No one notices when an entrepreneur registers a website domain or incorporates a business and then never gets it off the ground.
But when you start something called the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame, plant seven plaques in a Kendall Square sidewalk, and then abandon it, it’s hard to ignore. For me, at least. Would people flock to the Hollywood Walk of Fame if it petered out after a quarter of a block?
The walk was launched with great fanfare two Septembers ago. The first induction got coverage in business blogs, on the BBC, and in The New York Times. Thomas Edison’s great-grandson showed up, as did Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp., who was among the first set of honorees. When Steve Jobs died in fall 2011, acolytes left flowers, candles, and apples on his plaque.
The walk’s website says that the public nominating process for its 2012 class of inductees closed in July of that year. Since then — nothing. Cofounder Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, says that the project is “in need of funding,” and that he and the other two founders haven’t been able to dedicate enough time to it.
One, MIT’s Bill Aulet, just wrote a book about entrepreneurship, and another, Leland Cheung, is running for reelection to the Cambridge City Council. “There’s lots of interest out there, we just haven’t had time to sit down and talk about it or make calls,” Cheung says.
Here are five ways this great idea could be resuscitated.
1. Give the walk a big vision. Rather than filling up the plaza in front of the Marriott Cambridge, the plaques ought to follow Main Street to the Longfellow Bridge, cross the river, and continue along Cambridge Street to Government Center. That’s where the building once stood where Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell both had labs — and where Bell designed the prototype of his telephone. That would turn the walk into something that benefits Cambridge and Boston and ideally attracts support from both city governments and tourism bureaus. It also brings the walk closer to tourist haunts like Faneuil Hall.
2. Create a digital overlay for the walk. By that, I mean a mobile app or mobile-friendly website that supplies information about inductees. It would provide a menu of the plaques closest to you, based on your location, and deliver a short biography, photos, and videos about each entrepreneur. Boston is full of app developers and computer science students who would help build that in return for the chance to show their stuff. Right now, the only digital presence that the walk has is a mediocre website, and a Twitter account last tended to in 2011.
3. Get the walk out from underfoot. When the design firm IDEO conducted a 2011 exploration of ways to go “beyond the plaque” in celebrating entrepreneurship, it suggested hanging posters in MBTA stations to highlight the achievements of the latest group of inductees, selling Entrepreneur Walk of Fame T-shirts, and even supplying sandwich wrappers to food trucks around Cambridge that would serve up brief bios of entrepreneurs. All of those are swell ideas; none were pursued.
I’d also suggest asking businesses near the walk to donate window space for walk-related signage, or even digital projection screens that could show walk-related videos and animations after dark. Invite local designers or design students to create the signs and projections in return for a subtle “thank you” credit.
4. Shake up the walk’s board of trustees. The board ought to be dominated by entrepreneurs who know how to raise money. (Rowe tells me that it costs about $35,000 to produce and install a new set of five plaques each year.) Boston is full of people who have raised $100 million and more over their careers — and have helped our local venture capital firms profit in the process. Get them involved. The walk needs the financial support of successful entrepreneurs, VCs, and big companies in the neighborhood like Akamai, Biogen Idec, and Google.
The trustees ought to meet just once a year to select a group of new inductees from the nominations. (In the past, the process has gotten mired in debate, participants tell me.) And they need to very quickly add some diversity to the set of seven white males currently enshrined.
5. Commit to inducting five new entrepreneurs every year, starting in 2014. Link the annual induction ceremony to Boston Region Entrepreneurship Week, which takes place in October. And make sure it stays annual.
Like building an enduring company, creating a true local landmark isn’t easy. Do you have other ideas, or want to help? Drop me a note.