7 Boston Startup CEOs Boil Their Company Culture Down to One Word

9/1/09Follow @bbuderi

First, let me get this out up front—I’m ripping off the idea for this column from my colleague Greg Huang, editor of Xconomy Seattle. Thanks Greg!

Second, I spend a lot of time talking with venture capitalists about the startup business, and with entrepreneurs about venture capitalists AND the startup business. But those can be pretty detailed conversations. So the idea here is to short-circuit all that—and get the entire conversation down to one word, literally.

As Greg noted in his article, “A startup’s culture is what sets it apart from its peers. It is the essence of the operation. It directly affects the company’s strategy, hiring practices, and the personality of its products.”

I’d add that establishing and maintaining a corporate culture that employees buy into, and that even inspires them, is critical to success, and can often be a source of strength or guidance when a company goes through trying times.

So, following Greg’s example, I contacted a slew of Boston-area CEOs to ask them to sum up corporate culture. I got back seven answers in time for this column. There’s no deep analysis here, but I have added a bit of context to their remarks. I’d be curious to hear what you think.

Allurent (Cambridge, MA)
CEO: Joe Chung
Culture: “Synergistic.”
Comments: Actually, Chung’s first response was “synerfystic,” and I thought, being a creative guy, he had coined a new word with some deep meaning. But then he clarified, citing a Blackberry error, and said he meant “synergistic.” Allurent is doing retail e-commerce in a recession, a tough challenge. I’d say if you can find synergies in just about anything you do, that’s a plus.

Aveo Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA)
CEO: Tuan Ha-Ngoc
Culture: “Vibrant”
Comments: Aveo has an aggressive vision: take on the big boys of cancer drug development, thanks partly to a unique and, the company says, more accurate way to mimic cancer in mouse models. But as Ha-Ngoc says, “Vibrant is an appropriate word that describes our culture since it is both the result and the sum of all other elements of AVEO’s culture i.e. creative and dedicated people working together in a transparent, respectful way and with tremendous passion in making substantial impact in the lives of cancer patients around the world.”

Daily Grommet (Lexington, MA)
CEO: Jules Pieri
Culture: “Adventurous”
Comment: Okay, it turns out Pieri, whose e-commerce startup features one new product every day, with “short, homey, informally edited videos explaining what’s compelling about each day’s product,” as Wade described it in his profile, had already seen Greg’s story about Seattle entrepreneurs and posted her own thoughts on the subject on her site. As she wrote in response to my query: “I’m one step ahead of you on this….here is my blog post on the subject…But she sent along a few additional thoughts as well: “Every day, under enormous deadline pressure, we take personal and commercial responsibility for the Grommet choices. We back a lot of young and unknown companies. We test a lot of crazy products. And we stick our faces on video. How many company teams wake up to that reality every day? Adventurous covers it.”

Paragon Lake (Lexington, MA)
CEO: Deb Besemer
Culture: “Passionate”
Comment: Besemer came out of retirement (she sold her last startup, BrassRing, for $115 million) to head Paragon Lake, which is out to revolutionize the way jewelry is designed, bought, and sold, in part because of her love of jewelry and in part because of her passion about the company’s ambitions. Summarizing the reasons for her word choice, Besemer says: “Because we all feel we’re on a mission to change an industry and are working long and hard to invent new ways of shopping for and buying jewelry. We can make it fun. We can make it special. And we can build a great company in doing so. We are passionate about doing all of this.”

StyleFeeder (Cambridge, MA)
CEO: Phil Jacob
Culture: “Focused”
Comment: StyleFeeder, which offers a search and recommendation engine for online shopping, is in retail and e-commerce—just like several others on this list. And it’s profitable, which might not be like others on this list. Jacob says focus is key: no recurring meetings such as weekly staff confabs (“We use scheduled recurrent meetings as a tool to inflict pain on uncooperative service providers that are having trouble meeting deadlines, etc.,” Jacob says), no phones in the product development area, and a limited appetite for tackling new things. “We don’t bite off more than we can chew and strive for excellence in the products that we build,” says Jacob. “So in that sense, I think we focus our energy on the products that matter the most to us…rather than jumping on every bandwagon that comes along.”

WiTricity (Watertown, MA)
CEO: Eric Giler
Culture: “Cool”
Comment: WiTricity is all about wireless electricity. The cool technology apparently carries over to the corporate culture. But I would have thought Giler would describe the company as “charged.”

Zink Imaging (Bedford, MA)
CEO: Wendy Caswell
Culture: “Magical”
Comment: “Zink” is shorthand for “zero ink,” which is what Zink offers—digital printing without ink. The idea, based on technology conceived at Polaroid way back when, came to market in Zink’s first products early last year. Caswell says it’s been an “unbelievable 30+ year ride to go from a magical dream to a magical, amazing trip to bring the fruits of our labor to the world.” Having just scoured unsuccessfully around my house this weekend for an ink cartridge for one of our three out-of-ink printers, I’m D with her word.

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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