Top 10 Highlights From UnConference: Boston’s Big Data Cluster, Content Vs. Commerce & More

11/1/11Follow @gthuang

This year’s MassTLC Innovation UnConference, in Boston on Friday, was as overwhelming—and inspiring—as ever. Apart from the “secrets of scaling startups” session, which I recapped in a separate story, there was a lot going on. Far too much for any one person to take in.

There were sessions on picking the right startup accelerator; building the right company culture; choosing board directors; common mistakes startups make; the talent and recruiting crunch; and the interplay between the New York and Boston innovation scenes, as well as sector-focused sessions on gaming, big data, analytics, mobile cloud, social marketing, and so forth.

To keep track of the main themes this year, I benefited from random chats with Lawrence Schwartz of Tokutek; Michael Raybman of WaySavvy; Gus Weber of Dogpatch Labs and Polaris Venture Partners; Semyon Dukach of SMTP; Vineet Sinha of Architexa; Jeremy Levine of StarStreet; Josh Bob from Textaurant; Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot; and many others. My colleagues Erin Kutz and Lilly O’Flaherty roamed the halls and sessions as well, so I will include some of their observations too.

Here’s a quick sampling of what we all learned about:

1. There are about 100 “big data” companies around Boston. That was the count given at one of several sessions focusing on big data and analytics, led by Steve O’Leary of Aeris Partners and Bob Zurek of Endeca (nice exit). For comparison, earlier this year MassTLC estimated the huge mobile/wireless cluster around Boston to be about 400 companies strong. Big data encompasses big companies like Netezza (part of IBM), Oracle, EMC, ITA Software (Google), Vertica (HP), and Progress Software, as well as upstarts like Hadapt, Jana, Ginger.io, Hopper, Kyruus, and Tokutek. The common thread is technology to help people and companies manage and make sense of tremendous amounts of data so they can make better business decisions.

2. If you’re tired of SoLoMo (social-local-mobile media) as a tech theme, try SoMoClo…the social mobile cloud. In case your eyes just glazed over, think of it this way: Google is mobile plus cloud (see Android). So is Apple (more mobile than cloud, but getting there). Facebook is social plus cloud. Whoever gets all three wins. Beyond consumers, an emerging sector for this technology is healthcare. Jeffrey Tingle of PolyRemedy talked about opportunities in making electronic medical records accessible by patients and doctors—along with the major challenges of privacy, security, and compliance.

3. Web content and advertising are becoming much more interactive—and that interplay leaves an opening for startups. “Traditional church-and-state separation of content and commerce is dying,” says Michael Raybman from travel site WaySavvy. “Sidebar display ads are totally 2005. Commerce and advertising are becoming personalized and contextual, while content is becoming increasingly actionable, where ‘share with friends’ is not the only action. This brings immense opportunities for the travel vertical.”

4. Just when you thought the engineering talent crunch couldn’t get much worse: Undergrads aren’t coming out of school with the right coding experience, and startups can’t afford the time or money to train them. That came from Blueleaf’s John Prendergast. Session attendees (my colleague Erin was among them) kicked around the idea of pooling their resources in training groups like Thoughtbot and pushing schools to include more co-op-style programs in undergraduate education.

5. It’s hardly a new issue, but questions have been raised in the Boston startup community lately about the value of incubators and accelerators such as TechStars, MassChallenge, and Dogpatch Labs. In the accelerator session, which Erin also sat in on, one session attendee compared the type of entrepreneur who bounces around to different incubators and business plan competitions to the perennial graduate student. “There’s this perpetual B+ level that you can play at. Is that really building a company in the marketplace?” he said.

6. And now for something completely different… I heard about some intriguing startups, including VentAboutHim.com (self-explanatory), SittingAround.com (a MassChallenge finalist), MedicalRecords.com (any company founded by a guy named “Ace” is promising), and RedHelper.ru (good luck if you don’t read Russian). And I heard more about Geek Offices, a co-working space for startups and entrepreneurs on the Cambridge side of Inman Square. There’s also a Newton location. From what I hear, price is a big selling point.

7. Analytics, schm-analytics. Are people really willing to pay for data analytics? Answer: yes. (See LinkedIn Premium, for example.) The big data session pointed out that although Boston has a lot of “data geniuses,” many of their analytics companies are focused on selling to others of a similar mindset. The real opportunity is taking big data and packaging it in a way that makes it accessible to the masses. (See Google, Facebook, Amazon.)

8. My colleague Lilly had a social-media marketing takeaway. As she reports, Glenn Gaudet from Cambridge, MA-based GaggleAMP spoke about how many tweets/Facebook posts are too many. The consensus was that Twitter is a ticker tape of content. Twitter analytics show that almost all the click-throughs, retweets, and so forth drops off two hours after a tweet has been posted, and 96 percent of activity dies off after 48 hours. So, companies using good content as an anchor shouldn’t be scared to tweet out that content several times throughout the day (and even the same thing multiple times, within reason).

9. “Should I hire a philosophy major?” Answer: yes. Among the reasons: They’ve been taught how to think creatively and critically. They can read loads of information and retell it in a digestible manner. That could fit with startup positions like product managers and marketers, as Erin reports.

10. One last tidbit came from the audience-participation part of the “scaling startups” session. Woburn, MA-based Kiva Systems has been growing steadily; the warehouse automation company (it doesn’t like to call itself a robotics firm) has been profitable for a while now and is about 250 employees going on 300. Advice from the panel on implementing bigger-company processes: Choose high performers from the company and ask them to help draft and run the new processes. And then implement them in small steps, not all at once. Maybe we’ll see Kiva on this panel next year.

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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