A lot of ink has been spilled about the challenges of building large scale consumer internet companies in Boston. Here’s a recent example that is quite thoughtful although misses the mark IMHO.
To me, the biggest challenge of consumer web companies in Boston is a lack of perspective. And most specifically, it’s a lack of perspective on distribution. Most founders here are just worse at distribution, and often don’t appreciate how much of a deficiency we have as an ecosystem.
First, we are further from the information flow. We don’t know when a new feature on Facebook or Apple policy might have important implications on those platforms that one coud exploit to their advantage. When a company suddenly starts to take off, it takes us longer to hear and understand why, and then try to also take advantage of that while the window of opportunity still exists. There are fewer people here who have scaled large scale web businesses that we can learn from, or employees that have worked for them to draw from. Also, the press doesn’t really care about Boston. The population isn’t that big, Techcrunch doesn’t have a presence here, most national web publications don’t have a dedicated writer in Boston, we don’t have traditional media megaphones like the NYT or WSJ, etc.
It’s just harder. There is no way around it. It doesn’t do founders any good to not face that reality, but instead, be realistic about it and respond. Couple suggestions:
1. Assume Features Don’t Win
This isn’t as stupidly obvious as it seems. It’s amazing how often I hear founders in Boston talk about how product X succeeded when Y failed and point to features. That thinking permeates the way founders often think of their own company, their competition, and where they exist in the overall story arc of the web. It’s critical to let go of the myth that “all that matters is a great product” and work really really hard on being a real student of distribution. It’s also critical to understand why some things are or are not working on the distribution side when you think about why one product succeeded over another or why efforts at one problem failed in the past but might have hope today. By the way, if you have’t read Peter Theil’s class notes on the topic, read it now.
2. Study Emerging Platforms
There are emerging platforms of distribution that emerge continuously, and those platforms themselves are constantly being re-invented. Founders that are smart about distribution will study these platforms and watch them closely, and take advantage of the opportunities that arise. As much as I’ve been critical of the rise of Viddy and SocialCam on the back of the Facebook Open Graph, it’s still impressive how effective they were in utilizing that platform to get incredible rates of trial and usage (although engagement is another question). If you are serious about this, you should aspire to be the kind of founder that people say “that guy knows more about platform X, Y, or Z than pretty much anyone else out there”. I hear people described this way all the time, but rarely among folks in Boston.
Think it’s not possible? The two largest consumer internet companies in Boston got to where they are by understanding how search works. Tripadvisor built it’s incredible traffic engine through UGC and SEO, and Wayfair got their start by being excellent at driving traffic to vertical sites with a common backend. We might pu-pu those tactics today in favor of new platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, iPhone, etc. But in their day, these companies very much built their competitive advantage on their excellence at that form of distribution, and that has endured. By the way, it’s not just about newfangled platforms too – sometimes, even old distribution mechanisms start to show promise when attacked in new ways (think about email marketing for Groupon, Gilt, Fab, etc). Also, this is true for business facing companies as well. This eco-system has been better at this in general – like HubSpot with inbound marketing and Nanigans on Facebook. But there is a long way to go.
3. Travel More
Sorry, that’s just life. You can’t gather the intelligence you need by just reading Techcrunch or just talking to your peers locally. You have to get out there, build relationships, know people at or from companies that matter, get to know people who are experimenting like crazy in the area (eg: Y-Combinator founders, lead-gen companies, etc). You just have to travel more to get out there and become a sponge of information. And if you can’t realistically travel, try to be intentional about how you draw out information from the web. Set up lists of people on Twitter in different locations and be religious about listening and trying to understand what they are using, thinking, and how they see the world evolving.
4. Work harder at PR
This is linked to #3. It’s just harder to get good PR in this town. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It does mean that you should probably expect to invest 1.5X more time than your peers in SV and New York for the same return. But it’s still worth it. I’m not saying just to do unnatural things, but I think that being adept at telling your company’s story is just good hygene.
5. Be Obsessive About Customer Feedback
One way to balance out relatively weak intuition about distribution mechanisms is to be that much better at understanding your customers. In addition to helping you build products that matter, really knowing your customers indirectly can give you lots of clues about what distribution tactics might work or can be exploited. But I’ve rarely talked to a company in Boston that I felt had a really unique, maniacal focus on understanding their customers (aside from perhaps David Cancel’s team at HubSpot). I think it’s important to build that into your company day-one and have an actual machine around collecting, synthesizing, and disseminating data and information from customers.
6. Be More Unique and Controversial
When you are in a market where it is harder to stand out, the bar to do something really unique and notable is higher. I find that founders in Boston are often a little more conservative and risk-averse with their distribution tactics, and worry a bit too much about the fall-out of a bad move. Don’t be conservative. One of my favorite examples from a few years back was Jason Jacobs running the Boston Marathon in an iPhone suit with the Runkeeper App on it. It was crazy, noteworthy, but got him and the company noticed. That alone didn’t make them successful – they had an app that people loved and also took advantage of being very early on an emerging platform. But that bold move I think did help him move the ball down the field in what is a competitive and noisy space.