How to Find What You Don’t Know You Need

So, here’s an interesting conundrum. And, a common marketing problem.

You community builders ought to find this interesting.

If I don’t know that there’s a better way to do something, how do you ever learn about it?

Example: if I didn’t know what Uber was and lived in a town with few modes of transportation, I’d probably rely on friends and family to take me someplace I needed to go. I might search for a bus or limo…. This just happened when I tried to get from Boston’s Logan Airport to Worcester’s Regional Airport.

Think small budget. Think local markets.  Is there an effective way to reach people regionally?

Does social media (including Google Adwords, Twitter, and email marketing and the like) help?

Challenge: We are building our incubator in a region that is comprised of a demographic that isn’t substantially plugged into the startup/innovation scene. People may have skills in  innovation (they’re creative engineers and scientists), but their lifestyles are centered on family and home. As a generalization, they aren’t Tweeting, FB’ing, or even reading blogs.

And yet, these people would be more efficient and effective if they partook of certain ‘products’ like ours.

This would be a good project for a grad school class on startup marketing and growth strategies.










Tech Hub Caucus Thoughts on an Exurb

Barbara Finer

Yesterday, we were lucky enough to host a ‘town hall’ meeting at our facility (TechSandBox) with a leading state senator, Karen Spilka – a Tech Hub Caucus.

The conversation was started about what MetroWest wants to be known for and what its place and relevance is in the economy today and in the near future.

For those of you who don’t live west of Rt.128 or travel here often, let me set the stage first:

  1. The Region was known in the 1970s and 1980s world-wide for technology; akin to Silicon Valley and with similar demographics (home owning, well educated, middle-to-upper middle class).
  2. Mini computers, telecomm, storage, batteries/clean tech, pharm and IT software grew up here.Digital, Prime, Bose, Cisco, Data General, IBM, Genzyme, Boston Scientific, Crosscomm, Cognex, EMC, MathWorks and many others started and/or grew here OR had a big presence (IBM). Some still do.
  3. There are a whole bunch of towns (35 or so) and they cover a much bigger geographic footprint than Boston, for example. So, people are much less densely packed. We tend to live in houses or townhouses though luxury apartments are becoming popular too.
  4. Several highways intersect I-495 north and south. I-90 goes east/west plus I-290 to Worcester. I-95 cuts across south of us. Rt. 2 goes east/west and Rt.3 does too.
  5. Nature: rail trails, parks, ponds and reservoirs, museums, golf, skating, horseback riding, skiing,.. all pretty darn close.
  6. Malls, plazas, movie theaters and supermarkets abound.
  7. Both commercial and residential real estate cost much less per square foot in almost every town v Boston; a quarter or less! See MassEcon for some data!
  8. Being disbursed and in different towns creates challenges when building a ‘community’ or ‘ecosystem’ or regional identity; each town has its own funding and priorities.
  9. We’re still figuring out what sidewalks are and how to have walk-able and social downtowns and the sidewalks do tend to roll up at 9pm in most places.
  10. Yah, you need a car. Try lugging diapers or dog food without one!

So, the next blog will summarize what we heard at the THC and asks your thoughts.

Photo taken by MassTechCollaborative with Mike Miller, Paul Joseph, Paul Matthews, Karen Spilka, Vasu Ram, Peter Alberti and Barbara Finer

Thoughts on the New MA Non-Compete from a Capitalist with Long Term Vision

fenceIn the local news today, it looks like the non-compete agreements that have been in place in Massachusetts for well over a decade are at an end for all intents and purposes.

I say, ‘yahoo’. Remove the barriers of Massachusetts innovation.

But, you say: companies spend billions of dollars to develop their intellectual property (from patents, to process, to customer contacts to …) and I agree. Those confidential or proprietary assets do need protection. There are thieves in this world. Just look at the illegal downloads of music or copies of movies. People seem to feel a combination of ‘entitled’ and dismissive (‘that singer makes millions, what’s one download?’). So, I understand the fear that corporations have. But… this falls under IP law and is/should be protected.

For most employees, what’s taken is ‘know-how’ and knowledge. This is what makes experienced workers more valuable: they’ve learned – about a market, or a lean process, or a new tool – and taken that knowledge with them.

       No lobotomies allowed.

But, if an employee has learned about something truly secret, like a patent pending innovation (the company’s special sauce), or have a significant customer list, then this needs protection and should hold true whether it’s been two weeks or two years.

         Confidential info is confidential. Period.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Massachusetts was at the forefront of innovation across many sectors, including the platform technologies (infrastructure, medical, business-to-business) that had a huge impact on the economy. Myriad companies spun out of these. Then, the stringency of the laws shifted and so did our leadership as a state. Yah, we do well. But, we could do so much better.

Fast forward to the 2000’s and most of our innovation isn’t (innovative). By that, I mean it doesn’t change the world. That’s because the legacy companies in the region have used the non-competes with an iron fist and stifled innovation. There aren’t the spin-outs there were when I was an engineer. Just think Digital Equipment Corp., Wang, Apollo, Prime, Bay Networks, etc.

The companies that do start (and we have a lot) are typically in consumer electronics products and services, or consumer software (aka ‘apps’) for which there isn’t a 5000 pound corporate gorilla.

       Grow our own and then acquire us.

Large companies do not innovate well. They need skunk works and acquisitions to stay ahead. So, let’s create an environment where others easily start a company and innovate. The 5000 pound gorillas can then acquire them and everyone wins.


NB: The new bill proposes a three month limit (not 1 year) on non-competes and stricter definition of what’s included.

Oh, no one really likes networking!


NETWORKING PIC.pngI am gregarious and love people but even for me, when I walk in to a room of mostly strangers, I’m not sure where to start.

Even if you’re smart enough to know the type of people you’d like to meet, or the ask, how do you read info on badges until you’re already within a stranger’s comfort zone?!

On Thursday, April 7, we have a practice session at TechSandBox. Come see how well you do. In the meantime, here are 10 quick tips!

For Networkers:

  1. Do have a few goals of who (company type, title, industry) you’d like to meet. Ask everyone you do meet if they know anyone at the event that fits this description.
  2. Know your ask. Be really succinct and compelling with your elevator pitch (one minute) and don’t assume they know your industry or technology. Then, tell them why you’re here. Reciprocate. It’s a two way street. Ask how you can help someone else.
  3. Spend more time with those you don’t know than those you do know.
  4. Be inviting. Open your circle of conversation to others; be aware of others on the periphery and be inclusive. This is called modeling a behavior and it will spread. It’s a confidential conversation, don’t have it in public!
  5. Let someone know who you’re looking to meet and use this as a reason to break away after about 10 minutes.

For Speakers:

  1. You are the sought after commodity when a business meeting has a program. Be available but also know how to move folks along if there’s a line – be aware. If a person wants a meeting with you after, it’s up to them to ask and you to decide how to handle.
  2. Also take the time to meet and greet before the meeting (unless you have a big speech and need to be focused).

For Program/ Event Organizers:

  1. You are also a sought after commodity and your ‘ribbon’ should identify you as such. Be ombudsmen and have your role be one of a connector. Work the room!!
  2. Know the Sponsors, Volunteers, Speakers and other leaders at the event. You represent the organization.
  3. Spend more time with those you don’t know than those you do know: as a matter of fact, DON’T hang out with the other volunteers and staff!! Lead by example.

So, while you’d rather be working or watching a movie or playing with your kids, networking matters when done with intent.

Manufacturing: We need new terminology

manuf.jpg                     by Barbara Finer, CEO, TechSandBox, and Marketer for Automation-based Companies

When you mention manufacturing, most people roll their eyes, think of cheap plastic tchotchkes made in China, or of Henry Ford and the assembly line.

And the new term, Makerspace, Prototypelab or even Fablab, is not ubiquitously accepted, often meaning people who make things as a hobby using 3D printers, welding equipment and CNC machines at Artisan’s Asylum or Danger!Awesome, both in the Cambridge/Somerville area.

The world of value added manufacturing has changed. And automation, autonomy and robots are to be thanked. Even tools like electron microscopes for advanced materials, and injection molding equipment for high precision production (think contact lenses) can use very cool technology and require a highly educated workforce.

But the general public still looks at manufacturing as old-school, and dirty, and, I’ll say it, unsexy. Mobile apps like OpenTable and Wayz get attention, as does Roomba! but not the local fabricator.

Massachusetts and the new manufacturing

The value-add of manufacturing is in producing products that have impact, like medical devices, new mobile electronics, and subsystems for necessary items like trains, planes and automobiles. We need to go after production of the products where precision, quality and consistency matter. And THIS is where our educational system is a feeder and MA has an advantage.

Students as Northeastern, MIT and WPI flock to join robotics companies like iRobot or those using automation in complex environments like automotive (Google car anyone? Rockwell) or medicine (iTouch) to intelligent pick and place systems like Arctaic.

How can this be sexy?

Even small manufacturers from fiber optics, to disk drives, to low value items like fasteners, need precision, reliability and consistency afforded by well-designed systems. And this takes investment by the company in the right tools and expertise with business drivers oriented to finding new applications and growth.  It takes a culture of quality and pride and one of innovation.

Don’t forget about marketing

The environments of manufacturers today need to be attractive, have constant learning as part of the corporate culture, hire the creative and energetic, and mix in a bit of marketing to both find new applications (being plugged in) and communicate the good works. Even brilliant local companies like Nypro are not household names and on every new WPI graduate’s list of places to work; IMHO, it should be!

So, let’s come up with a new word! Emmeffgee (M-F-G) anyone?

Heading to Christa McAuliffe Center for International Women’s Day

The team at the Women’s Leadership Council of Tri-County (Mass.) asked those of us on the Board to come to the celebration today at the Christa McAuliffe Center and to wear purple.chair

Now, I’m not generally a follower; I tend to look at fads and trends and ask whether they apply to me and my needs and values. It comes from being an analytical nerd. But as I searched my heart and mind today, I also searched my closet.

I work in tech and am surrounded by men. My degree is in technology from Northeastern University where I was one of 4 women in my class. I am a female executive (usually in the 15% of mid-senior management). I’ve started a few businesses from which I’ve earned my keep (without other support) – I estimate 10% of us. I’ve been on a few Boards but not of a medium-large business – we’ve seen the stats.

Often I remind people that I rarely work with chauvinists. It’s just that people are connected to people who look like them. They hang out with these people. They network with these people. They hire these people. It’s easier and more comfortable. And so, status-quo keeps status-ing and quo-ing.

It’s subtle. I’ve experienced someone ignoring me until they found out who I am and then you see their eyes light up! Was funny when I was a speaker at a large conference!

So, if you only do this one day, today, check yourself. Who are you hiring? How did you treat the female person at the tradeshow you’re attending? In meetings, are you really listening? Did you discount someone (anyone) on a visible characteristic?


I met a (fairly as compared with me) young CEO on a panel last week, Apollo Sinkevicius. His company removes names and schools (with years) from all resumes (which they use lightly anyway) so when they bring someone in for an interview, no one has preconceived notions. They get age, gender, ethnicity, etc. OUT of the process to a large degree.

Think about it.

Yes, I found a purple shirt!

The Best Mentors Have Walked a Mile

We are building a base of Mentors for two non-profits to help startups connect with those who are willing.

Mentoring is one of those words without a ubiquitous agreed definition: for TechSandBox, and MIT Enterprise Forum, it is someone who makes a commitment to meet with their mentee frequently and over a long-term period of time. For both organizations, we ask 2-4 hours/month for one year. [More on why later.]

The role of a mentor, versus coach or advisor, is to help in moving the company forward, getting fairly well-versed in its challenges, accomplishments, goals and overall situation.

Being in Massachusetts, there are many resources available, many for free. It can be overwhelming, so how does one find the best? After all, time is the most precious commodity to an entrepreneur.

Here are my Top 5 characteristics:

5. Someone who asks questions and gets you to think. Look for the ‘two ears one mouth’ mentor as your own responses will help you through many situations. Thoughtful questions can make all the difference.

4. Broad business experience. Someone who has run operations, had P&L responsibility, understands business models and finance, or customer acquisition marketing – someone who understands the key pieces and how to get them all in sync.

3. People who do this just to help. See the previous blog on enlightened self-interest

2. Former startup executives. These people know why customers and testimonials matter, why networking works, and why they should help you even when everything isn’t perfect.

1. Former company founders who put their own skin in the game. This is the best as they often have learned how to manage money and resources, understand the personal pressures of family, bank accounts and mortgages that you’re putting on the line, and will avoid using the ‘should’ (‘…you should…’) statement.

Why: To offer deep and pertinent guidance, it’s important to have mentors that are totally up-to-date otherwise you spend each meeting going too far back in time. A sense of being valued and part of the team also comes from greater involvement and communication.

Yes, having industry experience is great as their contacts may get shared once you develop a trusted relationship but the proverbial ‘Rolodex™’ is not the main qualifier.


Enlightened Self-Interest

We are all busy and most of us need to earn a living, find new clients, find a job, etc. It’s probably reasonable to assume that going to professional association events is intended to contribute to this; after all, we’re told we need to network.

All_Icons_May29_Page_4 Networking  I say, this doesn’t work.

When I was actively involved as a volunteer in a professional association, there’s a question I’d get frequently at networking programs: How many clients (for my consulting business) do you get out of it?

This well-intentioned question shows a lack of understanding how the world really works.

Better than advertising.

As every good marketer knows, frequency of (quality and relevant) interactions and depth of the interaction build relationships and keeps a brand (in this case, you) top of mind. If I don’t know you, you’re not getting my business. If I don’t know you, you’re not in my ‘consideration set’ for when I do need your type of talent. If I don’t know you, I have no basis for helping or referring you.

Karma beans in the karma bean jar of life.

Just about the best way to build quality relationships is in volunteering your time: speak on panels, organize programs, fund raise, share your expertise with the organization or with its members … Volunteer your time in a professional setting. The exposure you get will contribute to your brand.

So, how many clients do I get?

Who knows? What I do know is that the more my name is ‘out there’ with positive association, the more likely I am to be considered.

And, my karma quotient goes up.


And, for many professional associations, from IEEE to the MIT Enterprise Forum to MassChallenge and TechSandBox Innovation Hub, involvement contributes to their mission, which is typically an important keystone in increasing innovation, and, ultimately, economic development – something that helps our communities and our businesses.






Please don’t turn LinkedIn into Facebook!

Dear LinkedIn: You Blew It.

I’ve been a LinkedIn user since the early days and was always a believer in the power it delivered to people, especially business people.

Now, it’s obvious that your new interfaces (way too many of them) are designed by people who really aren’t users trying to be productive. Or, they’re only on smartphones. Or they’re poor UX designers.

When I look at my Groups, I want to see MY groups by my priority, not the ones with the most chatter. I want them in the priority of importance to me right on my screen, like before. It makes me want to opt out of the big groups.

When I want to send a message to a connection, I don’t want a ‘text’ style interface where every <CR> sends the message. I want to write in full sentences and paragraphs. I don’t use LI just to say ‘hi’.

And the pop up tool boxes are so long (literally); I have to shrink down my browser text to 4 pt. font to even be able to click on it; where’s the scrolling?

Connections:  what happened to the alphabet? I want to be able to find someone I met named “Peter” and I can’t.  I can’t even find how to  download and save my contacts!

A bug that’s been on LI for a while: When I look at the profile of someone I know in order to get their direct email, sometimes their contact info tab shows and sometimes it doesn’t.

I could go on.

Please don’t turn LinkedIn into Facebook!


Have You Practiced Your Pitch Enough? by Rhea Nyak

You’ve come up with a grand idea and have worked hard to develop a pitch that is on point and tells a great story.  Learning how to communicate with prospective investors and deliver your presentation with ease is critical in pitching your startup.  So, do you feel prepared?  Have you practiced your pitch enough?

Practice makes perfect

When it comes to learning at school, music or sports, doing something over and over again makes you better at it.  Although the time you devote to the activity and the type of practice may vary, it is clear that repetition improves performance.  The same applies to your startup pitch.  When you invest time and energy to practice your pitch, it gives you the opportunity to set yourself apart from the rest.

Before you pitch to savvy investors, the key is to practice so you can:

  • communicate a clear and crisp message
  • make your presentation flow flawlessly and effortlessly
  • remember to convey all the important details
  • be at ease and not let your nerves get the better of you

Even good ideas get discounted for lack of clarity in communicating the feasibility of the business. Having a comprehensive business plan and a well-rehearsed pitch will help you make the connection.

How to practice

How you pitch your idea depends on your audience.  There are different strokes for different folks.  You must prepare a short 30 second elevator pitch, a succinct 2-3 minute version, and a 20 minute detailed presentation.  No matter which pitch you use and who you pitch to, your ultimate goal is to attract and captivate the attention of your listeners.  You may have a one-of-a-kind idea; however, everyone seems to come to the table with great ideas.  Since you will have only a few minutes or even seconds to portray your vision, you’d better practice enough to be able to make a positive impact with your presentation.

You can start by presenting to yourself in the mirror.  Talking aloud will help you refine the delivery of your presentation.  You can then graduate to practicing with your friends and family, or anyone that will listen.  Incorporate the feedback you receive to fine-tune your pitch.  Finally, practice in front of people that are not related to you and who have no idea about your proposal.  This is the best group to critique your pitch as their feedback will be free of any bias as they don’t have a vested interest in it.

Use constructive criticism to improve your pitch

Practicing your pitch at a pitch event is another good way to test it out and get useful feedback.  Pitching at TechSandBox is a great place to start and learn from experts who have been in your shoes.  The experience will help you build on any critique you receive in a constructive way and incorporate it into your presentation.  It is the closest simulation you can have to pitching to investors and will train you to deliver a powerful pitch as well as build confidence.

The Learn to Pitch workshop will be held at TechSandBox on November 5th, 2015 where you can receive feedback from our experts.  We will help you prepare for our Pitch Fest competition on December 10th.  It’s when in just two minutes, you will need to make your most compelling case and wow the audience.  We are now accepting entries for our Annual Pitch Fest and you can submit yours until November 22nd.  Get it in and compete for cash awards.  To qualify, you will need to have a science or technology product startup with none-to-small revenues.  Apply here.  The founder will need to present the pitch.  We will accept student entries from any sector as long as students are attending a full time program at an academic institution.  The Annual Pitch Fest is a party with food, music and networking after the competition.  Come join us!