When 800-plus entrepreneurs, advisers, venture capitalists, and investors came to Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the MassTLC Innovation 2011 unConference on Oct. 28, neat rows of alphabetically organized name badges on registration tables awaited their arrival. Little else had been prepared in advance—and that suited attendees just fine.
Aboutsixyearsago,whenTomHopcroftbecame CEOofMassTLC—the MassTechnology Lead- ership Council, a Massachusetts-based business association that represents the interests of technol- ogy companies — he took over its floundering Investors Conference for entrepreneurs.“We were pulling teeth to get the right investors there, and really calling in favors,”Hopcroft recalled. “Even at that, the results were not great in terms of the lev- el of investors that would be in the room with us.” Over breakfast one morning, Hopcroft and
MassTLCTrustee BillWarner theorized why the conference might not be working.“We came to the conclusion that a decade ortwoago, people did not know how to meet the venture capitalist to get funded,” Hopcroft said, “and so a conference like
a decision.Ontop of that, entrepreneurs were at a disadvantage because they did not know how much they should share about their idea—“how wide to open the kimono,” Hopcroft said — becausepotential competitors couldbe intheroom. Even the conference’s premise—that entrepre-
neurs sought money only —was flawed. “Yeah, [money] is a big piece of it,” Hopcroft said, but not always. “Theymaynot be ready to go for venture capital yet; perhaps they ought to look for a big customer first, orworkontheir presentation. Sowe really took a broader approach and said, ‘Why don’tweput together sort of the predecessor of this Investors Conference? Let’s do something that is about helping.’ It might be money, but that is not explicitly what we are going to be about here.”
“It is much more dynamic and customized to the audience, because they are the ones who create it.”
this worked really well in the late ’80s and early ’90s when that was the case. But times have changed and venture capitalists are now very active in the innovation community. They are out at events meeting people, and so we realized that if youare coming to pitch [your idea for fund- ing] at our event, [you were among the] entrepre- neurswhodid not have enoughsort of social savvy to be able to network and meet the venture capi- talists on their own.” As a result, the conference ended up “self-selecting” those entrepreneurswho may not have been the cream of the crop. The second challenge Hopcroft and Warner
identified alsohadtodowith the attendee mix.The entrepreneur attendee might only have the oppor- tunityto speak withanassociatefromaninvestment firm rather thanthepartner responsible formaking
Finally,Hopcroft thought the revampedconfer-
ence needed to be more inclusive, to embrace the “sub-communities” within the tech world,where he saw potential for true innovation.Hesaid: “If wecanconnect people frommobile with people in health-care technology or big-data analytics and social networking and financial services, and ifwe connect people fromdifferent partsof the state and different parts of the world, it has a pump effect. You have more ideas shared.”
All for Un,Un for All To meet all of these needs, Hopcroft andWarner scrapped the Investors Conference for a new name, focus, and format: theMassTLCInnovation unConference—“aself-organizing, unstructured conference [where] everyone creates the agenda
36 pcmaconvene February 2012 ILLUSTRATION BY MICK WIGGINS
COLOR-CODED:A simple systemof three differ- ent coloredPost-It notes helpedmake it possible for MassTLC Innovation unConference entrepre- neur attendees to schedule a one-on-one mentoring session with the expert of their choice on site.