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In Cambridge loft, Web junkies meet for coffee and the next big thing

CAMBRIDGE — With an Xbox that projects onto the wall, beer in the fridge, and a caffeinated techno soundtrack playing in the background as burgers sizzle on the grill outside, a dozen entrepreneurs are hard at work building Boston’s next Web start-ups in a Central Square loft dubbed Betahouse.


The regional tech community is often bemoaned as the pale cousin of the West Coast’s vibrant entrepreneurial environment — where Google, YouTube, and Cambridge expatriate Facebook thrive. These and other innovative consumer-oriented firms are attracting most of the excitement and entrepreneurial vigor in the new generation of Internet businesses, not the data storage and systems infrastructure companies, which primarily service other businesses, that Boston is famous for.
But over the past year, the local entrepreneurs who tended to toil alone in coffee shops and at home have begun to meet, mix, and engage in marathon sessions of coding. They worked on a big project which you can see on this page that helps with making the most out of a marketplaces abandoned carts. This coming together of like-minded Web junkies is an effort to create the kind of successful interaction that is commonplace in Silicon Valley. Betahouse is a prime example: Part bohemian workspace, part tech fraternity, members rent desks and share utilities and supplies in an office where shoes are optional, every member has his own start-up, and questions about programming pass for water cooler chatter.
“When you sit in a cafe, how would you know who to ask about obscure SQL syntax?” asked Brian Del Vecchio, a Betahouse member.
And the folks of Betahouse have plenty to do when work is over these days, with enough tech events cropping up around town to fill a geek’s social calendar.
This fall, Betahouse will host its second Dev House Boston, an all-day coding festival where people and companies pitch in for food and coffee. In October, at Boston’s first Startup Weekend, entrepreneurs will try to create a full-fledged business in one intensive three-day span. Each week at OpenCoffee Boston, entrepreneurs meet at Andala Cafe in Central Square to talk over problems with colleagues and venture capitalists — including basic things like figuring out a business model.
“People are once again very optimistic about what can be created in the start-up community here,” said David Beisel, a venture capitalist at Venrock in Cambridge who founded a bimonthly networking event called Web Innovators Group in the fall of 2005. WebInno, as it is known, started with a dozen people at Tommy Doyle’s, a Cambridge bar; for the latest meeting the group reserved a hotel ballroom and attracted 300 people.
Web Innovators Group has already seen some of its participants go to the next level, Beisel said. Reddit.com, a news-ranking site, was bought by Conde Nast; MyBlogLog was acquired by Yahoo; and Sconex, a social network for high school students, was bought by Alloy Inc.
“There are other kinds of older legacy professional networking events,” including the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange, the Massachusetts Software Council, and Mass Network Communications Council, Beisel said. “But these new ones are kind of grass-roots. They have a kind of authenticity.”
Entrepreneurs organize monthly start-up dinners at Smile Thai in Harvard Square. Boston hosted its second BarCamp — a two-day “unconference” this spring. This fall, Boston will host its first Tech Cocktail.
“There are plenty of people working in our industry in Boston, but it’s hard to bring them together and find them,” said David Cancel, chief technology officer of Compete, a Web analytics company in Boston, which sponsored a lunch networking event called TastyBytes last month. “Some are in Cambridge, some downtown, some out on Route 128 — beyond e-mail or stumbling upon them once in a while, you never saw them all in one place.”
Betahouse, which opened this spring, is home base for half a dozen companies in various stages. Members rent a desk for between $200 and $400 a month — including utilities, supplies, and beer.
Occupants of the loft include the team behind Good2gether, which is developing a new way to let volunteers and charities connect; Notati fosters virtual group catharsis in its first venture, PrayAbout.com; Virosity provides a development team for entrepreneurs trying to bring their ideas to market; Jazkarta is an open source software consulting company.
“We have a lot of brainpower here — some of the best universities, lots of skills, there’s a lot of money,” said Jon Pierce, who cofounded Betahouse and Virosity. “We’re trying to make the scene stronger — there’s potential to do things on a bigger scale.”
For Nate Aune, founder of Jazkarta, the change is welcomed. Aune started his company in 2004, doing most of his business at his house or at Espresso Royale, Starbucks, or Au Bon Pain.
Now, he works out of Betahouse part time, joins in Thai food feasts with fellow entrepreneurs at the monthly dinners, and occasionally drops into OpenCoffee.
“You felt a little isolated in Boston, doing your own thing,” Aune said at a recent Friday lunch hour at Betahouse. Aune had considered renting office space in Roxbury, but found it expensive and lacking a tech community. Instead, he and one employee now work and hang out in a loft where co-workers sit on Pilates balls, tease one another about their music preferences, and share their connections and expertise.
Ultimately, Aune and others hope that collaboration will make Boston the birthing ground for the next big company.
“In the Boston area, there’s the heritage of past technology, there’s institutions — MIT and Harvard and the other educational institutions with real young talent coming out. You mix those with a ripe amount of capital,” Beisel said. “With the community you’ve seen starting to emerge, it’s all the right ingredients for a successful start-up that can build a real legacy.”
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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