On Tuesday afternoon I attended a fascinating discussion, the first of many, on Building a Better Commonwealth. In the wonderful setting of the Paramount Theater, the Boston Globe hosted a panel discussion as well as remarks from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick., focusing on retaining talent here. I'm not going to go into all the nuts and bolts here, you can read that elsewhere, but coming out of this I had several overall thoughts.
Let me start by pointing out that I chose Massachusetts, and not without cost. Raising children without grandparents can be tough, especially for the little things. As an example, on Wednesday evening my wife was preparing for trial and I had to be in Framingham at 5:30. Meanwhile, my middle son had a baseball game, as well as Chinese tutoring, my daughter was at aftercare and my oldest was finishing his homework. Everyone needed dinner. My friends lucky enough to have local grandparents often are able to have an extra set of hands to step in when these situations arise, but for us, we needed to first build a support network of friends who also have distant families, then call on them to do things like pick my son up from school and get him to the game.
That said, my wife and I have both opened businesses here, we bought property here, we pay taxes here and we employ people here. We want to see Massachusetts utilize all its resources, especially the "talent" resource as pointed out by Governor Patrick. Still, several pieces of the discussion bugged me.
- Who is having the discussion? -- Nearly everyone who stood up and spoke noted that they came from somewhere else. Jason Evanish of Greenhorn Connect moved from Pennsylvania (his thoughts on the event); I'm originally from New York (though, my mother grew up in Roxbury and Newton); Bobbie Carlton hails from upstate New York; Scott Kirsner cut his teeth in Florida; Trish Karter graduated high school in Connecticut; and even Governor Patrick joked about the differences between his hometown in the midwest and his neighbors in Milton. To be fair, some of the panelists, like Paul English, grew up in Massachusetts. Still, I'm wondering if the discussion on "cultivating talent" is really a discussion among transplants who want to bring in other people like themselves. Or perhaps it speaks to the changing demographics of Massachusetts. To the outside world we look like the state portrayed in The Departed or The Fighter: working class, unintelligible accents, tough... But the Massachusetts I know is very different. My wife is from Pennsylvania, my next door neighbors from Israel, two doors down is a couple born in Germany, go a bit further and you find a woman from France and her husband from Haiti. The joke in Watertown is that you can tell a newcomer because their parents didn't attend Watertown High, but my personal Massachusetts looks much different.
- The Rent is Too Damn High! -- The event opened with a map of Massachusetts, but the discussion centered on Boston and Cambridge, leading many to decry that "the Rent is too Damn High!" To her credit, Diane Hessen knocked it down saying that people ignore the cost of living in New York if they get a good job. And she's right. But that being said, I want to throw in that the rent is, in fact, too damn high IF you want to live in a trendy neighborhood. You can find deals elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially in places with a wonderful urban infrastructure. Take a look at places like Lowell or New Bedford. I'm sure Springfield would LOVE an influx of younger talent to build and grow businesses. Which leads nicely to my next point...
- Who the Hell is this "Gen Y"? -- I get annoyed at these generational discussions. In listening to Nadira Hira I got the distinct impression that she was taking overall cultural shifts in US attitudes and attributing them entirely to a specific age group. She noted how they look at families differently and want a work/life balance. Hey, news flash, so do I. So do most of my friends. And we fall into the GenX demographic that she termed "bitter."
Still, one thing I do see in people in Massachusetts today, both youngish and older-ish, is a willingness to start their own companies and blaze a new career path. So why not take the complaints we heard about the local infrastructure and apply them to businesses?
Feel that there isn't enough of a music scene? Start a music venue. Can't get space in Cambridge? Try Waltham or Lowell or Springfield or New Bedford or Allston or JP or Mission Hill. Feel that the T doesn't run late enough? Start a transportation company designed to run between 2am and 6am that mimics the T routes. If the demand exists then so does the business.
As for the talent in the Commonwealth, we need to take our entrepreneurial spirit and apply it to companies that aren't just in tech, but create a better life for everyone.
Can we please stop comparing Boston to San Francisco and New York? Please? I'm getting sick of this discussion. It doesn't mean much.
I grew up just outside of New York City, I went to grad school there and remain a loyal fan of the New York Jets (no, that doesn't make me all that popular in Newton). But I chose to live in Boston. Two of my three children were born here,
Let me repeat that: I chose to live in Boston. Boston didn't choose me. Todd is also a transplant (though, I hear he gave up rooting for the Detroit Lions, can you blame him?) and he also chose to be here. There is something about this city that we love, something about the people, the culture and the environment that makes it important enough to start a company here.
Each city has its advantages and different culture. Yes, New York has a 24 hour culture and a vibrant financial market that keeps much of the rest of the city humming (the taxi drivers and Broadway producers all feel the boost when Wall Street gives out good bonuses). Silicon Valley has a vibrant startup culture with great weather and entrepreneurs who become celebrities. But Boston has a quiet confidence that I find endearing. We are who we are, we're not something else.
The main reason I hate these comparisons is that we look to the companies we lost (Facebook, Microsoft, TaskRabbit, Pixable, etc.) and ask "why! why would you leave us? We could have loved you!" Frankly, it's a bit embarrassing. Love the one you're with. But the problem isn't that those cities are cooler, it's that the companies (and their founders) were better fits for those cultures. Rather than focusing on that, maybe we should be focusing on creating companies that fit OUR culture.
Many years ago Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that Silicon Valley is better for consumer-facing companies while Boston is better for research-based companies that feed government and defense contracts as well as enterprise technology. Of course, we also have a vibrant healthcare and biotech community. Why fight that? Why lament when a consumer company leaves and we're left with very interesting technology that could help create a cure for cancer or change how we get power?
Zigging when everyone else is zagging can be a very good thing. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that enterprise technology in the Valley has fallen out of favor with VCs while investment in consumer technologies has increased. Sure, fine for them, we can benefit from that by focusing on our core.
As for being "cool," we shouldn't feel bad that we lost consumer-facing companies to other regions, we should be trying to point out how enterprise tech companies that innovate, build jobs and build revenue in Massachusetts are cool, even when they're doing something that seems mundane to the average eye, like helping organizations switch to IPv6. I sat next to a guy on the bus yesterday working on that very problem. No, it's not as easy to understand as a company that helps you get errands done, but it impacts a LOT more people.
Let's embrace who we are and stop worrying about who we aren't.
Whenever some big crisis hits the news my dad likes to say "So, my son who is in PR, what would you do in this situation?" Then he argues with me.
He asked it again as we were watching the BP mess unfold in the Gulf of Mexico. But this time my answer was simple: there's nothing to do here. This isn't a crisis communications issue. Yes, it's a crisis, but the communications plan should be the LAST thing on their mind right now. The issue here is fixing the problem and communicating what they're actually doing. Anything less is disingenuous.
The best example of this process gone wrong is the painfully funny Twitter account @BPGlobalPR. Here you have a guy digging at BP on a daily basis, pointing out their inconsistencies and problems in an amusing way. In his Huffington Post essay, the writer of @BPGlobalPR noted the futility in any kind of crisis PR program in this situation:
I've read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I'm trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company? One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach. That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.
He goes on to say how BP's PR solution is to fix the problem. Note to BP Crisis PR folks: don't try to find fancy ways to communicate your messages, don't look for new and innovative ways to to put the best face on the problem, now isn't the time for that. Just provide information on what's being done. Period. Oh, and yell at management to do more. In fact, that SHOULD be the crisis PR plan.