West Coast Differences – Non Startup Edition

I just took a trip to the Valley for the first time. I’ve had a lot to say about it from the perspective of an entrepreneur (see on Greenhorn Connect here and at OnStartups here). I also noticed quite a few things that have nothing to do with startups that I found culturally interesting.

1) Everyone is nice

Boston can be a cold place, and no I’m not talking about the weather. In general, you just don’t find people being friendly walking down the street, and you definitely don’t see it on the road.

One event really tipified this for me: I had just made it out of a parking garage before close. Because of this I didn’t have time to set my GPS before hitting the road. There was no where to park so I pulled off blocking a driveway. As I was engrossed in entering my destination address into my Garmin, an SUV started honking at me; they needed in the driveway. I of course complied.

What happened next shocked me. The woman parked her car, got out and walked over to where I had pulled off slightly up the street. When I put down my window, she apologized for honking her horn at me. 

2) Everyone weighs 15 pounds less

It’s hard to believe until you see it. Everyone is just in slightly better shape than I see them in Boston. It’s a visual average I noticed after a few days.

I think the cause of this is pretty simple. Nice weather = more time outdoors = more exercise. What kills us (even a gym rat like me) are these brutal winters. It’s really hard to get enough cardio in under those circumstances which means every winter you’re putting on a little weight. Add that up over a winter or two and you quickly get those 15 pounds.

3) The Valley has safer drivers

I’ll be totally honest: after not driving for 7.5 years, I’m a pretty terrible driver. Luckily, people in the Valley drive slower on the highways (around 65 instead of 80) and well, they aren’t MassHoles. They actually use things like turn signals and let people over when they do signal. It was refreshing and the only reason I got back to Boston in one piece.

4) Parking is a breeze outside SF

There’s easy parking in Mountain View and Palo Alto. Even downtown. And it’s free. I was terrified when I forgot to bring quarters with me on my trip and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t need them.

5) Their public transportation is good, but flawed too

We all have our gripes with the MBTA but it gets you where you need to go….usually. The SF system is the same. Their buses are slightly unreliable, but have some drawbacks: the stops often smell of urine and the back part of every bus is covered in graffiti. Meanwhile, the CalTrain is incredible. Like a well oiled machine, the trains fly through the Valley right on schedule.

The best part of their system is they’ve tied it all together on one master card (their version of the Charlie Card). The Clipper Card, as they call it, was the only thing I needed and was easy to pick up at a station.

6) They have a serious homeless population

I found out while I was there that SF has the largest homeless population in the country and for some ridiculous reason they give each of them $400 a year (as if the year round good weather wasn’t attractive enough for the homeless).  I think this is a likely contributor to the bus stop urine smell.

These are just a few of the random differences I noticed in comparing the cities of Boston and SF and the Valley vs. New England.  Have you been both places? What have you noticed as a difference?

Fall Accelerator in Boston?

I’ve been helping a friend with his startup recently who shows a lot of promise: early (paying) customers, solid key elements of a product and a logical business model he’s validating.  He’s in a perfect position to join an accelerator and take his company to the next level. The combination of great mentors, a structured program to plan and move the business forward and modest financing represent the things he needs most right now.

Unfortunately, every accelerator program is done this year or currently going on. In fact, unless he had applied by May, he’d have been out of luck for all of 2011.

We have a number of great programs already in place, but they’re all in the spring and summer:

Spring: TechStars

Summer: MassChallenge, Summer at Highland, BetaSpring (Providence)

…but nothing for the Fall or Winter.

This leads me to a few questions:

What would you tell someone in his situation?

Can Boston add another accelerator?

Would TechStars go twice a year like it has in NYC?

A few added thoughts for the Globe piece today…

I’m sure some of the old folks woke up this morning and said, “ugh…another discussion on young entrepreneurs leaving.”  I know some of you are tired of it and I know things have gotten a lot better over the last year and a half or so, but the fact is that we’ve solved only a handful of the challenges that do exist. And like the little brother in a big family, our accomplishments will always be compared to our big brother in the Valley.

The important thing to remember is: talking about this and not taking action is called complaining. Talking about this and doing something about it is healthy (and necessary) discourse. Great sports teams watch and learn from what other teams do, so we should be no different.

With all this in mind, here’s a couple of things I’d like to add to the great article in the Globe today and supporting pieces by local young entrepreneurs:

1) DartBoston is missed.

Yes, Dart still does Family Dinners, which Victoria Song is doing an absolutely amazing job on. And I also realize that the pace that Dart worked at in the beginning was completely unsustainable (and financially unsupported). I’m also very happy for where Cort and Jake are both crushing it at startups.

That being said, the comaraderie and friendships formed at DartBoston events like Pokin Holes and Capitalize are what energized me when I first started Greenhorn Connect and few people cared. That energy also drew in new students in great numbers (as I wrote about in the Globe piece)

I’ve actually been talking with Fan Bi recently about how we can resurrect elements of it in a less demanding fashion for the organizers.  So far, we’ve done a few dinners and poker nights, but there’s an intermediate step between small dinners and huge parties that is missing for young people.

2) How can we get more mainstream press?

One of the reasons that New York City has picked up so fast is that they have major press there, which has given great attention to the startups making things happen there.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a Mashable, Times or Wall Street Journal, but we do have press that would allow locals to see us: the Globe, the Herald, the Metro and the Improper Bostonian.  Now obviously those 4 Boston press arms are VERY different from one another, but they all reach different audiences that might just include some people who should join our startup community.

Imagine if some of the cool startups such as some of the ones Kirsner wrote about got small features in the Metro every week? I take the T every day and believe it or not, a lot of people read them.  It might just get us a better early adopter crowd (the other half is playing angry birds, so maybe they’ll download that app written about) and at the least will make people aware of the startup scene, which has ancillary benefits like rescuing more talented, experienced folks from big companies (another thing we could work on in Boston).

3) You have to remember what it was like to be a student

I spent 6 great years at Northeastern University. Unlike many “Boston” schools, we’re literally right in the city. They even send us out on co-ops to work at 3 places to get us off campus. I even got an entrepreneurial degree in that 6th year (a Master’s in Technological Entrepreneurship).  I had no idea that the startup scene existed except for a few off-hand mentions until I graduated and then created Greenhorn Connect.

When you’re in college, you have student groups, intramural sports, classes, parties and tests.  Each university is a contained ecosystem that students rarely poke their head out of unless it’s to do something fun in the city. That’s why you have to go to them.  Once you get them excited and can point them to a few good things (maybe one of the upcoming startup parties like RubyRiot or Binno de Mayo (this week!) plus Greenhorn Connect and Web Innovators) and they’ll be on their way, but it starts with us providing some of the activation energy.

4) I’m tired of young people leaving

A couple weeks ago we had a #startupdinner of 13 young entrepreneurs. 4 were planning on leaving (Tim Chae and Evan Morikawa amongst them) and Fan Bi predicted 10 would be gone by next year.

I want what’s best for young entrepreneurs and frankly, I don’t have a lot of good answers for them. Right now, I don’t feel comfortable looking them in the eye and saying, “No. Don’t go. You should stay here. Trust me.” Maybe I’m just a little tired from all the things I do. Maybe my vision is foggy. Maybe that’s what I should be telling them, but when I get emails from friends now in the Valley that say things like this, it gives me pause:

I’d get out here as fast as you can. Capital aside, the level of access you get out here is like night and day from Boston. I know the people who run the APIs for [all of the big players in his industry], and just about anyone else we have an interest in working with is just a tweet or email away. They’re all accessible, they’re all responsive, and since they don’t know who’ll end up the next Google, they’re pretty darned helpful.


Just the parties alone — there are tech parties with 400-500 people attending. It’s wild. Kegs are allowed at events. Journalists attend them, meet you, and write about you the next week, sending tons of traffic. Companies get acquired regularly, making even more parties, new angels, and feeding the whole system.

I’m excited for Ruby Riot, Binno de Mayo (this week!), the forthcoming Playtime Party and DartBoston‘s party that will blow the roof off (trust me). We need this. 4 big parties gets you on that track. So anyone grumpy about that Globe post…dust off your dance shoes and come out and remind everyone why they’d be a fool to leave.

And if you want to leave a comment that can give me some ammo next time a young person asks me about leaving, I’d much appreciate it…