Boston Tech Scene Needs Fewer Doubles and Triples, More Home Runs

1/27/10Follow @rowe

If the NSA monitored communications in Massachusetts, their analysts might raise an alert. With the baseball season over, there has been an anomalous amount of chatter using baseball terms as code for something.

They would trace the threat to Bill Warner, Avid founder and long time innovation activist. Bill has recently published a manifesto on his blog setting the bar for the rest of us. Declaring that we have too many singles and doubles, and not enough home runs, Bill is proposing we adopt a new nomenclature in our innovation economy. Here is Bill Warner’s proposed scorecard:

Single

Any growing company that is selling a successful product. This would mean any company that successfully reaches the market and serves a growing need. Essentially, you’re on base once you show that more and more people need your product.

Double

Any growing company with sales over $10M.

Triple

Any growing company with sales over $100M. Local or distant leadership. Note: huge acquisitions by distant companies will still be considered a triple due to loss of local leadership.

Home Run

>$1B market cap. Local leadership.

Grand Slam

>$10B market cap. Dominates its market; fast market growth. Local leadership.

Bill followed his scorecard manifesto with some practical suggestions on how to improve the score in this playbook.

What Bill’s getting at is that we need to think actively about building large, local companies to serve as anchors for our economy. For too long, our smartest companies have been sold early to acquirers on other coasts. This behavior deprives us of market leadership, dampens the flow of experienced executives to our region, especially in scaling and execution roles such as sales and operations, and ultimately relegates us to being the world’s R&D lab. Not a bad position on the ball field, but we can do better.

In the ensuing chatter, some have argued that economics, particularly venture fund economics, drive the decision to sell early versus growing a company independently. While this is can be true, I believe that the volition of our startup executives, and the values of our investors, can play a big role, since it is rarely certain that selling early provides a bigger ultimate return than staying in the game. A quick exit can pay for a new car, a new house, and maybe a new life for a founder. Sticking around and growing a business through difficult realities is hard work, but real impact in the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs league requires sticking around.

Hearing top startup CEOs mull over Bill’s challenge, I get the sense that a lot of folks are getting religion, and are saying “Yeah! Lets take our creations all the way.” In the end it is this attitude, more than any other factor, which will cause us to build more Gillettes, Genzymes, Akamais and EMCs.

Xconomist Tim Rowe is Founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. Follow @rowe

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  • http://www.seven10storage.com/blog Tim

    I think there’s a lot of personalities in Boston that thrive on the start-up culture and have no interest in developing “anchor” organizations. Many entrepreneurs who start companies don’t want to build them into large, stable businesses. Once a start-up reaches the point where it’s no longer a start-up anymore, that “pressure-cooker” feel to the business subsides, along with much of the excitement involved in scraping by.

    Look at any serial entrepreneur’s resume or bio and you can often see participation in 6 or 7 companies in under 10 years. These guys are start-up nomads, looking for the next big thing and moving on when they’ve brought the company to a certain threshold.

    How do we entice these guys to stick with it for the long hall? That’s the question.

  • Wade Roush

    Do we even want to encourage these creative startup types to be less nomadic? Don’t we need people to be starting lots of companies, to increase the odds that some of them will hit home runs? What if incubating companies is the Boston area’s true strength, and it’s just more efficient to have others manage the growth stage — is that so bad? Just playing devil’s advocate here.

  • MikeWe

    Wade’s onto something here. I’ve lived in the Valley, Seattle and Boston. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Boston startup and technology scene, it’s just different from the Valley and we have a set of folks here that at times seem intent on the ‘competition’ between the valley and Boston…. that content seems stale in 2010.

    Additionally, I think that the era of huge enterprises is starting to end it’s run. With technology, partnerships, global markets, business efficiencies etc, the notion of creating the gigantic enterprise is no longer the end game for many organizations. Boston is very well suited to be a mosaic of many different 50-100MM important businesses, that in aggregate create a quilt of very stable industries. To think that we have to have one large company per vertical to employ tens of thousands is really an old way of thinking. Power, influence, reach, importance is not dictated by the number of headcount any longer… thankfully. So get out there Boston and keep growing the mid market, make it strong and a few trees will grow from the shrubs, but the overall landscape will look great.

  • http://www.boston.com/innovation Scott Kirsner

    I don’t think this conversation about trying to build more “anchor tenant” (or home run) companies in Boston is about Boston vs. Silicon Valley at all.

    One thing that larger companies with globally-recognized brand names (say, Apple or Google or EMC or Genzyme or Fidelity, for instance) do regularly is recruit lots of smart people from all over the world to work for them. They exert a kind of magnetic pull for the best and brightest. And we might also acknowledge that some of the smartest kids who graduate from Boston schools prefer to work for a larger (read: less risky) company whose name they recognize, which often requires moving away from Boston.

    I see having a diverse mix of small, medium, and large companies here as important to ensuring that we do our best at recruiting and retaining talent.

  • Mikewe

    I respectfully disagree that this is not about Boston v Valley. If you follow the threads of BillW’s original manifesto post, this is clearly what this is about.

    My point is that Boston has lots to celebrate, and is in a great leadership position for the next era. I think that lots of doubles/triples is a positive move that we will see the next decade. We are moving out of the ‘big’ era and into the ‘impact’ era… go and visit any enterprise and they will tell you that they are all trying to be more nimble, smaller and much more impactful. We are conditioned to think that ‘big’ is the way to have value.

    It’s great conversation, and also great to question whether the notion of an ‘anchor tenant’ is the best thing over the long haul. The ‘anchor tenant’ also can create the one horse town phenomenon, not necessarily driving an ecosystem despite it’s size, or if/when that company declines you have a very difficult propsect of driving the geography back up (boeing, DEC, Compaq)that the company propped up for years. There is also the theory that when companies turn into really large enterprises, they can go from (sorry Jim Collins) ‘Great to Good’ where a different type of employee is hired – one of internal focus, process oriented, ‘campaign’ driven… not the smartest, but best for that position. The ‘anchor tenants’ need to then be the drivers for traffic for the rest of the mall’s stores… does EMC fill that slot in Massachusetts?

    Boston’s in a great position… meaningful companies, a constant churn of entrepreneurs via students/higher ed, great people who stay here and great people who go elsewhere and talk about the important things they learned here… but to chat that Boston lacks people to build something great, let’s talk about impact, not just ‘big’.

  • http://billwarner.posterous.com Bill Warner

    Mike, I was more in your camp a while back, but I’ve had a change of mind. I think that a vibrant economy needs a mix of companies at a mix of stages. The home run and the grand slam companies ($1 Billion to $10 Billion market cap) play an important role in the local economy, and in the world. I believe we need more of them, and I believe our behaviors need to be more supportive of making the decisions that will yield companies that lead the nation and the globe.

    Further, I’m not even convinced that we truly have a sufficiently vibrant crop of singles, doubles, and triples. Also the three stages before that: the potential founder, the founder, and the operating startup, each of these levels need additional support from an expanded and more active angel community.

    I agree that Boston has much to celebrate. It is an amazing place with a wealth of talent. My belief is that we need to make some important changes in our behavior in order to truly take advantage of what we have, and to take (or retake!) our proper place in the nation and the world.

  • Tom

    Are you suggesting we should give up playing like the Red Sox and instead emulate Mark McGwire. It’s a false choice, since there isn’t an actual team that can provide support for all its members, but instead we are many, may independent entities.

    If we all looked at the dismal mathematics of startup success no one should ever try for a Home Run, while doubles and triples look pretty darn amazing.

    My bit of positive advice is to work in area where the valuable resources and/or partners are nearby. We do virtually nothing with the West Coast. Our ecosystem is mostly eastern US, UK, and Europe, and just starting to touch China as a supplier. If it centered around California, we’d be crazy to stay here.

  • http://www.bmpvc.com Dana Callow

    Tim, important observation and agree in ideal world. However, basic guideline for investors and CEO’s, innovate close to home but scale up in low cost areas. Classification segments quite practical as long as shareholder value follows. Massachusetts can do better retaining growing companies but other states seem to offer more competitive programs to attract growth companies. 20 years after funding, our company PAREXEL International (PRXL) is still based in Mass. 1.5 billion market cap and 10,000 employees same CEO – but growing faster outside Mass due to cost here and customer needs. Venture Investors must have 10 x deals to be competitive in today’s illiquid markets so relative costs drive location. Silicon Valley comparison is not a consideration but San Diego, Research Triangle and Austin may be.

    regards