Saturday, July 21, 2007

Interview with George Zachary of Charles River Ventures

Charles River Ventures is a 37-year old venture capital firm headquartered in Waltham, MA. The firm has a west coast office in Silicon Valley, on the same street where all the big VC firms huddle: Sand Hill Road. And one of their portfolio companies, Netezza, just went public on Friday.

On June 28, I sat down with George Zachary, a partner who works in the firm's Silicon Valley office. Many of his investments, like GoTV and Areae, are consumer-oriented Internet plays -- the topic of my first "Innovation Economy" column this Sunday. Here's a video excerpt from our conversation -- followed by a list of five things Boston could do to help foster more consumer-oriented tech companies.

Five Things Boston Could Do to Encourage More Consumer-Oriented Tech Activity

1. Fly a banner over the Bay Colony Center in Waltham (home to most of New England's VC firms) that says, "Stop investing in the tried-and-true 50-year old alumni of DEC, Wang, and Lotus." VCs need to stop equating experience in the world of enterprise technology with bankability.

2. More people interested in consumer-oriented concepts ought to know about and attend gatherings like Web Innovators Group, OpenCoffee, Mobile Mondays, and tastybytes -- and start events of their own.

3. We need more blogs about consumer tech and Web 2.0, located all around New England.

4. We need more visibility from the few execs here with consumer experience -- they need to serve as poster children. Jeff Taylor, founder of (and now of Eons), already does a great job of this. Bob Davis, back when he was CEO of Lycos and when Lycos was a standalone company, did well, too. And I never thought I'd sing this, but "Where have you gone, David Wetherell?"

(Avid Technology has a number of consumer products...but its recently-departed CEO, David Krall, lived on the west coast (even though the firm is headquartered in Tewksbury.) Privately-held Bose Corp. is a big consumer tech player, but its founder, Amar Bose, doesn't often show up anywhere other than Framingham -- and doesn't allow any of the company's younger execs to do much speaking or schmoozing at local tech events.)

5. We need to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Not all technology needs to solve a business problem or address a pain point.

James Currier, the founder of Tickle, told me a great story this week. His company was founded in Cambridge, and later moved to San Francisco. He raised $9 million in funding, and later sold the company, which focuses on online tests and quizzes, to for $100 million. Here's what he said:

    We started Emode [Tickle's original name] seriously. We had tests about depression and anxiety, which had been vetted by the American Psychological Association. But no one cared. The APA thought we were doing it right, and the people at Harvard respected it, but it wasn’t until we launched totally superficial quizzes like "what breed of dog are you?" and "who is your celebrity match?" that the site took off. It was totally flippant. But we had gotten to the point where we were off salary and about to go out of business. So we said, "What the hell, let’s try this. Maybe people will respond to fun." And they did.

Currier's new venture is called Ooga Labs -- and it is working on several start-up ideas simultaneously (the sort of thing people used to call an incubator). His first new site is GoodTree.

"Business in Boston is professional and trustworthy," Currier says. "People are deep technologists, and when it comes to building a new kind of networking switch, that's great. But all this digital media or consumer Internet stuff tends to be more creative and optimistic. You have to believe that people are going to want to do all this crazy stuff online."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

July 23, 2007 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

We're currently in Cambridge right now, as part of the Y Combinator funding program. With us are well over a dozen consumer-oriented startups doing very interesting things, also funded by YC.

There are a lot of consumer Internet plays going on in the Boston area, but the type of capital here needs to start addressing it the way Silicon Valley capital does. We are from Silicon Valley, and we still think Boston is a really good place to do startups.

July 23, 2007 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your 2, 3, and 4 made me want to vomit.

2.) If I attend all those conferences, when will I have time to actually *do work*, and *talk to customers* ? This point is total bullshit.

3.) Again, see number 2. Why would I waste my time reading blogs all day when I could be writing code and talking to customers. Blogs are a fantastic way to waste my time.

4.) Maybe we just need less people flying banners, attending conferences, and reading blogs. I'll bet if you take all that time that you would have wasted by doing those 3 things, you can probably make something pretty cool. More startups would create more visibility, stop whining and start working.

July 23, 2007 8:36 PM  

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