What does it mean that venture capitalists don’t seem eager to set up shop in Boston?
Over the past couple of years, as some of the biggest names in tech startup investing have opened new offices on the East Coast, they have put down roots in two places: New York and Miami. When Sequoia, the VC firm that made early bets on Apple, Google, and Zoom, opened its first office outside Silicon Valley, it chose Union Square in Manhattan. Andreessen Horowitz, which backed Airbnb and Twitter, announced in July it would open up in Miami and New York.
That feels like a snub to a city that was home to one of the first modern venture capital firms, American Research & Development. It also was long the Eastern hub of startup investing, with venerable firms such as Greylock, North Bridge, and Charles River Ventures deciding which entrepreneurs had ideas that could be worth billions.
Does it mean that Boston is already well-served by venture capital firms? Does it mean that West Coast and European investors believe the tech scene here has insufficient “upside,” as investors like to say?
First, the data. There is no dearth of money to be had in Boston. According to Pitchbook, a funding database, VCs put $35 billion into startups in the Greater Boston region last year across all industries, making it the #3 city in US, after San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. But New York has been on fire, rising from the #3 spot a decade ago a dozen years ago, and putting Boston in the rearview mirror consistently as of 2014; last year, NYC startups attracted about $20 billion more in VC dollars than those based in Boston. (Miami had about one-third the number of venture capital deals in 2021 as Boston; but in 2006, it was at about one-twelfth the number of deals done here.) Venture capital firms headquartered in Massachusetts collected nearly $12 billion in new capital to invest last year, putting us in third place after San Francisco and New York. But again, New York has been rising in these rankings, too, taking over what had consistently been Boston’s spot.
I asked people who have worked in venture capital and startups over at least the past decade what they made of VC firms gravitating to Miami and New York.
Todd Dagres, a founder of Boston-based Spark Capital, a venture capital firm that put money into startups such as Wayfair and Twitter, says that “Boston has been in a decline for decades. Biotech has kept Boston at the forefront, but the trend is not great.” Dagres cites four reasons for Miami’s appeal to investors: “taxes, the COVID-related shift away from the main office, weather, and the political environment.” Florida has a Republican governor and no state income tax. And Miami’s Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, has been promoting the city as a hospitable spot for startups.
“For New York,” Dagres says, “it’s an exodus from California and the attraction of the Big Apple.” But he thinks the rise of New York “will be more transitory” because of the city’s winter weather, taxes (New York City levies a personal income tax, in addition to the state’s), and left-leaning politics.
“Massachusetts needs to think deeply about how to establish an environment that will attract founders and investors,” Dagres says, mentioning the state’s proposed “millionaires tax” on income over $1 million. “People we want in Massachusetts can go where they want now, more than ever,” he says. “There can be no resting on laurels.”
Adam Medros is a former TripAdvisor exec who is now chief operating officer of Embark Veterinary, a pet DNA testing company. He sees Miami pulling in “the tax avoiding crowd” and “the crypto crowd,” referring to companies tied to cryptocurrency. For tech companies that can now hire employees remotely, Medros says, “geography not mattering as much is probably a net negative trend for Boston.” In contrast, for biotech companies, where many employees need to work together in a lab, “geography may matter more than ever, and Boston might be a net winner on that front.”
“Miami happened spontaneously during lockdowns, due to a pro-tech mayor and no pandemic restrictions and great convention space,” says Joe Kinsella, a Boston entrepreneur whose last startup CloudHealth Technologies, was acquired by VMware in 2018. He started hearing Miami buzz when cryptocurrency conferences began taking place there at a time when “no other city would host them,” because of COVID. “It was definitely a snub against Boston and many other cities that had strict lockdowns,” he says. “But there are legit VCs leading the charge, so it is more than just a reaction to pandemic lockdowns now.”
But New York, Kinsella says, “has been kicking our butt for several years now,” having launched companies such as Etsy, Kickstarter, and Shutterstock, a photo licensing site. “Unlike Miami, the NYC rise is not a recent trend. They have been building tech strength for years, and it shows no signs of slowing.”
He adds: “I think the biggest thing we can do to make Boston a bigger tech destination — beyond just the things we need to do to be a better city — is to have a pro-tech mayor and/or governor. Boston tech was built on great public-private partnerships.”
At the Boston venture capital firm Underscore, cofounder Richard Dulude says he spent several months with relatives in Miami during the pandemic, and had a chance to assess the startup scene there. “They have not only top-down support from the mayor and others, but a real inflow of people,” Dulude says. “Florida had the highest ingress of people in the US over these past few years, and Miami was a great beneficiary of that. You had founders making that move, investors making that move, and employees of tech companies.” While Dulude says he evaluated some startups while he was living in Miami, he hasn’t yet made any investments there.
Of VC firms’ decision to set up outposts in Miami and New York, Dulude says that there are already “plenty of funders in Boston.” Those firms “didn’t see the same scale of white space here that they saw in other geographies.”
When I reached out to a handful of venture capital firms that have recently opened offices in New York or Miami, looking for comment, I got just one response, from Threshold Ventures, based in Menlo Park, Calif., the nexus of West Coast venture capital. Managing partner Emily Melton explained that “New York-based companies are a growing force in our portfolio,” and that one of her partners moved to the city last year. Threshold has already made a handful of investments in New York startups ― outside of California, Melton said, it was the other market where the firm kept spotting great opportunities to invest. It has also backed one Boston startup.
“Very few people who move somewhere to do a startup will choose the second-largest startup ecosystem, but lots will choose #1,” says Kabir Hemrajani, cofounder and CEO of Cambridge startup Guilds, which is building a cryptocurrency wallet for video gamers. “When you look at where to do a startup on the East Coast, New York wins for ease of funding and community, outside of biotech. Even if Boston is #2, it will fall way behind.” Hemrajani says his startup recently raised an early round of capital that was led by investors based not in Boston, but in Europe and San Francisco. He says he wishes that there was much more early-stage funding for more startups here — giving Boston more shots on goal at creating big tech successes.
Kristen Anderson, founder of a startup that helps self-employed people manage their health care, retirement, and other benefits, wrote a post last year explaining why she decided to move the company, Catch, from Boston to New York. In it, she rapped “conservative and traditionalist venture investors” as one of the factors behind the move. (She also cited a dearth of consumer-focused financial services startups here to hire employees from.) Her startup has raised nearly $20 million in funding over its short lifespan — none of it from Boston-based investors.
If Boston’s tech scene isn’t getting an influx of new investors like Miami and New York, it may be wise for the existing ecosystem of venture capital firms to take a good, hard look at the way they’re perceived by founders, and for policymakers to consider whether and how they want to support the health of the VC and tech scenes here.