Paul English has built a speakeasy for the startup set.
Standing in an unnamed alley in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood, English points to the lighted doorbell at the entrance, and says he doesn’t plan to have a sign trumpeting the name of his new venture. Instead, visitors will see only the subtle metal cut-out of the letter “B” above the bell, and know they are about to enter a business incubator that English and his collaborators call Blade.
Blade is a third act for English, co-founder and former chief technology officer of the travel planning site Kayak.com. Backed by $20 million from the venture capital firms Accel Partners and General Catalyst, English intends to launch two or three new companies a year, focusing on a market segment that Boston has long ceded to Silicon Valley: consumers.
“Any entrepreneur who wants to do mass-market consumer startups, I want them to think about Blade,” says English. “We want to show that if you want to do consumer technology, you can do it in Boston.”
But if there’s anything tougher than trying to get a single company off the runway, it’s trying to design an aircraft carrier to vault them into the sky in quick succession. And English isn’t unaware of that. In developing the idea for Blade, he sought advice from the founder of LinkedIn and famed Silicon Valley moneyman Michael Moritz, asking each, “Why will I fail?”
English describes Blade as a “foundry” for new software businesses -- a place where entrepreneurs cultivate companies with early funding and access to office space and technology infrastructure. English is also assembling a roster of experienced executives from companies like Kayak, iRobot, Cisco, and Zappos to pitch in with advice and assistance.
Boston has seen incubators come and go. Cambridge Incubator was started in 1999 to spawn dot-com businesses, but morphed a few years later into a landlord to other startups; it’s now known as CIC, and operates shared offices in Boston and Cambridge. Idealab shut down its Newbury Street outpost in 2003, though its main office in Pasadena, Calif. remains one of the die-hards of the tech incubator world, having cranked out companies for nearly two decades.
In 2004, English and Steve Hafner started Kayak in the offices of General Catalyst, the Cambridge venture capital firm, with the goal of making it easier to survey all the airfare options for a particular trip. Kayak eventually became enough of a household name that other startups now talk about becoming the “Kayak of ground transportation” or the “Kayak of online education” when they want to say that they provide comprehensive search and comparison.
The company went public in 2012, and was acquired later that year by Priceline for $1.8 billion. Before Kayak, English sold an earlier startup to Intuit Inc., the maker of tax prep and small business management software.
Leading a tour around the ground-level space Monday, English emphasized that he hopes to create a hangout, as much as a workplace, for the startup and creative communities. Before they show up, VIP visitors will get a wristband encoded with information about their favorite song, favorite color, and drink of choice. That will allow entrance music to play when they come in.
During evening events, lights will change to their favorite color when they’re standing nearby. Their favorite booze will light up on a shelf when they stand at the bar. “The space will respond to you,” English says. An invite-only opening party was slated for Friday, and English plans to hold one concert a month at Blade.
So far, English and his co-founders, Bill O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk, have chosen two student-founded ideas to incubate. Blade will invest up to $2 million to develop an idea, before seeking funding from other investors.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman advised English to develop his own ideas for new businesses; Moritz, chairman of Sequoia Capital, cautioned against that. “He said, ‘Don’t you dare pursue one of your ideas. You’ll never get A+ talent to work on your idea,’” English recalls.
That’s a key choice for every incubator: should they attract and assist entrepreneurs with great ideas, or come up with great ideas and assemble a team to turn them into companies?
It’ll be interesting to see which way Blade tilts; English says he believes talented teams are far more important than brilliant ideas.
Redstar Ventures, a Cambridge incubator founded in 2010, develops ideas, then recruits entrepreneurs. One startup Redstar launched last year, an online wine-buying club called Vinely, has already folded. Another, a shopping advisory service called LoopIt, was acquired in what Redstar co-founder Joe Chung says was a “single digit millions of dollars” return for Redstar.
Unlike an entrepreneur who falls madly in love with a single idea, says Chung, incubators must be disciplined about when it’s time to give up and try something else. “If we’ve exhausted our budget of time and energy without coming up with a good solution, then let’s move on,” he says.
That decision is at the heart of entrepreneurial success. Does a fledgling company just need a few more months to find the right customer or tweak its interface? Or is the premise inherently flawed? Entrepreneurs working outside of incubators often hammer away for years, with only the scantest signs of progress. And incubators? It depends.
Tom Hughes of Marshfield worked for Steve Jobs and Polaroid founder Edwin Land, and was part of the founding crew at Idealab. Some ideas take two years, he says, some need 10.
One of the enduring truths of the entrepreneurial world, according to Hughes, is a simple one: “It’s really hard to know which ideas are going to take off.”