Five Take-Home Messages from the FutureM Conference
Between the FutureM conference, Web Innovators Group, Mobile Monday, the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame, and the MIT tech festival t=0, there wasn’t a lot of time for Boston techies to breathe last week.
To keep you up to date, here are some high-level takeaways from FutureM, the sprawling MITX event that was really 50-plus separate events, focused on the future of marketing—and with a lot of Boston-area companies represented. This is just a small sample of what I saw and heard from a few panels and gatherings:
1. Ad tech sucks. For consumers, that is. Lots of startups and big companies are trying to make it suck less. That was the message from Sim Simeonov, the entrepreneur and angel investor behind Shopximity, a young Boston-area startup that’s trying to improve consumers’ shopping experience using display ads.
2. The frontiers of mobile marketing are automation, engagement, and transparency. Automating the marketing process is key in a world of near-unlimited Web content and cheap ad prices. So is getting (and keeping) people’s attention. “The trend we’re going to see is around making it more clear why [a consumer] would want to explore an ad,” said Lars Albright, a veteran of m-Qube, Quattro Wireless, and Apple. (His new startup is called Session M.) It remains to be seen whether a billion-dollar business can emerge from this sector, however. Albright would bet on Apple’s iAd network reaching $1B, while Paul McNulty of IBM’s enterprise marketing division (he’s from Unica) said, “I don’t know if [a marketing automation company] is the horse I’d bet on as the next EMC.” (I took that to mean because there are lots of different companies with complementary strengths, it’s hard to imagine one big category winner.)
3. “California is a one-night stand, while Massachusetts is a long-term relationship.” That was Senator Karen Spilka (D-Mass.) summarizing the views of a panel of entrepreneurs and investors on building companies in the Bay State versus Silicon Valley. “We’re still number one in education,” she said. “And number two in [venture capital] as a small state is pretty good.” (Alas, non-compete laws are also part of the long-term relationship here. Interestingly, Brian Shin of Visible Measures noted that his thinking on non-competes has changed, presumably from positive to negative: it sounds like he originally thought they would be helpful in retaining a core group of top employees in the state.)
4. Diversity in tech is a challenge and an opportunity. Investor Eric Paley of Founder Collective noted that young entrepreneurs in New York and Silicon Valley “can rattle off names of success stories.” Whereas in Boston, people don’t hear much about companies like EnerNOC, Acme Packet, EqualLogic, and Unica, “because we’re so distributed” across different sectors, he said. “It’s the diversity and the modesty.” Case in point: On the panel, Paley asked Brian Shin if he knew of Unica, the marketing tech firm that would be bought by IBM for $480 million last year, back when Shin was starting Visible Measures in 2005. “I didn’t know any company,” Shin said. On the other hand, he said that “because there is diversity, you can find [a mentor] who’s done something big in almost anything you want to do.”
5. Connecting students with startups, perhaps with VC or government support, is key to the state’s tech future. It’s a well-known issue: top kids go to school in Boston and then leave for the West Coast or New York to join hot startups, or they become business consultants. “We should be insanely aggressive about internships,” Paley said, for undergrads, grad students, and MBAs alike. That means championing broad efforts to get young people who are interested in entrepreneurship (there seem to be more and more lately) to work at local companies for the summer. That echoes something Jon Pierce told me a few months ago: “Working at a startup is the best education you can have as an entrepreneur.”