You Snooze, You Lose: 10 Boring Boston-Area Tech Companies That Are Actually Interesting

3/3/11Follow @gthuang

A friend recently complained that my tweets are often along the lines of, “Boring company raises X million dollars.” And this is a guy who works in the tech startup community.

But, au contraire mon frère, they are only boring if you don’t know the stories behind the companies and their deals. The tales of hardship, breakthroughs, betrayals, fights with investors, all that good stuff. (Unlike me, you probably saw “The Social Network.”)

OK, but without all that context most companies do sound, well, pretty boring. Not everyone can be Facebook, Amazon, or Groupon (thank goodness). Not every startup can try to create “The Matrix” for businesses, or a flying car, or cure male baldness, or make everything taste like bacon, or have a founder who, by all accounts, shouldn’t even be alive.

Yet they soldier on. And in technology and business, as in life, it’s often the boring stuff that survives and ends up killing the competition. So, point taken, I decided to make my own short list of the Boston area’s most boring-sounding tech companies that readers should actually care about. (Yes, I can throw out backhanded compliments with the best of them.)

Actually I had compiled quite a long list, so maybe this will become a regular feature. I won’t rank these companies by boredom level—how well would that go over?—but I’ll tell you what makes each company a snoozer at first, and then why it’s actually quite interesting.

I did my best to avoid old chestnuts or well-known firms. Here are 10 companies that have gotten my attention recently, in alphabetical order:

Currensee (Boston, MA)
This startup sounds pretty boring unless you’re a professional investor. Currensee, led by CEO Dave Lemont, provides automation and social-network services to help day traders invest in world currency markets. (My colleague Wade profiled the company back in April 2009.) As of last fall, the startup had signed up more than 7,000 members, and last month it passed the $2 billion mark in trading volume in its social network that lets investors follow expert traders. Lesson learned: sign up rich customers.

Cyber-Ark Software (Newton, MA)
Global information security provider. Manages privileged users, applications, and sensitive data. Improves compliance and productivity, and protects against insider threats. (Yawn.) How about being profitable with 200 new customers and 37 percent revenue growth in the past year? Cyber-Ark, founded in 1999 and led by CEO Udi Mokady, says it has some 850 corporate customers in 50-plus countries (including more than 35 of the Fortune 100). Now that’s security.

Dyn (Manchester, NH)
You might not know what DNS (domain name system) is or how it works, but I bet you’ve heard of Twitter, Groupon, and Zappos. Those are some of the big customers that use Dyn’s DNS and Web hosting services. DNS is so boring I can’t even explain what it is, but it’s crucial for Web page delivery. Here’s what you really need to know: Dyn (pronounced “dine”), led by CEO Jeremy Hitchcock, is a bootstrapped company, originally from the dot-com era, that is profitably raking it in and desperately fending off VCs.

Fidelis Security Systems (Waltham, MA)
What, another security company? WikiLeaks and nation-state cyber attacks seem to have gotten everyone’s attention. Founded in 2002, Fidelis makes technologies for network visibility, threat analysis, and control. CEO Peter George says the firm tripled its sales and became profitable for the first time last year—and expects to double again this year, thanks to new customers in finance, insurance, energy, and chemical industries. Gone are the days when U.S. companies worried about rogue hackers—now they worry about the same kinds of massive attacks that keep government leaders up at night.

Globoforce (Southborough, MA)
Another old company. This one started in 1999 in Ireland, took VC money in Boston, and has become profitable with $100 million-plus revenue and big customers like GE. What does it provide? “Global, on-demand strategic employee recognition solutions.” In plain English, that means the firm, led by CEO Eric Mosley, makes software to help companies run new kinds of employee rewards and incentives programs through retailers. So say goodbye to golf clubs and other antiquated corporate gifts.

OnChip Power (Cambridge, MA)
Power electronics is rarely sexy, and this early-stage MIT startup is no exception. Led by CEO Vanessa Green, OnChip aims to make smaller and cheaper power supplies for LED lighting systems and consumer electronics. What makes this startup kind of interesting (though I might be reconsidering here) is that it’s actually building physical stuff, not just software like everyone else. And it’s stuff that you might carry around with your phone or laptop someday. Oh yeah, the company also raised a small VC round last month, but who cares about that?

SMTP.com (Brookline, MA)
Do I really need to say more than the name? This is e-mail delivery management and marketing at its finest, and therefore most boring. (Sure beats having hour-long Gmail delays, though.) SMTP, formerly called EMUmail, is led by CEO Semyon Dukach, formerly an MIT Blackjack honcho. It’s another company from the late ‘90s that is now coming into its own, with lots of growth in the past year (and a modest profit), and several thousand customers worldwide. And, by the way, it filed for a small IPO in December—and looks like it will go through with it.

Sonian (Needham, MA)
In case you’re not sick of e-mail just yet, how about e-mail archiving—how boring is that? Throw in “cloud-powered” (more on that below) and you’ve got a virtual snoozefest. Except that this company, Sonian, has been killing it lately (4,000-plus customers) and is looking to grow really fast, from what I hear. Led by CEO Jeff Dickerson, Sonian now has the support of another Jeff (Bezos) from Amazon, which joined as a new investor in a $9 million round earlier this year. Not that anyone cares about some boring company raising X million.

Tokutek (Lexington, MA)
Well, there had to be a database company on this list. But not just any database company. Tokutek, if you can get past the name, uses “fractal tree indexes” to “enhance MySQL’s scalability and performance.” In other words, it makes existing databases faster and more efficient to query and search. The startup, led by CEO John Partridge, counts travel meta-search giant Kayak among its customers. Thanks to the meteoric rise of “big data”—think about how much you create and consume every day—and recent activity from EMC/Greenplum, IBM/Netezza, HP/Vertica, Oracle, and numerous smaller companies, databases are hot again.

TwinStrata (Natick, MA)
Coming down the home stretch, we also had to have a data storage company. More specifically, cloud storage. I picked TwinStrata because at least it doesn’t have “cloud” (the new “nano”) in its name. (Can you really keep straight in your head Cloudswitch, CloudBees, Cloudscale, Cloudera, Cloud9, Cloudkick, CloudShare, CloudShield, Cloudant, CloudTP, and, of course, Cloud.com?) Though, the firm does get fairly close to the coma-inducing realm of “cloud infrastructure.” Led by CEO Nicos Vekiarides, TwinStrata makes software to help businesses store and protect their data in the cloud. It’s part of a promising group of Boston-area companies that are transforming how people do online data storage, backup, and management. (Others include Actifio, Backupify, Carbonite, Mozy/EMC, and Nasuni.)

Looking back over the whole list, of course, there’s an argument to be made that Boston’s tech scene has always been about “boring” companies that are actually building critical infrastructure for everything else. We have quite a distinguished history of minicomputers, data storage, telecom, networking, security, and so forth.

But let’s not get carried away with the trends and analysis—that would be way too boring.

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 or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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