Boston’s WTF/LOL Problem


Image Credits: Masakazu Matsumoto (opens in a new window) / Flickr (opens in a new window) under a CC BY 2.0 (opens in a new window) license. (Image has been modified)

Well, that was embarrassing. Following months of piss-poor communication and a chaotic planning process, Boston’s bid to be the U.S. entry for the 2024 Olympics finally died this week like Britain’s rule over the colonies. The city that once brought the Industrial Revolution to the people now finds itself unable to build a venue for beach volleyball, or you know, housing or public transportation.

These are trying times for Boston when it comes to its world-class city status. Once the undisputed technology leader of the world, the city has been truly outclassed these past few years (and probably past few decades) by San Francisco, New York City, and increasingly Los Angeles (which is also likely to become the next bidder to host the Olympics in the U.S.)

Locally, it’s culturally appropriate at this juncture to bring up Boston’s storied history, but I say, to hell with history. Our lives are about the future, not some shining past. More Star Trek and less History Channel, please.

The Problem Of Young People

It’s not just the Olympics that the city can’t retain, it’s people too. Young people in particular want to be where the action is, and they perceive that the action is not here (they’re mostly right). Look at Aileen Lee’s latest update to her unicorn list, and you will quickly grasp why every graduating college student in the Boston region is trying to vacate the premises like Paul Revere screaming “the Brits are” …. dammit history, get out of here!

And just think: to fly to SF from Boston, you probably have to take United. The Donner Party is probably still more likely to arrive at its destination on time than a United aircraft. That’s how desperate Beantown people are to head West.

Everything in Boston is about the past, which is part of the reason I spend a couple of weeks a year in South Korea. It’s nice to fast-forward 150 years to modern and efficient transportation systems and a city that literally reinvents itself every 12 months. They have virtual grocery stores! And bars open until 8am! Plus, Seoul’s startup scene is reaching such a frenetic pace that you can practically feel the excitement of the future in some neighborhoods.

Boston is on the verge of almost complete irrelevance, but there is always hope in the future. Every year, thousands of students – many of them the best in the world – come to Boston for their education. These are the future startup founders and leaders of our world. They choose to spend four years in Boston, and that means there is every possibility of them deciding to stay here rather than migrate.

Keeping People Starts With Opportunity And Money

They are confronted, though, by terrible options. Talking with students in universities here, they have a lot of interest in moving to Silicon Valley or NYC (as you might expect). Despite this general trend, there is almost no attempt by local tech companies to engage them in their actual careers.

Sure, there are networking events and mixers and all that mostly useless jazz. But these students are being recruited by Silicon Valley’s most exciting firms, who have to fight for every hire given the competitive labor situation they face at home. Boston firms and their pizza slices today are no match for the shock and awe hiring campaigns of the Valley.

Even when Boston firms attempt to hire, they make two common mistakes. First, they provide little in the way of power to young people to make decisions and be entrepreneurial. When I was going through the recruitment processes at Google and Facebook, the message was always “run a product used by millions (if not billions) from day one.” The message was trust – sure you are young, but so was Zuckerberg. Incredible creativity comes from those who know little about what they do.

You rarely hear that language from Boston firms. Here, the discussion is always around careers and multi-year personal growth trajectories. It’s that history thing – wait, and you shall succeed.

There’s a simple solution: hand the reins over. Allow young people to run their own products and fail. Sure, maybe you have to clean up the mess sometimes, but more likely, you will have an awesome new product or feature that you might never have otherwise discovered and built. Risk-taking starts at home.

The second mistake Boston firms make is to consider the city a cheap talent market. It ain’t cheap folks. Every single person in Boston has the ability (and often the desire!) to live in one of the world’s global cities. Local firms pay significantly less on average than comparable firms in NYC or SF (to the tune of 30–40% based on some recent numbers I have seen). Sure, cost of living is higher in those cities, but it isn’t that much higher.

Again, simple solution: pay Silicon Valley market rate. Every time. Regardless of competition. Regardless of anything. You want to retain the talent, you have to pay for that talent. We want the best people here, period. The best cost a lot of money, but thankfully, we have a lot of it lying around.

I can hear the voices of startup founders already. “But our VC dollars are smaller because Boston investment firms are cheap.” Yup. When I say pay market rate, I want everyone in startups to pay market rate. That means founders to their employees, and also venture capitalists to their entrepreneurs. Don’t make the choice between the Valley and Boston easy because you are 40% off market rate.

The Potential Of A City

That’s what firms can do. Now, what about the actual city itself? Boston is at an enviable time. Rents in San Francisco are growing so fast that they have reached escape velocity and are approaching the stratosphere. Public transit there is still the slowest in the United States. We have all the ingredients necessary to put Boston and SF into sharp (and positive) relief.

Yet, we never do. Investment in the subway system is lackluster (fun experiment: ride the Seoul metro and the Boston T on the same day. The term “third world” comes to mind, and it isn’t about Seoul). Rents, both residential and commercial, are extraordinarily high here, particularly when taking the Valley income discount into account. And the cheap creative spaces necessary for doing great innovative work just don’t really exist. These are all solvable problems, but we need to move quickly.

Boston is withering, but it is not dying yet. In fact, I am quite optimistic about the future. The collapse of the Olympics bid here locally should be a wake up call that we need to get our act together on a massive scale. We need our Declaration of, err, Growth. Otherwise, I am moving to wherever that white stuff doesn’t fall in February.

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