Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Two Great VC Posts from Rob Go and Larry Cheng

Just calling your attention to two VC posts worth reading -- one on how to handle your first meeting, and one on how to tell if you piqued the investor's interest at that meeting:

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's Next in Tech? Discuss the Growth Opportunities, on June 25th

I'm moderating an event on June 25th called "What's Next in Tech: Exploring the Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond."

The idea is to provide a picture of the tech clusters that are going to drive the next waves of growth here in Massachusetts, from cloud computing to robotics to videogames to energy efficiency to social media. Speakers include venture capitalist Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, Brian Halligan of HubSpot, and Tim Healy, who runs the publicly-traded EnerNOC. (Note: The early registration rate ends on May 15th -- tomorrow.)

One goal leading up to the event is to start some blog conversation about the high-potential areas in tech right now... a discussion we'll obviously continue at the event on June 25th. (Boston University's Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization is hosting it.)

Bloggers like Don Dodge, Pito Salas, Larry Cheng, Doug Levin, Tom Summit, Gregg Favalora, Furqan Nazeeri, Chris Herot, and the folks at Mobile Monday Boston have already published their lists of "what's next in tech." If you decide to create one, post a link to it in the comments here.

Here's the list of tech areas I'm following most closely (in no particular order...and excluding here all things outside of pure tech, such as life sciences, med devices, energy):

    - Healthcare IT and electronic medical records
    - Digital video (esp. getting Internet video onto the TV)
    - New analytics companies (in the vein of, Visible Measures, Localytics, etc.)
    - Mobile apps
    - Robotics
    - Video games
    - Intersection of IT and energy efficiency/management
    - New forms of media/reporting/content creation
    - Online payment and micropayment
    - Better management/prioritization of e-mail
    - Cloud computing and SaaS (wrong to group those two together?)
    - Social media and marketing (wrote about this pretty recently)
    - Ways of connecting bands (and other creative artists) with their fans (a la Sonicbids)
    - Enhancing e-commerce (a la Paragon Lake, which does custom jewelry)
    - New ways of interfacing with computers (touch, speech, thought, etc.)

I could go on, but that's a start...

(The hashtag for the "What's Next in Tech" event is #whatsnext09. Feel free, of course, to Tweet about it... and hope to see you there!)

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Impact of Non-Competes: Event Next Tuesday at Harvard

The Kennedy School's David Luberoff e-mailed today to let me know about an event coming up on Tuesday, April 21st, on "Using Non-Compete Laws to Spur Economic Development in Massachusetts." Judging from the description, the focus actually seems to be about "getting rid of non-compete laws as a way of spurring economic development."

State Rep. Will Brownsberger, who has introduced legislation to nix non-competes in Massachusetts, will be there, as will Lee Fleming and Matt Marx of the Harvard Business School, Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, and Robert Fisher from Foley Hoag.

Here's the descrip:

    Massachusetts, like many states, allows firms in knowledge-intensive fields to limit their employees' ability to take jobs with other firms. These "non-compete" restrictions help firms because they limit the disclosure of trade secrets, honor customer confidentiality, and prevent competitors from appropriating employees' specialized skills and knowledge. But new analyses based on a "natural experiment" in Michigan suggest that the restrictions should be reconsidered because they can stymie individual innovation, which in turn may hamper regional economic development.

Details here.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spark to Boston: Let Us Buy You a Beer, At Least

The party thrown at Cambridge Brewing Company last night by Spark Capital was loud, crowded, and fun. You couldn't actually move around the room much, but I managed to bump into Dave Balter of BzzAgent, Doug Levin, Chris Marstall of tourfilter, Eric Giler of WiTricity, Wade Roush of Xconomy, Jon Radoff of GamerDNA, Misha Katz of AdHarmonics, Nabeel Hyatt of Conduit Labs, Jon Pierce of Betahouse, and Dennis Miller, Rob Go, Bijan Sabet, and Todd Dagres of Spark. Dagres, in a short speech to the assembled crowd, plugged Spark's investment in Twitter, as well as its new Start@Spark seed funding initiative.

What was interesting about the party, full as it was of entrepreneurs, was how few of them were Spark-backed entrepreneurs. One guy, founder of NYC-based AdMeld, took the mic for a couple minutes to talk about how Spark helped him get the company going.

In looking at Spark's portfolio this morning, what I noticed (and maybe I'm just slow to pick up on this) is that just one of their current investments, VeriVue, is located in Massachusetts. The bulk of the companies are in NYC, LA, Silicon Valley, and Texas.

So while Spark is making some great moves to be more supportive of entrepreneurship here in Boston, with Start@Spark, TechStars Boston, and the Alliance for Open Competition, the bulk of their bucks so far have gone elsewhere. This is a relatively new dynamic in venture capital... in the olden days, you'll recall that VCs often said that if they couldn't drive to a company (and get back) within a day to attend a board meeting, they wouldn't invest. Spark (which has just one office, in Boston) clearly doesn't mind racking up some frequent flier miles.

(In the photo at right is Spark founder Todd Dagres welcoming party-goers last night.)

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spark's New Early-Stage Funding Initiative, Start@Spark

Cool news this morning from Spark Capital... they're launching a new seed funding program called Start@Spark that will offer fledgling companies up to $250,000. It's focused specifically on companies in the New York and Boston areas.

"Yes, we are in a global economic recession and yes the new media markets are being impacted," Spark partner Santo Politi writes in a blog post." The current environment has made it difficult for entrepreneurs seeking capital to start companies. Investors, including VCs, Angels and Strategic Investors are distracted from early stage investments due to a combination of portfolio triage, concern about capital availability, and downright confusion over where to invest. The options for starting new companies have evaporated along with financial markets and market caps.

"So, this must be a terrible time to fund a start-up company. Correct? Au contraire. This may be the best time in the last 8 years to start a company. While capital is scarce, the tectonic plates continue to shift creating major rifts. The walls are coming down and the barriers to entering new markets are falling along-side."

The NY Times Bits blog has a little more.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The World is All A-Twitter

Today's Globe column is on Twitter, which has had a pretty amazing couple of weeks.

Founder Evan Williams is profiled in the NY Times' "The Boss" column today. Williams was also at the White House this past week week, for a summit of young business leaders, and was interviewed by Charlie Rose last month. Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee also mocked the company recently on 'The Daily Show.'

All without a business plan that they've chosen to announce yet. And all without a PR firm, according to Twitter board member Bijan Sabet, a partner at Spark Capital in Boston.

I sat down with Sabet on Friday for a quick chat. He'd just returned from a Twitter board meeting in San Francisco. Like his colleague Todd Dagres, he's a bit bemused by how much interest there is in what Twitter's business model will be. He gave me the impression that it'll start rolling out this year, though it's still undetermined exactly when.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

How the VC Scene in Boston is Changing

Sunday's Globe column dealt with the shrinkage of Boston's VC universe. Column got snipped quite a bit, so I'm publishing the full version below, along with the video.

Venture capital sector makes adjustments

For Boston’s venture capital community, headquartered on the placid plateau of Mount Money in Waltham, 2009 will be a year of wrenching change. The stream of capital flowing to venture capital firms, who invest it in innovative-but-risky private companies, is turning to a rivulet – and that means the firms themselves will have to get smaller.

“Last year, our industry raised about $28 billion in new investment capital,” says Michael Greeley, chairman of the New England Venture Capital Association and managing director of Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston. “I think we’ll raise between $8 billion and $12 billion this year, nationally. That’s a dramatic reduction. My sense is that the average fund size will be cut in half, and they’ll have to cut the number of partners who work for them as a result.”

The shrinkage of Boston’s VC sector will be tough for the VCs, obviously, and also for entrepreneurs who ascend Mount Money with their PowerPoint presentations, looking for funding to launch a company or keep one going. But it could also have a silver lining.

Here’s what’s happening.

Two local VC firms have already put together smaller investment pools than they’d hoped for. Atlas Venture, in Waltham, had aimed to raise about $400 million but wound up with $283 million; as a result, last month Atlas jettisoned two of its partners and shifted two others to less active roles. Boston-based Bain Capital Ventures will likely wind up raising between $475 million and $550 million for its latest fund, rather than the $750 million it had set out to collect. Money in a venture capital fund is typically invested over the course of a decade.

Kodiak Venture Partners of Waltham has reduced the number of investors on its roster and is shifting its focus toward life sciences and medical technology as part of an attempt to burnish its appeal to would-be investors. Andrey Zarur, a partner there, says Kodiak isn’t out looking for new money right now, but plans to be at some point in the future.

“Kodiak just hasn’t had enough liquidity events to make their limited partners say, ‘I’m ready to step up again,’” says Howard Anderson, an MIT lecturer and former venture capitalist. (Limited partner is the term for the university endowments, wealthy individuals, and pension funds that funnel money into venture capital.) One example Anderson cites is Egenera, Inc., a Marlborough company selling technology for data centers that raised $176 million but never managed to go public. Anderson should know: his old firm, YankeeTek Ventures, was an early investor in Egenera.

Many other local VC firms are on the road, talking to prospective sugar daddies. Some have been at it longer than others. Among the firms trying to scare up more money in 2009 are Boston Millennia Partners, Highland Capital Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, Prism VentureWorks, Oxford BioScience Partners, Charles River Ventures, and North Bridge Venture Partners. New firms, like Genovation Capital and a medical device oriented fund called Makaira Venture Partners, are also out trying to raise their first funds.

Venture capitalists are prohibited by the Securities and Exchange Commission from discussing their fund-raising activities. But one partner at a Boston area VC firm that’s trying to put together its next fund told me last week that fundraising is happening “on a molasses pace,” adding that “universally, everyone is going to be lower than what they’d hoped to raise.”

One reason that the limited partners are avoiding commitments to new VC funds is that many of them have formulas for how they allocate their assets. If a certain percentage is devoted to bonds, a certain percentage to stocks, and a certain percentage to venture capital and private equity, for instance, things start to look out of whack when the stock portion of the portfolio plunges and the value of the VC portion stays roughly the same. (The valuations of the private companies in a venture capital firm’s portfolio isn’t updated very frequently, unlike publicly-traded stocks.)

If a limited partner needs to get their mix of asset allocation back in order, investing in new VC funds simply doesn’t happen. (Some limited partners, including the endowment managers at Harvard, Duke, and Columbia, are actually trying to sell the stakes in VC funds they already own – but there are few buyers.)

And investors who can’t get their money into the best-performing venture firms may simply be disappointed with the financial returns they get. “I’ve heard limited partners say that the VC business, in some cases, is like getting Treasury bill returns with venture capital levels of risk,” says Michael Feinstein, an ex-VC. “If you look at the median venture capital return over the past eight years, it’s about one percent a year.”

Josh Lerner, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the venture capital industry, describes what’s happening among limited partners as “a changing of the guard.” University endowments and U.S.-based pension funds are becoming smaller players in new venture capital funds, Lerner says. But what’s not clear is who will take up the slack – though sovereign wealth funds and pension funds from Australia are two potential candidates. “We can see who’s going out,” Lerner says, “but not who’s going in.”

The upshot is that VC firms will be managing smaller funds, and some firms will go out of business. Anderson, who refers to Atlas’ situation as a harbinger of things to come, predicts that some funds that aren’t in the 25 percent when it comes to delivering financial returns will simply fade into the sunset. “Everyone will swear to be in that top quartile, but this isn’t Lake Wobegon – not everyone is above average,” he says.

Fewer firms and smaller funds will obviously mean fewer jobs for venture capitalists and the staffers who support them. It’ll undoubtedly get harder for start-ups to raise money. It will take longer, and those that do manage to attract an initial jolt of capital will get less of it than before.

“There just won’t be as much money flying around,” says Todd Dagres, founder of Spark Capital in Boston. “And there’s good in that. If you can raise money for your start-up now, there’s going to be a lot more uniqueness value than there used to be.” In other words, entrepreneurs will run up against fewer well-funded competitors than they once did. That could help the entrepreneurs and their backers both.

Still, a contracting VC universe isn’t going to be as fun to inhabit as an expanding one – at least for most people, at least in the near-term.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Todd Dagres on Twitter's (Eventual) Business Model

I was talking yesterday with Spark Capital founder Todd Dagres... and I asked him if the rumors were true that he has begun Twittering. (Spark is the lone Boston investor in San Francisco-based Twitter, having recently participated in the company's $35 million fourth round.)

It's true, but his Twitter identity is tough to find. (It's here.)

A pithy sample post: "Lots of coats and ties in the room. Ties = bear market."

I asked Dagres why he'd started using Twitter (though others at his firm blog, he has never been a big blogger), and when we'd hear about Twitter's business model.

"I tried it because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about," Dagres said. "This thing is growing about as fast as I’ve ever seen anything grow before. Now, I’m addicted to the stupid thing. I follow Shaq and a few other people who’ve got interesting insights." That would be Spark colleagues Bijan Sabet and Santo Politi, and Jonathan Seelig from GlobeSpan Capital. (While at Battery Ventures, Dagres was an investor in Akamai Technologies, which Seelig helped start.)

Dagres says that Spark and Union Square Ventures are the two biggest shareholders in Twitter.

"We think it’s kind of funny to listen to people [in the press] talk about the lack of a business model," he said. "We know how we’re going to do it, and we’re very confident about how we’re going to do it, and it’s not necessarily in our interest to tell people how we’re going to do it. There is a biz model that has yet to be implemented. Of course, I can't guarantee it’s going to work."

Dagres continued, "All of a sudden there will be some changes that won’t undermine the experience or the virality -- but it will be pretty obvious how we’re going to moentize it."

Twitter hasn't generated any revenue thus far. Dagres said that changing that situation was definitely a project for 2009. But "we’re in no rush right now," he said.

Isn't it nice to fantasize, amidst the current economic gloom, that you work for a company that is under no pressure to start bringing in revenue any time soon?

"Calgon, take me away....."

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Colorado-based TechStars Will Launch a Boston Program This Summer

Less than a month after Paul Graham announced that Y Combinator won't be running its summer start-up cultivation program in Cambridge, we learn that TechStars will fill that vacuum.

TechStars was founded by MIT alum Brad Feld, who also started his first company, a software consultancy, here.

TechStars is a bit younger than Y Combinator, having spooled up in 2007. But a dozen of the twenty companies that have been through TechStars thus far have received angel or venture funding, and two have been acquired. TechStars invests up to $18,000 in each company, offers lots of guidance and mentorship, and organizes a pitch session for prospective investors at the end of the summer.

It was one of those investors, Bill Warner, who helped bring TechStars to Boston. Warner put some money into Eventvue, and visited Colorado to chat with Feld last December. At the time, Warner didn't realize that YC would be eliminating its Cambridge summer program. He writes via e-mail, "...with YC already in place in Boston, and with the 2009 season already coming up, it didn't make sense to push for this year. [But] once YC decided to focus on Silicon Valley, [we] really ramped up our discussions."

They don't have a venue yet for the summer program, but applications are due by March 21st. Managing the program will be Shawn Broderick, CEO of TrustPlus, who worked with Feld earlier in his career.

Among the mentors for the new Boston program are Microsoft's Don Dodge, Lead Dog Ventures founder John Landry, iRobot CEO Colin Angle, Harmonix co-founder Eran Egozy, Nabeel Hyatt of Conduit Labs, and software exec Chris Heidelberger. The investors who'll be getting TechStars Boston off the ground include Feld and Warner, as well as Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital.

According to TechCrunch's report on the news, TechStars says that their "expansion into Boston has been in the works for about six months now, so Y Combinator’s decision didn’t play a role."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Will Twitter Be Spark Capital's First Home Run?

You can't have a conversation with a techie without Twitter entering into it somehow. Either:

1. They've just begun Twittering
2. They're skeptical Twitter will ever make money
3. They're complaining about Twitter's frequent outages
4. They believe Twitter is the future of communications

Yesterday, Spark Capital of Boston announced that it was one of two investors in Twitter's new $15 million funding round. (Twitter's parent, Obvious Corp., is based in San Francisco.) The other investor is a dude called Jeff Bezos. PaidContent says the new round values the start-up at a shade under $100 million. TechCrunch had it last month at closer to $80 million. Clearly, they'll use some of the fresh cash to make Twitter more reliable.

Spark partner Bijan Sabet, who'll join Twitter's board, talks about the investment here. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone tells the story from his perspective on the Twitter blog.

I spoke with Sabet this afternoon, and suggested that his avid use of Twitter might've helped him get in on the deal (several other Boston VC firms were angling to invest). Sabet said it'd be self-serving to explain why he thought Obvious chose Spark to invest in this latest round, but he did mention that three other partners at Spark use Twitter; I'm not aware of any other Boston VCs who do. It's hard to imagine a Boston VC lobbying to get into this kind of deal without having some first-hand experience with the product. Sabet says that for Spark, using Twitter "made us feel comfortable that we knew what was going on, beyond just reading the business plan." When I asked again if he thought his status as a Twitter user contributed to the company choosing Spark to be part of this round, Sabet dodged the question...

Of course, the Boston VCs who lost out here will say they didn't like the valuation, or they weren't comfortable putting money into a pre-revenue company... which is their prerogative. But it's worth reading this post from Jason Calacanis about Twitter's potential to be a billion-dollar business.

Getting into this round is a big deal for Spark... an investment that could put the firm on the map. I'll be shocked if Twitter isn't acquired before 2009 is out.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

June 19th: Discussion About Non-Competes at Harvard Law

Bijan Sabet at Spark Capital has been trying for a while to assemble an open discussion about the impact of non-compete agreements on the economy here in Massachusetts... and it looks like it has finally come together for June 19th, at Harvard Law School. An RSVP is required.

Here's the description:

    The use of employee non-compete agreements by Massachusetts companies is routine, with employers mandating that employees steer clear of any business of a competitive nature once they leave their present jobs, typically for a year or more. Many believe these agreements are critical to guarding a company’s hard-earned intellectual property — protecting legitimate business interests, and thus our region’s economy. Others, however, believe that non-competes are nothing more than handcuffs that prevent talented entrepreneurs from bringing new innovations to market and, in some cases, even driving entrepreneurs to leave the region to pursue their innovations elsewhere. In this session, we’ll bring together some of the area’s best known venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and executives to explore the issue of non-competes and weigh the pros and cons of their use here in the Commonwealth. Are non-competes protecting innovation and economic growth in Massachusetts? Or stifling it?

    Panelists will include:

    - Jeremy Allaire, founder & CEO, Brightcove
    - Melanie Haratunian, general counsel, Akamai
    - Paul Maeder, general partner, Highland Capital Partners
    - Lee Fleming, associate professor of business administration, Harvard University
    - Bijan Sabet, general partner, Spark Capital
    - Moderator: John Palfrey, Clinical Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Law School

Akamai CEO Paul Sagan was definitively for non-competes when I asked him about the issue last fall... not sure where Jeremy Allaire stands... but having someone from EMC, the most active enforcer of non-competes in our state, would be good. Perhaps they'll at least attend, and contribute from the audience...

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dispatch From Venture Summit East: More Seed Funding in the Works from Kodiak?

Swung by the Four Seasons today to catch a bit of the AlwaysOn Venture Summit East, their first event in New England.

In the halls, I ran into David Andonian from DACE Ventures (who told me his two most recent investments were Howcast in NY and EveryScape here in Mass.) ... Flybridge Capital Partners blogger Jeff Bussgang ... M&A guy Paul Bowen ...former CEO Scott Meyer ... Mr. Punchbowl Matt Douglas ... and Intel Capital's Lucy McQuilken.

My panel was titled "So You Want to be a VC." After a quick, poll, it turned out that only one person in the audience we focused on what the panelists (all representing relatively new VC firms) are doing differently.

One interesting snippet that I wanted to share with you related to seed funding -- especially seed funding of unproven young entrepreneurs.

Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital said his firm had put money into Tumblr, an NYC start-up founded by 22 year-old David Karp. Sabet observed that "seed deals will inevitably have a high mortality rate...and we're not comfortable with that here." (Here presumably meaning Boston/New England.) He mentioned Y Combinator (based in Cambridge & Mountain View) and Tech Stars (Denver) as firms that are trying to build a model around very early, very small seed deals.

Chris Greendale of Kodiak Venture Partners said he thought it'd be smart for VC firms to take a million bucks, and put it into ten ideas. I asked him what would happen if he proposed that at his next Monday morning partners meeting. Greendale said "we're talking about it," and he told me afterward that some news could be forthcoming in the next 90 days. "Why is it such a bloody long process to give away $100,000 to a new company? We can give $100,000 to our existing portfolio companies at the drop of a hat," he mused.

The biggest (and only) applause line of the panel came from Drew Lipsher from Greycroft LLC. Someone in the audience asked about entrepreneurs moving west to find money. Lipsher said something to the effect of, if the entrepreneur doesn't believe in his company enough to believe it can succeed here -- they need to move it to Silicon Valley -- then we don't need to invest.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

The Bostonians behind BigThink, and a possible CNet takeover

The NY Times has two pieces of interest this morning...

- Former Harvard president Larry Summers and Nantucket Nectars co-founder Tom Scott are two of the investors backing BigThink, a new site that offers videos from well-known thinkers on topics like faith, truth and justice, and policy and politics. From the Times story:

    “I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content,” said Mr. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president in 2006 after making controversial comments about the lack of women in science and engineering. “I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw C.E.O.’s come up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne.” (His wife, Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard).

    ...“I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions of people are like me,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m into this kind of thing. I do think there is a market for this.”

- And Boston VC firm Spark Capital is involved in an effort to take over San Francisco-based CNet Networks. From that piece:

    The proxy fight is expected to shake up CNet, whose shares have underperformed the market and its competitors, leaving investors with a 19 percent loss over the last three years while other Internet-related companies grew. Over the same three-year period, the Interactive Week Internet Index rose 32 percent.

    Wall Street analysts have not looked favorably upon CNet, either: only two of the 18 analysts that follow the company have buy ratings on its shares, according to Bloomberg.

The article says that Spark partner Santo Politi will likely be nominated to join the board of CNet.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunday's Globe column: How non-competes make states less competitive

Yesterday's Globe column attempts to explain how non-competes can make states less competitive by limiting the cross-pollinating effects of people moving from one company to another, or forming new start-ups.

Here's some video of HBS researcher Matt Marx explaining how non-competes work -- and how they worked on him (Matt began his career as a speech recognition engineer in Boston, before moving out to Silicon Valley and then back):

Bijan Sabet, the VC at Spark Capital who has been leading the charge to change the law (or at least the culture) surrounding non-competes in Massachusetts, takes me to task for not talking to big company execs about how much they love non-competes. My colleague Carolyn Johnson already did that quite ably in this piece.

Very simply, big companies like to use non-competes as flypaper, so they don't have to worry about their best employees zipping away when a better opportunity presents itself. (At Future Forward back in November, Art Coviello of RSA/EMC and Paul Sagan of Akamai said as much... Sagan even suggested that a good solution to the problem would be to have California *start* enforcing non-competes.)

Two interesting data points about local companies...

- EMC Corp. had 8900 employees in Massachusetts, and 4900 in California (these numbers include VMware) at the end of Q3 2007. The California numbers were growing *much* faster -- California had added 1400 people since Q3 2006, and Massachusetts only 270.

- Biogen Idec has 1750 employees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and 400 in San Diego, California.

Why (let me ask rhetorically) do these companies even bother having operations in California if it is so hard to retain top talent without non-compete agreements?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mid-week links: Convoq closing, Alliance for Open Competition, O Beverages

A couple Wednesday links...

- When I ran into Chris Herot at the Tech Crunch party last month, he told me he was hoping to sell the collaboration company he co-founded, Convoq. It looks like a sale didn't come together, and Chris has posted some reflections on his blog about the five years he invested in trying to get the start-up off the ground. It's thoughtful writing -- and worthy reading.

- Spark Capital and Bijan Sabet are creating a new group, The Alliance for Open Competition to advocate for eliminating non-compete causes in Massachusetts. They're looking for people to sign on in support of the campaign.

- Xconomy reports on a new start-up from Highland Capital Partners' Consumer Fund, O Beverages. The founder is Tom First, one of the two Toms from Nantucket Nectars. O sounds like a new twist on Vitamin Water, which Coke bought for $4 billion earlier this year.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Spark Capital's Campaign to Rid Mass. of Non-Competes

I've been on a long West Coast trip (Las Vegas first, then San Francisco), so I'd missed Carolyn Johnson's excellent piece in the Globe on Friday, about Spark Capital's campaign to get rid of non-compete agreements in the Bay State.

Johnson writes:

    Noncompete agreements typically bar employees from going to work for a rival firm for a set period of time. Under Massachusetts law, they are enforceable except for specific professions, such as doctors and broadcasters. Under California law, however, such agreements are generally not valid, meaning an ambitious entrepreneur can take a chance with a new venture that may challenge the former employer without a legal cloud hanging over the move.

    While a slew of factors contribute to the very different tech scenes on the East and West coasts, management and policy specialists have examined how noncompete agreements may contribute to very different culture.

    A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in 2005 found that employees working in the computer industry in Silicon Valley tended to job-hop more than their counterparts in other cities with technology clusters. The paper found evidence to support the idea that California's legal climate, in which noncompete agreements are not enforceable, may contribute to the unique tech cluster in Silicon Valley.

    A Harvard Business School working paper published this year also found that a 1985 legislative shift in Michigan, which made noncompete agreements enforceable, meant that inventors switched jobs less frequently.

Spark sent a letter to Gov. Patrick last Thursday. Here's an excerpt from it:

    As a venture capital firm based in Boston, we are in the business of fostering innovation and building valuable companies that employ highly skilled workers, pay significant taxes, and allow the Commonwealth to thrive in the increasingly competitive national and global economic environment. We have a unique vantage point into the factors enabling entrepreneurialism in Massachusetts.

    From this view point we have seen that employment non-competes are increasingly stifling the emergence of start-up companies in our State, forcing some of Massachusetts’ most innovative entrepreneurs to take on tremendous risks, and hampering Massachusetts’ ability to meet its fullest economic potential as a Commonwealth.

    We respectfully request that Massachusetts legislate the elimination of the general enforceability of these non-competes in order to restore balance to Massachusetts’ labor markets and to enable Massachusetts to compete better in the national and global marketplace.

    Due to the enforceability of employment non-competes in the Commonwealth, entrepreneurs must be willing to take on tremendous legal and financial risks as employers building new ventures. As a point of comparison, the State of California has largely done away with non-competes and has reaped the benefits. Just look at the vibrancy and success of Silicon Valley, which is home to more new company formations than any other location in the country. Why shouldn’t Massachusetts’ entrepreneurs have the same rights and opportunity as their counterparts in Silicon Valley?

At the end of the two-page lettter, Spark's partners commit to work toward eliminating non-competes within their portfolio of companies.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Let's Get Rid of Non-Compete Agreements

Venture capitalist Bijan Sabet has launched a discussion about getting rid of non-compete agreements in Massachusetts -- and I'm glad. In fact, Sabet's firm, Spark Capital, has decided to stop requiring that its portfolio companies ask employees to sign non-compete agreements.

A lot of people say that non-competes aren't a big deal. If you are one of those people, why not read this piece: 'SANgate CEO ruled out of job by EMC non-compete lawsuit.' Non-competes are not enforceable in California, Connecticut, and many other states ... but they most definitely are in Massachusetts.

Other people say that it is impossible to measure what the impact of enforceable non-competes is. And that's sort of true: it's hard to tell how many Raytheon, Analog Devices, EMC, or Biogen employees today have great ideas for start-ups ... or would be more productive working for a start-up ... but they can't do it because they worry about being tangled up in litigation.

But there has been some great data collection recently, by a Harvard Business School PhD candidate named Matt Marx. Marx and two colleagues looked at what happened after legislators in Michigan accidentally made non-competes enforceable in 1985. Inventors were suddenly 34 to 51 percent less likely to move from one company to another. And the "star" inventors were the least likely of all to move. (Marx also provides a history of the non-compete, which traces back to 1414.)

You can read an excellent Q&A with Marx here. The full research paper is here (in PDF form). Here's a cool data point: Marx himself was an engineer/executive at a Massachusetts speech-recognition company, Applied Language Technologies. While Marx wouldn't have been able to jump to another Massachusetts speech recognition company because of our state's enforceable non-compete agreements, he was able to go work at a Silicon Valley speech rec company, because non-competes aren't enforceable there. He says:

    At first I thought I wouldn't be able to take the job [in Silicon Valley] given the noncompete agreement I had signed in Boston, but I was nonetheless able to make the move because the California courts generally refuse to enforce such agreements. Ironically, when I returned to Boston a few years later for business school, the founder of the first company [Applied Language] invited me to do some consulting on the side while a student, but I wasn't able to because the Massachusetts courts would enforce the noncompete that the California company made me sign.

But if we want to change the non-compete environment in Massachusetts, we need more than just start-ups and VCs to agree that non-competes are a hindrance. We need the state legislature to change the law. That will require that big companies join in the crusade -- and in recent conversations I had with the CEO of Akamai and the president of RSA Security (now part of EMC), it struck me that they are very unlikely to want to get rid of non-competes.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Today's Globe column: Why VCs Do (or Don't) Blog

Today's Globe column deals with the ways that blogging is changing the relationship between entrepreneurs and VCs. From the piece:

    There's a bifurcation happening in the Boston venture capital world: Some firms blog, and some don't. And the divide isn't just about being hip to the latest trend. It signifies an important shift in the way VC firms interact with entrepreneurs.

The video is below (it features Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, Jon Radoff of GuildCafe, MIT Sloan student Sim Blaustein, and Mike Feinstein)... and after it, some additional thoughts e-mailed to me by VC bloggers Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Jeffrey Bussgang of IDG Ventures.

From Fred Wilson:

    [Blogging is] a huge benefit to our business. Of course it brings incremental deal flow, but it also filters the deal flow and makes it more targeted and more relevant

    Its also a great way to bring needed attention to the companies we invest in

    And its a way to do research on new sectors and learn about other companies that compete with our companies

    And its a great way to learn about emerging technologies. Check out the comments to my andreessen post yesterday or my post on AIR last week. You can't buy that kind of education and I get it every day for free

    I could go on and on. Its the best tool for vc investing that I've ever seen and I've been in this business for more than 20 yrs

From Jeffrey Bussgang:

    - Definitely less about deal flow and more about transparency and providing accessibility, humanizing the VC process
    - Open dialog helps me keep in touch with entrepreneur’s latest issues and hot buttons
    - Provides sense of accountability to the entrepreneur community
    - Helps me understand social networking, community, blogging, and many other Web 2.0 phenomenon from a practical standpoint as a practioner, not theoretical

Interestingly, one thing I didn't mention in my column... at least one Boston firm, North Bridge Venture Partners, has an internal blog that's visible only to their partners and entrepreneurs.

(In my blogroll at right, I think I have a comprehensive list of all the Boston-area VC blogs.)

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007 Videoblog

The US edition of the videoblog launched in July; part of their goal is covering Web start-ups in the Northeast. (The name Intruders, editor Bruno Langlais explained to me, refers to the fact that they consider themselves outsiders -- not part of the "old boys network" here.)

They've already posted video interviews with Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, David Beisel of Venrock, and -- their first big mistake -- me. We talked about the differences between the tech scene on the East and West coasts, and why it sometimes seems that Web 2.0 start-ups like Twitter, which are headquartered in SiliValley, get more attention and momentum than similar start-ups like Going, headquartered in Boston.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Buzzwire launches: Yet another attempt to improve the video experience on cell phones

Local firms Spark Capital and Matrix Partners put $4 million into Buzzwire, a new start-up launching today (in "beta," of course.) The company's goal is to make videos viewable on a wide range of cell phones -- until, that is, they start cozying up to particular providers. (You can also create playlists on their Web site of videos you want to watch later, and share them with other users, which is a cool feature.) Buzzwire has offices in Denver and Bedford, MA.

The coverage:

- Boston Herald
- Wired News
- MoCoNews
- Xconomy
- And the press release.

Both Wired and Xconomy note something strange about Buzzwire's strategy. It'll at first be available on any 3G phone, but in the future may be limited to certain mobile operators. From Wired's piece:

    For now, Buzzwire is free to use on any internet-enabled phone with an unlimited data plan. However, the company plans on eventually locking the service down to certain carriers -- an unfortunate strategy for users, despite its popularity with entrepreneurs and cellphone service providers.

PodTech has a video interview with Buzzwire CEO Andrew MacFarlane.

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