As we begin 2020, I wanted to take the pulse of the tech ecosystem in Boston. And what better way to get some off-the-cuff input than a group text message? I assembled a group of people who run, fund, or find office space for fast-growing companies, and put them all on the same text chain.
The messages have been lightly edited for coherence and length.
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Scott Kirsner: The Senate impeachment trial, presidential primaries, and the election will be huge in 2020. What’s your current thinking about how all that affects the startup ecosystem or the psychology of the business world in general?
Rob May: Now that the Republican Party stopped supporting free trade, fiscal responsibility, and smaller government, the two major parties are more similar economically than ever before — and neither is particularly good for business.
That, plus President Trump’s chaotic style, makes it hard to invest for the long term. Businesses and markets like stability and predictability.
TJ Mahony: Specific to the startup ecosystem, many of these companies will see three presidential terms before [the successful ones are sold or go public]. Short of regulated markets, you have 100 times more things to worry about than who is in the box.
Snejina Zacharia: Entrepreneurial capitalism will exist and thrive in the US, independently of political background noise.
Roy Hirshland: There are some broader concerns on the election outcome that I hear from the ecosystem. With a Trump win, it could continue to embolden populism and anti-intellectualism in the country, policies, and Congress. Government funding, for example, impacts National Institutes of Health funding of Greater Boston’s life science community. In addition, the universities that play such an important part in our ecosystem are concerned about drops in foreign student applications. On the opposite side of the aisle, there is concern about some Democrat positions impacting venture capital and private equity firms’ stability, and increased taxes, for example. As we get closer to November, there is concern that the election outcome and uncertainty could impact the markets and trickle down to startups and investors.
Kirsner: OK . . . Question 2. What do you see when you (or your companies) try to fill jobs? Will that change in 2020?
Jill Kravetz: At iRelaunch, we see an increasing number of companies of all sizes hiring professionals who have been on career break and are ready to return to work. They tend to be highly experienced, professional, enthusiastic, and with a little bit of updating and training, are often among the most valuable contributors. Historically, it was mostly large companies hiring from this talent pool, but in 2020 we will see smaller companies tapping into it as an alternative and diverse source of talent.
Mahony: “Remote first” team builds [starting a company with employees based anywhere] has been a trend among knowledge workers and many new startups. In fact, HubSpot just added its first “remote experience manager.” Location will be removed from core job requirements, and the geo fence that has historically limited the supply of talent, diversity, and inclusion will erode.
Devon McDonald: The “remote first” prediction is definitely a great point, and I wholeheartedly agree. Also, predictive analytics in recruiting is going to take center stage. Bigger companies that have to recruit at massive scale more are using predictive data to forecast how successful a given candidate might be as an employee long term. I think in the coming decade it’s going to become more accessible and available to all companies.
Tim Rowe: Companies are taking risks on other cities/locations, going farther afield to try to find quality, available labor. We are seeing mid-sized cities that had been down on their luck start to boom. Example: Square hiring hundreds and building a building in St. Louis.
Hirshland: Much of T3’s work is helping companies create strategies and places to drive talent attraction and retention. We think about these trends a lot. First, traffic will get worse, not better. And our aging infrastructure (i.e., roads and the MBTA) are in trouble. This will absolutely continue to drive remote-work strategies.
Second, we are seeing companies consider alternative cities to places like Boston, San Francisco, and traditional tech clusters much earlier in their life cycle, as a way to find less expensive talent faster.
Kirsner: I hear fairly regularly from older workers (50-plus) who feel at a disadvantage when it comes to landing jobs at these newer, fast-growing companies, even if they have up-to-date skills. Do you see that as a real issue, and are companies trying to counter it in their hiring?
Kravetz: Yes, it is a real issue, because the assumption on the part of hiring managers at these fast-growing, newer companies (who tend to be much younger than the 50-plus applicants) is less about their ability to train them up to standard and more about their ability to operate in a startup environment. They assume that older workers won’t be working at night, on the weekends, etc. Whereas for many older workers, there is nothing further from the truth. By the time they are at that stage, they have fewer responsibilities at home or outside of work, and are ready to dive right in and run as fast as any other employee.
It is up to the applicants to sell themselves to companies, and acknowledge that the company may be concerned about these factors, but reassure them that they are just as ready to put in the hours and effort as any other employee.
Hirshland: Wow, guess that makes me an “older worker!” Ageism is real thing and a problem. The Boston innovation economy has a ways to go to address all forms of diversity in hiring, including age bias.
The fact, for example, that I have lived and worked through three recessions (1990, 2001, and 2008) in my career doesn’t make me smarter than someone you get who entered the workforce after 2008. But it does give someone like me perspectives that only come with experience. And sometimes, in some leadership roles, that can be invaluable. And you can’t buy experience.
May: As online education has made it easier and easier to acquire new skills, the focus on young, newly educated talent is waning. More mature skill sets like managerial experience and communication skills, strong judgment, etc. are in demand, and that favors older workers.
Kirsner: Is there a trend or emerging technology that you think will be big in 2020?
Kravetz: Does TikTok count ;)
Kirsner: Why not? But overhyped or still on the upswing in 2020?
Kravetz: Still on the upswing, and businesses will find a way to leverage, as ridiculous as it seems. Also VSCO in a similar way.
Ric Fulop: I don’t think quantum computing is ready for prime time, despite recent investments.
Hirshland: The Stephen Schwartzman $350 million gift to MIT to help establish a center for artificial intelligence, as well as Northeastern’s establishment of their own AI center, will continue to put the Boston area in a good position to capitalize on [AI].
Mahony: Personalized health is entering a renaissance. You’re going to see a lot of new consumer-grade tech that makes it a lot easier and useful to know what’s going inside your body — shades of Theranos, but without all the fraud.
Kirsner: My last q for this group — if you were crafting a slogan or tagline for Boston tech going forward, what would it be? How would you capture what the city does well?
Mahony: Technically inclined, creatively developing. (Translated: Media, consumer, social networks, etc. are more creative challenges than technical challenges . . . )
Hirshland: “Tough tech.” We solve the hard problems that will have big impacts on the world. (With a nod to Katie Rae and The Engine).
Fulop: We should stop using the words “tough tech.” First of all, it’s not tough, and it’s not hard, either. I think Boston excels at physical sciences. That spans the gamut from 3D printing, where we have an excellent cluster, to bio, robotics, computer vision and imaging, etc.
Hirshland: All right. I’ll change it to Tuff Tech.
And your point is exactly what I meant. The path to profitability and product development does take longer, is often more expensive in the “physical sciences” (life sciences, 3D printing, robotics etc). With big long-term upside both financially as well as broader impact.
May: Boston is more similar to Silicon Valley than others think. We are just as strong on all kinds of tech, but a bit smaller. The key differentiator, for me, is the absence of so many of SV’s downsides. SV has a low quality of life, a toxic startup culture, and it is all getting worse.
Fulop: I have friends in the Bay Area that struggle to find talent, and when they do, it’s too expensive.
McDonald: Boston has all the ingredients to become the next global tech capital — brilliant minds from top schools, a new generation of leaders from great tech companies born in the 2000s (like Hubspot, Acquia, Endeca, etc), lots of grit (let’s face it, to live in New England you have to be tough), easy access to Europe . . . the list goes on . . .
Fulop: I hope in 2020 we can bring leadership back to addressing noncompete agreements. That’s a structural disadvantage to the Bay Area, and we need to get the pharma lobby to stop blocking it.
McDonald: When I tell people in other geographies that Care.com and Wayfair are based in Boston, they often say, “Huh . . . I hadn’t realized that.” It’s frustrating. We need big names like that associated with our city, the way that the Silicon Valley tech giants are associated with that region.
Hirshland: Bostonian tends to be more private about personal financial matters and success. You are more likely to know what kind of dog your neighbor has, or if their daughter plays soccer or tennis, than know or more importantly care how much money they made on an IPO.
But I’m concerned we are going to reach a tipping point in 2021 or 2022 on infrastructure. We are literally trying to shove 50 pounds of flour into a 5-pound bag. Traffic and the unreliability of public transit could force companies to consider alternative growth strategies. We are not quite there yet, but it’s real. And it is addressable in the long run!