A Silicon Valley Prescription for Boston and Other Startup Hubs: Throw More Parties

A few friends have asked me how my life has changed since I moved from Boston to San Francisco to open Xconomy’s Bay Area bureau. Do you want to know the real answer? I drink more.

A lot more.

In the Silicon Valley technology startup world that I cover, there’s at least one cocktail party, private dinner, coder beerfest, pre-conference gathering, post-conference gathering, movie screening, gallery opening, or other excuse for the alcohol to flow every freaking night of the week. Usually more than one. (If you don’t believe me, just subscribe to the Silicon Valley edition of StartupDigest, a guide to startup events curated by a cool guy here named Chris McCann.)

It’s like living in an infinite Mad Men episode. Raymond Carver, the American short story writer and poet, once wrote that wine is the worst drink to get drunk on—“hangovers you don’t forget”—and I’m learning that he’s right. I should probably switch to beer. San Francisco, after all, is home to at least 11 breweries and innumerable brewpubs. But when you live so close to Napa…

All kidding aside, I think there’s a real lesson here about the differences between Silicon Valley and other major hubs of technology innovation. In a column a few weeks ago headlined The Real City of Innovation is Everywhere, I argued that the Internet and the outsourcing revolution make it possible to build a startup just about anywhere these days. And it’s true. But when you look at where the startup founders really congregate, and where the angel and venture dollars are flowing to, Northern California still dominates. There’s obviously something in the water here. And I think that something is alcohol—or, more to the point, the schmoozing that alcohol facilitates.

Laura Fitton, aka @pistachio, the founder of the Cambridge, MA-based Twitter app store Oneforty, sent me an interesting note recently. She’d just visited the Bay Area, where several of Oneforty’s investors and advisors are based, and I had commented to her that I was overwhelmed by the number of startup stories that are begging to be written here (as this peek inside my story pipeline illustrates).

“I struggle so hard with how to bring that ‘steeped in startups’ feeling back home with me every time I fly back from SF,” Fitton commented from Cambridge. “We’re just too siloed here as startup teams—makes it even lonelier and prevents a hell of a lot of product innovation…We HAVE to overcome that isolation and siloing if we’re going to be inspired and energetic and passionate, not just in our founders but our entire teams.”

I’ve heard the same lament from other Boston-area entrepreneurs. I don’t have as much data from Xconomy’s other home cities of San Diego and Detroit, but I’m guessing that the siloing feels just as bad, if not worse.

Well, here in Silicon Valley and San Francisco they have this cool invention for overcoming isolation. It’s called getting together for drinks after work. From what I hear, this invention has spread to some circles in New York City, especially the Wall Street crowd. But it has yet to catch on in Boston’s startup community, where it seems that every weeknight is still a school night.

The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to leave work to drink. The beer flows freely at Google’s TGIF, the Friday afternoon gathering where … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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17 responses to “A Silicon Valley Prescription for Boston and Other Startup Hubs: Throw More Parties”

  1. Tim RoweTim Rowe says:

    Wade: Thanks for the insight. I feel as though there are drinking events in the Boston startup community nearly every night. I think you left here before the Venture Cafe got big, but its now a pretty happening party every Thursday night. Last night several people there were juggling 2-3 other events (Mass High Tech All Stars’ Event, SwissNex 10-year anniversary, etc.). SwissNex’s event was out of this world. They had flown in 4 chefs from Switzerland, as well as a bunch of great Swiss wine. But I think there must be something to what you are trying to say that goes beyond simply the availability of many free Sam Adams and suits events, to quote Cort Johnson. Can you tell us more about how these events play out that makes them great? Is it cooler people? Are people more open? Do they get more drunk?

  2. Just reiterating Tim’s comment. There is not a shortage of stuff to do in Boston. Just look at the VentureFizz calendar: http://venturefizz.com/events

    Most of the evening events include cocktails…so, there must be something else that is missing…

    Are there more parties where people get together to socialize…versus an “event” (topic with a panel discussion and networking)?

  3. Geezzz. I hope it’s not that button down Boston puritan influence that’s making us different from the Left Coasters. Venture Cafe is much larger now than its original location and has lots of people flowing in and out.

    Is it food? The Kendall Square Association Networking event by the Broad Canal brought out the best in food and drink and people who stayed well after dark. I wonder where that feeling of working from silos is coming from?

    Maybe we need to synchronize our thirsty Thursdays and Feeding Fridays along with Wicked Wednesdays or something. No question San Fran is more laid back and American Frontier-ish but there is definitely a new revolution going on in Greater Boston that we can feel here in Kendall Square…so what are the differences that we can overcome?

  4. donna says:

    I’ve always felt the companies I worked for were getting too big for me when the beer Fridays stopped… and yes, I’m in San Diego.

  5. Bill Jackson says:

    Here are some clues…

    East Coast = live to work
    West Coast = work to live

    East Coast = impressed by titles
    West Coast = impressed by results

    East Coast = “Here’s our NDA form”
    West Coast = “Let me show you around”

    East Coast = “We’re gonna be rich”
    West Coast = “We’re gonna change the world”

  6. Fan Bi says:

    Wade – Right on!

    As Tim Rowe pointed out, it’s not a lack of events, but what actually happens at those events.

    From my limited perspective having been to a handful events in both cities:
    – everyone I met at SF was incredibly open, Boston is incredibly siloed and pretty elitist
    – SF seems cooler because everyone at those parties b/c everyone is talking the same language, i.e. web
    – getting wasted and talking dreams with founders and doers > Swiss chefs and Swiss wine

  7. Wade –

    Thanks for this post. We’ve been pushing the party agenda hard since day one here at BostInnovation and we’re constantly trying to get the booze flowing all around this fine city. Some people take “networking” a little too seriously, but we’re changing all that. It’s coming around. Next time you’re in town, stop by our office. There’s beer in the fridge and you don’t always have to wait until 5PM….

    I’d link to the article the Herald wrote about this back in March, but they want me to pay for it…

  8. Wade – in general, I like your posts.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that California has a lot of energy towards startups. Boston also has an active community which I support and I am proud of. There is for sure a different culture in both places.

    I am in general not puritanical, but I have to say that I am bothered by the premise that serving more alcohol is the solution to enabling a more vibrant startup community in Boston even it may be true.

    Encouraging more open communication is great, advocating that alcohol is the way to get there seems a like we are a delivering the wrong message.

  9. If one of your primary fun activities is getting drunk at parties, would also recommend living in New York City. Endless tech and non-tech parties and a great tech-scene in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

    San Francisco will always be king of tech, but NYC is right up there too. :)

  10. We were out drinking til 11pm after our event in Seattle last night…and we’re doing a coffee meetup (with Wade) today in South Lake Union. There hasn’t been any shortage of happy hour events in Boston this fall. But I’m sure the culture of startup comradery feels a little different in the Valley.

  11. The are my reflectioans, as a Scandinavian outsider:
    What you wrote corresponds to the observations of the venture capitalist I met when I arrived in Boston from Palo Alto in 2008. More informal meetings on the west coast, more organized venues like Mobile Monday in New England.
    But I don’t believe that one is right and the other is wrong – you have to work with the local culture, not against it. And the area round Boston and Cambridge has also got a formidable track record when it comes to innovation. And alcohol may have spoiled more careers and ventures than it has fostered…

  12. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Tim, @Keith Cline: I think that awareness of the need for more networking & schmoozing in Boston, with or without alcohol, has been building for a while (heck, that’s part of why we started Xconomy in 2007). So I can definitely believe there are now more events happening around town every week than there were when I left. Either that, or there have always been lots of events and I just didn’t know / wasn’t invited!

    @Austin: I know you guys at Bostinnovation are working hard on the above, and kudos.

    Going back to @Tim: You’re right, the Silicon Valley-Boston difference not just about how much or how often the beer is flowing. There’s something else that I’m still working on figuring out. I think it’s partly a reflexive welcoming attitude toward novelty. People are rewarded socially just for trying something new.

    To caricature the situation just slightly: When two people meet for the first time at a Silicon Valley party and one tells the other all about their latest startup idea or iPhone app, the default reaction is “Cool, great idea, how can I help out, where can I buy it?” In Boston, it’s “Hmm, that sounds risky, who’s going to invest in that?”

    Also, frankly, I think there’s more of a culture of “looking out for number one” in Silicon Valley. Everyone is always on the make. They may be 200 percent committed to their current startup, but they also know that within two or three years they’ll likely be on to the next thing, and they’re always laying the professional groundwork for that. So the parties have a vital career function. (And part of what makes the Valley work is that there always *is* a next thing — there’s rarely a shortage of companies to join, or capital to start more.)

    @Brad: My whole argument in this column is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think it’s really about the alcohol. “Getting a drink after work” = metonym for socializing and sharing in general.

  13. Thanks, Wade. Some great points.

    Timing is everything, and the timing of this article is impeccable, as I am currently buried under the weight of organizing three events in the next couple of months.

    “Back in Boston, it would have taken me a month of pleading to round up that many guests.”

    You’re exactly right – sometimes it feels like I have to explain to people that _I’m_ the one doing something nice for _them_!

  14. Stephanie F. says:

    Wade, if you’re feeling nostalgic for Boston, we’d love to have you come back from the west coast to join us for our first ever Punchbowl Mixer! It’s an event Punchbowl is hosting on November 11 to celebrate Boston’s web community:


  15. Branko Gerovac says:

    More effective collaboration is really what’s needed

    Not that parties and drinks are not fun, but if they don’t lead to collaboration, they won’t effectively move the culture.

    In Silicon Valley, I’ve generally found it easier to get together with people at other companies and easier to collaborate. Partly, I expect this is due to old history, with Boston’s self-sufficient mostly-gone vertically integrated companies, contrasted with Silicon Valley’s more cooperative-by-necessity companies. This is one of AnnaLee Saxenian’s postulates in Regional Advantage. Non-compete agreements are a substantial hindrance to serendipitous collaboration as well.

    However, the cultural differences may also be due to an unhealthy competitive orientation. In this regard, it is more along the lines of the earlier comment by Bill Jackson: Boston ~ compete to win; Silicon Valley ~ collaborate to win.

    For example, when talking informally with someone in Silicon Valley, often the discussion naturally turns towards information sharing and problem solving, even if you don’t know the person that well; and people introduce you to other people, to expand the discussion. It is as even though we aren’t working together now, maybe we will in the future; maybe our discussion will lead to an idea for a new startup; maybe I’ll encourage you to join my company, or you’ll convince me to join your company. Getting together over drinks is a good way to check out how we collaborate. Some might call this group dating.

    In Boston, as many have said, the number of events/parties has greatly improved in the past year or two, however the sharing and problem solving doesn’t come as easily. Events like last week’s MassTLC unConference provide a facilitated environment for collaboration. As Erik Mellgren commented above, these are “organized venues”, but even so, the situation is much better than a few years ago.

    Fortunately, some Boston subcultures appear to be moving toward collaboration faster than others. A Gen Y subculture seems to collaborate more naturally, perhaps fostered by the recession, the lack of siloed organizations to cloister in, and facile social media. A marketing subculture is adopting more collaborative approaches; “customer development”, sharing and collaborating with your customer was a major theme during FutureM. Then, on the other hand, Scott Kirsner has to point out the “old clubby, change-averse culture of Boston” that still dominates the overall culture.

    So, let’s think about ways to collaborate more effectively; collaborating over drinks and food is really good too…

  16. Tom Marsh says:

    Wade, your post reminded me of this quote I tweeted awhile back.

    “The process of cumulative innovation ……… is driven by ideas having sex.” Matt Ridley

    Maybe you’re on to something….