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5 Reasons Startups Move to Silicon Valley, and 5 Things Boston Can Do to Keep Them

October 20th, 2010    Share

Galen Moore, tech & finance journalist at Mass High Tech, recently asked for my views on why startups leave Boston for the Valley. While the topic comes up every few months, I think several factors are a bit different than what I usually hear discussed, and having done angel investments in both places now I think I have additional perspective.

Today MassHighTech published my comments, and I’m posting them in their entirety below as well. Look forward to feedback whether here, on MHT.com or Twitter!

The common knock on Boston is we don’t have enough angels, they don’t move fast enough, and they don’t invest in consumer Internet startups. That’s not really true.

There are some awesome angels here. I have co-invested with several, and they can move fast and add real value. Speaking for myself I feel like I have enough contacts and pull that I could get any solid company funded here.

That said, the reality is entrepreneurs do leave Boston to relocate in Silicon Valley (TaskRabbit, Baydin, WePay, etc., in recent memory). Here are five legitimate reasons why they’re doing so:

1) Number of Consumer Angels
There are about 30-40 active, fast angels in Boston with interest and/or experience in consumer. Not a small number, but probably about 10 times lower than the Valley. What Boston exit has resulted in a well-known, formalized group of angels coming out of it?
Since fundraising is to a degree a “game of chicken,” time and effort can be a barrier when entrepreneurs (especially first-time founders) can realistically only gain quick access to five to 10 angels.

2) Dollars/(Control+Speed) Ratio

Most consumer entrepreneurs these days, anywhere in the country, have read about and follow the ‘Lean’ startup mantra. Thus they want to maintain as much control as possible early on – e.g., not giving up a board seat or blocking rights for a sale – rather than rushing to VC money. Individual angels typically invest about $25,000, and with rounds commonly being $300,000 to $1 million, you can’t realistically fill that with 20 individual angels.
This means getting money from super-angels or micro-VCs.
And the number of well-known, easily accessible super-angels and micro-VCs in Boston is…roughly 1 – Founder Collective. NextView Ventures will be great, but they’re still fundraising. Many Boston VC firms are open to doing seed-stage investments, but Chris Dixon has (largely rightly) warned founders of signaling issues with those deals.

But bona fide, Boston super-angels or micro-VCs who will say “I’m in for $150,000” after one phone call, are near zero. Out west I can roll off Dave McClure/500 Startups, Ron Conway/SV Angel, Chris Sacca/lowercase, Mike Maples, Jeff Clavier, Eric Schmidt’s fund, etc., off the top of my head.

3) Not enough frequent investors
As a corollary, there are few angels or micro-VCs here doing investments with enough speed and volume that they treat them as calculated bets. There are examples of companies with a great idea but limited traction, or with big traction but a first-time founder, that are interesting enough for West Coast folks to place some bets on because they are doing 30 or 50 deals a year. For individual investors (like myself) or the scant superangels/micro-VCs here doing 10 deals a year, each one has to be thought through more fully.

4) Valuations and terms
As another corollary, founders are often in the driver’s seat these days when it comes to negotiating terms, and West-Coast investors are much more lenient. I think it’s again because when you do 30+ deals a year, any single one isn’t worth haggling over, but when you do five or 10, it can make a difference. The larger number of angels and small funds in the Valley makes greater competition for deals. This, combined with the higher tolerance for risky bets, means valuations can be double in the West versus the East. This isn’t always entirely good for entrepreneurs, as overly high valuations can come back to bite in a very bad way, but if all goes well and the company keeps growing, it’s great.

5) The Skynet Factor
To paraphrase Terminator II, the Valley is an order of magnitude closer to being self-aware, and evolving at a rapid pace as an innovation ecosystem. Chalk it up to the weather, social personalities, whatever the reasons. When I was working at PARC – Palo Alto Research Center – I started using Google when it was just a research project at Stanford. By the time other parts of the country started to try it, Google was an innate part of the fabric out West. This phenomenon happens in every consumer area. Whether it’s Y Combinator’s special access to Facebook’s latest private-beta APIs; knowing about 10 stealth but highly innovative startups; or sharing secret tips over beers on what viral or SEO or marketing technique worked for Quora, Mint or Tagged, there is a big knowledge-sharing and access advantage. Like having better information in the stock market, that makes a material difference in decision-making.

There are more wrinkles, but to me these are five key factors that are not discussed as often or as clearly in the coastal conversations.

What can we work on here in Boston? Five things.

1) Get some more consumer(-ish) exits and encourage more angel investing.

2) Build real channels to the Boston higher ed system, which, other than MIT (and to a degree, Harvard) is very disconnected from the venture community.

3) Do a better job guiding local founders on the options and routes for success in Boston. There are fantastic events here, but not as many focused on practical, actionable advice. I think what many founders want is no-attitude, frank answers from peers they can trust.

4) Continue encouraging New York (and hopefully San Francisco) micro-VCs and super-angels to invest in Boston-based companies. For example, I just co-invested in a Boston company with a top West Coast micro-VC and there was no pressure to move.

5) Be more transparent with Boston founders and acknowledge that the Valley has a lot to offer them. We lose credibility by not doing so. At the same time, more effectively provide access to all the key related areas where we excel, like mobile, SaaS and analytics.

photo credit: David Paul Ohmer

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