Tech entrepreneur Paul English is turning the page on the next chapter of his career. Actually, make that five chapters. Maybe ten.
It’s hard to know just how many successful consumer apps English will launch out of his new startup, Boston Venture Studio. His goal is ambitious: Come up with as many as 20 good ideas each year, and then spin out two or three viable standalone businesses annually with their own leadership teams and venture capital backing.
English made his millions helping found and grow the travel search engine Kayak, which went public and ultimately was sold in 2013 to what was then Priceline.com for roughly $2 billion. English then built a promising business-to-business travel software company called Lola that was on a steep growth trajectory when the pandemic hit, essentially halting corporate travel overnight. He kept Lola intact by pivoting it, turning it into a broader expense billing software provider; he then sold the technology to Capital One last year, guiding most of his staff to a safe landing within the bank’s fintech group.
So what’s next?
Boston Venture Studio, launched earlier this week, will differ from typical incubators. Instead of providing resources, desk space and advice to founders with clever startup ideas, English instead will come up with the ideas himself by brainstorming with five to 10 team members, a group that includes longtime confidant and collaborator, Paul Schwenk. English is the majority owner of Boston Venture Studio and will maintain equity in the spinoffs, but will line up VC funds to support them. He hopes to create a new anchor — or anchors, as the case may be — for Boston’s consumer-tech scene.
“I’m realizing the most fun I ever have working is the zero-to-one stage, the beginning stage, going from concept to prototype to customers,” English said. “I like the fear of not knowing if an idea is going to work or not, and trying something from scratch and talking to customers, and doing that rapid refinement. That iteration from where they either hate it or are confused about it to where they like it, that’s the favorite part for me.”
English, who is 58, said he is launching this endeavor while founding his fourth philanthropic effort, aimed at providing assistance to young people with bipolar disorder, to be called Bipolar Boston. He has been open about his own struggles with his bipolar illness over the years, including in the Tracy Kidder-penned biography, “A Truck Full of Money,” and has acted as a mentor to several young men as a result. He’s working with Mass. General Hospital and McLean Hospital on the initiative and envisions a website with resources and video interviews aimed at demystifying the ailment, as well as in-person meetings of peer groups facilitated by the hospitals to share experiences.
English said he may start Bipolar Boston as a project within The Boston Foundation, as he did with King Boston — a racial justice project that has raised $20 million so far and will include a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. English also teamed up with Partners In Health about five years ago to launch Summits Education to educate kids in rural Haiti, and he founded the annual Winter Walk around the same time to raise awareness of homelessness in Boston.
“There are a lot of things that he could do that might be more lucrative from a personal standpoint and yet would not give him a sense of any personal satisfaction,” said Youngme Moon, a friend of English’s and a professor at Harvard Business School. “He’s someone who is fundamentally restless in the best possible way.”
That restlessness has already given birth to two apps that will be nurtured within Boston Venture Studio before being spun off: Moonbeam, a podcast player that makes playlist recommendations, and Xiangqi.com, a site for playing and learning about the game known as Chinese chess.
English said Boston Venture Studio employs five people today, with plans to add a few more. They’ll work without an office for now, meeting in person for weekly lunchtime sessions. The apps, at least in their early stages, will be supported by a software development firm in Pakistan called Arbisoft.
English relishes the idea of returning to consumer technology after several years of building business-focused software. The first software program English sold when he was in high school, Cupid, was a computer game for a Commodore personal computer.
“It’s more relatable,” English said of consumer-tech. “You can talk to your neighbors and they all can understand it.”
English said he would like to see Boston Venture Studio join the likes of DraftKings and Tripadvisor — big consumer-focused companies that have become influential in the region’s tech economy — to “create some excitement in Boston” about consumer tech. But the future locations of the startups born in his “studio” will likely hinge on the people he hires to lead each one.
“I’m biased toward Boston but I’m not going to rule out [going elsewhere],” English said. “If I find a great CEO who happens to be in Miami, I’ll just create it in Miami.”
Moon has been so impressed with English’s nonlinear approach to innovation, she’s working on a case study about him at Harvard Business School.
“He is completely unafraid of failure and that liberates him to try things in a different way,” Moon said. “[With] this Boston Venture Studio idea, my guess is that 100 percent of the ideas that come out of it will be quirky and interesting and curious and charming. And a subset of those might truly be magical.”