Will Paul English’s Blade Boost Consumer Tech in Boston?

Be careful how you e-mail Paul English. Or talk to him, for that matter.

That’s one message I got from the Kayak co-founder when I met him at Blade, his new venture-creation outfit and startup workspace in South Boston. It was a few hours before Blade’s opening gala on Friday, and English (pictured) took time out to chat about his views on building consumer-tech startups in Boston and beyond.

First, that e-mail story. Entrepreneurs have been contacting English for months, pitching him their ideas. One guy cold-called him—“he kind of harassed me for a while, and I thought his idea sucked”—but after a few e-mails, English changed his mind.

“I loved him, he was very logical and fast,” he says. And when English finds “someone who has bandwidth” and is “very intense and thoughtful,” well, good things can happen. (That’s as opposed to people who waste his time, whether it’s with e-mails or hallway conversations.)

In this case, English ended up investing in the founder—and in “a much bigger idea” spawned from their discussion, he says. That’s one of three investments Blade has made in undisclosed startups so far. He’s not giving details about the companies yet, but as I understand it, one is in photo management, one is in social networking, and one involves hardware. He also said one was aimed at the “college market,” but it’s not edtech.

English stepped down as chief technology officer of Kayak at the end of last year. He co-founded the online travel company with Steve Hafner in 2004 and stayed on through its IPO in 2012 and subsequent acquisition by Priceline for $1.8 billion. In the past few months, while also dabbling with consumer apps such as Road Wars (which he says has fizzled), he has been busy getting Blade off the ground as its founding CEO.

To that end, he has raised a $22 million fund, most of it from General Catalyst and Accel Partners, both Kayak investors. English and fellow Kayak alums Hafner, Bill O’Donnell, and Paul Schwenk also put in money. The latter two serve as Blade’s chief technology officer and chief operating officer, respectively.

Here’s the model: Blade will invest $250,000 to $2 million in promising founders and will help build out their startup teams, in exchange for an equity stake. The focus is on direct-to-consumer tech—nothing enterprise or third-party—and on companies they think could get at least 10 million users. Blade’s staff will take active roles as co-founders, and English says the biggest thing he brings is recruiting power.

Oh, and please don’t call it an incubator. English hates the term, saying what Blade is doing is “not comfortable, it’s very in your face.” Also, he says, his team is building just a few companies at a time, unlike many traditional incubators—the goal is something like 10 over the next several years.

Blade lit up at night. Photo courtesy of Blade.

Blade lit up at night. Source: Blade.

Blade needs to attract top talent in user experience and design for its companies to succeed. And English believes that, despite a lot of perceptions to the contrary, Boston has enough raw talent and expertise to become a consumer-tech hub.

To be successful, he says, a consumer-focused company needs the right team, the right problem, and a simple product. “People say the best technology won’t always win. I disagree with that,” he says. “At the end of the day, people have to think your product is really simple and it has to solve a problem. Most technology fails because it solves a problem that’s not important.”

English’s investment philosophy at this stage boils down to 70 percent “who’s the entrepreneur,” 20 percent “what’s the market,” and 10 percent “what’s the idea,” he says. Interestingly, it sounds like he’s looking for founders who … Next Page »

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