HUBgrown Q&A: Melanie Cohn, Dunkin’ Donuts


Managing social media for a major consumer brand while running a popular networking group and teaching evening classes would make most go-getters to feel overwhelmed. But Newton, MA-native Melanie Cohn makes her demanding schedule look easy. We recently sat down with Melanie to discuss social media strategy, the Boston business community and her role at Dunkin’ Donuts.

HB Agency: What led you to your current role as Social Media Marketing Manager at Dunkin’ Donuts?

Melanie Cohn: I’ve always worked at an agency so there was a big part of me that was curious about the other side. When you’re on the agency side you can only know so much about a brand. From my experience I felt like I could never fully own a brand presence inside and out. I wanted to know what it was like to be ingrained in a brand and have a laser focus. I’ve had experience working with consumer brands so the combination of the two drew me to Dunkin’ Donuts.

HB: Can you tell me what it’s like running social media for the brand that “America runs on?”

MC: It’s incredibly fun and challenging, which is what makes it so interesting! Everyday there’s something new to experiment with. Whether it’s an alpha ad product for our donuts, a new video format to launch a new product with or a social listening tool that’s popped into the market, the landscape’s constantly changing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I thrive in a fast-paced atmosphere, and Dunkin’ moves quickly, which makes the job that much more exciting.

On the other hand, being such a beloved brand, there’s always eyes on every move we make in social. It’s really important to be diligent, strategic and thoughtful about what we put out on our channels and how we engage. Knowing conversation sparks around us quickly, we try to weigh every decision carefully while always keeping innovation and cultural relevance front and center.

At the end of the day though, the fun part always takes over – it is coffee and donuts – what’s not awesome about that?!

HB: So if I follow @DunkinDonuts, are all of those tweets coming from you? Melanie Cohn

MC: Sometimes! We also have a team of community managers who work in different marketing functions that take shifts monitoring and engaging. As for the posts themselves, most of those come directly from me as the publisher and scheduler. Nothing goes out on our social channels before I take a look at it, as it’s important to make sure everything’s in line with our strategy and brand standards.

HB: Do you see any similarities or differences between your previous job at an agency and your current role?

MC: There are a lot of similarities actually. At an agency you’re viewed as the main consultant—an expert in your discipline. When you’re in-house, it’s the same thing but your clients are the other business units. I advise and provide recommendations on social strategy as well as educate our teams on trends and updates in digital world.

The main difference being in-house is that you work much more cross-functionally. You get to collaborate with Legal, PR, Brand team, Loyalty team, IT, CSR and many more departments. At an agency, you’re handing everything off to the client and you don’t really see what happens behind the scenes after your recommendation is made.

HB: In addition to your role at Dunkin’ Donuts, you launched Young Women in Digital two years ago. Can you tell us more about the organization?

MC: Young Women in Digital (YWD) is a networking group for women working in digital marketing, social media, public relations and more. We host bi-monthly events that vary from classes to speakers to panelists and pitch sessions for entrepreneurs. Our main goal is to foster connections between young professionals.

I launched YWD  because at the time my former company asked me to attend networking events and I felt like I wasn’t meeting people who I could relate to. So I thought about how great it would be to go to an event with people similar to me: young women who are emerging in the digital world. I shared the idea with fellow young professionals and they agreed so I pulled together a team and we hosted our first event! About 40 people attended and it spiraled from there. I believe a smart creator or marketer finds a niche or a gap and fills it. That’s what happened here. There was a need, and YWD filled the void. Every event has been bigger than the last and awareness has grown simply through word of mouth and social media. We now have more than 1,000 members!

HB: Did you find that Boston was a good place to launch YWD?

MC: Absolutely. Boston’s full of like-minded marketers who are looking to grow in their careers. The circles are smaller than say, NYC, which fosters a close knit community. Also, the environment is extremely supportive, not competitive. There’s something about Boston—probably its size, the helpful culture and the go-getters here—that makes it a good place to start something once you’ve identified a gap because people are seeking these types of organizations out.

HB: What do you teach at General Assembly?

MC: Right now I teach Instagram for Business once every few months. It’s for mid to high-level professionals with intermediate to advanced skills on Instagram who are looking to take their strategy to the next level. In the fall I’m going to start teaching a monthly class about working with influencers. This is becoming a much larger part of marketing strategies across various industries so we’re right on the cusp of a growing trend.

HB: What recommendations would you give to startups looking to utilize social media in their overall business strategy?

MC: It really depends on the company and its target audience. For YWD, our audience is marketers, who are primarily on Twitter, so that’s our best channel. But if you’re starting a company that has to do with design or art, Instagram may be a great place to showcase your work and generate leads, for example.

I love how Curalate, a social vendor, explains social strategy. They talk about how there are channels that are aspirational or celebratory. Aspirational channels include Tumblr and Pinterest, where people go to share items or lifestyles they want, or wish they had. Instagram is focused more on celebration, and in-the-moment experiences. You need to look at where your company fits into these consumer behaviors, and which part of the customer journey (aspiration or celebration) you can really own. Dunkin’, for example, is a very celebratory brand. People share us in the moment, and post-purchase. We strive to encourage that behavior and excitement, because as we all know, word of mouth is the best form of marketing.

Follow Melanie at @SocialMel and keep an eye out for upcoming YWD events on Twitter at @YWDBoston.


HUBgrown: Q&A with Janet Aronica, Cube Riot


Upstate New Yorker Janet Aronica graduated college during the height of the recession and found herself moving to Boston for a social media marketing internship.

“The people were so helpful. I felt like I had a much greater chance of success finding my first job in Boston than anywhere else even though the economy sucked. So I moved.”

After six years in various marketing roles, Janet is using what she’s learned from her past jobs to become an entrepreneur launching her first fashion startup, Cube Riot. The company’s blazer line will debut this fall, but Janet’s aspirations for the company go well beyond its finely-crafted apparel. She’s also on a mission to produce quality content for the modern career woman. Cube Riot is as much about creating a community to inspire women at work as it is about clothes.

We asked Janet about her inspiration behind Cube Riot and her experience launching a startup in Boston. Here’s what she had to share.

HB: How did you first get the idea to start Cube Riot?

JA: It comes from personal experiences and talking about those experiences with others and realizing they were feeling a similar way.

For me, it was when I was working on a re-branding project at another startup that I started to think about how to step up my game at work. I considered all aspects of that. How do I package my ideas better? How do I sound more credible? How do I dress like a grownup? I was a hot mess in all of these areas and really confused.

I started reading a bunch of stuff on career tips and fashion advice. When I did that, I didn’t find A) A good resource for career advice that spoke about this stuff in a tangible way and B) An awesome and fun brand for professional women.

Currently, shopping for clothes for work is just about as much fun as doing your taxes. I think it can be more fun. After seeing that white space in the marketplace I couldn’t help but go for it.


HB: You began marketing Cube Riot months ago before you had a product. How has that benefited the company leading up to the official launch?

JA: Marketing and writing has helped us perfect the messaging, build a community, and learn more about what our audience likes and doesn’t like.

For instance, there are many controversial topics when it comes to women in the workplace. To be useful to our audience I want to be involved in those discussions to some degree, but we also have to know when to sit things out and shut up. That stuff is important when you’re building a brand.

HB: You’re not just designing blazers, you’re using Cube Riot as a platform to share your knowledge and past experience with other young professional women. Why is this important to you?

JA: Going back to why I started the company, the career tips and the apparel always went hand-in-hand for me. I think the career advice makes the blazer more meaningful. It’s not just that it’s a cute blazer. It’s how great you feel, what you have the courage to say, and how you act when you have the Cube Riot blazer on. For the Cube Riot woman, that confidence will not just come from visual marketing channels like Instagram and being associated with that stuff, but it will also come from the knowledge gleaned from the content.


HB: What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered trying to launch a startup? Any challenges specific to launching out of Boston?

JA: The biggest challenge is learning the apparel industry. That’s tough no matter where you live. Getting factories to take a chance on me, building those relationships with fabric and trim suppliers… not knowing what I don’t know…that’s all been new and exciting, but it’s also sometimes frustrating.

On a positive note, I love a challenge. I’m obsessed with the process. I love connecting the dots. It gets me excited.

Also, I’ve had McGarry & Sons, my product team, with me throughout all of this and they really took me under their wing. I’m so glad I worked with them because they certainly prevented me from making some very costly mistakes.

After discovering McGarry & Sons we then found great factories in Massachusetts. I’ve been able to find good marketing, graphic design, and photography talent both here and remotely.

I think Boston has a lot of resources to build an apparel brand if you’re willing to network and put the pieces together. I think sometimes the fact that there’s less noise here than other places can be an advantage, too, because it forces you to focus on the consumer and what the opportunities are in the marketplace.


HB: While you work on getting Cube Riot off the ground, you’re also working as a marketing consultant. Any advice to others that are trying to juggle full-time work with starting a business?

JA: I’m grateful to get to do consulting. I’m insanely lucky. But I’m going to keep it real: It’s hard to balance both. Bootstrapping is hard. Starting a business is hard.

I’m definitely no beacon of work/life balance, and I’m still figuring this out. But here’s what I’m learning…

  • Running is amazing! I always knew this but I appreciate it even more now.

  • It can be calming to create a routine even if you don’t think you’re a routine type of person.

  • When in doubt about what to say, cutting to the chase usually works out long term.

  • Recognize when decisions are low-impact and/or if they can be easily reversed because that’ll help you decide things faster and get more done.

  • You’re gonna be stressed. You just are. But don’t be a jerk to your friends and your family. But if you are, say you’re sorry. They love you. The real ones will get it.

  • And find founder friends to talk to!

HB: In your opinion, what makes Boston’s business scene unique? What’s happening here that can’t be replicated anywhere else?

JA: The community and the people are magic. Even though our B2C startup scene is still growing, people have a lot of 2nd and 3rd degree connections that I need in the retail and apparel world and the Boston scene has been pretty open about giving introductions. From what I hear, that helpfulness is very unique to Boston.

I’ve had so many conversations where people straight up asked, “How can I help you?” or “Who do you want to meet at this event?” That’s huge.

Connect with Janet on Twitter and make sure you check out Cube Riot (launching soon)!  

HUBgrown: Q&A with C.C. Chapman


Yesterday we wrote about how the conversation around B2C in Boston is evolving. These conversations are being led by many influential people in our community who believe Boston has the ingredients to build great consumer companies, not just B2B.

We recently asked C.C. Chapman, co-author of Content Rules and Amazing Things Will Happen, and seasoned marketer who has worked with brands like Nike, HBO and other household names, what he thinks about Boston’s business scene.

Here’s what he had to say.

HB: You’ve spent your career turning passive consumers into engaged activists. Some people would argue that Boston has a “relative indifference” to marketing itself. What’s your take? Is this a good or bad thing?

CC: New Englanders as a whole are definitely not into being marketed to. I grew up in New Hampshire and know how little tolerance there can be for that.

This isn’t just a New England thing though and today thanks to everyone being on the Internet, everyone is a bit more skeptical. We can skip all ads on television and are one click away from any that pop up in our face online. This is a good thing because it forces companies to be more creative, have a heart and find a common ground with the consumers they want to reach rather than just shouting BUY ME at them all the time.

When our book Content Rules hit shelves in 2010, it was one of the first books ever published on content marketing. In it we talk about how companies need to speak human and advised to share or solve, don’t shill. It is a bit sad that five years later I’m still giving this advice to almost every client I talk to. People today are choosing the brands they buy from like they choose their friends. They want to feel a sense of shared values and a connection that goes beyond the purchase.

HB: You travel frequently. Is there another startup-focused city you’ve visited doing something new and interesting that you think Boston could benefit from?

CC: Fargo, North Dakota instantly comes to mind.

What they’ve done is really built a community where the entrepreneurs, artists and city all come together for the common good. There is very little of an Us versus Them mentality and they are thriving because of it.

HB: You spent the last year as an adjunct professor at Bentley University, your alma mater. How do you think local universities like Bentley are preparing students for their careers?

CC: I think many local universities are doing a great job. One thing that Bentley does and why I chose it for my undergrad degree was that every student has to take a group of liberal arts AND business courses no matter what their degree is. This insures that all graduates come out with a well rounded understanding of the business environment they are entering. While I never wanted to be an accountant, having those classes under my belt helped me understand budgets and balance sheets in a way that many other computer majors might not.

What does worry me though is that not enough higher education institutions are updating and evolving to make sure the students are learning the latest and greatest.

At the end of my first semester teaching I had numerous students tell me how much they loved me sharing current event stories with them. Because it was a marketing class, I started each night talking about the campaigns that were making waves and new technologies that companies needed to pay attention to. If Professors are only teaching out of books and not teaching practical applications then students will not be as prepared as they should be.


HB: How can Boston, especially Boston-area universities, prevent the brain drain and figure out how to keep entrepreneurs here post-grad?

CC: I’m not sure we have that problem. While I don’t have any studies to look at, I think we see a lot of students stick around.

Then again, when you have so many colleges and universities and so many students graduating from around the world you are going to have some.

We need to make it as friendly as possible for students to open and start new businesses. We need more spaces where they can afford to start a business. Incubators and shared workspaces are finally starting to arrive and this will help greatly.

HB: In your opinion, what makes Boston’s business scene unique?

CC: Boston hates to lose. We celebrate victories of all sizes. This is what makes it great!

Read C.C.’s blog for more about his approach to marketing, causes he cares about and his travels.

Check back in a few weeks for an interview with an entrepreneur as she gears up for the official launch of her consumer startup.


Is Boston Consumed by B2B?


If you’ve read our previous HUBgrown posts or if you’re following our tumblr page, you may have noticed a trend—much of the content thus far has focused on Boston’s B2B tech scene. That is in large part because it’s the way I have approached this series, but that’s about to change. Why? Because the conversation around Boston and B2C is evolving, as it should be.

NextView Ventures’ Rob Go summarized the resurgence of consumer tech in Boston and how we, as a city, have the ingredients to build great consumer companies if we get past some of the cultural barriers. (Read his thoughts in more detail here…seriously, you need to right now.)

Back to HUBgrown, we saw glimpses of Boston’s consumer power come into play in our last post featuring Devin Bramhall. That’s just the beginning.

Our next post will feature C.C. Chapman. C.C. describes himself as a New England-raised storyteller, explorer and humanitarian. He is the co-author of the International bestseller Content Rules and is also the author of Amazing Things Will Happen. He travels the world speaking in front of audiences and encouraging them to do more to improve the world and teaching them how to understand and use content marketing better. Over the years of his career he has worked with a variety of clients including Nike, HBO, American Eagle Outfitters, ONE, Verizon FiOS and The Coca-Cola Company.

When I asked C.C., someone with years of consumer marketing experience, what it’s like living in a very tech, B2B-centric place, he (in a very polite way) asked me where I’m getting my information from:

“I’ve never thought of Boston as being B2B centric at all. There has always been a highly charged startup scene in and around Boston and yet we rarely get the attention that is deserved.”

He told me how he reads about new startups every day and, more often than not, most of them are consumer focused.

We plan on bringing you more of those stories in the near future, and more from C.C. in our next HUBgrown profile tomorrow.


HUBgrown: Q&A with Devin Bramhall

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Creator of The Master Slam and Executive Director of TEDxSomerville, self-proclaimed startup junkie Devin Bramhall recently sat down with HB to discuss her experience in Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, share advice for folks interested in startups and offer tips for creating kick-ass content.

Devin BramhallHB Agency: How did you get involved in the startup world?

Devin Bramhall: I always say that I got into startups by accident: The first startup I joined [Springpad] in 2009 was from a random Craigslist posting. But I don’t think it was really an accident. My life has never been “normal.” I was home-schooled for most of my life, so I sort of hacked my own life (and education) from the start, including going to college in Hawaii for a semester when I was 16. So even though my turn to startups was somewhat accidental I think it came from the very active role I’ve taken in my own life from the start. I didn’t go to school, where your path is laid out for you – I made my own path from a very early age, and that transferred into my career. To be honest, I’m quite critical of startups. In many ways it’s harder to move your career in a startup because of the lack of a traditional structure and opportunity to advance, but I think that’s partially why they’re perfect for me. You have to make the life you want.

HB: On top of your day job, you run The Master Slam. What was your inspiration behind the event series? How did you start it?

DB: I launched The Master Slam when I was at Springpad to solve a problem: No one in Boston really knew who we were or what we did. Instead of going to a ton of events, I thought why not bring the people to us? But when I started to think about event formats I got a little bored and a little depressed because they all felt the same. Why would anyone come to an event I hosted that was the exact same as all the others?

So I brainstormed. I do live storytelling on stage—like The Moth—where storytellers share a first-person story and I love it so much. When I thought about event formats, storytelling was good but wasn’t a perfect fit. Then I thought about debates and competition, and I thought hold on, what if we put them together?

When I got goosebumps, I knew I was on to something. But I still needed someone to help me launch this thing – someone well-known to get bodies in the room.

That’s where HB’s Mark O’Toole came in.

I sent Mark an email describing the idea and asked him to be the featured speaker. I was nervous because I didn’t know him yet, and I wasn’t sure what he’d think. He was so nice about it! He said he thought it sounded cool and was totally in. Early win! Looking back, I realize that it’s the little things along the way – the “yesses” so to speak, that let you know you’re on the right track. The no’s? They’re an opportunity to rethink what you’re doing and come up with a better plan.

Long story short, we did it! About 80 people came to the first one and the rest is history. I keep doing it because it’s fun for people. They like it. It’s different and it’s a great networking opportunity.

HB: You’re Co-executive Director of Boston Content, a local community for marketers. Can you tell us more about it?

DB: I connected with Jay Acunzo and Arestia Rosenberg—the founders of Boston Content—at a couple events and they invited me to be on the committee. A year later, I became Co-Executive Director. I love the Boston Content community so much because its sole purpose is to give back in a very specific way: to help marketers grow and develop their skills and careers. We’re doing a ton with the new blog and multiple events; it’s really taken off in the past year.

HB: Do you have any advice for people who want to join a startup?

DB: My first piece of advice is to think twice. Not because they’re not great but because it’s a challenge—a good challenge. If you want to join a startup do your research, especially on the leadership team. That’s important in any company but especially with startups because they’re so involved with the day-to-day. You can only learn so much in an interview and always remember, as much as they’re interviewing you, you need to interview them, too.

HB: What do you love most about Boston’s startup scene?

DB: I’ve been really lucky. I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of support from the community and from the people I’ve worked with at startups. Perhaps it’s because the community here is smaller, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the help and mentoring I’ve received. I’m not sure if that’s unique to Boston but that’s what stands out to me the most, I’m incredibly grateful for it.

HB: How should startups utilize content?

DB: Don’t just create content for the sake of creating content. Don’t make a blog because you think you need to have one. Companies need to start by setting their goals then figure out the right content based on those goals. Identify your target—your humans—figure out their challenges, and then identify how you can solve those challenges for them. From there, find out what they’re consuming and where, and figure out how you can reach them through those channels and get them to take action.

It’s not content first. It’s goals and humans first. Figure out how to help them out! Once you do the answer is pretty straightforward.


HUBgrown: Q&A with Julia Paino, Vodia Ventures


Native Bostonian and Vodia Ventures associate Julia Paino shares what she looks for when investing in startups, and how the investor community in Boston is evolving into a more socially-conscious movement.

Julia Paino HeadshotHB: How did you join the VC world?

JP:I grew up in Concord, MA with a family of entrepreneurs – I’ve always been fascinated with the startup environment. My father is a successful entrepreneur within the food industry, and I developed an interest in that space from a young age. The world of entrepreneurship was always very appealing to me, but I was particularly interested in individuals/teams that had tremendous drive and passion, but lacked the means to finance their vision.

At the same time, I have always been extremely interested in sustainability. Before venture capital, I followed my affinity for wildlife and the outdoors, which led me to working on assignment in Alaska with National Geographic. While the work there was amazing – I flew in sea planes every day and photographed the wildlife – I really felt a big part of me, and a big part of who I had become, was centered on this entrepreneurial spirit. I felt that this was something that I needed to develop further, and I knew I had many skills and resources that I could contribute towards this line of work.

Additionally, I had interned at Vodia Capital during college, and had built out a sustainability index during my time there. When the venture capital arm of Vodia Capital was created, I found this was the perfect way to bridge my passions and immerse myself in the startup environment.

HB: What makes Boston a hub for entrepreneurship?

JP: I think Boston has become an entrepreneurial hub because of the innovative culture largely built by the universities in this city. We have some of the best universities in the world – Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Boston University – all of these institutions have incredible entrepreneurial programs. This along with resources such as shared workspaces, incubators, and accelerator programs make Boston an attractive city for innovation.

HB: What do you look for in a company when investing?

JP: [Vodia Ventures], invests in early-stage companies. We look for a concrete idea that is well-developed and thought out. More importantly, we look for a team that is solid and cohesive. We rarely invest in a single entrepreneur – we find that going at it alone is extremely difficult and oftentimes, it fails. If you meet a team with an impressive idea, but a lack of cohesion, nine times out of ten that idea will fail.

HB: What is the biggest mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

JP: One of the most prevalent mistakes I encounter is the over-emphasis on financials. What I mean by that is entrepreneurs who are pitching us on a company or idea often say, “If we only capture 5 percent of the market…” This type of specific prediction is a red flag for us because, in reality, ideas pivot, things change and new competitors emerge. You can’t predict the exact numbers.

Instead, a more targeted way of approaching this subject is sharing concrete evidence of a corporation’s or customer’s interest in the product/idea, or specific demand in the market. Illustrating the demand is more productive for startups, rather than an unrealistic goal of success.

HB: What is your advice to companies looking to grow and impact the Boston entrepreneurial community?

JP: I would say it is absolutely imperative to understand the competitive landscape. Everyone wants to believe that their product is superior, and that they have differentiated themselves from others within the market. It’s important that the entrepreneur can speak to the specifics of other products on the market and exactly why their product is different. They need to be able to identify a current demand in the marketplace and prove that a gap exists. It’s critical to show that you understand the environment that you are penetrating in order to prove to your investors that you can compete intelligently.

HB: What changes are you seeing in Boston’s investor community?

JP: Boston, in particular, is a special place. During my time with Vodia Ventures, I have absolutely seen a shift from the “first the money, then the impact” mentality to a more mindful strategy of investing. In the industry today, there’s this movement of high net worth millennials who are exhibiting a completely different perspective and interest in what they are looking to invest in. What I’m seeing now is a wave of impactful investors – millennials looking to invest their money in ways that both generate outstanding returns and contribute in a way that affect our world positively – especially in Boston. It’s exciting to see in such an innovative city, and I’m fascinated by this community of young individuals with a shared passion for affecting change in the local economy, and the larger society.

HUBgrown: Q&A with Kyle Alspach, Streetwise Media


Well-known Boston tech reporter Kyle Alspach shares how he began covering the city’s tech scene, tips for startups pitching their stories and why having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumers can actually be a bad thing.


HB: How and why did you first become a tech reporter? What do you like about covering tech?

KA: I didn’t start out with any plan or aspiration to become a tech reporter. Originally I was hired by the Boston Business Journal to primarily cover cleantech. That exposed me to the world of startups, VC, IPOs, and the like, and so when BBJ had opening to cover tech startups, they asked me.

A big part of the appeal for me was (and is) the fact that there is basically an endless number of things to write about. One definition of newswriting might be “writing about things that are changing,” and tech is fundamentally about change, so there’s never a shortage of interesting stories.

HB: Boston is crawling with entrepreneurs. When they pitch you stories, what are you most often looking for? What mistakes do they most often make?

KA: In a broad sense, I’m looking for stories that will be read by a large number of our readers. That might sound obvious, but honestly I think a lot of companies don’t actually stop to think about that before pitching. They have their goals in pitching us, of course, but it’s only when we can find a shared interest that a story actually gets written—that is, when their news is something we believe will be read by and valued by a lot of people. A frequent mistake that entrepreneurs make is not recognizing this dynamic before they pitch.

HB: How can Boston’s entrepreneurs set themselves apart from other startups in the city?

KA: The easiest way for an entrepreneur to set themselves apart to us is to be connected to some person or institution we already know about. If they are brand new and don’t have those sort of connections, that doesn’t rule them out for coverage, but they just will have to be a bit more savvy in getting our attention. A quick email from a founder explaining clearly what makes their startup unique and important, and offering us a chance to be the first to write about the startup, can often do the trick.

HB: Streetwise is quickly expanding. In addition to Boston, you’re in DC, Chicago and have planned launches in mid-2015 in several other cities. What can Boston learn from some of these other startup hubs?

KA: First off, I think Boston can learn that its place in the Top 3 tech hubs in the U.S. is by no means secure. Chicago and DC are rising fast. I also look at cities and it strikes me how much it really benefits a smaller tech community to have big-name consumer tech companies, which are Groupon and GrubHub, in the case of Chicago. Boston is starting to get there with Wayfair, but we could really use some more like that, for so many reasons.

HB: BostInno recently ran its Tech Madness competition to uncover which Boston tech company will have the greatest impact five years from now. If this was a national Tech Madness bracket, how far do you think a Boston startup would make it in the competition?

KA: It would probably depend on what the constraints for the contest were. If it was strictly limited to “startups,” I think Boston could have a few contenders for making it pretty far—DraftKings, Drizly, RunKeeper all have national profiles. But if you included unicorn companies and public companies, Boston might be in tough shape, because we don’t have nearly as many high-profile national examples there as the Valley.

HB: Boston has a lack of consumer startups. Is that a good or bad thing? Does it matter?

KA: I think it would be terrific if we had more consumer startups. It would do a lot to boost our national standing if we produced more big-name consumer companies, as I mentioned. On the other hand, if we were to produce zero consumer startups from here on but were able to keep producing more HubSpots and Veracodes and SimpliVitys, then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would still be a tech mecca.

There’s also an argument to be made that, while they’re cool to have, consumer companies rarely solve our world’s hardest and most pressing problems. So in a sense, having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumer can actually be a bad thing. It’s nice that Boston values companies who aren’t especially sexy but are solving hard problems.

For more information about Kyle Alspach, check out his latest work on BostInno.

HUBgrown: Q&A with Michael Skok


Boston is booming with new thinking, interesting people and revolutionary companies. Many businesses are born here, thanks to the city’s renowned institutions and incubators, accelerators and other startup programs around the greater Boston community. While some grow up and move on to other places (hey, Silicon Valley) we believe there’s something unique about companies born and bred out of our great city.

In this new series, HUBgrown, we’ll explore what makes Boston’s business scene one-of-a-kind. That means insights from local entrepreneurs; investors that can predict which companies are going to make it big; and, media dedicated to the Boston innovation scene.

We also want to hear from you along the way. Have a question you want to ask one of Boston’s thought leaders? Share it with us. Know someone that is doing something cool but hasn’t shared it? Tell them to speak up. Something bugging and/or exciting you about the state of entrepreneurship in Boston? Let’s hear it.

For our first installment of HUBgrown, we spoke with Michael Skok. Well-known in the city as an entrepreneur, investor, mentor and educator at Harvard, Michael talked to us about why Boston’s rich history has a significant impact on the culture and what makes entrepreneurs successful.


HB: In your Startup Secrets workshops, you discuss company formation and how important culture is to hiring. How would you describe Boston’s entrepreneurial culture?

MS: Boston’s culture was born out of its first settlers. There has always been a great sense of dedication and persistence  here that you don’t find in every city. This differs from my experience in Silicon Valley, where the culture was all about the next shiny and new thing. In Boston, hard work and loyalty in particular really stand out.

HB: Do you prefer the Boston tech scene to Silicon Valley?

MS: I strongly believe that there is no wrong or right culture, there are just intrinsic differences. In Silicon Valley, you can’t go anywhere without being touched by technology and a wide open sense of possibility. It’s built into the fabric of the area. In Boston, we have a strong tech scene, with less critical mass but more rich diversity with the arts, sciences and academia.

HB: How do these differences attract entrepreneurs to Boston vs. other cities?

MS: Because Boston is a city built on such substance, entrepreneurs here are focused on solving long-term problems, not just building the next trendy app. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but the entrepreneurs here know that and are focused on what’s going to have the most significant impact, not just the quickest return.

HB: You frequently write about how in order to pursue and solve big problems, you need to learn to tap into your internal energy. Can you share a specific tip for how entrepreneurs can accomplish that?

MS: It’s simple. Look at what makes you unique and build on it. What one person experiences in life is completely unique to their upbringing and life experiences. We have all come from different places, have different backgrounds, interactions, perspectives and understanding. As an investor, I’m always looking for people who are uniquely qualified to address the problem or opportunity they are going after. There’s no one answer, so start this self-discovery by separating your experience from your ability, attitude and aptitude.

Tap into your own experience, look at what you have to offer and what you love and focus on what you really care about to find your genuine passion. And be authentic and honest with yourself. The saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” is bullshit. If you’re faking it as an entrepreneur, you’re not tapping into what makes you unique. Your customers and team will also see through it and you’ll ultimately fail.

HB: Can you give an example of an entrepreneur you’ve worked with that successfully tapped his/her own energy?

MS: I think all the good ones I’ve worked with do this. I specifically screen for it when I’m investing. I don’t back ideas, I back people who see problems they’re uniquely qualified to solve and have the resolve to execute. Boston has many such entrepreneurs such as Paula Long, Dries Buytaert, Brian Halligan, and Jason Purcell to name just a few that I’ve enjoyed having share their stories in my Startup Secrets workshops. And I have a very long list I’d like to back, including more and more great women entrepreneurs like Ellen Rubin who are going to make their mark.

HB: What has been your defining moment as an entrepreneur and an investor?

MS: I love the question. It makes for good one liners. But for me, it’s been a learning journey, with no one defining moment. I often say the older I get the more I realize I have to learn. So if anything, I’ve learned that it’s best to keep evolving and change perspective so that you keep curious and frequently question answers. That’s also why I try to teach with frameworks rather than answers. I want the next generation to come up with their own, new and better answers. The problems of tomorrow will not be solved by the answers of today.

And in this regard our next generation of young entrepreneurs have a major advantage. They aren’t prejudiced with experience. Instead they’re unbounded and therefore free to try everything and learn from experimentation that can lead to breakthroughs. That’s why I love working with students and young entrepreneurs. They’re just starting out and have limitless potential to realize the opportunities in front of them.

At least what I hope to do is help remove any barriers to them realizing their full potential so they can dream big, tap into their passion and realize their potential with the focus and persistence it takes to build something really meaningful and valuable. Here’s to that being a Boston made difference we make.

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