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Sex, Reality-based Demographics, and Romancing the Pocketbook: Three must-haves for innovation

June is  Innovation Month in New England.  Journalist Scott Kirsner asked for thoughts on how to amp up the heat in New England. I have three urgent recommendations:

1)  "The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex." --as declared by Matt Ridley.  (He's a writer who covers evolution and genetics.)  I think we are actually doing a pretty good job in this area already.  There must be an "ideas" event every night of the week-- and the universities are a motherlode of aphrodisiacs.  As an industrial designer I know that the depth of creativity often depends on the depth of openness to influences, oddball ideas and the seemingly improbable juxtaposition of competing thoughts.  Case in point:  when my first startup was consulting to Reebok, and trying to invent bouncy shoes to enable better basketball rebounds, a scientist suggested we study the chemicals released in the legs of fleas--since they can jump hundreds of times their size.

We do need to improve the mix of speakers and stop asking the usual suspects to take the stage at tech events.  Which brings me to idea #2:

2)  Make sure our entrepreneurial leadership, investors, and "influentials" reflect the general population. The "prominent" entrepreneurial community in Boston is overwhelmingly middle-aged, white, and male.  But the people who will buy their products are overwhelmingly NOT that at all.  I see a problem with this picture.  A funnel to failure, really.  Beyond that, I believe  it's also the first time in history when we can really learn from young people in a company setting, as opposed to training them to become contributors.

So, sadly, if you deliberately set out to restrict resources and attention to a small slice of the population, like we do--unconsciously--in New England,  that would be an ideal way to crush innovation.  We need to fix that yesterday.  Like about 30 years of yesterdays.

3)  Work hard and fast on innovation in the biggest sector of our economy--consumer products and services. Business products and services only contributed 3% to the last ten years of US GDP growth.  Consumer products and services accounted for 70% (and they account for 65% of our economy year in, year out).   We increasingly marginalize our innovation community when we focus it so heavily on B-to-B enterprises.

So.  Innovation.  Easy peasy, at least in my eyes.  Cross pollinate, include new faces, and grab the consumer opportunity NOW. I have a front seat on the successful expression of all three of these imperatives every day when I see the idea submissions coming to Daily Grommet. They are not originating from the usual suspects.  They are coming from college kids corralling cheap prototyping and manufacturing tools, grandparents who have the time to connect improbable invention dots, immigrants importing ideas from home, restless cube-dwellers, and ambitious young mothers.  Truly, all over this country, people of every stripe and color are pushing the innovation envelope in the consumer sector.  We can do it too.


  • Jason Evanish Says:


    Love the post. Great stuff, but I'm curious how you think we can solve #2? You're absolutely right that most events that have speakers are of the 35-50 year old male variety and the community as a whole is a bit unrepresentative of the general population.


    Greenhorn Connect

  • julespieri Says:

    Hi Jason. One part is easy....just broaden the net when casting about for speakers. Panels, in particular, are a good place to showcase new faces and also let event organizers "test them out" for future events.

    There are two other parts to #2, though: media coverage and access to capital. The media equation is improving, especially for women and minorities who can easily pass journalistic "filters" for innovation and entrepreneurial credibility (previous experience, funding, etc.). It's not so easy for young, inexperienced entrepreneurs. They just don't make it through those filters and the journalists risks spreading ink to someone who is half-baked. I am wondering how Scott Kirsner would approach that dilemma, as someone who sincerely committed to this issue.

    The last part--access to capital for entrepreneurs who don't "look like" investors--is perennially OK for young entrepreneurs who do fit a "I am smart and willing to sleep in my mom's basement for three years and work 24-7" archetype. For other very active but incredibly invisible entrepreneurs (women, minorities, older first-time founders) the stats about access to capital are deeply depressing and I don't see them changing until investors reflect the general population. It's a Catch-22 because so many investors come from very conservative industries (finance) or were previously funded white male entrepreneurs. Given that there is no oversight such as one might find in public companies or other institutions, this pool of investors is changing very glacially. It makes me very worried for innovation in the US.

  • Jason Evanish Says:


    Thanks for the thoughts. Hopefully with people like yourself and Laura Fitton getting funding (certainly not of the White Male MBA or 24/7 mom's basement young entrepreneur molds), the doors to funding are at least a little further open behind you than when you were able to get in. Also, hopefully a few others like yourself will have successful exits in the coming years and can become Angels. Maybe we can't change present circumstances, but we can promise to be a part of the solution in the future.

    A few questions that you may have better answers to than I (who has only been around the community for less than a year).

    1) How available are mentors to help with consumer products and services?
    Do they exist or do they just need coaxed a bit to engage more? Is Boston too focused on making pipes (ie- back end innovations) than forward facing (like consumer products) startups?

    2) Is our culture in Boston focused enough on learning?
    There is now a healthy social networking aspect (better to have a drink with 2 people than 10 business card ninjas in a night) but I think we're starting to err on the side of not enough informative events (at least ones that don't cost hundreds of dollars to attend). And learning should not be limited to events anyways...are there other ways to inspire collaboration and shared knowledge?

    3) How do we recognize what we need to learn next?
    This is semi-rhetorical, but as both a community and subsets therein, we need to recognize trends we should all keep an eye on and better understand. Anyone else a little disappointed Disrupt was in New York, not Boston?

    And, if consumer web is the next generation, then we should be looking at that as something to be talking about. More events focused on people in an industry talking about what they're seeing would make each cluster we have in this great innovation Hub stronger. Could startups like Daily Grommet and Blank Label learn something from each other? Both are part of citizen commerce and is just one example of disparate startups that while not knowing one another, are operating in the same space (online commerce with uniqueness as a factor).


  • Mass Innovation Nights » You Need to Get Out More Says:

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  • Jules Says:

    I look forward to the day when Laura and I do not stand out, as funded females. Boring would be beautiful, in that context.

    1) There is simply a dearth of mentors in the consumer products/internet space. There are some great potential ones at TripAdvisor, Kayak, Staples, Vistaprint etc. but they don't seem to engage at all with the startup community. The product side is rich too--footwear companies, Hasbro etc. but same story of walled gardens. Honestly, my own company has the richest concentration of consumer/internet mentor candidates that I know! But we appreciate mentors too. Everybody needs them.

    2 and 3) Too broad for me to address.

    And re. connections in consumer internet...I think we are doing an OK job with that, informally, between the relevant startups. We can get to each other. Scott Kirsner sometimes bring us together, in an informal breakfast. But we do need more visible consumer internet events. Our companies are hiding in plain sight. I think the event organizers must be intimidated by this space, or unaware of its potential.

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