I Hate All Generalizations or Why Vivek Wadwha is Off Point
I have been observing the back and forth rants on Vivek Wadhwa’s MIT visit last week and decided I just couldn’t be a bystander.
The fact is that I agree with the fundamental assertion of Vivek’s session, that Silicon Valley is so far ahead of Boston in tech entrepreneurship and that Boston entrepreneurs can help improve the situation. But I take offense at his sweeping generalizations, authoritative yet inaccurate decrees and blatant contradictions in his followup post on TechCrunch.
As I have blogged in the past, Boston lost the battle for tech center of the universe years ago to Silicon Valley. We know the stories better than Vivek, because we lived them: from Vinod Khosla of Sun stealing away the company-making sale from Apollo; to Facebook moving out to CA because no Boston firms had enough vision to fund it; to having less than our fair share of tech IPOs, yada yada yada. We have already faced the fact that we won’t catch up to the valley – certainly not in today’s tech sectors. So, on behalf of Boston, I say “Who cares?” Because quite frankly, we don’t – we already get it.
What we care about is learning from our mistakes and deficiencies so we may do better. While I was not able to attend the talk, I can assure you we (of the Boston “we”) would have been more than happy to hear Prof. Wadhwa’s lessons from his long career and recent 18-month pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. But I submit he would have received a much warmer welcome had actually taken the time to research our region. While the stated intention of his session was on target, and his assertion that we are well behind the valley correct, many of Mr. Wadhwa’s supporting comments were outdated, just plain wrong, or displayed ignorance of the situation.
According to Vivek Wadhwa’s LinkedIn profile, he has never been an entrepreneur in Boston, and I am not sure his time as a Senior Research Associate for Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, qualifies him as an expert on the current entrepreneurial climate in our region. Let me point out a few weaknesses in his comments that just don’t make sense:
- “In Silicon Valley, sharing information is the norm—unlike most places in the world, including Boston. In the Valley, techies are far less secretive and are generally helpful to one another.” Does Vivek know about Mobile Monday, open office hours (Look at Greenhorn Connect for listings), Web Inno, TiE Boston events, the MIT Enterprise Forum, the open door policy at Microsoft’s N.E.R.D. center and a plethora of other activities aimed at open collaboration in the region? We know that the valley has evolved, in part, because of a more open, and collaborative environment. It’s been that way for decades. Don’t you think a few of the brainiacs at Harvard and MIT noticed? The results of such open collaboration don’t show up over night, or even over months – but the fact is we’re doing it, and we’ll see the benefits in time.
- The suggestion that the valley has a monopoly on reinventing itself, is patently absurd. Last time I looked, we haven’t backed any mini-computer or buggy whip companies in quite a while. And if you want to see innovation, look at the leadership position our region is exerting in such areas as robotics, LED lighting, medical devices and diagnostics, video and ad-tech. This doesn’t mean we’re the best, or the only region to focus on these topics – but it does demonstrate entrepreneurship.
- To suggest the valley may be the originating advocate of lean startups, I am not sure that’s provable, but who cares? The lean startup is a direct reaction to the combination of the ability to build companies cheaper these days, and the difficulty of raising capital. We have plenty of lean startups on the east coast, and I bet they’re “leaner” in Israel, China, and India. Maybe they invented it? Who cares!
- The comments on it being time to “rethink” the MIT $100K Competition were confusing and contradictory. According to their website, “The MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is a year-long educational experience designed to encourage MIT students to act on their talent, ideas, and energy to produce tomorrow’s leading firms.” Are they satisfying that mission? The evidence would suggest so. “The $100K started in 1990 as the $10K and since then we estimate over 5,000 MIT students and colleagues have competed. Hundreds of companies have launched and over a dozen have grown past the $100M mark.” I am sure the $100K could be better and I bet the organizers would be willing to listen to suggestions.
- And to be very specific, the comments Mr. Wadhwa made about Akamai are simultaneously wrong and contradictory to another part of his article. While at Greylock, I tried, unsuccessfully, to invest in the first round of Akamai, just after the MIT competition in question. I recall that the plan I saw was the same as they pitched in the competition. And to make sure my recollection was accurate, I called my good friend Jonathan Seelig, co-founder of Akamai, and now a partner at Globespan. Guess what – same plan. And even if they had changed the plan – what’s the point? Don’t great companies “re-invent” themselves and aren’t business plans the “greatest piece of fiction that a startup creates” as Vivek himself suggests later in the TechCrunch piece?
- In defending himself, Mr. Wadhwa invoked the comments of Fred Destin of Atlas Venture. I don’t know Fred yet, but I love his blog, have heard great things about him and look forward to getting together – as we partner frequently with Atlas Venture. But with all due respect to Fred, Vivek asserts him as “one of Boston’s most respected VCs,” but according to Fred himself, he’s “a newcomer to Boston.” Come on now Vivek.
Summing it all up, my issues with Vivek Wadhwa’s commentary on Boston stem from his misguided assertions, not from his characterization of Boston as having fallen behind Silicon Valley. If he really wants to help Boston’s entrepreneurs, I suggest he spend some quality time here directly observing the situation, gathering first hand data and offering suggestions based on the reality of our context. We all know we can do things better and learn from others’ successes. I suggest starting with the real facts. People tend to listen better that way. Even us conservative yankees.