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What Boston Really Needs....

In The Devil Wears Prada there's this wonderful scene in which Meryl Streep tries to decide on a belt. Anne Hathaway, as her assistant snickers at the prospect of deciding between two belts that look very similar. What she receives next is a smack-down.

"You think this has nothing to do with you," Streep's Miranda Priestly says. She then launches into an evenly-delivered soliloquy that points out how the "blue" sweater Hathaway casually chose that morning is actually "cerulean," which had started at the height of fashion then trickled down through the fashion ecosystem representing "millions of dollars and countless jobs," until it landed in a discount bin and, eventually, this assistant's closet. "It sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that's been selected for you..." she says.

Here in Boston engineers love to think that they make all the best stuff. That their technology is so great it doesn't need marketing. Because marketing doesn't make people take action. No, they say, it's the work that makes all the difference. Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Someone call Meryl Streep.

Often we dismiss this attitude as "well, they're just engineers" and we let it go. The issues trickle down even to those companies that do spend time and money on marketing. They resist messaging, insist they know how to tell a better story or refuse changes that could make a huge difference in their bottom line. It's all an effort to put technology first.

Ideally, they need to invest in marketing and PR. It needs to be factored into the funding rounds as a necessary part of the budget, even in small rounds.

Then there is the "celebrity" factor. Boston tends to shy away from that, but as a number of entrepreneurs point out in the Sunday Boston Globe, that's just what Boston needs. Says Ben Jabbawy, CEO of Privy:

Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.

This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.

So what does Boston need? We need to think more about marketing. We need to make our voices louder. In a way, we need our own "Mike Arrington" to lead the way.

Whenever I say this to people their response is "oh, we need a loud, arrogant, obnoxious guy that makes everyone fear his power?" No, I'm not saying that. But what we need is someone with the voice, skills and savvy to tell the world what Boston is all about. To hold up the great technology, ideas and companies that grow from the Boston ecosystem every day and tell the world why they need to pay attention. If this means that voice needs to be brash and obnoxious in order to cut through the clutter, then so be it.

Recently I spent some time hanging around with the guys at Evernote. This is a fascinating company made up of leadership that spent time running startups in Boston and then moved to the Valley. The company is growing like crazy and poised to make a leap from the technology world to the general populous. This is no small task.

Josh Kopelman recently spent some time in jury duty and used that as a way to get a focus group of non-tech folks:

Facebook is a great example of a company that made the leap, same with Apple (which doesn't consider itself a tech company) and Google. But what makes Evernote interesting is how marketing is so much a part of its DNA. Yes, Andrew Sinkov does a great job of marketing the company. He's an incredibly smart guy a lot of great ideas. But it's also a company churning out apps like Evernote Food and releasing Skitch for free as a way to extend its base.

If you listen to CEO Phil Libin speak, he doesn't tell you about the technology behind Evernote, he talks about bigger ideas of human memory and ways that technology can make our lives different. Sure, he spends time thinking about the technology itself, but the average person doesn't care about the technology. They just want it to do what you asked. They want a product.

But to get it in their hands, you need marketing. And so do we.

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Stop! Please Stop!

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.

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Mass Innovation Day

Kicking off the Panel

Kicking off the Panel

When it comes to attracting talent and publicity, sometimes we're our own worst enemy. Consider the field of PR, for instance, where we cannot publicize our way out of a paper bag when it comes to promoting the role of a PR professional. The same may be true of bringing entrepreneurial and technological talent to the state.

I attended my first Mass Innovation Night last month, a great event put on by Bobbie Carlton each month at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, and I was nothing but impressed. Today, I attended my first Mass Innovation Day at the State House, and while the panel was absolutely excellent, the whole point of the event -- to bring legislators, entrepreneurs and investors together in the same room -- was, to be blunt, a failure.

How does two out of three work for you? You could count the number of legislators and legislative staff -- at least the ones who volunteered to out themselves as such -- on one hand. So while the kick-ass panel was well received by the audience, the goal of the event was not met as far as I could tell. A shame, because Massachusetts needs all the help it can get promoting the great technology and entrepreneurial space that it is.

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