Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

The tech columnist and his critic hash things out

Eric Paley, managing partner at Founder Collective, had a few points to pick for our columnist.
Noah Kalina
Eric Paley, managing partner at Founder Collective, had a few points to pick for our columnist.

“Hello, Complaints Department.”

“This is Eric Paley, managing partner at Founder Collective. You know, the Cambridge venture capital firm that put money into companies like Uber, PillPack, Hotel Tonight, and Formlabs? I’ve got a few bones to pick with your coverage.”

Plenty of readers think I can be too much of a cheerleader for startups or the investors who put money into them, hoping to earn a massive return. But Paley has the opposite complaint: He thinks that I focus too much on what I perceive as the shortcomings of the Boston tech scene. And that I ought to swap my cynical green glasses for a pair that are at least slightly more rose-colored.

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Here’s a lightly edited transcript of a conversation we had at a conference last month.

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Scott Kirsner: You think I’m a glass-half-empty person.

Eric Paley: I think you’re hurting our ecosystem.

SK: Really?

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EP: Yeah.

SK: I feel like I’m a realist. I feel like we need to fight a little bit harder to retain really smart people who have ideas for companies. 

EP: Boston has this incredible import of incredible talent because of the universities and the hospitals.

SK: Shouldn’t we fight to keep more of it?

EP: [But] all they read about in The Boston Globe, despite Boston having the most exit value of any place outside of Silicon Valley, is how terrible things are going, or, “Where are all the Boston IPOs?” [“Exit value” is the dollar value of companies that get acquired or go public.] Even though Boston has had more IPOs than anybody else, except for Silicon Valley.

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SK: I think what you’re whiffing on is that the venture community here has shrunk. It is still very comfortable funding the second- or third-time entrepreneur, more than the first-time entrepreneur. It is very uncomfortable with writing $50 million checks — these big king-making rounds you see in Silicon Valley, where [investors have] decided you are going to dominate 3D printing or dating or whatever. It’s dribs and drabs of funding.

Let’s talk about [the digital payments company] Stripe — kids who went to Harvard and MIT. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to retain Stripe in Boston?

EP: If they keep reading about all the problems in Boston, they won’t recognize all the good stuff that’s going on.

The right comparison for Boston in tech is New York, not San Francisco. San Francisco is enormous as an ecosystem. It takes generations to build that big an ecosystem.

There was sort of a lost decade in Boston tech, largely related to VCs having enormous bias that was age-based, towards older entrepreneurs. They really missed out on some really great entrepreneurs because they were incredibly biased on age.

I don’t see this issue so much that Boston has trouble with new entrepreneurs these days. . . . PillPack was first-time entrepreneurs, Formlabs was first-time entrepreneurs. [The former company was acquired by Amazon for about $1 billion last year; the latter is a privately held 3D printing startup that is valued at about the same amount.]

SK: Do you feel like there are any problems that we have, other than me being too cynical, or other than there’s not enough media?

EP: I would say your glasses are a concern. I’m kidding.

SK: Let’s agree that robotics is a space where we have the [intellectual property], we have the smart people, we have the startups, and there’s no venture fund that specializes in robotics? Why is that? Why isn’t there somebody saying, “Let’s create the next iRobot”?

EP: It’s General Catalyst, and Spark, and Founder Collective, and CRV, and Highland [that are funding robotics startups]. Here’s my concern: You tend to take these top-down views, of, “Why didn’t something organically happen that hasn’t happened?” Instead of looking at the organic stuff that has happened, [which] is pretty amazing.

I think robotics is really, really challenging. It’s hard to find the match between the tech and the use cases. There will be other great robotics companies. Probably the best robotics company that has ever been venture-backed, in history, is Kiva [a warehouse robotics company acquired by Amazon in 2012]. It was in Boston. Bain Capital [Ventures] was the largest investor, out of Boston.

Have you written the article about what Kiva has meant for Amazon?

Kiva, a warehouse robotics company acquired by Amazon in 2012, got significant financial support in its early days from Bain Capital in Boston.
Dawghaus Photography/File 2010
Kiva, a warehouse robotics company acquired by Amazon in 2012, got significant financial support in its early days from Bain Capital in Boston.

SK: I’ve written both the article about how it’s driving Amazon’s efficiencies internally and also how they took it away from all the other customers, because Amazon didn’t want to be selling guns to its rivals.

EP: So you found the most cynical angle.

SK: I found the most interesting way to write about it. Isn’t it interesting that a company that sold robots to Staples and Walgreens and Diapers.com, suddenly says, “No, we can’t sell you robots anymore, because Amazon bought us?”

EP: You can start there, but I think the more interesting story is that the leading warehouse operator in the world ended up having to buy an external technology and scale it to over a million robots.

The thing I’m getting at is, New York is building a great ecosystem. Boston rivals New York as a tech ecosystem quite well. We’ve had bigger exits, [and] we have big stories that don’t get attention. [Boston is] a very deep ecosystem in all kinds of ways. But New York is proudly rising together. And the story of New York is this super-excited, super-positive story. The story in Boston is still caught, in my opinion, in 15 years ago — the cynicism of not backing young entrepreneurs, only being enterprise [technology] . . . I just think that’s dated.

SK: I don’t think we’re in opposition, I just feel like I want to aim a little bit higher in terms of, like, retaining more of those people who are obsessed with building standalone companies. . . .

I write about 50 columns a year for the Globe. You’re making it seem like 40 of them are me criticizing the Boston ecosystem. But I actually think 40 are either about new clusters that are developing, and interesting companies that are the first in a space, or companies like Toast that are now giant successes. . . .

EP: Even in these company articles, you tend to always find this slight angle of, “Here are the big questions.”

SK: Yeah, or what their challenges are going to be. A lot of startup journalism is, “These guys are rock stars. They raised $30 million.”

EP: I’m not saying [write more] fluff. What I am saying is, these are really inspiring entrepreneurial stories that really matter in the community. When you finish them, which is usually what you do, by taking a slice, you do undermine the story.

You’re approaching it like a political reporter. You start from a place where you say, “I’m looking not just to tell the untold story that might be exciting and positive,” but to be “balanced,” which is, in my mind, a loaded term. . . .

SK: I feel like at times, I certainly have been the biggest booster of the startup economy in Boston.

EP: I definitely missed those articles.

SK: But we do have this incredible natural resource of these universities and the students that come, and a lot of businesses get started on campuses. And I just feel like, let’s just retain [a slightly higher percentage of them], whether they’re finding jobs in an established company, or whether we’re helping them find visas, because they were born in a foreign country, whether we’re funding them.

EP: I’m obsessed with this question of how do we retain people. But I think for that to happen, we need to be telling our stories better.

The day that CarGurus went public, there was an article in TechCrunch about a marketplace for autos that raised $1.6 million. There was no coverage about CarGurus. If you’re not telling that story, who’s telling that story? There’s no one telling that story.

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What do you think? Post a comment or drop me a line at the e-mail address below.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.