The CEO of DraftKings, one of Boston’s fastest-growing and most controversial startups, used his speech at last night’s MassChallenge awards ceremony to endorse the Bay State’s capacity to build great consumer tech companies.
It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for Jason Robins and his staff, who have faced legal and regulatory questions about their daily fantasy sports business model and dealt with a scandal involving an employee winning money on competing site FanDuel.
Robins (pictured above at the MassChallenge ceremony) agreed to fill in at the last minute for the scheduled keynote speaker, Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, who was called away for a family emergency, MassChallenge said. The ceremony also included pitches from 26 of the 128 startups that just wrapped up their stints at the MassChallenge Boston startup accelerator; 16 of the presenting companies were also awarded $1.5 million in cash grants. Other highlights included speeches from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, and an unusual (but entertaining) performance by MassChallenge grad PianoArc, featuring two drummers and a massive, circular keyboard.
During his talk, Robins didn’t directly address the daily fantasy sports controversy, other than making a few off-hand jokes. “I usually get nervous speaking publicly, but this is actually the most relaxing experience I’ve had in the last few weeks,” he said.
Despite some of the uncertainties hanging over DraftKings, Robins intends to plow ahead with expansion. Robins said the company has raised more than $500 million in venture capital and employs 250 people in Boston. He said that he wants to double the employee base by the end of next year, and double it again the year after.
“One of the things that I’ve realized is one of my important drivers, maybe my most important driver, is to be able to build something great in Boston,” said Robins, drawing cheers from the crowd of about 1,600. “[I want] to be able to create a product that millions and millions of people love, in Boston; to be able to create jobs—thousands of them—in Boston; and to be able to feel like I made an impact on the city that I love.”
Startup advocates in Boston sometimes wring their hands over the area’s ability to pump out big consumer tech companies. The city has a few to its name—such as Kayak, TripAdvisor, and Wayfair—but is often overshadowed by a bigger pool of them in Silicon Valley.
DraftKings could join the list of Boston’s anchor consumer tech companies, although future success is by no means guaranteed. Regardless of his company’s fate, Robins said he hopes DraftKings can contribute to the growth of the sector in Boston and inspire other entrepreneurs to give it a shot here.
“Let’s debunk this myth that somehow we can’t build great consumer tech in Boston,” Robins said.
Robins has rebuffed calls from DraftKings’ West Coast investors to move the company to California. He said he can find quality talent in Boston, and he’d rather stand out in a smaller market that isn’t dominated by Facebook, Google, and the other biggest tech names on the planet.
“I think we would’ve failed had we gone out west,” Robins said. “There’s a mercenary culture in many ways. Here people are loyal. They are part of the mission that you establish, and they are tethered to your company.”
Boston still trails the West Coast in available capital and other resources, Robins said. But he thinks leaders at the city and state levels are “taking incredible steps toward making investments and building that here.”
Robins also praised the efforts of MassChallenge, which has graduated 835 companies from its accelerator programs over the past six years. According to the nonprofit, its graduates have raised $1.1 billion in funding, generated $520 million in revenue, and created 6,500 jobs since 2010. MassChallenge, which opened a London accelerator this year, plans to expand to Israel, Mexico, and more countries over the next few years.