What Does It Take to Build a Billion-Dollar Company in New England?

10/11/07Follow @bbuderi

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moving, and I did my best to capture telling comments even as I wolfed down my Atlantic seafood bouillabaisse.

One person said that he was being thwarted in his company-building by the difficulty in finding domain-specific talent. This triggered some talk on why it is better to hire hungry, but less-experienced employees than experienced but possibly bored talent. From there the discussion moved to culture and the need to encourage more risky ideas and hire younger top executives—and, especially, to fund younger entrepreneurs whose companies are at earlier stages than many VCs traditionally seem to be comfortable funding.

This proved a hot-button issue for many in the audience, and we almost inevitably slipped into a discussion of West Coast vs. East Coast venture capital styles. One person spoke about the conservatism of Boston area venture capitalists, who in his view are overly fixated on ensuring that they only fund entrepreneurs with proven track records. “New England wants to bet on the same entrepreneurs, again and again,” he said. Barry Fidelman, an Atlas partner, countered that area venture firms are now starting to place smaller, 250K bets on seed-stage companies and the often-unproven entrepreneurs behind them.

A great question/observation came from Gary Pisano of the Harvard Business School. Could the East Coast-West Coast differences be more specific to sectors rather than across the board? he asked. This idea seemed to get a lot of currency. In cleantech, said Jeff Fagnan, another Atlas partner, “I’m not sure there is a difference.”

By this point Jerry Fishman, like several of our other dinner companions, had definitely had enough of this topic. “The California-Boston debate is old,” he said. “The real question is U.S. versus Asia. California in my opinion is yesterday’s battle.”

The entrepreneurs themselves did not escape unscathed, either. Don Dodge, director of business development for Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team, said that while area VCs might only want to bet on proven entrepreneurs, local entrepreneurs only want to hire proven talent. “It’s risk reduction everywhere,” he said.

New England entrepreneurs were also taken to task for not really being in it for the long haul and for selling out too soon. (This came up in my chat with Jerry Fishman as well, when he noted that Analog has bypassed many buyout opportunities over the course of its ascent.)

At this point, I confessed that it would be hard to turn down a great offer for Xconomy. But, in a way, John McEleney, former CEO of SolidWorks, took me off the hook. He pointed out that first-time entrepreneurs often sell out early to ensure their financial futures. The second time around, they might well take on bigger challenges and hold on longer.

Towards the end of the dinner, Deshpande looked at the big picture. In our connected world, technological and business process innovation are growing exponentially, and the next 10 years, he said, will probably see as much change as the last 100 years combined. He spoke about abundant opportunities for entrepreneurs, globally and locally. And as he later explained, “I am very optimistic and enthusiastic that Massachusetts, with its deep history in innovation and entrepreneurship, will play a key role in the global economy and get more than its share of the action.”

Desphande’s overall message, therefore, was that there simply was no reason New England entrepreneurs could not shine even brighter. And on that note, the dinner started to break up. Some stayed for dessert, others cut out to watch the Patriots—that’s the New England Patriots—devastate the Cincinnati Bengals (I don’t think there is a good West Coast football team this year). Then one of the event organizers stood up to announce that hiking and biking activities would start the next morning at 6:30.

“Can we do it at 10?” someone called out.

At which point Atlas’s Jeff Andrews chimed in: “That’s what’s wrong with New England.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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