Heading Home, Leaving Lobsters for Crayfish—But First a Nod to Shaker Innovation and Some Thoughts on Boston vs. Silicon Valley

Realizing that my visit to the USA is coming to an end in a few days, I spent the weekend hectically sightseeing around western Massachusetts and upstate New York. Even taking into account my big win—a net gain of $1.20 after expenses—at the Saratoga raceway, the most fascinating experience was my visit to Hancock Shaker Village just outside Pittsfield, MA.

Today, the village is a museum, but it was a living Shaker community from 1783 until 1960, when the Shaker Central Ministry decided to close it. When the community was at its peak in the early nineteenth century, more than 300 Shakers lived on the 3,000-plus-acre farm. They had chosen to distance themselves from the ways of “the world,” but that didn’t keep them form being thrifty and innovative businesswomen and businessmen with a keen understanding of marketing.

The Shakers produced furniture, brooms, baskets, medicaments, and clothing for sale—and they were also the first to sell dried packaged garden seeds in America. They harnessed their waterpower with an energy-efficient turbine in order to power lathes, saws, and other machinery. And when automobiles began to appear on American roads, the Shakers (not to be confused with the Quakers) were among the first to buy and use this new means of transport.

I’ve been working together with the great staff of Xconomy here in Boston since early April, as part of a fellowship program in “Innovation Journalism” at Stanford University; this week I’ll return back to Sweden and to my job as one of the editors at the weekly news magazine Ny Teknik.

One goal of the Stanford program is to provide the Fellows with a better understanding of the “innovation ecosystem” in the USA. This is where I think that the history of the Shakers has something important to tell us about the factors driving entrepreneurship. Of course, the Shakers were in business for the money—but not just for the money. Their businesses were a means to help them pursue their way of living, using their worldly profits for a spiritual goal. I have found the discussion in the U.S. on what motivates innovators and entrepreneurs much more interesting than the debate in Sweden, which nearly always homes in on the need for tax subsidies. You seem to have an understanding that just getting rich isn’t enough, not even getting filthy rich. If you’re going to be one of the really great entrepreneurs, you’ll have to be in the game to prove yourself, make your vision come true—and use the money you make as a means to even bigger goals.

My four months in Boston has been a great experience. I came here after spending one month in Palo Alto, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Californians pride themselves on their easy-going, laid-back culture. Well, to me people in Boston seem to be at least just as friendly and open. The suit factor at networking events may be higher here—and still higher back home in Sweden—but to me you seem to have a more relaxed attitude towards life. In Palo Alto, I was told that whenever people came together in Silicon Valley, they would immediately start talking about doing startups. Even though I’ve never been to a kid’s soccer game in Boston, I strongly suspect that the parents in this town will instead be discussing how their children are playing soccer.

Being part of the Xconomy team for a while has given me an unique chance to get a view of a startup from the inside and also the daily challenge of writing articles in English. Thank God for the online Swedish-American dictionary Tyda.se; it saved me from missing several deadlines. And thanks to my colleagues Bob, Wade, Rebecca, Greg, and Luke who edited my texts.

Writing for an upstart news blog is of course radically different from writing for an established magazine, notwithstanding the language differences. Still, you realize that some things are the same everywhere. Like when that little piece I wrote in half an hour on the role of burrito lines in the New Economy attracted more readers than my thoroughly researched article on the Route 128 minicomputer cluster’s legacy that I had grappled with on and off during a month.

Some high-points (and a low point) from living in Boston:

—I learned to sail a Mercury dinghy and even tried my hand at Lasers down at Community Boating, Boston’s uniquely accessible public sailing program. If I come back, I might even find the time to take the club’s jib rating test. Community Boating also provided my wife and me, and our friends, with the city’s best location for watching the 4th of July celebrations.

—My daily commute biking from Back Bay to Cambridge has sometimes been a quite challenging experience, but it was easy to keep up the biking habit once I discovered how the Green Line’s redefines Public Transport as the art of standing still under ground. Anyhow, I survived the street traffic and was even presented with a water bottle marked with the name of Thomas M. Menino (the mayor likes to put his name on things, doesn’t he?) on Bay State Bike Day. I’ll keep it as a memory of the city and cycling along the Esplanade on warm summer nights.

—The big thing I missed was getting tickets to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Next time, we’ll try to buy them months in advance, not just days. And why didn’t I have more lobster rolls over at James Hook, before the warehouse burnt down in April?

On the other hand, the crayfish season will be starting back in Sweden next week, so this might just be the right time to return.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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