Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dinner Discussion on Consumer Tech in Boston

Last Thursday night, I moderated a dinner discussion at Sandrine's in Harvard Square called "Consumer Tech in Boston...Stalking the Wily Consumer."

The goal was to bring together a group of entrepreneurs, execs, and designers who create consumer products (whether physical or digital), share some "best practices," and talk about what it takes to swim against the prevailing current here in Massachusetts (which, if you haven't noticed, is enterprise tech.) This was one of the occasional Nantucket Conference-related dinners held on the mainland; the private subterranean dining room at Sandrine's was packed with about 40 people.

Our speakers were:

    > Steve Krampf, Co-founder and CEO, Chestnut Hill Sound (creator of "George")
    > Antonio Rodriguez, Founder, Tabblo; General Manager, HP Publishing Services
    > Harry West, VP of Strategy and Innovation, Continuum; the firm has been involved in designing Reebok's pump sneaker, P&G's Swiffer, nTag's intelligent nametag, and OLPC's $100 Laptop
    > Carl Yankowski, CEO, Ambient Devices; former CEO of Palm Computing and President of Sony Electronics.

Among the topics we covered were market research...retailer/distributor loops...fundraising...the connection between hardware and software...and the merits of simplicity.

Chiming in from the audience, you'll hear Woody Benson of Prism VentureWorks, David Friend of Carbonite, and John Landry of Lead Dog Ventures (among others.)

The audio file is here in MP3 form. It's just under 50 minutes long...and there's lots of audible silverware clinking and wine drinking (so I'd recommend listening to it while you're chowing down.)

Antonio also posted some thoughts on the discussion on his blog.

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Revving up: Zipcar's car sharing rivals

Today's Globe column looks at Zipcar's new rivals: U-Haul, Hertz, and Enterprise.

Below, a chart comparing the current offerings from Hertz, U-Haul, and Zipcar. U-Haul says in the next few weeks it'll be expanding its U Car Share program to include more vehicles in more locations, but the basic parameters will remain the same.

ZipcarU-Haul’s U Car ShareHertz Hourly Rentals

Membership Fee
$25 application fee; $50 annual membership fee

$25 application fee; $50 annual membership fee


Hourly rental rate

$9 per hour for cars like the Toyota Matrix or Scion xB.

$10 per hour. Only car currently available is the PT Cruiser.

$12 per hour for compact sedan on weekdays; $15 Fri-Sun


Offers cars like BMWs and Volvos at premium rates.

Cars currently only rentable during hours when U-Haul offices are open.

Only one Boston location, at 30 Park Plaza.

(* All hourly rates include gas; Zipcar and U-Haul include
insurance, but Hertz charges extra.)

And here's the video, with Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

What to Do This Weekend With Your Kids, Woz, Bob Metcalfe, and Blue Man Group

On Friday or Saturday, take them to the FIRST regional robotics competition in Boston. (Other regionals around the country are listed here.)

If you haven't seen a FIRST robotics competition (created originally by MIT prof Woodie Flowers and inventor Dean Kamen), it'll blow your mind...and perhaps cause your offspring to become obsessed.

From the press release:

    BOSTON– March 26, 2008 – Over 1,000 area high school students will be competing in Boston’s largest robotics competition this week. The Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition will take place at Boston University’s Agganis Arena Friday through Saturday, March 28-29, 2008. The event is free and open to the public.

    Blue Man Group, the multimedia entertainment phenomenon, will perform during the opening ceremony for the competition’s final matches: Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 12:45PM. This special live appearance will showcase Blue Man Group’s signature music and excitement.

    Over fifty teams spent six weeks designing and building robots to accomplish specific tasks outlined in this year’s game, “FIRST Overdrive.” The teams will compete for honors that recognize robot design excellence, competitive play, sportsmanship and high-impact partnerships between schools, businesses and communities.

    The Boston FIRST Regional ( brings together student teams from across the region in an atmosphere that is described as “rock concert meets the Super Bowl mixed with science and technology.”

    Students competing in the competition will be able to interact with a number of the nation’s leading technology pioneers. This year’s judges include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, iRobot co-founder Colin Angle and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Ventures.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Some Notes on Boston's Future

I met with some folks this week at Boston's City Hall to riff on some of the themes I've been writing about (most notably, what Boston can do to keep young people here... starting companies and going to work for our most innovative businesses), and also hear what the Boston Redevelopment Authority is up to.

A few notes from that conversation...

1. Boston could do a better job at being a lighthouse... sending the message that this is where you come to learn and to start businesses in life sciences...cleantech...robotics...Web 2.0 services...or anything else that's innovative. We need to communicate what's here more clearly with the rest of the world.

2. We need to help students who come here to learn to get connected with the business community: successful entrepreneurs and investors who're open to backing young people. (Or do we want the Sergey Brins, Mark Zuckerbergs, and Bill Gateses of the present to start their companies elsewhere?) One idea would be two separate annual events that would be open and free for any undergrad or grad students: say, one in the fall where they could meet, hear from, and schmooze with entrepreneurs...and another in the spring where they could do the same with VCs. (I had a conversation on that topic later in the week with Don McLagan of, who is exploring for the trade group MITX ways to build better bridges between students and tech companies.)

3. One resource that'd be helpful to young entrepreneurs (and everyone - let's be honest) would be a wiki that served as a sort of "Entrepreneurs Guide to Boston," offering info about VC firms, networking events, shared office spaces, etc.

4. The BRA folks mentioned that they have a gigantic old building in Charlestown that's in search of a new purpose: the Ropewalk. What if, we brainstormed, five or six universities got together to turn it into a collaborative space for start-up companies founded by students or profs? Wouldn't it be cool to collect start-ups from Babson, Bentley, BU, BC, etc. in one place, and see what happened?

Here's a video that shows what the Ropewalk was like in its heyday:

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Stroller wars

When I heard that Boston had its own entrant in the high-end stroller sweepstakes -- a company competing with Bugaboo for the affections of well-off urban parents -- I couldn't resist writing about it.

Here's the opening:

    In a 19th-century former shoe factory in Rockland, Bob and Lauren Monahan design a distinctly 21st-century product: the $600 baby stroller, complete with shock absorbers, a sleek aluminum frame, never-flat tires, and a handle that adjusts in height to be equally comfy for both mom and dad.

    They started UppaBaby less than three years ago, and already they're positioned squarely in the middle of a fast-growing market: the high-end stroller sector, where design-conscious parents shell out between $500 and $1,000 to buy an all-terrain ride that increasingly resembles a sport utility vehicle for their spawn.

And here's the video, where UppaBaby founders Bob and Lauren Monahan demo the stroller and talk about the company's very fast growth:

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 08 Demo Day at Y Combinator, Mountain View

I stopped by the Y Combinator Demo Day in Mountain View this afternoon… and caught about two-thirds of the demos. (I was running late, driving up from Carmel.) This was my second time at one of the firm’s Demo Days. Last time was August, in Cambridge.

The first thing that struck me was the quality of the crowd. In addition to the usual VCs (Greylock, Matrix Partners, Charles River Ventures), the room was filled with the likes of angel investor Ron Conway, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, HotorNot co-founder James Hong, Dave McClure of 500 Hats, and VentureBeat founder Matt Marshall.

Second thing was the quality of the demos. They’re limited in time (seven minutes?), and so the entrepreneurs don’t feel obligated (nor do they have time) to explain every feature of their product, or talk in comically vague terms about all the potential partnerships they’re pursuing. Basically, they offer some context: who they are competing with, who has tried something similar before. What does the service do now, and what might it be able to do in the future? That’s all.

(I’m a big fan of seeing how entrepreneurs respond to questions, so I suggested afterward to Y Combinator partner Jessica Livingston that one question from the audience per demo might not slow the pace too much…especially if the answer had to be given in one minute or less.)

From a Boston perspective (the lens through which I see the world these days), a couple things were interesting…

First is that Y Combinator works with two classes of start-ups each year – a summer crop in Cambridge, and a winter crop in Mountain View. The Cambridge crop presents their demos in Cambridge, and then flies out west to present again in California. But the Mountain View crop presents twice in California (no trip east for them.) The first presentation, apparently, is to people who’ve previously invested in Y Combinator companies. Today was the second presentation.

Livingston told me that of the 60 start-ups that have been through the program, only two have decided to stay rooted in the Boston area: Tsumobi and Bountii. (She wasn’t counting the 20 start-ups in the current crop.)

Two start-ups in this Y Combinator class had Boston roots, and both plan to try to make a go of things here in the Valley.

One is Tipjoy, founded by Ivan and Abby Kirigin, who previously worked at iRobot and Nokia. They quit their jobs late last year to develop their idea – an easier way for fans of Web content (whether music, blogs, or videos) to leave a tiny monetary tip… like 10 or 20 cents… as a thank-you for creators of content they enjoy.

The Kirigins still have a house in Arlington, but they’re planning to extend their lease here in the Valley for six months, to see what happens. “This is where 90 percent of the funding is,” Abby told me. “There are more angels in Silicon Valley, because you have lots of people leaving larger companies with money to spend time investing,” Ivan said.

The other is Kirkland North , which is developing a game called Turf, played both online and in the real world. The game started at Yale, spread to Harvard, and is being rolled out to more schools by a small team that includes three ’07 Harvard grads. Co-founders Matthew O’Brien, Andrew Fong, and Hugo Van Vuuren met while living (and playing Halo together) in Quincy House.

O’Brien was far from subtle in making the comparisons to Facebook, noting that Turf had spread among Harvard undergrads even more quickly than Facebook. “We’re not trying to be as big as Facebook,” he said. “We’d be happy to be 1/15th as big as Facebook.” (An allusion to the company’s $15 billion valuation.)

Some other cool ideas from today’s batch of demos:

Wundrbar is a tool bar that tries to anticipate tasks that you want to do (like booking a flight or adding an event to your calendar), and bring them into a single page through clever use of APIs.

Chatterous lets you initiate conversations with your friends through their preferred mode of communication: IM, e-mail, SMS, etc.

Webmynd creates a visual record of your Web browsing history that can be easily navigated… so that without creating scads of bookmarks, you can go back and find stuff that’s relevant to you.

Omnisio lets you annotate, tag, and comment on videos from any video site, and also edit highlights out of longer videos.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Polaroid's Sunset (and Sunrise)

Sunday's column was about the seeds of Polaroid: interesting companies relying on people, equipment, or ideas from the fading Polaroid Corporation.

Polaroid, once one of Massachusetts' great engines of innovation, is now basically a licensing operation, allowing Asian electronics companies to stamp an intrinsically American brand on DVD players, digital cameras, TVs, etc. The company, I'm told, has no true internal R&D function left. The current owner of Polaroid, Petters Group Worldwide, refused to disclose to me how many employees are left. (The peak was about 15,000, in the 1970s.)

One reader wrote in to me after the column ran and said that he'd inquired about buying Polaroid's instant film business, which Petters decided to shut down last month. The company hasn't returned his calls.

Here's this week's video -- a demo given to me last week by Wendy Caswell, chief executive of Polaroid spin-off ZINK Imaging.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

About the Nantucket Conference

Just a quick post to clear something up...

...I was chatting with an entrepreneur at Dan Bricklin's new Tech Tuesday gathering in Waltham, and the topic of the Nantucket Conference came up. This person was under the impression that the conference is some sort of secret society... that, basically, you need to be kidnapped in the middle of the night in order to get there.

The goal with Nantucket, when a bunch of us started it in 1999, was pretty simple: to create an event that would bring together company founders, investors, and tech execs at larger companies to talk about what was going on in New England and make some new connections. (Part of the motivation was: why should all the really good tech conferences be in California and Arizona?)

A lot of people do get invited to the conference by members of our advisory board (which I think leads to the "secret society" impression), but anyone can request an invitation.

There are *always* spots for founders and CEOs of start-ups, whether they're venture backed, boot-strapped, angel funded, or whatever. Another chunk of the audience is made up of VCs and angel investors. There is a sprinkling of CIOs and CTOs from larger companies, and a handful of journalists. But just about the only service providers (PR people, attorneys, recruiters, etc.) who participate are there as representatives of the underwriters of the conference.

Most of the agenda for 2008 (May 1st through 3rd) is now online. Speakers this year include founders and CEOs of iRobot, Harmonix, EqualLogic, International Data Group, EnerNOC, Captivate Network, Airvana, IDEO, Maven Networks, and Karmaloop.

That's about enough plugging...

(Disclosure: I'm on the conference's advisory board.)

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Why Student Entrepreneurs Matter

I dropped by a meeting of the Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum yesterday evening to give my "stump speech" about New England's Innovation Economy.

But the most interesting parts of the evening were two things that happened once I was finished...

1. The room was full of student entrepreneurs not just from Harvard, but also from BC, WPI, MIT, and BU. It felt like there was something really powerful about students from different schools getting a chance to meet and talk about their start-up ideas with one another...especially students from schools that don't have, say, MIT's endless parade of entrepreneurship-related events and competitions.

2. I asked students about some of the issues or frustrations they encounter in trying to connect with entrepreneurs and investors from the "real world" (IE, post-collegiate people). To me, getting students plugged into the innovation economy here is Job #1 if we want to be able to hire the smartest people in our region and fund the most important new businesses.

Here are some issues they raised (and some that occurred to me as I listened to the students talk):

    - The costs to go to most events put on by Boston's technology networking groups (MITX, MassTLC, Mass Network Communications Council, etc.) are too high. Why don't these organizations have a $10 or $20 student rate for all of their events, even if they limit the number of tickets sold at that price to five or ten?

    - Why are there "tech treks" in Silicon Valley, where students can go and visit the hot Valley companies, but no similar tech treks in Boston? I've not heard business school students talking about their visits to Akamai, EMC, Genzyme, Boston Scientific, iRobot, etc. (Am I totally wrong about this?)

    - Where can students go to meet investors? (Yes, I suggested events like the MIT and HBS venture capital conferences, and MIT's $100K competition)

    - Where is there a list of cool start-ups to know about, intern with, and possibly work for? (I may take this one on at some point)

    - Some Harvard students have created a Web site called, which aims to connect student entrepreneurs with one another. (I heard last night that one of the founders is currently out in California, looking to raise money.)

    - Why isn't there one big event every academic year, or one a semester, that brings student entrepreneurs from all of the area's schools together...both to meet each other and to connect with entrepreneurs, executives, and investors from the New England business community?

My big obsession right now is what Boston and New England can do to capture more of the energy and intelligence of the students who come here to get an education. I am convinced this is the simplest way to invest in the future health of our innovation economy. We don't need to retain 100 percent of all students, of course... but retaining 5 or 10 percent more, whether they're starting their own businesses or working for others, would have a huge impact on the economy here.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Event for College and Grad School Entrepreneurs, This Thursday at Harvard

The Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum invited me to give a talk this Thursday evening, and I'm inviting you (assuming you're in a college or grad school) to come...for free.

My talk explores a bit of the history of innovation in Boston, talks about some of the cool companies and new industries germinating here, and then discusses what I view as one of the big challenges for Boston in 2008 and beyond: getting people plugged into the innovation economy here, once they finish college or grad school. We need to do more to help them start companies, or work for interesting and innovative companies that offer really great opportunities for growth.

I'll try to offer all the advice I know about getting connected to venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs here in Boston. And I'll ask you for your thoughts on what more we could do as a community. So it'll be a fun, interactive discussion -- and aside from hearing me yammer, it'll be a chance to meet with other entrepreneurs.

Here's the scoop:

    Thursday, March 13th at 5 PM
    Harvard University, Sever Hall, Room 103 (click for a map)
    Easy walk from the Harvard Square T Station

You don't need to RSVP... just show up. If you have questions, post them as a comment or e-mail me.

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Why Networking Isn't Like Dating

I usually go to at least one networking event a week... to speak, moderate a panel, or simply schmooze and troll for story ideas.

Inevitably, I meet a few people at each gathering who are unemployed, and have decided to start networking because they need a new job.

Could anything be tougher than making new professional connections while being known, first and foremost, as someone who is desperate for his next gig?

My advice to all of you who are gainfully employed is: don't procrastinate. Building a healthy, broad network ensures that you know about job opportunities at big companies and small. It ensures that you have options, whether a layoff is looming or not.

Employees and execs at big companies are the worst when it comes to building their external networks. My theory: they have so many people to suck up to inside their company that they don't have time to meet anyone outside it.

I'd suggest that a good goal is to go to one networking event a month. Rotate among different groups. If you're a biotech person, go to the occasional healthcare or medical device event. If you're a software person, go to the occasional cleantech event. You get the drift.

Set a goal of having five substantial conversations, or introducing yourself to three of the speakers from the evening's panel. And if you need to understand the mechanics of working the crowd, you'd do well to read one of Diane Darling's books or listen to one of her audio recordings.

Too many people believe that networking while you have a job is like dating while you're married.

It's not.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Crane and Sasisekharan Make It a Trifecta

I had Tempo Pharmaceticals CEO (and Polaris Ventures partner) Alan Crane on a panel this past Wednesday night at one of the occasional Convergence Forum dinners at the Harvard Faculty Club.

Earlier in the week, Ryan McBride of Mass HIgh Tech had noted that Crane was involved in a new start-up called Parasol Therapeutics. This is the third company that Crane, MIT prof Ram Sasisekharan, and Polaris have started (#1 was Momenta Pharmaceuticals, now public; #2 was Tempo.)

Crane just smiled when I asked him about Parasol, which also involves Polaris principal Kevin Bitterman. He said the company is still very much in stealth mode, and that he's just serving as a director -- no plans to leave Tempo and serve as Parasol's CEO.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Flooring Co. Benefits from Green Building Trend

Yesterday's Globe column focuses on an innovative flooring company that survived a near-death experience ... but is now thriving, thanks to the rising demand for "green" building materials.

Here's the video...

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