Nabeel Hyatt on the Next Consumer Startup Model: Metrics + Creative

2/14/12Follow @gthuang

The best interviews surprise you. You go in expecting to talk about one thing, but your subject makes you think about something else—in this case, an emerging trend that people are talking about, though it doesn’t have a name yet.

Last week I spoke with Nabeel Hyatt, the Boston-area techie best known for starting Conduit Labs, a social music games company, and heading up Zynga Boston after the gaming giant (NASDAQ: ZNGA) bought his startup in 2010. Hyatt has just left Zynga and gone off to join Boston-based Spark Capital as a venture partner, focused on investing in consumer tech startups. (Hyatt is leaving Zynga Boston, 45 employees strong, in the capable hands of fellow Conduit team member Fareed Mosavat.)

There has been a lot of talk in the press about Hyatt’s move from entrepreneur to VC. But what got me interested was thinking about the ideas that define his career, not just through his time at Conduit Labs and Zynga, but also from his earlier days at Ambient Devices (a consumer electronics spinoff from the MIT Media Lab) and Teamtalk and Interphase Designs (remember “new media” in the late ‘90s?).

As Hyatt explained, he has long been interested in consumer technology paired with the disruption of a market—whether it’s games, media, or electronics. Perhaps more fundamentally, he has been drawn to problems that require a strong pairing of creative and technical thinking.

It’s that last part—the tricky balance between the creative and the technical—that got my attention as we talked. Because that balance lies at the heart of many consumer-focused Web companies I’ve talked to recently, from Gemvara to Gilt Groupe, from Amazon to Zappos (OK, technically the same company, but their cultures are pretty different). There is a strategic tension between being metrics-driven and being creative; being rational and being emotional; and making decisions based on left-brain thinking and right-brain thinking.

What’s more, Hyatt thinks that tension is the basis for the next-generation model of building tech companies, one that strongly advances the “lean startup” and “customer development” methodologies that have been in vogue for the past few years. Unfortunately, you’ll have to put in lots of work to learn the details…or start creating them yourself as a startup. And that’s Hyatt’s point: an open dialogue about the next model needs to happen in the entrepreneurial community, in Boston and beyond.

Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:

Xconomy: What will you miss about Zynga Boston and being an entrepreneur?

Nabeel Hyatt: There are two things I was leaving. Zynga is still on a growth path. It’s a real unique, interesting company that I loved working at. Second, a team that I helped build and had been working with for the last three or four years that was really a family. Both of those things were hard to walk away from. My hope is they’ll continue strongly and continue to grow.

X: And how does it feel going over to the Dark Side?

NH: [laughs] There is a bit of culture shock. But I’ve gotten a feel for it over the last couple of years investing in and mentoring startups. Now all my investment activity will be through Spark.

X: So why join Spark in particular? Does it boil down to personal relationships?

NH: It was as much about Spark as it was about being an investor. The way I think about being an entrepreneur is being able to control the people you work with. At a large company, any person walks in tomorrow and they can be good, or they can be incompetent. I have a lot of respect for the people I’ll be working with [at Spark]. You go in because of the team.

X: Let’s talk about the unifying themes throughout your career, from Ambient to Conduit Labs to Zynga to Spark Capital…

NH: First, I’d say everyone tries to construct a cohesive narrative out of the jumble of decisions they make. I’m no exception. [Across] online gaming, consumer electronics, mobile, and sports media, in all of them, one central theme is I tend to be very focused on customer experience and the product as it’s seen through consumers. I’m not amazing at enterprise sales. In all, it started out less me being attached to a market than that there was a market to be disrupted. There were years where starting a game company didn’t make sense. For a startup to grow astronomically, to go from four guys in a basement to a large, public, billion-dollar company, it’s not natural. It’s entirely unnatural. You have to think … Next Page »

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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