This is a story about a Cambridge restaurant that never managed to attract investors, secure a location, or even open its doors. And in failing to do all that, it spawned one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial gatherings anywhere in the world — a blueprint that has now been replicated in Rotterdam, Miami, and Tokyo.
The restaurant was going to be called Watson and Bell, named in honor of the legendary lab assistant and his boss, the inventor of the telephone. What it became is a nonprofit organization called the Venture Café, which gives away keg upon keg of free beer as a way to bring together the city’s startup tribe for discussions about emergent trends and technologies, demos of not-yet-launched products, and advice from investors and seasoned entrepreneurs.
The Venture Café is only open on Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. But on a busy Thursday, it hosts more people than most of the hottest restaurants in town: Average attendance is north of 500 people, and a particularly good night stretches past 800, according to Chandra Briggman, director of the Venture Café in Kendall Square. By her estimate, more than 42,000 people have visited since it opened in 2010.
“The business model is simple: alcohol and good programming,” says Sierra Flanigan, a sustainability consultant in Boston, referring to the speakers and sessions served up each Thursday. Topics can range from food to finance to the “earth night” environmental sessions that Flanigan organizes. The result is a little bit like “Cheers,” a little bit like a high school science fair, a little bit like the “Star Wars” cantina.
Everyone who drops in gets an adhesive nametag that shows the number of times they’ve been before. There are usually plenty of 1s and 2s — but also a handful that represent more than 100 visits, including Flanigan’s.
The roots of the café go back almost a decade, when Tim Rowe, the founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared office space, began thinking about ways to fill what he saw as a void in Kendall Square. At the time, the best options for a coffee meeting were a Dunkin’ Donuts and an Au Bon Pain, and Legal Sea Foods was “the only place for a reasonable business lunch,” according to Aubrey Lawrence, who volunteered with Rowe to help cultivate the idea that became Watson and Bell.
I was at one of the early planning sessions in 2009, and while there was lots of excitement about creating a new meeting place for entrepreneurs, investors, and their collaborators, everyone brought a different concept of what it should be. A white tablecloth establishment where you might try to persuade a Fortune 500 megacorp to buy your little startup? A café where two founders could buy muffins and espresso and toil over their laptops all day? Should it have a meeting room in back, or some kind of small space for workshops and events?
There were plenty of gee-whiz ideas, like a way to use your mobile phone to order food in advance and then grab it to go (well before Panera and Starbucks introduced the technology). Someone suggested printing a standard nondisclosure form on the placemats, so your lunch companion could agree to keep things hush-hush before you discussed your business idea in detail.
“We wanted to help Kendall Square and help entrepreneurs at the same time,” Lawrence recalls. The problem they encountered? While everyone was happy to brainstorm, no one wanted to provide money.
“The people who might’ve invested in it wanted to see a greater level of restaurant or café experience than we had,” she says.
But undeterred, in 2010 the small group began to hold once-a-week gatherings with free coffee and soda on an upper floor of the Cambridge Innovation Center building. (Craft beer on tap came later, after the organizers figured out the nuances of licensing and ID verification practices.) Then-governor Deval Patrick and Susan Hockfield, at the time the president of MIT, showed up to the first get-together in February 2010, to help promote a statewide entrepreneurship week.
Some of the early participants came to get access to venture capitalists who agreed to take short meetings — dubbed “office hours” — with entrepreneurs. But others still hoped to contribute to the creation of an actual café with food and coffee, says Carrie Stalder, one of the key early project managers.
“I talked to literally every person who came through the door,” she says, “to explain the concept, gather feedback, make introductions after hearing what they were working on or thinking about — to generally create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.” Her goal was to make it a “magnet” for entrepreneurially minded people across industries and age groups — and also an antidote for the sometimes-cold vibe of Kendall Square and Boston as a whole.
Today, the café occupies a larger space on the fifth floor of the CIC’s Kendall Square tower. And every Thursday evening, it fills up with an only-in-Kendall mix of students, entrepreneurs, lawyers, executives from larger companies in the neighborhood, and out-of-towners visiting Boston.
The reaction of that last group — whether from London or Lithuania — tends to be “wow,” says Briggman, the current director of the café, which is now part of a nonprofit foundation. “They can’t believe the energy, or that something like this happens every week in Boston. They may say, ‘We need this in our country or city.’ ”
On any given Thursday, there might be culinary entrepreneurs offering samples, or developers of a new virtual reality game offering you the chance to don a headset and enter the world they’ve created. You can still sign up for a one-on-one “office hours” conversation with an investor, or drop in on a panel about using social media to promote your business.
On Thursday, the café will feature a “shark tank” pitch event with five financial services startups; in July there are several roundtables with entrepreneurs who are military veterans, and an evening focused on cybersecurity.
Eight years after the first Venture Café night, it isn’t hard to find stories of entrepreneurs who have met cofounders at the event, or used it as a way to “break in” to the Boston startup scene and learn about the fund-raising process.
Zoë Barry says that in 2012 she had an idea for a startup that would make it easier for patients to order specialty prescription drugs online. “I had this concept but no idea what to do next,” she says. By attending educational sessions at the café, “I learned what a term sheet was, how to talk the venture capital talk, what a pitch deck was,” she says.
Today, Barry’s Boston company, ZappRx, has raised more than $40 million and has 47 employees. “I don’t think I’d be here with ZappRx at all, if not for the Venture Café.”
In retrospect, Lawrence says, the lukewarm reception to the Watson and Bell restaurant “was one of the best things that ever happened.” Because that idea didn’t take off, “it changed it from being owned by CIC, to being community-owned. You don’t need money to have a Venture Café in your city. You just need a community to be invested, and somebody to donate some beer. That wouldn’t have been possible if it had been a restaurant.”
The next step: 50 more cities around the world in the next seven years. The founding director of the Venture Café in St. Louis, Travis Sheridan, now leads an organization called the CIC Venture Café Global Institute, which is helping lay the groundwork for similar weekly gatherings in Philadelphia, Sydney, Australia, and Warsaw, among other spots.
It’s one more idea that started here and went global.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.