Boston VCs Grok Social Media—So Can We Please Not Tell That Facebook Story Anymore?

5/12/09Follow @bbuderi

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their parts to be part of that. (“I run into him on flights going out there,” Hirshland says of Sabet.) But both agree the climate for social media is getting far better in the Boston area—both in terms of VCs and entrepreneurs. In fact, Hirshland even said it might be time for a social media incubator here, like Polaris’ Dog Patch Lab in San Francisco (more below on Dog Patch, which isn’t widely associated with Polaris. “We don’t position it as a Polaris lab, but it is,” Hirshland told me.).

“I do think there is a breed or a generation of early-stage Web entrepreneurs and Web investment opportunities that we are seeing a lot more of on the West Coast, frankly,” says Hirshland. “We are pretty focused on making sure we are present in that ecosystem and knowing the people and the trends, so that we are positioned to be seeing [deals], but also appreciating when something potentially very compelling is bubbling up.”

In the case of Automattic, Hirshland met founder Matt Mullenweg back around Christmas of 2004—and cultivated their relationship over the next nine months or so, before taking the lead in a small ($1.1 million) Series A round in September 2005. Polaris also led the $29.5 million Series B round in January 2008—and you can find my full story of Mike and Matt here.

Sabet told a similar tale of getting to know the Twitter team ahead of West Coast VCs. He met two of the three founders (Evan Williams and Biz Stone) in early 2007, through a mutual friend at Google, where the two Twitterers had previously worked—some six months after Twitter’s public launch the previous summer. At the time, Williams was running Obvious Corp., which owned Twitter. And Twitter, says Sabet, “was a spinout out of Obvious.”

Twitter had already received some $5 million in funding from angels, including Netscape’s Marc Andreesen, as well as venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures in New York, says Sabet. For his part, the Spark partner built a relationship with the Twitter team over a year or so. And in early 2008, when they were ready for a second round, “they asked us [Spark] to invest.” (This was a reported $15 million round, announced last June, that included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who invested through Bezos Expeditions, his personal venture firm. Sabet joined the Twitter board as part of Spark’s investment.)

So why did Spark get in ahead of Valley VCs? “I think we were much more enthusiastic about the company earlier on,” he says. “I was a user first.”

Sabet and Hirshland continue to spend a lot of time on the West Coast to cultivate the next generation of Web and social media entrepreneurs. About a year ago, Polaris formed Dog Patch Lab, a kind of incubator for young entrepreneurs located in the Pier 38 area. The lab has about 15 people percolating through it at any given time, and Polaris offers them what Hirshland describes as camaraderie, bandwidth, workspace, and electricity.

Already Dog Patch has helped spawn Plinky, a conversational Web startup that was founded in May 2008 by Jason Shellen, who worked with Ev Williams at Blogger and then continued on to Google after it purchased Blogger in 2003. Shellen later was founding product manager of Google Reader, “and we backed him to figure out how to make sense and money of the conversational web,” says Hirshland. (Each day, Plinky, in which Polaris took a seed position and where former Polaris partner Sim Simeonov is interim CTO, poses a question or challenge to try and spark a conversation—and people can contribute to the dialog in a number of ways, sharing answers on Facebook or Twitter, for instance.)

Also part of the Dog Patch litter is LOLapps, which provides applications that … Next Page »

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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  • Luca

    That would be Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, not Fred Williams of Union Square Bank.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/bbuderi/ Robert Buderi

    Very sorry–fixed, thanks

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com/ Jules Pieri

    I am happy for any progress on advancing the Boston locus for social media and consumer internet enterprises. The list in the article is a good start but it’s still relatively anemic, considering that half of it is more social media infracture, and not consumer facing. At the end of the day, we are all consumers (politicians, policy makers, investors, employees, and entrepreneurs) and the best way to grab mindshare for social media innovation is to create meaningful consumer facing businesses. To build the kind of experiences to which people become deeply attached.

    Although it is not social media-based, Zipcar is one of our best local consumer internet examples. I like CarbonRally too, as a very young example of local social media-fueled innovating company too. Care.com and RunMyErr come to mind as well. We have to broaden our definition of social media to include the innovative use of those behaviors, tools, and technologies. Not just the creation of platforms and infrastructure/analytics around social media.

    Anyway we need more, more, more in Boston, and much of the onus and opportunity lies within the investor community–to get out of its comfort zone. So few investors have really done consumer and social media in their careers. It’s understandably hard for them to trust even deeply experienced teams in these areas…it’s such a scary black box to investors. Success in consumer facing-enterprises can’t be driven entirely with dials and levers–it takes insight and confidence too. Social media does, however, offer amazing customer engagement and acquisition tools to make consumer businesses profitably scale in very new ways. That’s the real opportunity in social media.

  • Jules Pieri

    Oops…typed too fast. Meant to type RunMyErrand.com I erred.