Will Paul English’s Blade Boost Consumer Tech in Boston?

5/19/14Follow @gthuang

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have had success, but not necessarily in tech or business; one entrepreneur he’s funding was a college hockey player who had no tech experience.

As for the sectors Blade likes, think consumer areas like e-commerce and payments, in addition to social. But not edtech or health and wellness—both buzzy fields these days. On the latter, English says “there’s too much chatter there right now.” And there’s too much “trying to get people to spend money doing something they’re not used to spending money on,” he says.

Instead, he wants to focus on “markets where there’s a known behavior pattern.” And also a known market leader that’s been at the top for many years. At Kayak, he says, “we were gunning for Expedia.” You can extrapolate that to PayPal in payments and Amazon in e-commerce, he says. “There’s a lot of room for innovation,” he says.

In e-commerce, English hints that he’s working on a startup idea in fashion, together with Ben Fischman, the former CEO of Rue La La.

And for now, Blade is staying away from travel as an investment sector. Though it’s still a ripe area for startups, English says he and his Kayak comrades need a break. “I’ll get over it, I just need to work it out of my system,” he says.

One tidbit: English kicks himself for not inventing something like Uber himself. Back around 2007, he says, he talked to limo firm BostonCoach about putting a button on Kayak where users could book a ride. It didn’t work out, and English didn’t follow up on the idea.

The biggest challenge now for Blade is finding the right people. English is bullish on Boston’s talent pool—“we want to keep the MIT kids here,” he says—but he also wants to pull in people from California and New York.

Part of the draw is the coolness factor. The Blade space itself is a mix of no-frills and frills (see below). On one hand, there’s no sign at the entrance, just an unmarked green door in an alleyway off Fort Point Channel; its staff and startups will work in a standard-looking open floor plan. On the other hand, it has a trendy nightclub feel, complete with a full bar, DJ booths, LED column lighting, a state-of-the-art audio system, and interactive apps that make the room respond to you by lighting up your favorite drink or projecting your Instagram photos on the wall. Blade plans to host occasional events and concerts.

Blade startup space. Photo by Greg Huang

Blade startup space.

There seems to be a proliferation of “non-incubators” that follow a roughly similar model: entrepreneurs make a zillion bucks on an exit, raise a fund, and open what amounts to a private club for other entrepreneurs building startups. They are all a bit different, but you can see what Heavybit Industries, I/O Ventures, Redstar, and others are trying to do: make a difference in their ecosystems from the top down.

So, will Blade be the birthplace of the next Kayak, Wayfair, or TripAdvisor, or just a sign of another tech bubble? It’s hard to bet against Blade, or other similar efforts and funds, because of the entrepreneurial success of their founders. But these outfits will have to establish their own track records of investment success—and it won’t be easy.

Meantime, English says he “never worked this many hours at Kayak.” Why? Fear is a big motivator, he says. “I had a big hit, and now there’s a lot of pressure. I love pressure.”

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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