Marty Walsh had never met Arianna Huffington, but the first thing he did was apologize.
That’s because last year he hired away Daniel Koh from the Huffington Post to be his chief of staff. Koh, the 29-year-old wunderkind from Andover, had been the general manager of the New York media company’s streaming video network and at one time her chief of staff.
Huffington, the cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, is in Boston this week promoting her new book, “Thrive,” which occupies the No. 1 spot on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. She spoke at Harvard, to students at Hult International Business School, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
I brought Walsh and Huffington together to talk about what would make Boston a better home for startups and if we could ever surpass Silicon Valley. One counterintuitive idea: Create cellphone- and Wi-fi-free zones where you can unplug and think.
Here is an edited conversation that took place Wednesday in South Boston, not far from the Innovation District:
Leung: You have Dan Koh in common. What else do Arianna Huffington and Marty Walsh have in common?
Huffington: I have a daughter who has been sober for two years, and the mayor has been sober for 19 years, which is an incredible achievement and a real inspiration for many people including my daughter who can see what is possible when your life gets out of control.
Walsh: Giving young people a chance to do a very high-profile job is another thing in common, certainly at the Huffington Post and with Dan who had a big role, and then coming to Boston as chief of staff. Taking that chance and giving people opportunities in high levels of government and high levels of media, I think that’s important.
Leung: Arianna, you’ve been a digital revolutionary, and Mayor Walsh, Boston attracted more venture deals than Cambridge last year. How do we keep startups from moving away to the West Coast?
Walsh: We have to be continually creative and get other young people to engage in the conversation. That’s been missing to some degree in Boston as a whole. Using Twitter and using Facebook, having the chats -- that brings Boston to a whole new level. Young people are seeing that and are saying, “Wow, this is kind of a cool place to be.”
In the short period I’ve been mayor in the city of Boston, there have been over 4,200 jobs that have been announced in the tech startup industry. We are out recruiting actively other companies and other businesses to start here in Boston.
Huffington: The Huffington Post, which was completely a digital player, embraced the best traditions of journalism, which was followed by the Pulitzer. The most interesting models of the future are hybrids, incorporating the best traditions, the best of the old, and the best of the new and constantly evolving.
Leung: Silicon Valley is the tech center — not just in this country but in the world. What can we do in Boston to get us there?
Huffington: [With] technologists and startups becoming more significant in the world, there are going to be many centers. We saw what Mayor Bloomberg did in New York. We are seeing what Mayor Walsh is doing in Boston. It’s not going to be just one center in Silicon Valley, especially when you have the surrounding area of great universities and great innovators. It’s great young graduates are looking for opportunities. It’s a great breeding ground for startups and innovation.
Walsh: Absolutely. I also think what’s happening is technology is being used more and more in the lower-level schools and grammar schools. That changes the dynamics drastically. We have real opportunities in our lower schools to use technology that is even going to get us in the competitive marketplace faster.
Leung: What would it take for our startups not just to be in downtown Boston or the South Boston Waterfront, but also Allston, East Boston, different parts like Roxbury?
Walsh: We are working on that right now. We are encouraging businesses to look at Dudley, look at Mattapan, and look at Hyde Park. Allston/Brighton will have startups because of Harvard and BU.
You mentioned Downtown Crossing. Downtown Crossing is not known for startups; however, there are companies that are signed to come to downtown. So you are already starting to see people move from the Innovation District, the Leather District.
Leung: Arianna, you launched HuffPost, so you know how to grow a business, a huge business. How do you keep its identity? It’s something Boston companies struggle with once they get big.
Huffington: That is particularly important because a big company [AOL] acquired HuffPost. Most mergers and acquisitions don’t work because it’s imperative to keep the DNA of what made that startup successful. This was part of our agreement before the acquisition, and it’s really been honored, and it’s been amazing.
HuffPost has been able to keep its DNA, the DNA of a startup, constantly evolving, a lot of young people being given a lot of opportunities. Learning from people who are digital natives, learning from 19- and 20-year-olds, is the mentality of a startup. We have been able to keep it at the center of HuffPost, even though now we may be a global company.
Leung: How do you keep Boston companies that get bigger to remember Boston and give back to Boston?
Walsh: It’s important for businesses to see what City Hall is doing. For example, today we unveiled what is called Wicked Free Wi-Fi in Grove Hall. In an area of Boston that doesn’t have Wi-Fi, in an area that has been underserved. That’s a great way to attract businesses into Grove Hall. We are always trying to let people know we are always going to be there to support you.
Huffington: So I have an idea. This getting Wi-Fi for businesses is fantastic, but you should also identify an area in Boston where there should be absolutely no cellular service. No Wi-Fi. Nothing. Where people can go and unplug and recharge. This can be a big luxury.
Walsh: We already have plenty of those areas in our city. [Laughing] That’s our problem.
Huffington: But make them attractive. Identify an area. You can make it a park. Just do a beautification program, but do not bring cell phones and Wi-Fi. Become a place you can gather, talk, unplug, read a book.
Increasingly, that is something people are going to be gravitating toward. And then they can return back to their Wi-Fi, cellular world fully recharged.
Leung: I kind of like that idea.
Walsh: I do, too. We might announce it tomorrow.
Leung: One of the rubs against Boston is that we are not a fun city. What’s your take on Boston as a fun city, and does that matter to a tech town?
Huffington: Innovative people create their own fun. They create their own tribes; they create whatever is fun for them, which is different for them. For me, it is country music.
Walsh: Did you watch the awards the other night? The country music awards, I watched most of it.
Huffington: Yes, you see, another thing we have in common. Fun is so individual. You can create your own fun. I mean if you can create your own business, you can create your own fun.
Leung: Arianna’s new book, “Thrive,” is about how money and power are metrics of success, but she wants us to adopt a third metric, about not working yourself to death and taking time to recharge. One of her pieces of advice is to get enough sleep.
Huffington: Sleeping your way to the top.
Leung: Yes, for Arianna, it is about 7 hours. So Mayor Walsh, how much sleep do you get?
Walsh: I am trying to be disciplined with it, between 6 or 7 hours. During the campaign I was getting five.
Huffington: Seven is when you are feeling on top of the world, like you can handle anything, right?
Walsh: This job I have now is different than campaigning. Campaigning was preparing to be the mayor. This job, you are the mayor, and the decisions you have to make over the course of the day change. You’re talking 10 to 15 potential decisions every day. Some are very major, and some are minor, but you need to have that fresh perspective.
Leung: What time do you go to sleep?
Walsh: I try to go to bed at 11.
Huffington: Do you sleep with your smartphone next to you?
Huffington: Wise man.
Leung: He doesn’t even need to read your book.
Walsh: The phone is out in the kitchen, plugged in. My alarm is on the phone so when I get up in the morning I get up to get it.
Leung: Mayor Walsh, what would your third metric be for the city?
Walsh: The third metric is making sure that I don’t let this job get to my head, don’t let my ego get out of control, always understand the people come first. You see many leaders that get all consumed with the power of being leaders, and they get blinded by it.
For example, when I’m walking around the neighborhood, people call me Marty and go, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I like to be called Marty. I hope I don’t ever get to the point I’m saying to somebody, “you need to address me as the Mayor.” It won’t ever happen because that’s who I am, I am Marty. When this is all done, I am Marty again.