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INNOVATION ECONOMY

The summer of alfresco meetings

Joy Newsome, a director of sales enablement at the Cambridge startup Knoq, takes a team selfie at a recent gathering in Danehy Park. BUSINESS 6-30-20
Joy Newsome, a director of sales enablement at the Cambridge startup Knoq, takes a team selfie at a recent gathering in Danehy Park. BUSINESS 6-30-20Handout

In more normal times, companies gather outdoors in the summer for lunchtime barbecues, or perhaps a cruise on the harbor after work, with cocktails and music.

But in these times, that kind of schmooze-fest is in short supply. Instead, people who work in Boston’s startup sector are having client meetings in their backyards, investment discussions in the Public Garden, and catch-up conversations with colleagues along the Charles River.

The year 2020 is proving to be the summer of Business Alfresco. When meetings get rescheduled this July or August, it will not be due to bad traffic or T disruptions, but because of thunderstorms.

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Jessica Kim tried an outdoor conclave for the first time in May, just before Memorial Day. Kim, the founder and chief executive of Ianacare, brought together two colleagues, a rolling whiteboard, and some lawn chairs in the front yard of her Newton home. One person wore a mask, and the other two had them on hand — but felt they were far enough apart not to need them during conversation.

The in-person meetings were helpful to create bonds with a new colleague who had joined the company when everyone was working from home, explains Kim — and to “break up the intensity of nonstop Zoom calls.” Ianacare has created a mobile app that helps networks of family members coordinate caregiving when someone is sick.

Collaborating via Zoom videoconference, Kim says, can be great for concrete and tactical activities. “But being in-person allows a different level of ideation and inspiration,” she says. Face-to-face conversations offer “more breathing room to push boundaries,” and they’re better at creating strong work relationships, Kim believes. Ianacare’s in-person gatherings typically happen about once a month, and usually include three people, max.

Cambridge-based Knoq has been having larger get-togethers — often about 15 people — every other Friday at a public park. “It’s completely optional to attend,” says chief executive and founder Kendall Tucker. But since the company has a sales-oriented culture — it is building a network of local sales representatives — “we felt it was important to get together as a team for those who are feeling isolated right now.”

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Tucker describes Knoq’s gatherings as “casual hangouts,” but they do include company updates and “a bit of brainstorming,” she says. A standard protocol has evolved: “We wear masks while setting up, and then when we’re sitting in chairs or on towels six feet apart, we take our masks off to eat snacks,” Tucker says.

Vinayak Ranade has been taking walks along the Charles with employees of Drafted, the company he runs, and with fellow entrepreneurs. “I always wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer, and usually only meet one or two people at a time,” he says. Drafted sells recruiting software that relies on employee referrals to help companies find new hires.

“I try to meet up not more than one day per week, usually on the weekend, since most people start showing symptoms in five days,” Ranade explains. “It adds extra risk mitigation between weekends.” He says he leaves his phone in his apartment: it’s just one more thing to sanitize, he says, and besides, it’s nice to unplug once in a while.

Venture capitalist Rudina Seseri has had meetings on her back deck in Wellesley with entrepreneurs she has already chosen to fund; she has gone on walking meetings around town with others who are seeking investment.

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Joshua Napoli says that the software company he cofounded, Cumulus Digital Systems, had a recent gathering on a lawn near its Alewife office. The weather was beautiful, but several employees did get sunburned, Napoli says.

Meanwhile, Gustavo Fontana runs Fresco Design, an industrial design consultancy with offices in Framingham and Argentina. He says that with kids at home, his patio has turned into his preferred conference room for meetings with clients and colleagues. “It invites more friendly and casual conversation,” Fontana says, and helps “break down any walls of formality.” He says he carefully positioned two outdoor sofas so that there is seven feet of space between peoples’ heads. “If we have goodies like beer or snacks, we take turns to lean forward and always try to maintain that seven feet — because seven is better than six,” he says.

Kirstan Barnett, an angel investor and adviser to startups, says that a typical meeting this summer would begin with coffee at a Tatte Bakery in the Back Bay, and continue on to the Public Garden, where she makes it a point to see what is in bloom and check in on the “Make Way for Ducklings” statue.

“One-on-one walks are far more productive than videoconferences for meetings where your aim is to collaborate, and figure out how to partner,” Barnett writes via e-mail. “I mean, you are walking side-by-side and in the same direction as a starting point, which is pretty cool if you step back and consider it.” Questions and answers feel “more free,” she says. And unlike a videoconference, Barnett adds, “nobody is worrying about the other person focusing on the coffee stain on their shirt, or the art on the wall behind you.”

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Indeed, Barnett says she thinks the overall quality of her walk-and-talk meetings are better than their office-bound predecessors. She says they are “something I will likely continue to suggest and do after corona — if we ever live in a postcorona world.”


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner