Heading Home, Leaving Lobsters for Crayfish—But First a Nod to Shaker Innovation and Some Thoughts on Boston vs. Silicon Valley

7/30/08

Realizing that my visit to the USA is coming to an end in a few days, I spent the weekend hectically sightseeing around western Massachusetts and upstate New York. Even taking into account my big win—a net gain of $1.20 after expenses—at the Saratoga raceway, the most fascinating experience was my visit to Hancock Shaker Village just outside Pittsfield, MA.

Today, the village is a museum, but it was a living Shaker community from 1783 until 1960, when the Shaker Central Ministry decided to close it. When the community was at its peak in the early nineteenth century, more than 300 Shakers lived on the 3,000-plus-acre farm. They had chosen to distance themselves from the ways of “the world,” but that didn’t keep them form being thrifty and innovative businesswomen and businessmen with a keen understanding of marketing.

The Shakers produced furniture, brooms, baskets, medicaments, and clothing for sale—and they were also the first to sell dried packaged garden seeds in America. They harnessed their waterpower with an energy-efficient turbine in order to power lathes, saws, and other machinery. And when automobiles began to appear on American roads, the Shakers (not to be confused with the Quakers) were among the first to buy and use this new means of transport.

I’ve been working together with the great staff of Xconomy here in Boston since early April, as part of a fellowship program in “Innovation Journalism” at Stanford University; this week I’ll return back to Sweden and to my job as one of the editors at the weekly news magazine Ny Teknik.

One goal of the Stanford program is to provide the Fellows with a better understanding of the “innovation ecosystem” in the USA. This is where I think that the history of the Shakers has something important to tell us about the factors driving entrepreneurship. Of course, the Shakers were in business for the money—but not just for the money. Their businesses were a means to help them pursue their way of living, using their worldly profits for a spiritual goal. I have found the discussion in the U.S. on what motivates innovators and entrepreneurs much more interesting than the debate in Sweden, which nearly always homes in on the need for tax subsidies. You seem to have an understanding that just getting rich isn’t enough, not even getting filthy rich. If you’re going to be one of the really great entrepreneurs, you’ll have to be in the game to prove yourself, make your vision come true—and use the money you make as a means to even bigger goals.

My four months in Boston has been a great experience. I came here after spending one month in Palo Alto, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Californians pride themselves on their easy-going, laid-back culture. Well, to me people in Boston seem … Next Page »

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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