When you think Portland, numerous images probably come to mind.
You probably think music. You think coffee. You think books & bikes, beards & beer. You think about keeping it weird. You might think about bridges, trees, and birds, or maybe even an organic, gluten-free brunch. One thing you probably don’t think about is start-ups. But maybe you should.
Over the past few years, Portland, OR, has quickly emerged as a start-up hot spot on the west coast, seemingly following in the vast footsteps of the Bay Area — you could consider us their quiet, northerly little cousin. And while the comparisons between the Bay and Rose City (both good and bad) are beginning to approach endlessness, being compared to them as hub of innovation is surely something we can be proud of — housing prices on the other hand… well, that’s a story for another time.
Why Portland, though? The answer lies in a few of the town’s different facets.
First off, Portland (at least in the past 10-15 years) has managed to attract a large group of creative folks. Whether it’s visual art, music, design, film, photography, what have you, creatives have been flocking to what was once a tacit little haven.
Although the influx of transplants hasn’t ceased (and doesn’t look to be ceasing anywhere in the near future), the type of people Portland attracts seems to be shifting. While the creatives are still coming in droves, more and more business-minded individuals are making their way here (so that would be “marketing” folks as opposed to “artists”). That’s not necessarily good or bad — it just is.
Regardless, in the past 5-7 years, the balance of business-minded and art-minded folks seems to have struck a really fine balance that has resulted in a pretty great melting pot of culture — the untamed, idyllic fervor that artists possess combined with the calculated, efficient logic of the business people. Luckily, that killer combination tends to make for the perfect owner of a new, small business.
Of course, while the people behind the business play a massive role, the environment around them is also a pretty effective player in that business’s success, and the environment cultivated in Portland is pretty fertile for start ups. Take the tech industry for example — just outside of Portland, toward Hillsboro, you’ll find a grip of small tech companies, no doubt supported by tech behemoth Intel. Thanks to the sprouting of these tech start ups, Portland has earned the nickname Silicon Forest (alluding to our presence as a more deciduous version of Silicon Valley).
On the other side of that, there’s PIE (the Portland Incubator Experiment) that Weiden+Kennedy helps make possible. In a nutshell, PIE is an incubator or an accelerator for startups — they select a few promising startups and allow them to work out of a space by the W+K offices, with the ad agency providing them not only with office space, but also with brand guidance. On top of that, they receive $20k in financing, as well as six months rent-free office space after their initial three month accelerator program is up. So, to recap, that’s $20k in funding, office space for nine months, and free brand guidance from one of the top global ad agencies… sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
It’s not just the bigger players who are keeping the startup market afloat, though. The community itself is incredibly active and pretty self-sustaining. The folks who put their hearts into their startups tend to end up knowing each other, building a solid network of relationships between the businesses.
One great way folks tend to connect is via Switchboard. If you don’t know about Switchboard, it’s basically an ultra-targeted form of a Craigslist job section (minus the scams and sketchiness that seasoned CL vets like myself will recognize from a mile away). You can make a Switchboard for just about any sort of community you’re a part of, and if you’re at all interested in Portland’s startup culture, you might want to check it out.
There’s also a little thing called Portland Startup Week which is — you guessed it — a week celebrating the startup community in Portland. It’s full of demos, networking events, discussions, panels… you name it, they’ve got it. It’s a great way to meet face-to-face with other folks who are involved with startups around town, and potentially build some fruitful working relationships.
And at the end of it all, this community produces some great results. Portland churns out a variety of successful startups that span numerous industries. Some of the more notable startups who have emerged from Portland in the past few years include: Cloudability, Puppet Labs, Simple, Urban Airship, and Wildfang.
The direction of Portland’s development over the past decade has spawned quite a bit of debate. In some aspects, the growth has been positive — the city is more well-known than it has ever been, and residents and businesses have been flocking, meaning a constructive change economically. The important thing though, is not to lose sight of the original creativity and resourcefulness that helped make Portland what it is. The town’s startup culture right now is a brilliant microcosm of those two elements working together and balancing each other out. Here’s to hoping we can keep the balance.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Portland’s startup culture, check out Silicon Florist, BuiltOregon, the Portland AngelList, Oregon Story Board, @pdx_startups, and of course, the brains behind a lot of those, Rick Turoczy (@turoczy).