MassChallenge Talks Global Expansion: 9 More Cities, 20,000 New Jobs

MassChallenge already calls itself the world’s largest accelerator, with more than 200 startups currently participating in its programs in Boston and London. And it’s only getting bigger.

The Boston-based nonprofit, which also has a presence in Israel, plans to expand to nine more cities worldwide over the next five years. To help craft a cohesive message for a global audience, MassChallenge this week hired Diane Perlman as its chief marketing officer, a new position within the organization.

Perlman previously worked for Microsoft in London, leading the company’s Windows Phone marketing efforts in the U.K. for four years before she founded the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator there. Perlman has spent more than 20 years in marketing and communications, including working for agencies, running her own branding consulting firm, and serving as marketing director for U.S. company Cyveillance.

Xconomy caught up with Perlman this week to learn about how she hopes to impact MassChallenge and what she thinks of the European startup community. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our e-mail exchange.

Xconomy: What are the goals of MassChallenge’s global expansion plans, and what role do you expect to play in those efforts?

Diane Perlman: MassChallenge is actively expanding globally, first into Israel and now London, and has plans for nine more locations over the next five years. In order to attract the high-quality startups and broader community of supporters that we need to make our programs work, we need—more than ever—a strong, differentiated, unified, and global voice. As an organization expands—whether it is an accelerator or a startup—the core values need to be central and communicated as clearly as possible to a new audience, so I’ve been brought on board at a critical inflection point for MassChallenge.

X: What are some potential new cities for the accelerator?

DP: At the minute, we are keeping our cards close to our chest. What I can say is that we have very broad expansion plans and have the top ecosystems in our sights across every populated continent, with a particular interest in Latin America and Europe. You might say this sounds very ambitious, but we’re hungry to drive entrepreneurship globally and help to create 20,000 new jobs around the world over the next five years.

X: What’s your take on the startup scene in Europe right now? It seems like the perception is European startups need more scale and bigger exits. What are some specific challenges that you see?

DP: I think that the European startup scene is really on the verge of coming into its own, with some markets being much more mature, like the U.K., and others being more nascent, like Estonia or Finland. The European ecosystem has always lagged behind the U.S. and investment, generally, is lower, so a lot of startups bootstrap or have lower early raises than their American counterparts, which leads to slower initial growth, but also less fat. By the time these companies become unicorns, they have really earned it, and they are on solid footing. As the companies that started five or six years ago grow, start attracting some later-stage funding, and start to expand globally, the solid foundation will (literally) pay dividends.

One specific challenge for European startups—apart from funding, especially in the funding gap between £150k and £1m [Eds: roughly $232,000 to $1.5 million]—would be access to experienced mentors, specifically in the more nascent ecosystems, and having a mature and supportive ecosystem around them. The “wise older brother or sister” type entrepreneurs are not as readily available as in other more mature ecosystems, but that’s why having a community like MassChallenge is so valuable for entrepreneurs. In addition to a pool of experienced entrepreneurs, MassChallenge startups also rely on each other and get access to mentors, which are harder to find in a young but thriving ecosystem in other parts of Europe where some of the startups hail from.

X: What’s one thing you learned from the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator that you’ll apply to your new role with MassChallenge?

DP: Giving back to the community [is] what it’s all about—and what keeps it growing. I have been so struck by the generosity of the experienced players in the ecosystem, in terms of time, advice, connections. I have met and worked with amazing people who have built their own companies and have been very successful, but get a huge buzz from helping young entrepreneurs shape their business models, scale, meet key contacts in the ecosystem, and more. MassChallenge’s ethos is all about helping entrepreneurs win, so I see this as a central theme that will continue to drive us forward.

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