Business

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

How to make Chamber of Commerce relevant to innovation sector

Not long ago, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce held a luncheon at the Westin Copley. The featured speaker was Walter Isaacson, author of “The Innovators,” a book about the pioneers of the computing and Internet revolutions.

But ask an actual innovator in Boston what they think of the Chamber, which ostensibly promotes business in the city, and you get some pretty harsh replies. “The Chamber of Commerce is largely irrelevant to my cohort,” says Tom Pincince, chief executive of the lighting company Digital Lumens. Here’s Micah Adler, CEO of the mobile marketing company Fiksu: “I can say that I have never had any dealings with them, nor do I know of any fast-growth company that has.”

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The director of Techstars Boston, one of the city’s highest-profile startup factories, says he has had no interactions thus far with the Chamber.

It’s no reflection on the new president of the chamber, James E. Rooney, who got the $370,000 gig earlier this month. But leaders of some of the city’s rapidly expanding companies don’t have the greatest relationships with or views of the Chamber of Commerce, which holds its annual meeting on May 6th. Mike Baker, chief executive of DataXu, was typical.

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“Even the word ‘chamber’ connotes a closed, negative space where people are held captive,” says Baker, whose Boston marketing tech startup has hired about 200 people over the last three years. “It’s time for The Boston API of Commerce.” API is one of those techie terms that connotes openness and interaction; an “application programming interface” is what allows one piece of software to talk to another.

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but here are five things I think Rooney could do to make the Chamber matter more not just to entrepreneurs, but to everyone in Boston.

1. Invite Europe and the Middle East over. Already, Boston is home to sales and marketing offices of Israeli tech companies, startups from Estonia, and investment outposts of German pharmaceutical companies. The Chamber should work with a group like the nonprofit MassEcon to put on a conference for entrepreneurs, chief executives, and investors from Europe and the Middle East, focusing on countries that have nonstop flights to Logan International Airport.

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Let them schmooze with local venture capitalists, angels, and private equity investors. Get them into places like Akamai’s Network Operations Command Center in Cambridge, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, and the new Fintech Sandbox, an organization that supports financial services startups. Create a targeted list of companies, and limit attendance to 250 people. The ticket price? Free, sponsored by all the real estate, recruiting, public relations, and law firms that will benefit once they put down stakes here.

2. Connect small companies to big ones. Young companies can spend hundreds of hours trying to establish relationships with bigger players that can help test, market, or distribute their products. The Chamber can accelerate that process, creating online and offline ways for a startup developing new software for retailers, for instance, to meet executives at Talbot’s or BJ’s Wholesale Club.

3. Make the invisible visible. You could walk around Boston and Cambridge forever without learning that the mutual fund was created here, the telephone invented here, the first video game developed here, and so on. The Chamber could hold design charrettes with artists, students, and exhibit designers — and work with city officials — to create murals, permanent displays, and interactive experiences that give Bostonians and visitors a sense for what happens at our hometown companies — and the city’s rich history of innovation.

4. Introduce a pay-what-you-can tier. Right now, the Chamber doesn’t display its membership fees on its website. That’s disappointingly opaque. Why not create a $10 a month plan, or even a pay-what-you-can tier, so that the Chamber represents a larger slice of the Boston business community? Today, the Chamber’s membership doesn’t reflect all of Boston — especially the startups pouring into neighborhoods like the Leather District, Downtown Crossing, and Back Bay.

5. Foster more campus connections. The Chamber already has a site, Intern Hub, which helps companies find student interns. Boston’s greatest renewable resource is the hundreds of thousands of students who live here, but we don’t do nearly enough to expose them to companies here — or the network that would support them in starting their own firms. That could mean bringing Chamber members onto campuses as guest lecturers, or finding ways to support events like the annual conference put on by Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business.

Staying connected to the campus community should be the primary responsibility for one Chamber staffer. When a Chamber member puts on a hackathon or holds a recruiting event, that staffer can shine the “bat signal” and make sure students show up. Oh, and don’t forget to set aside a handful of comped seats at Chamber events for students.

I won’t suggest ditching the organization’s name. But a fresher brand image wouldn’t hurt — maybe one that emphasizes the initials GBC more than Greater Boston Chamber. GBC, after all, could stand for some cool stuff: Growing Big Companies… Global Business Connections… Growth / Business / Community.

With the arrival its first new leader in almost two decades, the question is: How much will the Chamber acknowledge it has a problem, and how much is it willing to change?

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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