With a three-month visa in hand, Hardi Meybaum came to the United States from Estonia in late 2010 to consider where to set up a new front office for his start-up. Meybaum spent half the time in Boston and half in San Francisco. He found advisers here, and later investors, who understood his vision of creating an online community for mechanical engineers who design new products.
And, Meybaum adds, “part of our engineering team is in Estonia, and on the East Coast, you can make the time difference work more easily.” His start-up, GrabCAD, is based in East Cambridge.
Like a left-behind lover, I sometimes get a little obsessed with the entrepreneurs who start their companies in Boston but then pack their bags for California. (Zuck, why’d you have to leave?) But I also regularly hear about founders like Meybaum moving here to give their ideas a better shot at success.
Boston does exert an entrepreneurial pull that can be felt in Estonia, Israel, Kentucky, and Idaho. Instead of conducting exit interviews with those who left, I surveyed more than 20 company founders — and the worker bees who help companies grow — to ask why they came. These are the seven factors they mentioned most frequently as influencing their decision to move here:
The talent pool. Niraj Shah and Steven Conine came to Boston after graduating from Cornell; they now run the e-commerce site Wayfair, which focuses on home goods and employs more than 1,000 people. In Boston, Conine says, “Two guys just out of school trying to recruit talent can have a lot more success convincing other recent grads to join. The density of schools in this area was a major draw.” Others with whom I spoke talked about the ease of hiring statisticians, roboticists, chemists, and other people with specialized skills here.
Education, networking opportunities, and professional development. William Neely moved to Boston from Kansas last year to work on PieceWise, a site that helps people get assistance with projects. Since then, Neely has been to numerous conferences and workshops to learn about programming languages like jQuery and PHP, and how to pitch a business idea to investors. “This is my first start-up, so I wanted to be in a place where all the learning resources were readily available to me,” he says.
Existing clusters. Clusters of similar companies, whether in clean-tech or life sciences, make it easy for founders to get advice from peers, and for employees to find future jobs. Scott Busby started a new job as a researcher at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge; he moved from Florida to get experience running a lab, helping with drug discovery, and “expanding my expertise,” he says. Busby and his wife both work in biotech, and they liked the odds of finding two positions here (though she is still interviewing).
Heterogeneity. “Silicon Valley is all tech,” says Rob May, founder of Backupify, a Cambridge start-up that helps customers make copies of data stored online.
“Boston is tech, but so much more. I think of Boston as the nation’s capital of education and intelligence. I go to lectures on new topics at Harvard and MIT. I get to meet professors, many of whom are tops in their field, whether tech-focused or not.”
May moved to Boston from Louisville, Ky., in 2010. He had raised money for his start-up from local investors, but had also considered setting up in Palo Alto, Calif., and New York.
Firm state financial footing. May adds that California’s state finances are “a mess, and I think the business climate there will suffer.”
Access to capital. Massachusetts is typically the second-most-active state for venture capitalists, after California, in terms of total dollars invested. There’s a sizable community of individual “angel” investors here, too, who often put money into an idea before the VCs. “Nashville is a great city and it was hard to leave,” says Nick Francis, “but you can’t build a tech start-up there unless you bootstrap.” Francis’ start-up, Help Scout, creates Web-based software to help companies deliver better customer support. So far, it has raised $800,000. “We found 17 angels to invest in the business, 14 of whom live in Boston,” Francis says. “Without them, Help Scout wouldn’t have made it.”
Urban density. “The fact that there are so many start-ups in such a small, walkable area was very appealing to me,” says Jason Ethier, founder of Boston-based Dynamo Micropower, a start-up working on a new kind of portable generator. “Around almost any corner is an individual who knows someone with the right skills and contacts to help me grow my business.”
As much as Silicon Valley “likes to pretend they have the same kind of density,” Ethier continues, “you have to own a car or have a good friend with one to navigate the Valley.” Ethier moved to Boston from North Carolina; his company is based in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood.
Now, how about traffic, pricey housing, winter weather, and other things that often get tossed into the “negatives” hopper? As Meybaum of GrabCAD puts it, compared to Estonia, “let’s say that the Boston weather is like a dream come true, and I have never understood why people here complain.” Busby at Novartis says that “the plusses outweigh the minuses.”
“In so many parts of the country, you get the feeling that things are sliding downhill,” he says. But in the heart of Cambridge’s life sciences cluster, Busby continues, “there’s so much construction, it feels like a renaissance — the dawn of something new.”
For more perspectives from entrepreneurs on what brought them to Boston, visit www.boston.com/innovation.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.