A Silicon Valley Prescription for Boston and Other Startup Hubs: Throw More Parties

10/29/10Follow @wroush

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even the lowliest employee is encouraged to lob questions at Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt. And apparently this is not a new idea. A couple of weeks ago, at Y Combinator’s Startup School event at Stanford (which was followed, of course, by a huge after-party), renowned angel investor Ron Conway talked about the early days at Altos Computer Systems, the San Jose, CA-based maker of multi-user computer systems that he co-founded in 1979. “We might have been one of the companies that invented TGI Fridays,” Conway said. “But we did it every day. Our chief financial officer, at 5:00 p.m., would wheel a cart with wine and beer to every desk. We’d all drink and fraternize for an hour, and then everyone went back to work. That set the culture…We all worked hard and played hard.” (Altos got acquired by Acer in 1990, which allowed Conway to start playing around a bit as an angel.)

I think the nub of the issue is that in SoMa, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and the Bay Area’s other startup ghettoes, there’s almost an expectation that the work day will include some semi-recreational socializing—and there’s no better disinhibitor for this purpose than a drink or two. What might appear, at first glance, to be a randomly nattering 6:30 p.m. crowd at San Francisco’s Zero Zero or The 21st Amendment or Gordon Biersch would, under an ethnographic lens, turn out to an exquisitely choreographed dance, with everyone striving to collect the latest industry gossip, get advice on a business or technical problem, pitch a product or startup idea, or quiz a potential employee or investor. In fact, I’d bet that more Silicon Valley deals are spawned in the two hours between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. than in the eight hours between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Here at Xconomy San Francisco, we’re doing our best to tap into this tradition. One Friday afternoon about a month after I arrived in San Francisco, my Seattle colleague Luke Timmerman and I threw an informal open house here at my Potrero Hill loft/office. About a week beforehand, we sent out a few tweets and personalized e-mail invitations, and we put a story on the blog with a picture of some wine and cheese. Seventy-five people showed up. Back in Boston, it would have taken me a month of pleading to round up that many guests.

Laura Fitton reports that ever since she got back from San Francisco, she’s been “on a tear about how we need to drink more together. And it’s working. But yeah, we can do it much more.” She says Oneforty plans to start having small, informal open houses more frequently. As do I. As more startups should. Bottoms up, Boston!

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.cictr.com Tim Rowe

    Wade: Thanks for the insight. I feel as though there are drinking events in the Boston startup community nearly every night. I think you left here before the Venture Cafe got big, but its now a pretty happening party every Thursday night. Last night several people there were juggling 2-3 other events (Mass High Tech All Stars’ Event, SwissNex 10-year anniversary, etc.). SwissNex’s event was out of this world. They had flown in 4 chefs from Switzerland, as well as a bunch of great Swiss wine. But I think there must be something to what you are trying to say that goes beyond simply the availability of many free Sam Adams and suits events, to quote Cort Johnson. Can you tell us more about how these events play out that makes them great? Is it cooler people? Are people more open? Do they get more drunk?

  • http://venturefizz.com Keith Cline

    Just reiterating Tim’s comment. There is not a shortage of stuff to do in Boston. Just look at the VentureFizz calendar: http://venturefizz.com/events

    Most of the evening events include cocktails…so, there must be something else that is missing…

    Are there more parties where people get together to socialize…versus an “event” (topic with a panel discussion and networking)?

  • http://www.kendall-press.com Keith Spiro

    Geezzz. I hope it’s not that button down Boston puritan influence that’s making us different from the Left Coasters. Venture Cafe is much larger now than its original location and has lots of people flowing in and out.

    Is it food? The Kendall Square Association Networking event by the Broad Canal brought out the best in food and drink and people who stayed well after dark. I wonder where that feeling of working from silos is coming from?

    Maybe we need to synchronize our thirsty Thursdays and Feeding Fridays along with Wicked Wednesdays or something. No question San Fran is more laid back and American Frontier-ish but there is definitely a new revolution going on in Greater Boston that we can feel here in Kendall Square…so what are the differences that we can overcome?

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    I’ve always felt the companies I worked for were getting too big for me when the beer Fridays stopped… and yes, I’m in San Diego.

  • Bill Jackson

    Here are some clues…

    East Coast = live to work
    West Coast = work to live

    East Coast = impressed by titles
    West Coast = impressed by results

    East Coast = “Here’s our NDA form”
    West Coast = “Let me show you around”

    East Coast = “We’re gonna be rich”
    West Coast = “We’re gonna change the world”

  • http://www.lifeoffbi.com Fan Bi

    Wade – Right on!

    As Tim Rowe pointed out, it’s not a lack of events, but what actually happens at those events.

    From my limited perspective having been to a handful events in both cities:
    - everyone I met at SF was incredibly open, Boston is incredibly siloed and pretty elitist
    - SF seems cooler because everyone at those parties b/c everyone is talking the same language, i.e. web
    - getting wasted and talking dreams with founders and doers > Swiss chefs and Swiss wine

  • http://bostinnovation.com Austin Gardner-Smith

    Wade -

    Thanks for this post. We’ve been pushing the party agenda hard since day one here at BostInnovation and we’re constantly trying to get the booze flowing all around this fine city. Some people take “networking” a little too seriously, but we’re changing all that. It’s coming around. Next time you’re in town, stop by our office. There’s beer in the fridge and you don’t always have to wait until 5PM….

    I’d link to the article the Herald wrote about this back in March, but they want me to pay for it…

  • http://www.harkador.com Brad Harkavy

    Wade – in general, I like your posts.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that California has a lot of energy towards startups. Boston also has an active community which I support and I am proud of. There is for sure a different culture in both places.

    I am in general not puritanical, but I have to say that I am bothered by the premise that serving more alcohol is the solution to enabling a more vibrant startup community in Boston even it may be true.

    Encouraging more open communication is great, advocating that alcohol is the way to get there seems a like we are a delivering the wrong message.

  • http://tagmyphone.com/ William Davidson

    If one of your primary fun activities is getting drunk at parties, would also recommend living in New York City. Endless tech and non-tech parties and a great tech-scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

    San Francisco will always be king of tech, but NYC is right up there too. :)

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ghuang/ Gregory T. Huang

    We were out drinking til 11pm after our event in Seattle last night…and we’re doing a coffee meetup (with Wade) today in South Lake Union. There hasn’t been any shortage of happy hour events in Boston this fall. But I’m sure the culture of startup comradery feels a little different in the Valley.

  • http://www.nyeknik.se Erik Mellgren

    The are my reflectioans, as a Scandinavian outsider:
    What you wrote corresponds to the observations of the venture capitalist I met when I arrived in Boston from Palo Alto in 2008. More informal meetings on the west coast, more organized venues like Mobile Monday in New England.
    But I don’t believe that one is right and the other is wrong – you have to work with the local culture, not against it. And the area round Boston and Cambridge has also got a formidable track record when it comes to innovation. And alcohol may have spoiled more careers and ventures than it has fostered…

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Tim, @Keith Cline: I think that awareness of the need for more networking & schmoozing in Boston, with or without alcohol, has been building for a while (heck, that’s part of why we started Xconomy in 2007). So I can definitely believe there are now more events happening around town every week than there were when I left. Either that, or there have always been lots of events and I just didn’t know / wasn’t invited!

    @Austin: I know you guys at Bostinnovation are working hard on the above, and kudos.

    Going back to @Tim: You’re right, the Silicon Valley-Boston difference not just about how much or how often the beer is flowing. There’s something else that I’m still working on figuring out. I think it’s partly a reflexive welcoming attitude toward novelty. People are rewarded socially just for trying something new.

    To caricature the situation just slightly: When two people meet for the first time at a Silicon Valley party and one tells the other all about their latest startup idea or iPhone app, the default reaction is “Cool, great idea, how can I help out, where can I buy it?” In Boston, it’s “Hmm, that sounds risky, who’s going to invest in that?”

    Also, frankly, I think there’s more of a culture of “looking out for number one” in Silicon Valley. Everyone is always on the make. They may be 200 percent committed to their current startup, but they also know that within two or three years they’ll likely be on to the next thing, and they’re always laying the professional groundwork for that. So the parties have a vital career function. (And part of what makes the Valley work is that there always *is* a next thing — there’s rarely a shortage of companies to join, or capital to start more.)

    @Brad: My whole argument in this column is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think it’s really about the alcohol. “Getting a drink after work” = metonym for socializing and sharing in general.

  • http://www.palatuccisearch.com Chris Palatucci

    Thanks, Wade. Some great points.

    Timing is everything, and the timing of this article is impeccable, as I am currently buried under the weight of organizing three events in the next couple of months.

    “Back in Boston, it would have taken me a month of pleading to round up that many guests.”

    You’re exactly right – sometimes it feels like I have to explain to people that _I’m_ the one doing something nice for _them_!

  • Stephanie F.

    Wade, if you’re feeling nostalgic for Boston, we’d love to have you come back from the west coast to join us for our first ever Punchbowl Mixer! It’s an event Punchbowl is hosting on November 11 to celebrate Boston’s web community:

    http://www.punchbowl.com/parties/1365918-punchbowl-mixer

  • Branko Gerovac

    More effective collaboration is really what’s needed

    Not that parties and drinks are not fun, but if they don’t lead to collaboration, they won’t effectively move the culture.

    In Silicon Valley, I’ve generally found it easier to get together with people at other companies and easier to collaborate. Partly, I expect this is due to old history, with Boston’s self-sufficient mostly-gone vertically integrated companies, contrasted with Silicon Valley’s more cooperative-by-necessity companies. This is one of AnnaLee Saxenian’s postulates in Regional Advantage. Non-compete agreements are a substantial hindrance to serendipitous collaboration as well.

    However, the cultural differences may also be due to an unhealthy competitive orientation. In this regard, it is more along the lines of the earlier comment by Bill Jackson: Boston ~ compete to win; Silicon Valley ~ collaborate to win.

    For example, when talking informally with someone in Silicon Valley, often the discussion naturally turns towards information sharing and problem solving, even if you don’t know the person that well; and people introduce you to other people, to expand the discussion. It is as even though we aren’t working together now, maybe we will in the future; maybe our discussion will lead to an idea for a new startup; maybe I’ll encourage you to join my company, or you’ll convince me to join your company. Getting together over drinks is a good way to check out how we collaborate. Some might call this group dating.

    In Boston, as many have said, the number of events/parties has greatly improved in the past year or two, however the sharing and problem solving doesn’t come as easily. Events like last week’s MassTLC unConference provide a facilitated environment for collaboration. As Erik Mellgren commented above, these are “organized venues”, but even so, the situation is much better than a few years ago.

    Fortunately, some Boston subcultures appear to be moving toward collaboration faster than others. A Gen Y subculture seems to collaborate more naturally, perhaps fostered by the recession, the lack of siloed organizations to cloister in, and facile social media. A marketing subculture is adopting more collaborative approaches; “customer development”, sharing and collaborating with your customer was a major theme during FutureM. Then, on the other hand, Scott Kirsner has to point out the “old clubby, change-averse culture of Boston” that still dominates the overall culture.

    So, let’s think about ways to collaborate more effectively; collaborating over drinks and food is really good too…

  • http://www.ai-one.com Tom Marsh

    Wade, your post reminded me of this quote I tweeted awhile back.

    “The process of cumulative innovation ……… is driven by ideas having sex.” Matt Ridley

    Maybe you’re on to something….

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