Okay, Boston, you've got $1.5 billion more in cash…can you get your startup mojo back?

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 9, 2013

From The News Desk

Yesterday, the National Venture Capital Association reported something the venture world hasn't heard in a while: Stats that made Boston look like a surging tech hot spot.

Venture funds raised some $4.1 billion to invest in startups in the first quarter of the year. The not-so-shocking part of the news: In line with macro trends we've been seeing in the industry for, oh, close to 10 years now, more money is being concentrated into the hands of fewer firms. In terms of dollars, the quarter was up some 22 percent from the previous quarter, but there was a 14 percent decrease in the number of firms able to raise cash, according to Thompson Reuters and the NVCA.

Year-over-year those numbers are more extreme: There was a 34 percent decrease in the number of funds that raised cash this past quarter versus the first quarter of 2012. In fact, this was the fewest number of firms that have been able to raise cash in a given quarter since 2003.

Here's the more surprising part: Massachusetts-based venture firms led the quarter as home to three of the largest funds raised, Battery Ventures, Third Rock Ventures, and Spark Capital.

Before Boston-boosters get too excited, there are a bunch of caveats here. As we wrote just last week, venture stats are almost always inherently misleading. It's not like this is going to be a quarter-to-quarter trend. Three of Boston's bigger firms just happened to close at the same time. And they further stood out, because it also happened to be one of the weakest fundraising quarters on record in terms of the number of firms raising new funds.

And, the new money likely will not translate into $1.5 billion going into Boston-based startups. As we reported when we wrote about Spark's fundraising in February, the bulk of the firm's deals have been based outside Boston. It became one of the top consumer Internet firms by hopping on the New York bandwagon early, backing companies like Tumblr and OMGPop. Indeed, Spark's biggest win is Valley-based Twitter.

Similarly, we recently noted one of Boston's top angel funds, Founder Collective, does almost all of its deals outside of the city. Meanwhile, Battery Ventures -- which one of the Spark founders coincidentally spun out of -- long ago diversified from purely traditional early stage investing.

Still, the numbers shows how forgiving venture capital can be as an asset class, and that's a huge plus for Boston's undeniable legacy strengths. There's astounding inertia in venture capital because funds have such a long time horizon. Even when an ecosystem has lost a step in terms of local returns, strong firms and venture talent still located there can continue to pull in billions, giving the local startup scene do-over after do-over to regain its step.

Most people blame Boston's decline as the undisputed number two startup ecosystem in the US on two factors. The first is cultural and widely documented: Unlike the Valley, Boston has always had a more closed culture, relying on NDAs to lock up talent and generally discouraging a free flow of talent through the ecosystem. Spark's Bijan Sabet discussed in this interview back when I was at TechCrunch.

The second more common one I hear from Bostonians is that the ecosystem's strengths were traditionally areas like enterprise and communications, and the IT world hasn't been hot on those sectors for a while. Boston, they argue, simply wasn't great at consumer Internet, and there's been way too much focus on it of late. Some have been bullish that with enterprise coming back into vogue, so too might Boston-based startups.

I'm not so sure it's that easy.

For one thing, I think that excuse is kind of a cop out. Great startup ecosystems are magnets for talents and adjust to where the market goes. The Valley wasn't always great at consumer Internet companies either. Remember, this is a 60-year-old ecosystem. Its roots were in semiconductors and transistors. Its biggest area of returns in the 1990s was software. And in the raging dot com days, more money was put into telecom than consumer Web deals.

Sure, the Valley is the center for the consumer Web now, but it got that way, because it was good at startups, attracting talent, and taking risks on new areas. If the Valley can go from the home of semiconductors to the home of Facebook and Twitter, Boston doesn't have much of an excuse here.

Furthermore, today's enterprise companies aren't merely an evolution of the great enterprise software companies of yore. This new wave mostly builds off the last decade of consumer Web innovation -- which Boston has largely been left out of.

To be fair, I'm one of the lone Valley voices who thinks consumer Web vets are underestimating how much they need traditional enterprise chops like traditional sales teams and a relentless emphasis on uptime, security, and reliability to succeed. Still, you can't deny that consumer Web strengths like ease of use, design, and scalability aren't driving the early success of companies like and Asana. If Boston has been weak in those consumer skills, dominating this new generation of business software may be harder than city boosters expect. Tomorrow's big enterprise companies won't look just like social media companies, but they won't look like late 1990s enterprise companies either.

The new money rushing into local firms gives Boston-based companies a great shot at success -- one that startups almost anywhere else in the US would kill for. It's up to the city's ecosystem to make the most of it.

As you know if you've ever gone to a sporting event where a Boston team is playing, the city has tremendous pride and doesn't take kindly to anyone criticizing it. We saw this defensiveness flare up last week when Leah Busque of TaskRabbit shared her experience raising money on the East Coast and West Coast in 2008. Rather than listening to her points and granting that perhaps some things need to change in Beantown, a few of the city's boosters chose to get defensive instead.

Elon Boms of LaunchCaptial took to Twitter complaining that Busque's mere honesty was equivalent to "trashing" the ecosystem, and Boms and others squabbled about whether her experience -- that Boston firms weren't familiar with the basics of social networking -- could really be true.

Another option? Listening to why entrepreneurs are leaving and learning from it. Because while the NVCA shows some hope for Boston startups this week, overall numbers still show an ecosystem on the decline. Clearly, something isn't working.

(Our own Hamish McKenzie is planning a reporting trip to Boston later this year, so expect more on-the-ground reporting from us on these trends in coming months.)

[Image courtesy Infrogmation]