The ridiculous Vivek Wadhwa furore and the new Boston Tea Party

Vivek Wadhwa shows up at MIT and tells a bunch of smart people that Boston is being left behind in the sand by Silicon Valley.  Sand, silicon, haha; the Valley won.  Ensues a stream of cheap shots and angry denials that makes the National Enquirer look pro and some fun headlines, including a scorcher of a headline from the New York Observer: “Vivek flames Beantown has-beens”.  Milo at the Telegraph never misses a chance to get in on a mudfight whilst Scott attacks Vivek on the absence of data.  That’s a dangerous line if you ask me, for when the data does come out I bet you it won’t look pretty.  PEHub is trying to outdo SAI and collects all the nasty tweets, whilst Chase wonders why anyone really gives a shit about this old argument.  Oh, and Vivek Wadhwa is not “Mister Wadhwa” or “Professor Wadhwa” or Vivek but “some dude”.  Nice.

Overall, the old Boston gentleman doth protests too much, methinks. 

I am a newcomer to Boston; I have worked in Europe, the Bay Area, New York and now Boston.  I find the whole uprising quite suprising, because frankly it does not exactly feel controversial:

  • Boston is a qualitative, deep, highly professional local market that knows a thing or two about building value and building companies
  • Yet Boston has a bunch of serious challenges:
    • It cannot hold on to its youth or its talent; most graduates get out as soon as they finish their studies.  The likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Drew Houston take a hike as soon as their business get serious.
    • It’s overly comfortable in the halo of its awesome universities, which is dangerous.  EPFL in Switzerland is the world’s second powerhouse when it comes to academic IP creation, but as an entrepreneurship halo it’s not exactly top of your list, is it ?
    • It’s getting much better at being open and exciting, but it’s still slow and sleepy in some respects.  Just ask the entrepreneurs about the pain of getting angel money, the endless diligence meetings, the generally conservative mentality, the gorgeous views of foliage from the windows.
  • So whilst the Boston vs Silicon Valley debate is maybe not that relevant, the need for more change and a sense of urgency about change is far from an irrelevant consideration. I am from Europe, and let me tell you, Boston feels more like a stodgy European market than the uber-eager West Coast market. 

In many ways though, Boston is oversold, New York is comparatively over-hyped, Silicon Valley is in love with itself and many underestimate the depth of talent and the attractions of the area.  The David Cancels, Dharmesh Shahs, Bill Warners and many other entrepreneurs and angels make the area proud; the Founder Collective, Next View Ventures or Project 11 team are driving seed investing forward; and the area of course has some awesome funds.   But to shy away from our problems is foolish and immature, and paints us in a bad light.  Embrace your weakness, build on it, says your sensei.

I have just applied for my green card and I am here to make it work.  Let’s just not take ourselves too seriously now, shall we ?

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5 Responses to The ridiculous Vivek Wadhwa furore and the new Boston Tea Party

  1. Greg says:

    Every tech hub has challenges. At least Boston can be thankful that the recruiting frenzy for talent is not quite as bad as in the Silicon Valley, in my opinion. Wadhwa is in my opinion a notorious pot-stirrer, and it’s no surprise that people rise to the bait, especially if they can get a few impressions out of it. But hopefully after the dust settles more people will share your more fundamentals-driven point of view on building the ecosystem.

    By the way, would love to see more on your thoughts about the US/East Coast versus Europe since I recently moved from SF to Belgium and am starting an early stage company here.

  2. Mark Brophy says:

    I grew up, went to college in Massachusetts, and work there for 2 years. I found that as a young man, people were more interested in my age than in what I might do to increase the profits of their business. It was extremely difficult even to get a job interview, so I moved to Silicon Valley (SV) in 1988.

    It would be useful to compare the average age of company founders who receive angel or venture funding in the two regions. I suspect that SV is still a better place for young people, but it may have changed. Vivek Wadhwa has no data, so he’s only useful for stirring the pot.

    SV is a narcissistic area – it loves itself even though it has monumental traffic jams and fewer pedestrian districts than Boston, San Francisco, and New York. SV has high unemployment and between 2001 and 2008, employment in tech industries declined by 17%, representing a loss of 85,000 jobs. It amazes me that places like Santiago, Chile aspire to be like SV, so I wrote about it in my blog:

  3. Fred, I’m going to take that in the affectionate way I know it was intended.

  4. Joe Spinelli says:

    Great post, Fred.

    I can’t help but think items 1 and 2 are interrelated. My working thesis here is that strong universities and university entrepreneurship programs may be a bigger cause of the brain/value drain than a contributor to its retention in Boston.

    A number of VCs and angel groups do a terrific job of helping to foster entrepreneurship on specific campuses in Boston (most often at their alma mater), but this creates allegiances to the alumni network first and the town second. As a VC/angel working in Boston, I find it hard to think that your preference of where that company ends is more important than getting into the oppty with those entrepreneurs in the first place.

    Similarly, I find it really hard to think that the universities care exactly where their students and their respective companies end up, and for that reason a “strong university system” shouldn’t be one of the top arguments for growth in Boston. In a environment where these top institutions are ‘competing’ for the top young talent on a global scale, demonstrating value creation outside of Boston seems almost essential.

    The easy dig on BOS is if the entrepreneurs don’t see the value to staying in town, the community isn’t where it should be. But who and what represents the ‘community’ matters here, especially within any debate of how to improve it.

  5. Wow, Fred! I am absolutely amazed by your post!
    Wish you good luck in obtaining your green card!