What’s With All the Mass Customization Startups in Boston? One Investor’s Opinion

2/8/11Follow @gthuang

The Boston-area technology scene is known for several mini-clusters: companies in mobile software, music software, robotics, online video, data storage, e-commerce, and Internet marketing, to name a few. But “mass customization” might be the most broadly interesting sector in town. The term refers to online companies that offer consumers personalized, custom-made goods—everything from clothing and jewelry to art and books—at relatively low prices.

The trend toward mass customization isn’t new—you can read about related startups here and here—but a critical, um, mass of local companies has formed that should make things fun to watch for years to come. They include Blank Label (shirts), FashionPlaytes (girls’ clothing), Gemvara (jewelry), Tikatok (children’s books, acquired by Barnes & Noble), F. Rock (bags), Artaic (mosaics), CustomMade (artwork and furniture), Loom Decor (home decorating), Vistaprint (printed goods, U.S. headquarters in Boston area), and Zyrra (bras).

I happened to be talking about this cluster with micro-VC David Beisel from NextViewVentures this week. Beisel also organizes the quarterly Web Innovators Group, and was previously with Venrock (he still serves on the board of BlogHer) and Masthead Venture Partners. In a previous life, he co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing startup that was acquired by About.com for $35 million in 2000.

Beisel had an interesting take as to why the Boston area seems to be putting the “Mass.” in mass customization. He views the sector as “another upspring of the e-commerce mini-cluster. We [in Boston] are good at assembling—taking raw components and building blocks, and then fashioning them into something whole greater than its parts,” he said. “Mass customization is a natural extension of our strength because it’s assembling something new and doing it both systematically and repeatedly.”

I took this to mean also that mass customization startups are a natural outcrop built on top of more traditional New England tech strengths—things like building physical products and developing e-commerce businesses (e.g., CSN Stores, Shoebuy, Next Jump).

You can learn more about this burgeoning group of startups next week. The MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge (Beisel is on the board) has organized a panel discussion and networking hour around the mass customization cluster on Feb. 16 (rescheduled after the snowstorm). Katie Rae from Project 11 and TechStars Boston will moderate a panel of startup founders including Ted Acworth, Sharon Kan, Matt Lauzon, Sarah McIlroy, Sung Park, and Michael Salguero.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.blanklabel.com Fan Bi

    thanks for including us in the write-up greg. we’re definitely excited about the number of fast-growing MC companies in Boston.

  • http://Zazzle.com Dave Gross

    No doubt Boston is a hotbed of mass customization. Professor Frank Piller at MIT deserves a lot of the credit, as he’s been engaging large companies and inspiring young entrepreneurs for more than ten years.