Thinking about student entrepreneurship…Boston can do better!

Wednesday May 9, 2012 by Bilal Zuberi - Principal, General Catalyst

Below is a terribly written note, but I hope it conveys the point I am trying to make…

May is a special time in Boston. With finals & graduation around the corner, students make their push to complete the semester and finalize their summer/next year plans. This is typically also when student projects either turn into real companies, or die as students move into other career paths.

I had the fortune of meeting many students in the last few weeks, including those who joined us at General Catalyst’s annual Entrepreneur Forum (700-800 entrepreneurs attending). I also got to meet some students who have been selected in to the Y-Combinator program, and some who are Thiel fellows. Their brilliance is mind boggling. But it was also a bit disheartening to see how many of them had plans to quickly move to the west coast to either build their companies there, or work at one of the more well-known startups under a charismatic CEO, CTO or founder.

As someone engaged in the local Boston startup ecosystem, I walked away from all my discussions thinking Boston is really not doing a good enough job meeting, mentoring and supporting the next generation student entrepreneurs. No, I do not mean this post to de-ride all the amazing work that our local ecosystem has done in the past few years to bring back its mojo. But I think Boston can do better.

As a broad generalization, I feel students fall into three broad categories in terms of their readiness to start companies, and trying to reach them all with a broad brush of activities is not helpful. At a recent angel bootcamp dinner my friend Michael Grinich asked a poignant question of all angels present “how do you even find the best young entrepreneurs?”. Unfortunately the question went unanswered…but by focusing on finding the best student entrepreneurs, and providing them with what they need, we can do much much better at retaining talent here.

  1. Maniacally product-focused entrepreneurs. These students know exactly what problem they want to solve, and are often discovered after they have already started hacking away at it in the confines of their dorm rooms or in academic ‘projects’. These guys are not interested in casual networking, chit-chat, or generalized dialogues on entrepreneurship skills. They don’t want to meet someone unless they know in advance that it will be a useful meeting. This is the group that is most likely to produce the next Zuckerberg or Drew Houston, and I believe it is often the most neglected group in Boston. While founders of companies like DropBox, Square and others fly in to try and recruit them, our VCs/angels sometimes don’t even know these entrepreneurs exist in our midst. So what can we do better? I believe our product centric founders and CEOs need to more active on college campuses as advisors and mentors and especially accessible to these students. Frankly, product centric founders are also more likely to identify these special students early rather than VCs and/or angel investors. Once identified, we should find out who is it that these students wish to meet and work our butts off to make those connections happen. If they want to bounce their idea off Dave Morin, or Drew Houston or Kevin Systrom, we should make that happen…not our peers on the west coast. These guys are shooting for the stars and we better match them in their ambition or shame on us. If we are unable to inspire them and show we can be resourceful on this coast, CA is only a short $300-400 flight away. Reality is we are losing student entrepreneurs to the west coast relatively rapidly.
  2. Brilliance looking for inspiration/focus: A significant part of our student entrepreneur community tends to be super-excited about entrepreneurship but still searching for something that they could dedicate a few years of their life to. Kudos to them that in addition to their regular course-work and partying (which is what their peers do with their free time) they find time to build a network in Boston and familiarize themselves with the eco-system. They have caught the bug of entrepreneurship but are still searching for inspiration. I believe it should be dead simple for these students to find apprentice-type roles directly under founders & senior product guys at startups. They shouldn’t spend summers coding away at Google/Microsoft or even Kayak, but should be spending time closer to Paul English, Paul Sagan, David Cancel, Jeremy Allaire and others who are inspiring individuals and who can help these students find a product focus. Some such relationships tend to develop in ad-hoc ways (for example me sending one of them to a CEO I know well) but there is no coordinated activity that I can think of.
  3. Future entrepreneurs: One of the biggest strengths of the Boston startup ecosystem is the amazing student community that exists here. I am a strong believer that every student here should seriously consider a career in startups (as a founder or otherwise) before taking on any other job. I talk about this plenty when I am invited to speak at local colleges, but I think we can do better than that. We need to make it easy for students to not only understand what startup life is like, and the joys/pains of the roller-coaster rides that accompany company building, but also find ways for students to easily find practical experience inside startups. It is unbelievable but until StartLabs.org started their annual startup career fair there was no such thing even at MIT. Now I hear there is an effort across multiple campuses to do the same. Not everyone interested in startups may be prepared to take on a founder role, or have an idea that inspires them, but they may benefit tremendously by spending time at a company that is rapidly scaling to understand what life is like in the fast lane. (As pointed out by an entrepreneur, they may not be ideal hires into a pre-series A startup but by Hubspot, Jumptap, Kayak etc.)

Boston community has rallied wonderfully around young entrepreneurs, especially if you look at the TechStars eco-system. But the student entrepreneurship community is more fragmented, harder to meet, short on time, and often needing a different set of advice than fully-formed startups do. It needs more attention by us, but not in the form of generalized talks, gatherings, lectures & group therapy sessions. Students are getting bored of that, and the best of them don’t find them inspirational. They want dialogues around products, around specific startup issues, and around decisions they are about to make in their lives. By having our successful founders, CEOs and product focused entrepreneurs become more active and accessible alongside investors we can hopefully improve our chances that the next big student startups would stay and grow here.

Bilal Zuberi is a Principal with General Catalyst.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on his blog called BZNotes!  You can also follow him on Twitter - @bznotes.

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