, and why it mattered

This post was first published on Sunday in Dennis Keohane’s weekly Utterly Biased newsletter. To receive UB in the future, sign up here.

The memories from my first visit to are still quite vivid.

I remember the bold — at least in my opinion at the time — blues of the company logo hanging throughout the classroom, which contrasted with the various faded reds of the exposed brick space of the entire BzzAgent office that housed

The space on Harrison Avenue was filled with the brightly colored — and oversized — paintings of Seth Minkin. Minkin served as Dave Balter’s “artist-in-residence” in the space. The former warehouse was also home to a wide array of companies. Not only were BzzAgent (Dunnhumby after the 2011 acquisition) and based there, but other organizations over the years like Dunnhumby Ventures, Promoboxx, HelpScout, and Smarterer called the office home. At one point, this writer, as VentureFizz’s unofficial Boston-based jack-of-all-trades, had a small desk in the space.

There were small bits of classic Balter/Hodges flair throughout’s classroom in the far back of the space. In addition to Minkin’s massive animal paintings, there was a smallish triceratops statue, various other random knick-knacks, a kitchen brimming with wine, and a fair amount of liquor — heavy on the tequila. When classes were in session, there was always copious amounts of Regina pizza, and what seemed like a never-ending supply of PBR.

I have no clue who spoke the first evening I went to — maybe then-Boundless CTO Aaron White, but I might be mistaken — but I do remember being quite nervous and eager to keep as low a profile as possible. Back then, which I think was the spring of 2012, I was an English teacher at a local private school with an inkling that it was time to transition careers.

I had grown interested in entrepreneurship and wanted to learn more about what it was like to start and run a small business. At the time, was the best resource to learn about that in an intimate yet casual setting.

At the session I attended, I tried to follow the presentation without drawing much notice. I feared I would somehow get outed as being a teacher — whose bosses would frown upon this moonlighting and career exploration — and, more generally, as a fraud.

While trying to maintain shaman-like invisibility, I learned enough that evening to be enchanted by the world of entrepreneurship, especially the Boston “innovation” community, as it has been referred to on and off over the years. (The use of this phrasing will be the focus of a future UB newsletter.)

But it wasn’t the presentation or the speaker that piqued my interest. It was the warmth of everyone bopping about the space — the hosts, the wallflowers, the attendees, the seemingly harried startup folks still working in BzzAgent or one of the other companies sharing the office at the time. It was so welcoming. There was a bright, light air to the evening, and, by extension, the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur in Boston in general.

This is no small feat. It was something inherent and unique to

While the feelings I explain above are my own, I am sure many others have had similar experiences, whether in the old-school class format of or the more recent, leadership training iteration.

This experience helped stoke a passion that spring-boarded not only my career but my life to unimagined places.

With the news that is shutting down in 2018 delivered by Sarah Hodges on Medium last week, it’s important to acknowledge the role that the organization played not just in the growth of some businesses locally, but in the lives of many people, myself included. was founded in 2012 by Dave Balter, who is currently a partner at Flipside Crypto, with current Pillar VC partner Sarah Hodges at the helm. Back then, Balter was leading BzzAgent post-acquisition, and Hodges was finishing up a successful stint running marketing for RunKeeper and about to move to Smarterer.

Last year, the two, a couple for the past few years, were married.

At the time it first opened, was compared to the co-working/learning space General Assembly in New York. Looking back, I’d say that’s not a very apt comparison. GA, in my mind, is more akin to The University of Phoenix, a great place to learn, if you are motivated. was something a bit different. evolved over its history, but even in its earliest form, it made an impact on the individuals who attended its programming. Going to a class in those days was an adventure. It could lead to an introduction to a niche business topic, experience-based guidance on moving up the hierarchy of a small business, opportunities to meet and be mentored by those running some of Boston’s most successful companies, or, quite honestly, time to just meet and hang out with like-minded folks.

When programming first started — small, intimate classes and discussions at 500 Harrison — the focus was to serve as a conduit to bring those on the outside of Boston’s startup world to the inside. Founders, CEOs, engineers, product heads, HR managers, lawyers and the like would show up and dig into their prepared presentations for audiences that could include stay-at-home moms, college students, creatives, and a plethora of others seeking an education that couldn’t be found elsewhere in the city. More often than not, the sessions would conclude with lengthy Q&A periods. Sometimes there would be even longer, spontaneous post-event gatherings during which the speaker might mingle and answer questions from the audience.

I believe that many a key hire and many unexpected investment opportunities arose from these unplanned salons.

As some of Balter’s other projects expanded — most notably Smarterer, which was acquired by Pluralsight in 2014 — moved out of the South End and into different venues, including, the at-the-time Diane Hessan-led, Communispace, now known as C-Space. While classes still continued to fill up on a regular basis, in my observations, a lot of the vibrancy present in the “back” of BzzAgent was lost with the change.

In recent years, evolved into something quite different from its original format. The most recent model of the program sought to train individuals who had been identified as having the most promising leadership potential from a small cohort of local companies, like Dyn, DraftKings, etc. This version of filled a void for many of the small organizations who didn’t have the time, or wherewithal, to develop its next generation of leaders. Many of the companies and people that I have spoken to who went through the program, had nothing but positive things to say about the experience.

The reasons for the’s evolution over the past five years has a bit to do with finances, as more consistent revenue is available when developing a curriculum and partnering with corporate entities to educate their workforce than to rely on individuals to sign-up for entrepreneurship classes.

You could also see in’s growth arc and ultimate end a potentially dire trend for the Greater Boston area’s long prominence in developing innovative companies and the creative individuals who build, run, and staff these organizations. But that is a story for another day.

Like most tech and innovation projects, isn’t immune from some criticism as well.

While overall, the organization made an enormous impact on many people and small local companies — I think it was an ideal place for people making career changes into the startup world — one could argue that it didn’t do enough to bridge the minority communities around Boston with the startup ecosystem. While this flaw is something many are still trying to figure out, I must say that was far ahead of the curve in welcoming and giving opportunities to women to position themselves in more prominent roles in various industries across the city.

Also, it can be said that one of’s greatest assets, its clubhouse-like environment early on, could also have been seen as too insider for some. It is a quintessentially Bostonian trait to perceive an insider/outsider dichotomy in almost every social or business collegiality, so I don’t put too much stock in those who viewed in this light.

What it comes down to is that over five years played an influential role in the city’s business landscape and helped advance the careers of many in Boston.

Personally, I will miss deeply.

Many great memories that stand out from my own experiences.

Watching HubSpot CTO and co-founder Dharmesh Shah work through a presentation on “Inbound Marketing for Entrepreneurs,” was revelatory
for me. I didn’t know that someone with such business acumen could also be witty, inspirational, and candid at once.

I met people at whom I now consider to be vital and treasured friends and confidants, including Balter, Hodges, JessMeetKen’s Ken Deckinger, and HubSpot’s Katie Burke, among others. This alone causes pangs of sorrow for those who won’t be able to make similar deep connections in the absence of

I still have people, many of whom have established their own incredible careers, who come up to me and thank me for the class I taught on making career changes (which just happened to be the same evening the Red Sox clinched the World Series at Fenway in 2013). The impact that sharing your own story can have on others is a lesson I am grateful to have been able to have learned with the help of

More than anything, the that will live on in my mind is the casual conversations, usually over a beer, that delved into topics, both erudite and sophomoric, that actually could change the way one sees the world and the potential for one’s place in it.

The landscape of Boston’s “innovation” community has changed rapidly over the past few years, so quick, it may seem, that we don’t realize that a unique era may have ended or be fading.

The key attribute of this period — with organizations like MassChallenge, Bostinno, Techstars, Startup School, and the like thriving; HubSpot and Wayfair, among others, successfully going public; young founders shooting for the moon; and venture money widely accessible — may be the sheer audacity of the key players and the yearning to ignite passion or change from those running businesses and organizations. was the keystone of that period. Although it may come back in some other form, I am thankful to have experienced the organization in its prime.

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Utterly Biased and Boston’s Next “Clubhouse”

Thinking about for the past week, what stood out in my mind is the welcoming environment Balter, Hodges, and crew created with the program.

To my mind, this is something that has been lacking in Boston the past few years.

As Utterly Biased returns in 2018, there are going to be some changes, all of them for the better I hope. One thing I aim to do is replicate what I loved about’s early days: A laid back, supportive community.

Next week I’ll lay out some more details about what this looks like, but I just wanted to share that I am really excited about the next phase of Utterly Biased.

Thanks for being along for the ride.


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Utterly Biased Podcast #2 – Patrick Petitti and Rob Biederman of Catalant

For the second Utterly Biased Podcast, I caught up with Rob Biederman and Patrick Petitti of Catalant a short time after they had raised a $41 million round of funding.

We had a great chat at their new office at Thomson Place in Fort Point. It really is a must listen for anyone looking to raise funding, as we talk about why they did another round of funding from their previous investors and the “signals” sent by doing some debt funding.

As you’ll hear, these guys are on top of their game and they’ve had a few tricks up their sleeves along the journey so far.

*Update* – They also published a book in the fall of 2017 called Reimaging Work: Strategies to Disrupt Talent, Lead Change, and Win with a Flexible Workforce.

You can subscribe Utterly Biased podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and find the podcast on Stitcher and TuneIn.

Reports of Highland’s demise are fairly exaggerated

It ain’t over til it’s over…

For this week’s “Under-the-radar” feature of Utterly Biased, I reached out to Freddie Martingetti, principal at Highland Capital Partners, to see which company in Highland’s portfolio isn’t getting enough love.

Relatively quickly, I realized the irony of the “ask.” You see, in my opinion, there is no institution that is more “under-the-radar” than Highland itself.

Just take, for example, a story in the Boston Business Journal on Thursday that implies that Highland’s next fundraise is a negative signal for the firm. (More on the whole problem of doing journalism by trolling the SEC Edgar website below.)

The BBJ takes the SEC filing for the Highland Capital Partners 10 and points out that the firm has targeted $300 million for the fund, which is $100 million less than its last two funds. The story also points out how Sean Dalton and Peter Bell aren’t prominent on the filing, even though they were supposed to be taking over the reigns of Highland from Paul Maeder and Bob Higgins, according to…the BBJ, I guess???

The gist, although unstated, is that Highland Capital is in trouble.

The problem with this story is that it is hilariously late to the Highland bashing party, and, what’s more, it is wrong in its premise.

You see, Highland was actually floundering a couple of years ago, but, with the recent filing as a key indicator, it is now back from the dead.

Ask any VC or startup founder in the summer of 2015 about Highland, and they might cringe and try to avoid the topic. One person I spoke with at the time referred to the firm’s office as a “complete ghost town.”  I also heard them referred to as a non-entity in terms of local investing and “sitting on their hands.” It was all bad news. By all indications, operations were shifting west just as they had for instrumental Boston-area venture firms of yesteryear like Greylock, and others like Charles River Ventures and General Catalyst, who were building larger presences in Silicon Valley.

Key members of the team had moved on, and bad luck hit the firm. Wyc Grousbeck left to buy the Celtics; eventually, Higgins joined him as part of Causeway Media Partners. Andy Miller, Quattro founder and Lexington native, left the Menlo Park office to get into the NBA as well, as a part owner of the Sacramento Kings. Miller most recently started an eSports-focused company and his own venture firm, Starting Five, with Jeff Glass. Alex Taussig bailed. Walt Doyle joined from PayPal and, in a heartbeat, left to start GasBuddy. Tragically, Staples-founder and partner Tom Stemberg passed away after a long bout with cancer.

Worse than all the team shakeups, word had hit the entrepreneur circles that things were unstable and money was tight at Highland.

By all indications, Highland was on the cusp of earning the auspicious designation of being a Zombie VC.

And then.

“Highland Capital is involved in Catalant’s $22M Series C.” Hmm.

Freddie Martignetti joins Highland. Huh.

“Highland Capital Leads $14M Series A for Rapid SOS.” Interesting.

“Highland wins VC Firm of the Year at NEVY Awards.” What?

It seems, just as quietly as it almost sputtered, Highland Capital has impressively bounced back to be a major player in the Boston investment scene.

Paul Maeder is still involved. Lycos-founder Bob Davis’s prominent role is now more public. Dan Nova is quietly playing a major role in Highland’s resurgence. Martingetti backed Drizly while at Suffolk and is a bold risk for the firm. More new talent is primed to join the firm, and it is pouring money into some noteworthy ventures including nuTonomy, Freshly, Catalant, SessionM, Rent the Runway, Amino, RapidSOS, and LevelUp. In fact, since last May, Highland has been involved in 23 deals according to my very unscientific investigative method of reading Crunchbase.

Publically, Highland has never wavered no matter what was going on inside the firm over the past five years. The firm is one of the more private of the larger VCs in Boston.

The news that it is raising another fund is a good thing, and, quite to some other suggestions, a net positive for the firm and Boston entrepreneurs.

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No surprise, Freddie Martingetti shared a company in Highland’s portfolio that he thinks is not getting as much attention as they deserve.

That company is Fam, or more specifically, the maker of the Fam app Smack, Inc.

Smack first developed an app called SmackHigh which served as a group chat for high schoolers. That idea evolved into something quite different, a group video chat called Fam.

If you want to know more about the company, Bostinno’s Dylan Martin did a great write-up on the company recently that you can check out here.

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At Xconomy’s event this week, The Engine‘s Katie Rae gave a great little breakdown of what the MIT-backed fund/founder community aims to accomplish in the next few years. She also talked about the mindset of students who are trying to get rich quick with Silicon Valley-type Internet companies:

“There is a brain drain towards the easier things. That’s great for an individual but for society, that’s not a good thing. That’s because you leave the next generation of great inventions on the shelf or the next innovations to be created by someone else.”

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Utterly Biased Podcast #1 – G20 Venture’s Mike Troiano and Tamr co-founder Andy Palmer

For the first Utterly Biased Podcast, I talk with two stalwarts of the Boston startup world, Mike Troiano and Andy Palmer.

Mike has been an entrepreneur for a number of years. Most recently, he served as the chief marketing officer for Actifio, the Waltham-based cloud data services company that is likely to go public in the next couple of years. Recently, Mike announced that he had joined G20 Ventures as a partner.

It’s interesting to hear Mike talk about investing now that he is in the VC world. He wrote a great little piece about his investment thesis on Medium that we discuss at length. We even do a little bit of news breaking, I think.

Catching up with Andy for a quick beer in Harvard Square is always a treat. In between meetings at Tamr‘s headquarters, we had a chance to talk about what his new role at Founder Collective will entail. We also talked about Tamr’s relationship with GE, which started well before the company relocated to Boston.

Oh, and Andy gives some, I believe, previous unreported specifics of the recent deal Tamr did with GE.

I hope you enjoy and share with others who would enjoy the Utterly Biased Podcast as well.

You can subscribe to the Utterly Biased podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Maximize a photo op with Spotted, Techstars standouts

Marketing in real life

It’s not too often that the perfect example to explain why your startup is necessary to the world comes along serendipitously, but this is what happened this week for Spotted.

Actually, this happened twice this week.

During one of last week’s Cavs-Raptors blowouts, Lebron James ended up in the crowd during what was a relatively easy win for Cleveland. The game was so out of hand that James mocked drinking a beer he had grabbed from a courtside vendor. The beer company used a photo of the moment on Twitter to take advantage of its product’s use by a sports celebrity. However, James’s reps threatened legal action unless the image was taken down by the beer company for illegal use of Lebron’s likeness.

There’s a bit more intrigue to the story (here), but this issue about the use of celebrity photos using a product, in media res, is why Janet Comenos founded her digital celebrity advertising platform.

Spotted allows brands to legally advertise using paparazzi images in which their products are used by compensating both the celebrity and the photographer.

The example of what happened with Lebron and Great Lakes Brewing Co. is exactly the type of scenario for which Spotted was created. As Comenos explained, “We built Spotted for the purpose of allowing brands to legally advertise with real-life paparazzi photos of celebrities using their brand.”

“LeBron’s attorney likely went after Great Lakes Brewery for infringing on LeBron’s rights of publicity, which are the state-by-state laws that dictate how a famous person’s name and likeness can be used for commercial purposes without their consent,” she added.

“Long story short, brands (regardless of how big or how small) should never use a paparazzi photo for advertising purposes without approval from the celebrity,” Comenos said. “Prior to Spotted, the only way for a brand to use these photos was via a costly endorsement deal with the celebrity. Spotted, for a small fraction of the cost of celebrity endorsement, now allows the brand to legally advertise with these photos.”

Comenos is definitely onto something as this wasn’t the only incident that was in the news this week involving celebrity social media endorsements. Jezebel had a story today about the Federal Trade Commission sending letters of warning to celebrity influencers for not disclosing sponsored content. As Comenos explained, this isn’t exactly similar to what Spotted does, because these potentially offending posts are organic, meaning they are set up by the brands and the influencers.

“All influencer marketing that I’ve seen requires the brand to script the content with the celebrity and requires the celebrity to post the content on their social channels,” Comenos said. “With organically posted content, the influencer must disclose the paying relationship with the brand by adding #ad or #sponsored at the end of the post.”

“Conversely, all of Spotted’s outputs are targeted ads (no organic posts) that automatically have “sponsored” at the top of the ad. Our ads feature real-life paparazzi photos of celebrities actually using that brand,” she added.

As Comenos told me in another recent conversation about Spotted, most celebrities have been open to what Spotted is doing and are happy to receive compensation from brands that they just happen to be caught using. It’s so been so successful that Comenos explained that more recently, once a celebrity realizes the value of getting “caught” using specific products, they tend to get captured using other products from the same brand.

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This week, we’ll focus on a few companies that are not getting quite enough of the attention they should, even though they just concluded their participation in Boston’s successful Techstars program.

I’ve said this many times over: Boston has traditionally had the most successful output of any of Techstars’ programs. Companies like DocTrackr, Localytics, GrabCAD, Evertrue, Help Scout, Placester, PillPack, Amino, and more, who have been acquired or raised significant amounts of money, have all come through Boston Techstars.

At last week’s Demo Day, there were quite a few great ideas pitched by the 13 ventures in the most recent cohort. But three stand out, having generated buzz prior to Demo Day, and, being the first companies mentioned when I asked investors at the event who impressed them most.

Nix – Nix is a bio-sensor company that tracks, in real-time, the hydration needs of athletes. CEO Meridith Unger has a wealth of experience, from leading life sciences companies in the past two stints in venture capital (Lux and the life sciences side of Atlas). She also has a few accomplishments to speak of, including a Blatvonik fellowship at HBS and completing all but one of the World Major Marathons. Nix is currently kicking off a new round of fundraising and is a key part of the robust sports technology market in Boston, which includes fellow Harvard Innovation Labs alum Whoop.

RateGravity – Another company in a fast-growing space, RateGravity is trying to change the way consumers finance their homes by removing the salespeople involved in the mortgage and refinancing processes. Led by Patrick Boyaggi and Mike Tassone, RateGravity announced on the morning of Techstars Demo Day that it had raised $2 million in funding from the likes of former Where and PayPal guys David Chang and Walt Doyle, Evertrue’s Brent Grinna, Diane Hessan and InsightSquared’s Fred Shilmover. Its list of advisors list is impressive as well, including Jere Doyle and Brian Kalma, among others. This is a busy market with a bunch of fin-tech startups taking different approaches to home financing, including Rocket Mortgage and Boulder-based Neat Capital.

Tive – While some major brands are rushing to research, test, and build out complex processes for driverless shipping, Tive is solving a less sexy, yet more substantial problem for the supply chain. Its multi-sensor tracker uses cellular connectivity monitor shipments in real-time. Hyperplane VC’s Vivjan Myrto mentioned Tive a couple months ago when I sat down with him to find out which companies in Boston weren’t getting enough love. From the reception at Techstars, I’d say this is definitely another company to keep an eye on.

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What went down this week…

Congrats to the team from Grammarly on their recently announced first round of investment funding. The company, founded in 2009, raised $110 million, for its AI-enabled grammar and spelling tool, from the likes of General Catalyst, Spark Capital, and more. You read that number right, $110M for the previously bootstrapped SF-based company. Although there isn’t any real Boston connection — Hemant Teneja was the lead for GC, and he’s based out west; Jeremy Phillips was the point man for Spark, and he’s in NYC — I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Grammarly because its services have been vital to the improvement of this newsletter in so many ways.

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Bridj’s overexposure, Pillar on PathAI, and Lull responses

Rumors of our demise are under-exaggerated

On Sunday evening, Matt George, the CEO and founder of transportation company Bridj, published a Medium post, “Out of Aces,” announcing that the company would be abruptly shutting down. Starting, “Today, our incredible journey unexpectedly ends,” and closing with — I kid you not — a video of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” the note is, undoubtedly, one of the more surreal ways to tell the world that you are closing your business.

Bridj, a company looking to innovate the transportation industry, had raised at least $4 million — although BostInno once reported that it was raising $15 million (more on that in a bit). The news was delivered mid-evening on Sunday, affecting those who were planning to use the service on Monday. After the post went live on Medium and word began to spread on Twitter, George took to the social media platform to offer his thanks to those who were bemoaning the company’s demise and to fight back at some criticism.

According to reports, at least 50 people are out of a job because of this sudden closure.

A couple of things to note here. First, Bridj was a noble and ambitious effort from George and his team to improve the stale state of innovation in Boston’s transportation system. Some of the earliest established routes, especially those that connected Brookline and Cambridge with the city’s business centers, seemed to have been the lifeblood of quite a few people, judging from comments online and on social media. Also, in general, George has a good reputation among founders in Boston.

Putting aside the details that George mentions in his blog post that the closure has to do with a “major car company” deal** that fell through, a large part of the disappointment from within and without the company stems from a bigger issue not just for Bridj, but for many early-stage companies: Overexposure.

Bridj’s expansions outside of Boston, which took its focus off fine-tuning its product locally, didn’t work. Bridj tried to expand to three other cities, Washington D.C., Kansas City, and Austin. The D.C. experiment failed after one year; the Kansas City project seemed like it could be a success, but the contract between the city and the company expired in March, according to some folks I spoke with; and after making an announcement to launch in Austin last summer, the closest that project seemed to come to getting off the ground was the creation of a BridjAustin Twitter account.

In March, the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner wrote a piece about transportation companies that heavily featured Bridj and San Francisco-based Chariot, which was acquired by Ford (a previous Bridj partner). In the piece, Kirsner quotes George extensively. In reference to the D.C. failure, Kirsner writes, “Bridj’s George now calls that a test of the economics of serving neighborhoods with “a lower average income by far than the rest of the city.” Of Austin, George says, “We chose to focus on a different project.” The Kansas City effort is “a massive success,” according to George, although Kirsner questions the numbers a bit. At one point, Kirsner writes, “Without supplying numbers for 2015, George says Bridj ‘grew by 550 percent, in terms of rides and revenue, in 2016,’ and that the company plans to add more service to Cambridge and, ‘hopefully,’ Somerville this year.”

At the end of the story, Kirsner writes, “George says Bridj is ‘actively working with a number of auto manufacturers’ to explore self-driving electric vehicles. Testing could begin later this year or early next. ” Overall, George describes Bridj to Scott in glowing, positive terms, which fits the theme of the article about the evolution of the transportation space. Looking back at the piece, it’s easy to poke holes in some of George’s claims that make it seem as if, to use the parlance of the day, Bridj was crushing it.

This is something that is quite common for private companies: Overpromotion, and the working theory that if you can make the market and public perception believe that a company is doing well, eventually the reality will catch up to the narrative. But, in an overwhelming amount of cases, this is not at all the case. There are almost too many companies to list that have pushed a public storyline that differs greatly from what is actually happening inside the company.

Why does this happen? Because on rare occasions, it works — at least for a while.

(Now, all of the blame for this hype cycle should not fall squarely on the shoulders of Bridj and George. There are many others, the media especially, who cheerlead, with excessive vigor, for some of these unseasoned hopefuls. I’ve contributed to this too many times to count, but hope to have learned my lesson from past pronouncements of greatness. I mean, BostInno has a March Madness startup competition that real companies actually waste some of their marketing spend to try to “win.”)

Like many other early-stage founders before him, George pushed the myth of Bridj’s greatness. One sign that things might not have been as they seemed was an oversensitivity to having the messaging be exactly right. For instance, after the very positive article, George sent Kirsner an email that, as far as I can read from a Twitter exchange, complains about the company being described as a “commuter bus service.” The whole exchange is preserved in these tweets. Check out all the responses to get a full sense of the argument over Bridj’s economics that transpired after Kirsner’s initial tweets. At the end, George tweets “D.C. is high on the list for markets that will get BRIDJ v1 later this year. ” That’s George hinting that Bridj might try to go back to D.C…a nary two months ago.

Looking back, it’s evident that George wasn’t very forthright with Scott about the actual realities facing the company. This isn’t something new. Let’s go back to the BostInno story from 2015. In “Bridj is Raising Up To $15M in Series A Funding at a $60M Valuation,” Nick DeLuca writes about the company that it is “raising a Series A round of $10 million to $15 million, according to a source close to the matter, who also told BostInno that the round is expected to value Bridj at a cool $60 million.” The key, odd word combo in this headline I must point out is the progressive present participle “is raising,” connoting something that has started and is ongoing, which is quite unusual for a fundraising story. Later, DeLuca quotes George and then head of marketing Ryan Kelly for the piece. However, in reaction to his ask about the funding “rumor,” DeLuca writes: “Both George and Kelly declined to comment on the series A funding round.” Seems odd, right?

Well, the reason is that BostInno was tipped off by Bridj itself that it was raising money, and then, when asked to go on the record, the company reps said no. How do I know this happened? Because, they had tried to do the same thing with me when I was working at the Boston Globe. First, came the tip email, then when I asked for a quote, I got a serious response from George (who had also sent the initial tip-off of the fundraising in media res) that he couldn’t comment on any reports of new funding. Needless to say, neither the Globe nor I had any interest in running a gratuitously manipulative story that gave a company trying to raise money from investors (it now seems quite unsuccessfully) a fictional valuation of $60 million. (If you go to Angellist right now, you will see these $15M Series A/$60M valuation numbers under the company’s funding profile as if they actually did raise that money.)

And it’s in this cycle of overhype that Bridj seems to have fallen tragically. Now, don’t get me wrong, the product had some impressive qualities and piqued enough interest from local governments to get some serious consideration for a greater burden of responsibility within the machinery that is mass transit. But when you are basically running a minimum viable product and promoting it as if it is the second-coming of the London Metro, a correction is inevitable.

There’s a bit more weirdness, however, to the entirety of the Bridj story. According to a number of people I spoke with, many employees, it seems, were uncomfortable when George decided to install Nest cameras at the company’s office. From what I’ve heard, the belief was that the feeds, which went directly to George’s computer, could be misused by the CEO to keep tabs on employees.

I had multiple email exchanges with George and spoke with him on the phone about this claim, which he categorically denied, going so far as to say that it’s the first time he has ever heard anything of the sort. He then sent me an email, giving the details of the location and coverage of each of the five Nest cameras at Bridj’s office. He also stated in the email, “We installed the system when we moved in, and since have had no suggestions, formal or informal concerns raised that there was a security system in place to cover entrances and access points to the building,” and that, “There are zero workspaces covered by the NEST system, full stop. Any suggestion otherwise is demonstrably and factually false.”

That last part is interesting because it relates to something that George told me during our conversation about a former employee who raised concerns about the cameras possibly covering the work area and the unintended perceptions they could create. Once he told me that story, I asked if what he just told me undermines the point he was adamant about making that this was the first time he had ever heard of the cameras being an issue. Somehow, he didn’t think that telling me about a previous instance when an employee expressed the potentially problematic nature of the cameras counted as a suggestion or a formal or informal concern about the security system.

Nevertheless, the only thing I know for certain is that this issue, whatever the reality is, compelled enough people to share this odd aspect of Bridj’s operating culture. Not only that, but it buzzed so freely through the Boston tech community that multiple people felt the need to tell me, someone who writes about startups, about the weirdness weeks ago, which was well before the company’s deal with an unnamed car company fell through.

Many folks were surprised by Bridj’s “unexpected end,” including its unfortunate employees, customers, and, in his own words, the founder himself. The story of Bridj will be one about a company with both a great deal of potential and a large amount of bluster. Young founders who think that the best way to build a company is a never-ending stream of media clips should take heed from Bridj’s demise. I think George sums the entire Bridj story best with his Kenny Rogers’ kicker from the Medium post…”You got to know when to walk away, know when to run.”

**According to the Globe, that partner was supposedly Toyota.

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Pillar VC gives us this week’s local company that should be getting more love. When I recently asked which company in its portfolio doesn’t get enough love, Jamie Goldstein pointed to PathAI.

As Pillar partner Sarah Hodges elaborated, “PathAI is transforming pathology by using machine learning to improve cancer diagnostics.”

Led by Andy Beck and Aditya Khosla, PathAI recently added as an advisor Pillar “Co-Founding CEO” Stan Lapidus, the founder of Cytyc, which had a $6 billion exit to Hologic in 2007. “Andy and Aditya are a powerhouse team,” Hodges said

“There is a multitude of applications for their technology, from lung cancer to breast cancer to cervical cytology,” she added. “The team already has active partnerships with Philips, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the Gates Foundation, and is experiencing huge momentum securing new partnerships.”

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What went down this week…

Lull? – Utterly Biased received quite a few response in regard to last week’s query about whether or not the idea of a downtick in startup activity in Boston is real or just the perception of a few. Here are a few of the best responses, and they all differ sharply:

  • “If we’re going with the definition of “calm before the storm” for lull then I say, yes.” Tom Coburn, Jebbit.


  • “Where have you been spending your time? What’s this based on? What I’m seeing is probably the most interesting time in Boston tech I’ve seen in the last 15 years. It’s very strong in a number of areas that are driving the next big waves of tech: robotics, voice/NLP [neuro-linguistic programming], industrial IoT, genomics and precision medicine, healthcare IT, cyber security, etc…Boston’s strength has always been R&D and this wave is R&D heavy.” – Drew Volpe, First Star Ventures.


  • “One way to look at the current lull in the market is to look at “hot opportunities” being hawked by contingency recruiters and reputable staffing firms in the Boston area. We’ve noticed that the number of hot opportunities being offered started to deteriorate around October of 2015.  That deterioration has continued to today. Hot opportunities being pitched have slowed to a trickle of problem-child companies, like American Well, who’ve been running the same job openings for 3 continuous years. During the first half of 2016, a couple of us had gotten calls from a reputable staffing firm in the area, not to offer a hot opportunity, but to see what we were seeing “in the market.” Boston is the worst of the major tech job markets, so the lull here may be longer and deeper in comparison to the other major tech job markets.” – Anonymous

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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 I will publish some responses (you can request to have your opinion remain anonymous to the Utterly Biased readership.)



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,, 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.



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.


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

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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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.



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.”


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.”