Fighting for Number Two: Why Aren't New York Start-Ups Recruiting in Boston?

Jon Pierce, founder of a workspace called Betahouse that hosts events and provides desks for hackers, designers and start-ups, recently organized an Angel Bootcamp, a gathering of wealthy people from the Boston area who want to be angels or have been talked into considering it. The purpose, according to Mr. Pierce, was “getting experienced angels and aspiring angels together in a room and getting them excited about doing angel investing and teaching them how to do it and pairing them with people they can do deals with.” He said more than 200 people came—an eye-popping turnout for anyone who remembers the barren landscape of just a few years ago.

“As an angel investor and entrepreneur, I’ll say that the overall level of energy and activity in the Boston area has skyrocketed over the past couple of years,” said Dharmesh Shah—founder of one of Boston’s biggest start-up
s, an inbound marketing software company called HubSpot—in an email. “I’ve been living in the Boston area for over 10 years now, and this is the most vibrant startup scene I’ve seen here in a while.”

Mr. Shah said that he has no trouble recruiting talent for HubSpot from Boston-area schools. Intuitively enough, he said, what helps is that he’s so close to them.

“Startups connect to potential talent via online and offline networks-i.e. people you know,” Mr. Shah said. “For example, every year, we end up recruiting fresh graduates because they already know us. They might know us because a classmate of theirs interned at HubSpot. Or, because they attended some startup talk I gave. Or, because they know someone that works here already.”

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who spent two years in Boston working on his start-up and is now in the process of moving to New York for a new project called Breadpig, said he spoke at Angel Bootcamp and was astonished to see the number of angels who had shown up. It was an encouraging sign for Boston, he said, which always seemed to him like it would be a perfect place for early-stage start-ups if only there were more angels.

“You give these college kids a cool environment where they can go out and get drinks when they need to and hang out with people like them who are working on similar kinds of problems, and then give them funding to live off of—that’s pretty much the stew,” said Mr. Ohanian, who has invested in three Boston-based start-ups as an angel. “The missing component for Boston, really, is just that there aren’t many people funding these kids hanging out in their apartments.”

If that continues to change, then New York start-ups interested in those Boston-area geniuses may soon find themselves at a serious disadvantage.

All that said, there are plenty of people who disagree with the conventional wisdom about New York having a shortage of talented developers. Among them are the founders of HackNY, an organization geared toward encouraging creative young technologists to consider going into start-ups instead of taking lucrative bank jobs as quants. Founded by professors Christopher Wiggins and Evan Korth, of Columbia and N.Y.U., respectively, and bit.ly scientist Hilary Mason, HackNY has so far funded fellowships for 12 programmers and has planned several “hackathons,” where programmers get together and work through the night.

“We certainly have the talent,” said Mr. Korth. “Chris and I know that because we train the talent.”

“I know plenty of people who have trouble recruiting in Silicon Valley, too,” said Ms. Mason. “There are a lot of developers in New York, but I do think they’re often overshadowed by people who are on the business side. In New York, we have this almost hidden culture of technologists. … We have a machine-learning meet-up that gets 80 to 90 people a month!”

According to Mr. Wiggins, the problem comes down to little more than communication—if the students knew the start-ups wanted them, maybe some wouldn’t be accepting jobs at Goldman and Morgan Stanley. “It is difficult for start-ups to find students, and the students don’t know that there’s this other ecosystem that desperately needs them,” he said.

Whether the students that attend HackNY are from MIT or any other Boston school is of little concern to the organization’s founders. While they’re certainly open to reading applications from people who went to those schools, there are no firm plans to actively recruit them.

So why don’t New York start-ups send their own people to Boston? Get booths at the job fairs alongside Microsoft and Google and all the investment banks and get in the game? Or else attend Boston-area events and hackathons and recruit kids that way?

One simple reason: they can’t afford it.

Mr. Poole, who is in the process of hiring developers for his new start-up, Canvas Networks, said he’d love to access Boston talent, though at the moment he relies on referrals from friends.

“I would be … interested in attending a 48-hour hackathon and actually get to hang out at 3 a.m. with people and see what they’re working on and get to know them,” he said. “But I’m a two-person company right now. It’s hard for half the company to leave for a weekend to go chase people in Cambridge.”

Mr. Ohanian, the Reddit founder, said that angel investors — like himself — should be helping.

“The real secret will be getting a bunch of angels together,” he said, and having them go up to Boston and make the case for New York. “It doesn’t take that much work to send someone to these universities, to these job fairs, and just have a table. The pitch would go something like, ‘Instead of dressing up in a suit and coming to work for someone else, why not invest your time in a start-up?'”

Failing that, it seems that entrepreneurs looking for Boston gold will have to figure out a way to get to it on their own power.

“I’d argue that if you’re a founder and you’re a hustler, you can go up to Boston for a weekend!” said Ms. Livingston of Y Combinator. “It’s not that far. You take the Amtrak — no, you take the Chinatown bus! That’s 10 bucks. If you’re a real hustler, you would figure out how to do that.”