“Coffee, coffee everywhere, but not a spot to think.” So started Jackie Noblett article in the Boston Business Journal in 2009. The article profiled an effort by a number of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in the area to create a place where the two groups could network, finding others with shared interests who could help them make their ventures succeed. While other tech-hubs around the globe have spawned such places, and while MIT’s Muddy Charles Pub has played a similar role within MIT, the broader Boston tech community has lacked such a hub.
The project first gained broad attention at the Nantucket CEO Conference in 2009, where Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center tossed out the idea of banding together to build a café that exists with its primary mission being this community purpose. By explicitly making it owned by as broad as possible a spectrum of entrepreneurs, tech companies, and investors in the area, perhaps it could sidestep the tendency in New England to reject that which is ‘not invented here’.
During the course of 2009 a number of possible names, locations, designs, and ownership and management structures were kicked around at meetings at the Muddy Charles, the Enormous Room, Google’s offices, the Friendly Toast, the Middlesex Lounge, and at the MTLC Unconference. Over 300 people joined a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the idea, with almost 600 members to date, and a core of a couple of dozen community leaders met a number of times to explore it.
Among the names proposed for the cafe are The Sandbox, SquareOne, Catalyst, and others, but so far “The Venture Café”, inspired by Teresa Esser’s eponymous book about startup formation in the MIT community, seems to have stuck.
Whose idea was it? Does it matter? For Tim Rowe, the idea of such a meeting place has been a long-held dream–one he considered pursuing prior to founding the Cambridge Innovation Center–but it seems many have had similar dreams. Another strong proponent of the current effort, Rich Miner (co-created the Android mobile phone OS along with Danger founder Andy Rubin) tells the story that he and Andy considered opening a similar café prior to deciding to pursue the Android idea. It seems everyone has had the dream.
As of April 2010, hundreds of people have been involved in the project in some way, and a few dozen of them significantly. So far, everyone involved has been a volunteer. An early key volunteer in the project was recent Emerson College graduate Aubree Lawrence, who worked with Tim to pull together the online groups and organize many of the first meetings. Starting in the Fall of 2009, another volunteer, Carrie Stalder, a Masters’ Candidate in MIT’s Systems Design and Management Program, took the lead, helping organize meetings with potential landlords and in launching what is today called the Venture Café Alpha, a weekly ‘test bed’ for ideas relating to the Venture Café. Carrie also helped recruit volunteers to staff the alpha, and develop technology. The Technology Team is pursuing a number of ideas related to enhancing the experience of those in the café by giving them visibility into who is there, and enabling them to meet others more easily. Luis Garcia, an HBS Master’s Candidate who will shortly join Google Ventures, developed early financial models for the café. Michael Staub, a restaurant consultant in the area, has helped refine the financial model and possible structures for working with potential restaurant partners. Progress Partners, a local boutique investment bank, has taken the lead developing a financing structure for the café, and will lead the financing effort once the project is ready for that step.
We look forward to sharing on these pages what the coming months will bring for this project.