What’s the state of the Boston startup scene as we head into the fall?
That question was on my mind recently, so I put together a short survey, and received replies from more than 200 people — entrepreneurs, employees, venture capitalists, and lawyers, publicists, and recruiters who work with startups.
Some of the headlines: Startups are still sorting out their relationship with office space, with very few returning to five-day-per-week usage; funding is tighter this year compared with 2021; and as a result, many companies have been working to cut costs, starting with contractors, consultants, and marketing.
I asked people to fill out the 16-question survey anonymously to elicit as much candor as possible. I’ll run through the quantitative results in this column, and share more of the qualitative comments in a future piece.
The data paints a picture of a startup scene that is still evolving in response to the pandemic, with more remote workers being hired than before and offices being used much less consistently. But its overall vibrancy is largely seen as good by those who work in it.
Who responded. Forty-seven percent described themselves as startup founders, and the second largest cohort (21 percent) said they were employees of a startup. The majority of respondents (71 percent) said they work in the tech sector, with 13 percent working in life sciences, health care, or medical devices.
Moving out of Massachusetts. Sixty percent of the respondents said they know two or more people who moved out of state since the start of the pandemic, in March 2020. (About 30 percent said they couldn’t think of anyone who’d moved.) I asked about the key drivers behind these moves. On the list: cost of living, being closer to family, weather, outdoor activities, and the opportunity to make a lifestyle change due to remote work. One respondent said the people they knew who left Massachusetts were “young people who could afford to rent a house with former college friends, while all work from home.” Another said that they knew people who “moved full-time into vacation homes on the Cape, in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont.” Yet another said they knew people who had moved to Florida and Puerto Rico, largely to lower their income tax payments.
Office usage. Fifty-five percent of respondents said their company still maintains an office, and plans to keep it. Seven percent said they have an office, but are considering getting rid of it. Nineteen percent had an office before COVID, but no longer do. The rest said that their company has always operated virtually.
Just 4 percent of respondents who work for companies that still have an office said they are expected to show up every day. Just over one-third said they can set their own schedule, and another 31 percent said they are expected to go in three to four days per week. About 24 percent of respondents said they’re expected to be in one or two days per week, and six percent said they never go in, or only go in for special events or meetings. (About 15 percent of life sciences and medical device startup employees said they were required to show up every day; no tech industry respondents indicated that that’s required of them.)
At the vast majority of companies with a set schedule for being in the office — 77 percent — people are sticking to it. At 20 percent of companies, some people are ignoring the attendance requirement. In most of those situations, management doesn’t seem to care (13 percent), but at others, it’s starting to become an issue (7 percent).
When people are in the office, 49 percent described the energy level as “moderate,” and 43 percent as “very high.” Just 8 percent said it’s low.
Cost-cutting. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said there hasn’t been any cost-cutting at their company in 2022. But of the remainder, the top four things getting cut have been (in order): consultants or contractors; marketing; jobs; travel; and rent. In comments shedding additional light on cost-cutting, some respondents said that they’d slowed down or frozen hiring.
Of the different segments of people who responded to the survey, venture capitalists and other investors were the least likely to have done cost-cutting at their firms: Just 21 percent said they’d made or faced budget cuts in their organizations, compared with 47 percent of startups. The investor segment was also roughly half as likely as startups to have cut costs through layoffs.
Connectedness and remote work. I asked how connected people feel to their coworkers, compared with prior to March 2020. Forty-five percent admitted to feeling less connected, 39 percent said things were about the same, and 16 percent said they feel more connected.
Just 12 percent of respondents said all new hires at their company are expected to move to Boston (a number that rises to 18 percent among the life sciences and health care respondents, and to 29 percent in the energy/cleantech sector.) At nearly 38 percent of respondents’ companies, new hires have the option of working remotely. Another 50 percent of respondents described hiring as a mix, with some roles requiring people to be in the Boston area, while others work remotely.
Turnover and job searching. Survey respondents did not describe turnover as a serious problem at their companies in 2022, despite all the headlines about the Great Resignation. And 76 percent described themselves as “firmly planted” in their current role. Just six percent said they were actively looking for a new job, with the remainder keeping an eye out for new opportunities in a more passive fashion.
Funding and the health of the ecosystem. Survey respondents largely described the funding environment as worse in 2022 than 2021; just 4 percent said it had improved. “Investment in hard tech and robotics has increased since COVID,” one respondent wrote, noting that there is “more demand for automation.” Of the investors who participated in the survey, 50 percent said funding is less available for “most startups”; 20 percent said it was less available for startups without a clear path to profitability; and seven percent said it was less available to startups in certain sectors.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they feel optimistic about the health of Boston’s startup ecosystem, describing it as vibrant. Seven percent said they’re pessimistic about it, and the remainder were neutral. One respondent wasn’t sure about the health of the ecosystem, writing, “I feel disconnected from almost everything,” given remote work “and fewer get-togethers.” But another wrote, “It’s a good scene,” albeit perhaps “too self-conscious about not being NYC or Silicon Valley. We are world-class at many things, and should stop acting like we aren’t.”
We’ll dive more into people’s impressions and qualitative comments in a future column.