years.

As Jebbit is out raising its Series A, they are dealing with something that I’ve heard again and again in Boston from companies built out of college or by young founders. For whatever reason, there seems to be a belief that unseasoned or young entrepreneurs in Boston cannot effectively scale their businesses.

This is something that has plagued LevelUp, Drizly, VentureApp, Attend.com, CustomMade, and many, many other young startups. Many in the VC world don’t expect these companies to be able to evolve to the market and grow. And so, they either hesitate to invest, or, even worse, if they are already involved, they push for a change in leadership.

With Jebbit, which was borne out of BC as a way to advertise to students through quick online surveys, shaking what they were, to what they’ve become, has been quite challenging. Now, as Coburn explains it, customers of its products are using Jebbit as an enterprise data tool that allows them to take mobile experiences to capture valuable customer data. “This opens up new use cases that an enterprise can use outside of marketing,” Coburn said.

As Coburn told me recently, getting a meeting with a local VC can pose a challenge. “I think they assume that what a young entrepreneur’s company was two, three, or four years ago is the same thing that company is now.”

Just for some perspective, Jebbit is a six-year-old company. HubSpot had been in existence for eight years when it went public. (Although, Jebbit was bootstrapped for three years while most of the team was building the company AND studying at BC.)

The Jebbit CEO told me that during the meetings he has had, he has had to fight to explain that over the last four years, the company’s primary product has matured into a data-driven marketing tool and is no longer a college student engagement program.

“People here in Boston, because they’ve known us, still think of us as a survey company, even thought we abandoned that years ago,” he said. “Could you imagine people thinking that you haven’t changed at all in six years?”

“You can decide to stay the course and build out what you’ve started, and that has worked for some companies locally,” Coburn told me. “Or, if you think it will be better for you, you go in a different direction.”

“What everyone was saying about us back then was true, we were a survey company,” Coburn said. “But as we’ve grown up so has this company.”

From people outside the company, I’ve heard that one or two local VCs have changed their minds about Jebbit as they try to fill out their Series A. The rest of the local VCs might be out of luck if they realize too late that these aren’t kids tinkering with a college student app. Like a few other young, local startups raising funding these days, Jebbit might be heading west to talk to investors who don’t have outdated, preconceived notions of the company.

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Under-the-radar

This week, Michael Skok of _Underscore.VC suggested Zaius, a marketing automation, analytics, and CRM software platform, as a local company that isn’t getting enough attention. According to Skok, Zaius “has built the next-generation B2C marketing platform to address fragmented data and customer experiences caused by legacy marketing platforms and patchwork of point solutions.”

“There is a massive market opportunity — the problem is as big for B2C companies as it is for B2B companies and can you imagine a B2B company without a CRM?” he said.

When I asked Skok why they are under-the-radar, he said that until recently the team has been focused on “building a best in class technology platform.” Over the last year, they have really achieved tremendous customer traction and brought on stellar sales and marketing leadership focused on expanding their Boston team out of their North End HQ.”

“The team is nothing short of phenomenal and they will not stay quiet for long,” Skok added.

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Submissions for Utterly Biased on Medium

With a shortened Utterly Biased this week, I thought it would be a great time to reveal a new way that Utterly Biased is trying to help Boston tell its story.

This week I launched Utterly Biased as a Medium Publication. Separate from the blog and the newsletter, UB on Medium will serve as an outlet for anyone in Boston who has a good story to tell or some piece of experiential advice that could be helpful to others looking to be more innovative and impactful in their lives and businesses.

Anyone interested in sharing their stories on the Utterly Biased Medium page, shoot me a note at dennis@utterlybiased.com.

This is the first in a series of different products that Utterly Biased will be pushing out to continue to serve as a megaphone for the untold stories and the truly innovative people from Boston’s innovation and entrepreneur community.

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Pillar adds a tech pillar, vision-tech maven, vets of all stripes

Boston technology startups get a new VC booster

It was announced last week that Pillar was adding Russ Wilcox as an investing partner. It’s a big move for the growing (in both size and influence) firm started by Jamie Goldstein last year. Wilcox is best known for his role as the CEO and founder of E Ink, the company behind the electronic ink technology used in Amazon’s Kindle readers. E Ink’s tech was spun out of MIT, as was Wilcox’s most recent venture, Transatomic Power.

As his track record — as a founder/CEO and an angel investor — makes clear, Russ is someone who seems to have a knack for uncovering and harnessing some sophisticated technological innovations and bringing them to market…often before the market is even ready for them.

Wilcox grew up in a family, led by an MIT-grad father, that was passionate about science and technology. He credits that for piquing his interest into the possibilities of innovation. That led him to study applied mathematics at Harvard and later to earn an MBA from HBS.

But while many of his HBS classmates took a career path down the road to management consulting, Wilcox had a realization that put him on a trajectory that led him to multiple chief executive roles and his new career as a VC.

I asked Russ a few questions about his journey thus far, including what led him to seek out opportunities such as PureSpeech (where he first met Pillar’s Jamie Goldstein), E Ink, and later Transatomic Power and Piper Therapeutics.

Utterly Biased: What was the impetus for the shift from management consulting, which you had already started doing some work in, to technology?

Russ Wilcox: I was doing some project management around the time I was at HBS, and I had this one little project that made me look at what I was doing differently. One client asked me to figure out how billionaires get created. So I did a bunch of research, read a lot of biographies on billionaires, and quickly discovered that none had gotten that way by working for someone else.

I realized that it was a smart idea to be an owner of something, so started to try to figure out how to make that happen. As someone who loved science and technology, I thought I could be the founder of a tech company, so I focused on startup founders. I wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, so I was caught in a struggle many MBAs face about working for a larger existing company or going out on your own.

I decided there was a middle road between being part of a big company like Facebook or trying to start my own thing, and that was to go work for someone else’s startup. That’s how I ended up at PureSpeech right out of business school, which was the first time I worked with Jamie.

UB: So after you have this startup experience, you are ready to do your own thing, how did you get involved with electronic ink?

RW:  I started to look for something else and was introduced to Joe Jacobson (E-Ink’s technical founder) at the MIT Media Lab. At the time, he was working on this light gray and dark gray screen technology. It didn’t seem like much on its own, but when I looked at the electric ink under a microscope, there was just this gorgeous jet black and titanium white pixelation.

I fell in love with the technology; it was just an intellectually fascinating idea. So I helped launch E-Ink. It was about six years in the wilderness from the Media Lab to shipping, but we got a huge lift when Amazon launched the Kindle and picked our technology. Just prior to that, I had become the CEO, after various other roles, and we started ramping up to meet the demand. In 36 months, we went from doing $9 million to $160 million for the product. Ultimately, in 2009, we sold the company to Prime View International, and they wanted to have their management team managing E-Ink.

UB: So what did you do next after working on that project for 12 years?

RW: I reintroduced myself to my family. We took kids out of school and traveled around the world for a year. It was a great experience; we visited 32 countries. I had learned so much while traveling for business; I really hoped that the kids would pick up a more global perspective and realized how much is changing outside of the U.S.

Returning to Boston, I looked for new projects, especially one that could do something about pollution. I started looking into nuclear reactors, which are safer, cleaner, and cheaper.

So I co-founded Transatomic Power and helped to get it up and running. Eventually, it was clear that fellow co-founder Dr. Leslie Dewan was ideal to be the CEO, and I moved to the board.

Also, after coming back from our trip, I had begun to invest as an angel. I would only back founders who I thought were spectacular humans. One of the companies that I backed early on that has gone on to do well is Disruptor Beam.

UB: And now you are joining Pillar. What led to the move?

RW: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an investor until Jamie reached out. I was really impressed by what he was building.

More than anything, Jamie is just the type of guy you want backing you. So that was a draw.

But, I was also attracted to the philosophy; especially, the vision of bringing up the next crop of startups in Boston, that resonated with me.

Pillar is all about becoming highly aligned with founders and entrepreneurs. From the beginning, Jamie built in this philosophy of having founder friendly term and always leaning towards what’s best for the founders. Having been on the other side, I realize how important that is.

UB: What has you most excited about this new role?

RW: I would like to see an impact in terms of bringing together the next generation of Boston startups, more pillar companies. We want to be involved in all of them, but it won’t be Pillar alone that does that.

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Under-the-radar

This week, the company that isn’t getting the attention it should be was suggested by local VC Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners. The interesting thing is that the company he thinks is under-the-radar isn’t a Flybridge portfolio company.

Bussgang sent a note about Cognex, the Natick-based machine vision company that has been kicking around since 1981. The reason for Bussgang’s interest is that he thinks that Cognex is one of Boston’s hottest tech companies, and yet no one talks about them.

According to Cognex‘s website, they have shipped more than 1 million of their vision-based products, including barcode readers and other laser vision devices, which represents more than $4 billion in cumulative revenue since its founding.

While it is a great story about long-term value, Bussgang is right that the company is currently “hot.”

It now has a $7.3 billion market cap and its stock price has increased more than 125% over the past year.

The reason for the company’s sudden success is most likely due to the evolving demand for the automated manufacturing processes and the increased use of machine learning in an array of industries. The company is already working across the globe, using its machine vision readers to improve all parts of manufacturing and assembly. It is also being used by the automotive, solar, biotech and life sciences, electronics, and semiconductor industries for automation and product quality optimization.

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What went down this week…

Drones – Brandon Tseng is a former Navy Seal who is a co-founder and the CFO of Shield AI, a company that has developed AI software for military purposes; specifically, for guiding reconnaissance drones during ground combat. Currently finishing up at the Harvard Business School, Tseng is leading the east coast arm of Shield AI, which just raised a $10.5 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz.

  • With contracts already in place with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, Shield AI has the potential to play a major role in reducing the number of US ground casualties in the theater of war, which is it’s primary, stated mission. While it has had a small presence in Allston, the company and Brandon will soon completely be headquartered in San Diego, where Brandon’s brother, CEO Ryan Tseng, and the majority of the team is located. The company was on the radar of a lot of VCs in Boston but ended up finding it was most aligned with a16z.

 

Player Personnel – I had the pleasure of working with Eric Trickett during my day’s at VentureFizz, where he was an advisor to the company through its sister business Dissero. Trickett, who was most recently the Head of Global Engineering Recruiting at TripAdvisor, just move to a role at Wayfair as the company’s Director of Talent Acquisition.

  • While I have stated that people moving from job to job isn’t really newsworthy, in this instance, it actually is and not just because Trickett is one of the best guys in Boston tech. From what I have heard, Trickett played a vital role in TripAdvisor’s growth over the past year as it expanded into its new campus in Needham. More than that, word was that Trickett quickly became one of CEO Stephen Kaufer’s most trusted advisors. The reason for that has a lot to do with Trickett’s track record with high-level hiring and talent placement, something that many companies screw up often, sometimes with disastrous results. The move to Wayfair is an indication of two things: One, that Tripadvisor is now in a great place with its leadership going forward and that Trickett’s expertise is no longer needed; and, second, that Wayfair is about to grow exponentially.

CarGurus follows the plan…the TripAdvisor plan

Choose Industry. Build Product. Grow. Exit. Repeat.

It was reported this week that CarGurus, the online car shopping platform, has selected banks in preparation for an IPO at some point in 2017.

CarGurus is one of Boston’s most successful private consumer internet companies, and yet, it fails to garner the same attention as some of the area’s very early-stage startups. One reason for that may be that it never took funding from a venture firm, and therefore doesn’t have a need to send signals to the “market” about how much it is “crushing” it.

Nevertheless, CarGurus should have everyone’s full attention now. In searching for a takeaway, startup founders and executive teams shouldn’t be asking “How the hell did they bootstrap and pull this off,” when it comes to CarGurus, but “How can WE do this too.”

Well, there is a playbook, and it’s not that hard to find.

CarGurus has never had to deal with pressure from VCs. That’s due to the plan of founder and CEO Langley Steinert and his leadership team who emphasized a focus on…wait for it…profitability, above all else.

But that isn’t what ultimately led to the success of the business.

No, the key to CarGurus ten-year march to an IPO is that all-along, the company just mimicked TripAdvisor.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Sam Zales, CarGurus’ president of international and dealer operations, and he was very explicit about how Steinert, who was a co-founder of TripAdvisor (one of the highest-valued Internet companies in the US), was specifically trying to follow what he called the “TripAdvisor model” with CarGurus.

TripAdvisor, you see, not only figured out how to best mix business-generated content with consumer voices, but they created a trustworthy brand on an international scale at the same time.

As Zales explained at the time, “The foundation of [CarGurus] was replicating an incredibly successful model for the consumer around creating transparency, relevancy, and quality…doing the same thing done with travel search to the car buying experience.”

If you think that this is simple, it is not. The execution thus far for CarGurus has been impeccable.

Also, if you are wondering why more companies don’t just apply an existing business model to a different industry, know that they have, and, for the most part, they too have been successful.

Take for example David Blundin, of Link Ventures/Cogo Labs. Blundin, you see had a few VERY successful startup exits before founding CourseAdvisor, which was acquired by The Washington Post in 2007. The thing about CourseAdvisor is that, beyond just its name, the company owed an enormous debt to TripAdvisor. With Cogo Labs, Blundin took what he learned about TripAdvisor’s search engine optimization mastery and spun into businesses in an array of different industries.

That plan worked masterfully with CourseAdvisor, so then Blundin and a cohort of executives figured out the process and replicated the same model again and again, including in the car shopping space with Autotegrity, which sold to ADP. Since, they’ve applied their model and learning to companies like EverQuote, which just raised $17 million.

Blundin and Steinert aren’t alone, mind you. Finding a model that has worked, making a small tweak, and replicating, has been done to great effect by folks like Chris Lynch, Rodney Brooks, Walt Doyle, Paul English, Helen Greiner, and many others.

So, the lesson for anyone looking to build a startup — or to do anything creative or innovative for that matter — is a truth known by everyone from Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino: Copy from the greats that came before you, but make it your own.

For CarGurus, following that strategy is about to pay off handsomely.

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Under-the-radar

Ash Egan, Principal at Converge Venture Partners, couldn’t pick just one company in his firm’s portfolio that isn’t getting the attention that it should, he mentioned three: Nift, RocketVisor, and Samrtvid.io.

RocketVisor seems like a company out of the Drift/InsightSquared mold that could become an integral service to a specific niche of the business world. In RocketVisor’s case, it has a chance to evolve the sales process by integrating machine learning capabilities.

But there is something truly intriguing about Smartvid.io. Mainly, the company is looking to make headway in the very underserved construction technology space. Smartvid.io combines photo and video with machine learning to assess for “industrial-grade problems” to do everything from making sure a worksite is safe to evaluating the progress of a project.

Founder and CEO Josh Kanner has an excellent construction tech track record, having led Vela Systems to an acquisition by Autodesk in 2012. Something that also bodes well for Smartvid.io.

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What went down this week…

AI Maven- A few weeks ago, we talked about Talla’s tourney add-on for Slack. It was a cool feature that aligned perfectly with the company founder’s love for hoops. Since, both Talla and CEO Rob May have been on fire. First and foremost, Talla has expanded beyond being primarily an AI solution for Slack with its new integration for Microsoft Teams. Beyond his own company, May is stepping into a role as the leading voice on everything artificial intelligence related.

  • May is a tour-de-force in Boston, as an AI thought leader as well as an investor. But take note of how much more prominent May is becoming in the national discussion of AI. First, May is quoted at length in a recent Xconomy story about DataRobot’s recent $54 million fundraise…a company with which he has no affiliation. Second, May’s weekly AI newsletter, Technically Sentient — which was picked up as part of Jason Calacanis’s constellation of Inside newsletters — is truly a must-read. This week, May’s commentary in Technically Sentient is fantastic: “One of the big arguments in A.I. is whether or not we need to understand the brain to build intelligent, self-aware machines,” he begins as he delves into what the endgame for autonomous vehicles might be. His closing point is great: “…if humans and our environment, at least, the part of the environment that requires intelligence, have co-evolved – if the environment is largely designed by us – then the right way to build an intelligent machine for that environment may be to copy humans. Otherwise, by providing an open-ended highly flexible intelligence to run in that environment, we may never be able to test all the possible edge cases to our level of satisfaction. Getting that last 2% of autonomous vehicles could be harder than we think.”

TV Future – This week, Clypd‘s VP of strategic development Jason Burke published an entertaining outlook for what he believes the next ten year’s or so will look like in the television/Internet media industry. Before diving into that, I need to do a major Utterly Biased statement of biases on this one here: So, I’ve known Jason for a loooong time…like baby pictures together, crushing Miller Lite’s at age 13, getting kicked out of Fenway as adults type of history. So, I’m going to break down the good and the bad of this prognostication while being as fair as possible.

  • Overall, this is a cool what-if examination of the media landscape, both as it exists and where it will be. Clypd (pictured above) is in a good position to make some of these assessments as their insights. As a leader in bringing Internet-style, on-demand targeted marketing to TV, they know what is happening at the crossroads of the Internet and television better than anyone. However, some of these predictions are hopeful and don’t do enough to dig into some of the more important questions, like whether or not we will have TVs strapped to our faces in a few years. And while no one knows what might happen with Netflix, which Jason says will be part of the Verizon stable soon, I would imagine that the company aspires to be acquired by someone bigger (and with a greater legacy) than Verizon.

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Investing in a few key startups alone won’t save struggling American cities

Beyond Boston

Earlier this week, it was announced that Steve Case, AOL founder and chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC, would be bringing JD Vance into Revolution in a special role.

Vance, a principal at Mithril Capital Management, is best known as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a highly-regarded account of life growing up in the Rust Belt.

The move to add Vance, who will reportedly “focus on the firm’s initiative to identify and back infant companies in cities far from the tech capital of Silicon Valley,” aligns with Case’s current thesis about where innovation can be found. Basically, Case believes that the non-traditional tech towns —Detroit, Cleveland, etc. — are where the most impactful next generation companies will be found; this is something he touches on in all his public appearances as well as in his book, The Third Wave.

Supporting non-traditional tech centers can have two outcomes. One, an investor could find the proverbial “diamond in the rough” startup that has less overhead and greater long-term potential — think Shinola in Detroit (image above) or Zappos in Las Vegas. Second, is the other, more meaningful impact that supporting startups in places like St. Louis, Austin, Milwaukee, and others, could have.

The reason Vance’s book has garnered so much attention has been the focus, after the election of Donald Trump, on how to support these struggling — and often ignored — working class communities across America. People like Steve Case and others believe investing in a few companies in these cities could turn around the downward spiral caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Well that is all well in good in theory, the reality is a bit more nuanced.

If the focus is on building more startup-centric communities, investment in the top tier companies in these locales sounds like a positive shift, but from folks I’ve talked to who are working on projects to support entrepreneurship outside of New York, Boston, and Silicon Valley, that approach is a bit short-sighted. While finding — and supporting — a few winners in places like Baltimore and Cleveland could start a chain-reaction of innovation, the argument is that to create more employment and more opportunities in these developing clusters it takes a wider community of startups.

Which is why CIC St. Louis and whatever new initiatives MassChallenge is quietly undertaking could be better and more meaningful in the long run to helping solve the issues Case and Vance seem to be targeting.

Arguments have been made that it is not worthwhile to build a company outside of Silicon Valley (and New York/Boston to a lesser degree). This argument is built off the idea that only established tech and innovation clusters can be beneficial to founders and growing companies. Which is exactly why Tim Rowe’s CIC expansion and Scott Bailey’s stealthy work to grow MassChallenge’s programs in North America are so necessary. It will not be by the establishment of “pillar” companies alone that will make or break the next wave of growth in non-traditional innovation centers, but by the creation of thriving and supportive communities.

Beyond programs and investment, another opportunity rests with the initiative of a few individuals to bring what I’ll call “grassroots” innovation community building to non-traditional areas. A great example of this would be what the former leadership of Dyn, and, more specifically, what Jeremy Hitchcock and Grey Chynoweth are trying to do to support entrepreneurship in Manchester.

Closer to Boston, another example of this is Ben Pleat, a Harvard student and the founder of a community building startup Doorbell, wrote a long treatise about why he is working with Worcester to jointly test his company’s product and support innovation as that city tries to shift from its working class roots to a more innovation-fueled economy.

As Pleat puts it, “Worcester presents not only an exciting city expansion for our real estate technology startup based in Boston, but also an opportunity to work directly with some of the largest stakeholders in the city’s urban revitalization initiative, ranging from local business owners to energized political leaders looking to transform the Downtown landscape.”

The success of all these initiatives is vital to the continued growth of the US economy, especially in the Rust Belt and former manufacturing centers. However, there are two competing lines of reason on how to do that. There is the Steve Case model of investing in a few potential winners and hoping that there is a trickle down effect. Or, there is the community building and municipal partnership approach that the CIC, MassChallenge, and others are taking.

After observing both the CIC and MassChallenge‘s impact on Boston as well as the potential that individuals can have to make change on a city-wide scale, I’m not so sure if the “spray and pray” method favored by investors is the best way to impact change where it is most needed.

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Under-the-radar

This week, I reached out to Peter Boyce II, VC at General Catalyst and the co-founder of Rough Draft Ventures to find out who he thought wasn’t getting enough love.

The company he pointed me to is LogRocket, a “customer experience platform that helps companies build better online experiences for their users.”

Co-founded by recent MIT and Columbia graduates, LogRocket enables development teams to playback user sessions to identify any issues and bugs that are causing problems with applications.

“They’re testament to what talented young technical founders can build here in Boston as a solution for enterprises and SMBs,” Boyce said. “They are focused on product and helping more of their community go deeper in understanding how UX and software decisions influence impact their businesses.”

All the while, Boyce added, LogRocket is “Quietly learning and building.”

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What went down this week…

Bi-Coastal – Matt Brand is one of the top startup tech guys in Boston. After making his bones at Tabblo, the photo printing company founded by Antonio Rodriguez and acquired by HP, he has gone on to play an integral role in various other local startups. Most notably, he was the tech head (and often the lone leadership in Matt Lauzon’s absence) for Dunwello. Now, Brand has a new gig as the CTO of MoveWith, an active lifestyle application that is based in Boston and San Francisco.

  • According to Brand, MoveWith recently launched audio classes in addition to its in person classes in Boston and San Francisco. “Teachers love it because it allows them to spread their brand and skills far beyond their physical studios while still being able to offer in person classes and connect with their students,” Brand said. “And the rest of us get a way to workout how/when/where we want with great teachers from all over the place.”From what I gathered, Brand is really enjoying his new gig. “What I think is cool and different from a lot of the other players in the space,” he said, “is that we’re not just yoga or just meditation or just running.”