The pandemic forced many companies into a massive, unplanned experiment in remote working. Local tech startups discovered they could hire talented coders, marketers, and salespeople from all over the country. Now, one question is whether that ability to draw talent from all over hurts or helps Boston’s startup scene.
Lars Albright, who has started several successful tech companies here, is betting on continued success. After selling his most recent startup, SessionM, to Mastercard and working for a few years for the credit card giant, he’s shifting to investing in startups and opening a Boston outpost for Silicon Valley firm Unusual Ventures.
“This access, where you can reach into talent pools that are not physically located in Boston, is a tailwind for companies that are trying to find the best possible talent,” Albright said in an interview over coffee at Thinking Cup on Newbury Street. “They can still be headquartered in the area, but reach out and find that talent in other parts of the country.”
Like many VCs, Albright also points to the region’s strong base of colleges and universities, which produces a constant stream of talented graduates interested in starting up new companies. In the past, many of those grads have been drawn to Silicon Valley — think Mark Zuckerberg. But Boston has developed some top-tier tech companies of its own, such as DraftKings, Wayfair, and HubSpot, plus last year’s new arrivals on the stock market, Toast and Ginkgo Bioworks.
“They’ve been large, successful exits for both investors and employees,” Albright said. “And that helps create momentum around the conviction that Boston can build big multi-billion dollar companies.”
Still, the new era of remote work could end up hurting tech centers like Boston and San Francisco. “Does that make it so fewer businesses get started and attached to a city?” Albright asked. “With distributed work, does that eventually change the need to be based in a city?”
A Harvard graduate with an MBA from Dartmouth, Albright got started as a Boston tech cofounder in 2006 at the mobile advertising company Quattro Wireless. Apple snapped up Quattro for a reported $275 million a few years later. Albright soon left Apple to help found another Boston startup, SessionM, which helped run customer loyalty programs. Mastercard bought the company in 2019 and Albright stayed for a few years before deciding to join Unusual Ventures.
The Menlo Park firm was started in 2018 by longtime VC John Vrionis and repeat entrepreneur Jyoti Bansal. Unusual aimed to stand out by getting hands on with founders it backed and offering more coaching and advice than typical VC firms, which appealed to Albright.
“I always loved those early company-building days where you are hustling to build critical momentum,” he said. From the new Boston office in the Back Bay, Albright will be concentrating on startups in consumer software, fintech, and business cloud software.
Albright is getting into venture capital at a tough time for startups, with tech stock prices crashing, COVID still lingering, and the economy suffering. But he’s looking for the silver lining. During the prior boom years, many startups got more caught up with raising money than building sustainable businesses, he said. Now the focus is returning to the business side.
“It created this unnatural motion around [fund-raising] as the goal,” Albright said. “Are you building a business that makes sense, not for fund-raising, not for the hype, but does it make sense as a business?”