Upon entering TechHub Boston’s Davis Square location (212 Elm St.), visitors are greeted by a literal wall of text: bold, black block letters more than two feet high that wrap around the building’s lobby and hallway and spell out, “If not now, then when?” It’s a mantra that’s as true for the startups currently working in the shared incubator space as it is for TechHub itself—the London-based company wasted no time opening its doors in April after choosing Somerville for its first U.S. location.
“We like to bill ourselves as a startup for startups,” says TechHub Boston community developer Cody Chamberlain. “There are companies here who have been with us since the beginning—before we even had a water cooler. Or a coffee maker.”
The goal at TechHub is to provide fledgling startups with the resources and community they need to build their product, whether that’s an app, software or a bike wheel. The fast-growing co-working company was founded in 2010 by CEO Elizabeth Varley and Mike Butcher (Editor-at-Large at TechCrunch) who were troubled by a fragmentation in London’s tech scene. While the city was flush with entrepreneurs and startups working on different and potentially interrelated projects, there was no space in which they could come together, collaborate and share their expertise. They wanted to provide an opportunity for startups to get better, faster, and the idea seems to be working; the company now has nine offices in vibrant urban locations worldwide, including cities like Madrid, Bucharest, Bangalore—and Somerville.
When they first thought about bringing their shared workspace to the U.S. in 2014, the TechHub founders were unsure where to go. So as they looked at different cities around the country, they tried to answer a central question: “How do we come in here and really collaborate?” says TechHub Boston cofounder Simon Towers. “We saw that there was definitely an opportunity to do that [in Somerville].” But before the organization set up shop in the city, they hosted a handful of demo nights, a signature event that gives a handful of tech startups the opportunity to show off their product—whether that’s a “paper napkin idea” or a product that’s already been released—to gather feedback from their peers.
The first demo night, held in October at the Boston Society of Architects, was a test, a roundtable discussion over pizza and beer that brought out less than 30 people. A mere four months later, nearly 400 people registered for their demo night at Brooklyn Boulders, and shortly thereafter the company opened the doors to its Somerville location. “There’s this energy at street level,” says Towers, who says that they chose Somerville because it’s a dense, diverse city full of entrepreneurs as well as artists and students who can provide diverse prospectives for startups. “I don’t think you could get much more energy than Elm Street in Davis Square.”
In some ways, the very concept of TechHub seems counterintuitive. After all, these are tech companies, do they really need a physical space in which to work? In the age of telecommuting, videoconferencing and Google hangouts, wouldn’t these startups be at the forefront of the work-from-home movement?
Towers, who telecommuted for six years in his previous role at MetLife, says that’s not necessarily true. Working from home, he says there were days and times when he felt extremely isolated—and he was working for a Fortune 500 company with a massive network of employees. “I could not imagine doing a startup and trying to get things started at a kitchen table,” he says. “Where are you going to meet your next front-end developer? Where are you going to meet that individual who can talk to you about their experiences and where they failed or they had to pivot?”
He adds that TechHub is very much opt-in and that the startups currently housed there will can scale their memberships up or down depending on their changing needs. They provide the resources and physical space to accelerate their success. The staff periodically checks in with startups both to hear how their product is coming along and to see if the workspace is meeting each company’s needs. They’re happy to make changes at the request of the startups that are working there, whether that’s adding new services or updating the furniture.
They also have a water cooler now. And a coffee maker.