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May 21, 2014

Everyone knows that nobody gets consumer in Boston. If you want to invest in the next great consumer company, you better be in Silicon Valley or New York. It’s just a given.

It turns out that claim is total BS. Boston has amazing consumer companies, but the region gets no love for some reason.

Case is point are three really interesting companies that have come to prominence over the last year or so. Care.com, Wayfair, and Simplisafe.

When I ask consumer internet investors about their areas of interest, I hear three things these days.

1. Network effect businesses.

2. eCommerce.

3. Connected Devices.

Funny enough, all three are represented here.  Care.com is a classic network effects business. The more and better the caregivers in the network, but more valuable it is for consumers.  The more consumers, the more attractive it is for caregivers.  Care just went public, is an $80M+ revenue business, and has a multi-hundred million dollar market cap (not a vapor private valuation).

Wayfair is a great ecommerce company going after one of the largest and underserved categories – furniture and home goods.  The company is no longer really a secret, and is doing over $1B in revenue. They compete against current (or former) darlings like Fab and One Kings Lane that celebrate great taste and design. Sorry, those companies aren’t in the same league.

And just this week, it was announced that Simplisafe raised $57M from Sequoia. What a beautiful business – nice hardware revenue + recurring subscription in a big category. Oh and they have over 100K customers.  Pretty darn impressive and totally disruptive.  Connected devices is a pretty new meme, and Simplisafe is probably the most interesting company in this category next to Nest.

So, why doesn’t Boston get more love on the consumer internet side? Couple thoughts.

1. Main Street Stories. I could say that Boston is just far away from the major media centers, and thus doesnt’ get enough attention, which is true. But deeper than that, I think there tends to be a practicality to Boston companies that is a little less media friendly. The three businesses above don’t market themselves in flashy or audacious ways.  They tend to market in a main street way, and talk to everyday consumers about their problems and value proposition.  One of my friends in Boston admitted that he had never heard of Simplisafe until “one of my friends in Indiana bought it and installed it (and loved it)”.  What are other companies that built huge businesses focused on regular people as customers? Ebay, Amazon, and Netflix come to mind. If you are going to be huge, main street is the way to go.  But the stories aren’t necessarily that sexy.

2. Too early? This is counter-intuitive, but Boston startups I find are often too early. Simplisafe started before connected devices were cool. Wayfair started before the resurgence of ecommerce.  Zipcar was way before Uber and Lyft (and I’d argue still a more disruptive model).  Taskrabbit, which started in Boston, is the poster-child of the outsourced service economy.  Runkeeper predates most companies in the quantified health space. The list is long. But sometimes, the earliest companies just don’t get the same attention.

3. Not enough “mediocre” companies.  I can’t quite explain why, but I notice that Boston tends to have quite a few really great, sustainable consumer companies.  But relative to the great ones, much fewer “ok companies” or flame-outs.  That seems like a good thing, but it really isn’t. For an ecosystem as a whole, it’s really great to have a large number of people who have been involved in companies early that had some promise, had some success with their product and marketing, but didn’t end up making it. The skills around going from zero to 20MPH are really valuable and needed.  But in a market where there are fewer of these, you tend to have a lot of people with experience getting from 30-60MPH and beyond, but fewer who are adept at doing what it takes to get things off the ground.  You need flameouts and ok companies to produce great ones.

But overall, I think there is one major issue at work, and it does come down to the culture and high-brow intellectualism of this market. No one wants to look stupid. And because of that, when someone does look stupid, people are quick to pile-on and be nasty and snarky.

Journalists don’t want to look stupid by talking about a crazy consumer company as the next great thing.

Founders don’t want to look stupid by beating their chest and shining the spotlight on themselves in case the spotlight shines on them when things go wrong

Angels don’t want to look stupid by having the large number of losses required to catch winners, or get crammed down by VCs investing big dollars ahead of them

VC’s don’t want to look stupid by investing in things too early, or trying to use capital as a weapon only to go down in flames

And when a town is NOT the center of the tech sphere OR the center of the media universe, the bar is higher to get noticed, so the risk is magnified.

Don’t be afraid to look stupid.

  • http://www.semilshah.com/ Semil Shah

    I feel as if I write the same comments on these posts. Investors in Boston should band together and sponsor an independent journalist with real influence and experience to cover the area, the good and what should improve. If just 10 firms banded together, pulled a grant, and got a corporation involved, it could happen.

  • Mɐx Bulger

    I grew up working in the startup scene in Boston, worked for 3 during my time at Tufts, and promptly left after college. It’s sad, but there is a definite sense among young people that if you want to “prove yourself” in the consumer space, you need to leave. Boston, somehow, doesn’t seem like the big leagues. It breaks my heart to say, because Boston will always be home for me, and consumer tech is one of my biggest passions, but it’s definitely a widespread sentiment among the youth. The founders I worked for in high school and college mostly live in NYC, SF and LA now. And yes, Boston has some breakout successes that don’t get enough attention or love, but it’s also undeniable that Boston has lost it’s edge in attracting early-stage ventures over the last decade. With plenty of access to capital, an amazing academic ecosystem, and a strong history of tech growth, why did NY eat our lunch? Yes, it’s bigger, and there is direct access to a wider variance of industries, but it’s also way more expensive. I worry that Boston as a great community, and from a civil perspective, isn’t doing enough to attract growth and encourage new ventures. It’s not always just about ability to recruit engineers, but reflected all the way through community infrastructure– MBTA hours, ability for new business to acquire liquor licenses or park a food truck somewhere, strong and open networks of mentors who are accessible, tech noncompete laws. I’m pulling for Boston to make a comeback, because it’s obviously the greatest city in the world. But it’s gonna take some change that reaches even beyond dynamics of the tech industry and media.

    • robchogo

      Thanks for your thoughts Max. Tons of good stuff here – you are right, there really isn’t any one thing. I’d also argue that getting an “edge” over NYC isn’t really a good goal. Basically, I think we are seeing more and more entrepreneurial clusters emerge all over the country and world. It’s actually a great thing that New York has become such a vibrant market and that there is another large scale tech ecosystem on the east coast. It’s more of a rising tide, and this market needs to do what it can to make it as great as place as it can be for early stage companies and entrepreneurial talent.

    • coolnalu

      My only guess would be the people. It might be that MIT and Harvard churn out elites in the academia and research world but not grassroots who fight tooth and nail in the mud. It might be the lack of consumer gurus who move between different startups to help build strong foundations.

      Oh, maybe a shorter winter would help too.

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