July 30th, 2009
Portland, Oregon, is the most entrepreneurial town in the world
It seems there’s a bit of contention and kerfuffle about a recent Entrepreneur piece on the most “startup friendly cities in the US.” Why? Because Portland—and a number of other “not seen as startup hub” towns—made it to the list while traditional metropolitan juggernauts—like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle—were left by the wayside.
I didn’t think much of it when I mentioned the Entrepreneur article—Portland is one of the best entrepreneurial cities—the other day.
But a post by John Cook on the TechFlash blog got me doing some heavy thinking about the list—and Portland in general.
I read John’s post last night. My first thought? Was this just a case of sour grapes?
But after reading through it a couple of times, I don’t think it is. Because I agree with him on any number of points. So I wasn’t really going to jump at his good natured baiting—even though Entrepreneur was clearly baiting all of us—because I didn’t take any severe umbrage with anything he said. At all. All fair points. And I didn’t really have anything to add to the conversation.
Then I saw Mike Rogoway’s awesome response on the Silicon Forest blog, this morning. He and John have a great, factual discussion going on. But when it comes right down to it, they’re still both in heated agreement on the topic.
And suddenly, it dawned on me. Somehow, as I was reading both pieces, I slipped into thinking about the how the Entrepreneur piece related to the tech scene in Portland. Probably because I was reading two of the best tech blogs in the Northwest. I’m silly like that.
But then it dawned on me: the Entrepreneur piece is about entrepreneurs. Not tech startups.
And that, my friends, is where I’m going to make my distinction. And that’s why I’m sure that Portland belongs on the list of most startup friendly cities.
Why? Cost of living and way of life aside, it’s for one simple reason. Portland belongs on that list because it’s got one of the most diverse entrepreneurial communities I’ve ever seen. And I’m not even going to tack Portland’s omnipresent “per capita” qualifier on there. That’s most entrepreneurial community, period.
And with a full head of steam, I started banging out my post. But then I stepped back.
Maybe I don’t know what the hell an entrepreneur is, I thought. Maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Maybe they’re absolutely right and I don’t have a horse in this race.
And then, after a few moments of rocking myself in fetal position at that thought, I returned to the keyboard.
I wanted to make sure I actually had the correct understanding of the term “entrepreneur.” I mean, it’s not Entrepreneur’s list of “friendly to tech startups” or “successful liquidity events,” is it?
And while I hate to pull out the old hackneyed “definition” card, I am old and hackneyed, so let’s take a look, shall we? Just so we’re on the same page.
According to Wikipedia, “An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of an enterprise, or venture, and assumes significant accountability for the inherent risks and the outcome.” Dictionary.com says it’s “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” And my trusty Mac dictionary widget says it’s “a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.”
Don’t like those definitions? Well, pick any one of these takes on the word “entrepreneur.”
Entrepreneurs take a risk to start something up. And Portland is pretty well chock full of those types. Tech or otherwise.
And to me, being entrepreneurial and being a business person capable of leading an organization to a liquidity event are often two completely different things. Ask anybody in Portland, and they’ll rattle off two or three side projects. That’s entrepreneurial spirit.
But—but!—that’s not business. And that’s something with which every entrepreneur struggles: You might not be the right person to make your idea a successful business. Heck, you might not even be the right person to turn your side project into a startup.
And if Portland doesn’t prove that, I’m finding it hard to think of a town that would. But that doesn’t make Portland any less of a haven for that entrepreneurial spirit.
Second, I reminded myself, this was a list of companies that are friendly to entrepreneurs.
Cheaper costs of living are friendly to entrepreneurs. Solid mass transit is friendly to entrepreneurs. Economic development strategies that look to stimulate the economy are good for entrepreneurs. Coworking spaces are friendly to entrepreneurs.
You see, this may come as a shock to you—I know it does to me—but there are actually other kinds of entrepreneurs. Yes, yes, tech is the entrepreneurial darling. And clearly I love droning on and on about it. But in actuality, Portland has an amazingly diverse and rich entrepreneurial fabric running through the city.
I mean, c’mon, I said to myself. It wasn’t even a tech company that was profiled in the piece. The entrepreneurial company representing Portland? Wicked Quick, an Portland startup apparel company.
As much as I hate to admit it, being an entrepreneur is about more than hacking some sweet APIs together and getting Sand Hill Road to kick in some development funds. And it’s that entrepreneurial diversity that makes Portland entrepreneur friendly.
Every food cart in Portland from Whiffies to the latest cart opening today is an entrepreneurial venture. And if Food Carts Portland is any indication, the city is pretty damn friendly to those entrepreneurs.
Every comic artist in Portland—from Dark Horse to those innumerable unsung independents writing books and plots for limited distribution—are entrepreneurial.
Every independent coffee shop and barista that starts boiling water under their own shingle here in town is an entrepreneur. And if this list of coffee shops doesn’t hint at how many of those there are in town
Portland is a beer town, and every craft brewing and distilling operation is the entrepreneurial spirit of Portland. Some of those even grow into successful franchises or regular watering holes. But all of them—even the batch you’ve got brewing in the garage—is that entrepreneurial spirit.
The same thing goes for every single restaurant in Portland. I can’t think of any single entrepreneurial pursuit that carries with it more of that entrepreneurial risk factor than restaurants. And Portland’s got a ton of them.
The one place that Portland has focused—the clean tech and green tech scene—is rapidly becoming our claim to fame. And that’s one of the few areas that’s actually getting the funding and support it deserves.
Sure. Nike and Adidas passed out of the “startup” scene long long ago, but every single apparel company—from rock stars like Keen and Wicked Quick to crowdsourcing Ryz to tumultuous pursuits like Lucy and where are they Nau—is a Portland entrepreneurial story. And one of the few regions in the world that boasts as much entrepreneurial talent in that regard. Even Rudi and Adi would be proud.
Every single public relations and marketing communications consultancy—from brilliant small shops like Maxwell PR to corporations like Waggener Edstrom, who just so happens to handle all the PR for that little company over in Redmond of which Seattle is so proud—are examples of Portland entrepreneurs succeeding in this environment and supporting clients all over the world.
And that marketing work has translated into an environment where every single graphic design artist in town is entrepreneur, whether living on their own work or working inside an agency and finding time to pursue side projects.
Perhaps our next major bastion of Portland pride? Mobile development where entrepreneurial pursuits like Small Society, Urban Airship, Subatomic, Spotlight, Cloud Four, FreeRange, Avatron and any number of individual entrepreneurial efforts are changing the face of development in town. And knocking it out of the park.
Of course, I would be completely remiss without mentioning the classic example of Portland entrepreneurship sans profit—open source. To me, there’s nothing more entrepreneurial than having the gumption and wherewithal to identify a problem and fix it. And Portland’s open source community is all about that. Not to mention all of the successful projects—and in AboutUs‘ and Jive‘s cases, funded projects—based on the use of and development of open source platforms.
And last but not least, Portland is one of the bloggiest towns anywhere. And each and every blog or podcast a Portlander starts is another example of that entrepreneurial spirit taking root.
And that’s nothing to say of the burgeoning music, art, and creative writing scenes. All entrepreneurial pursuits in their own right.
And guess what? Practically every one of those pursuits above? They’re supported by other entrepreneurs. By frequenting establishments. Or using their code. Or buying their products to help them with their own startups.
So friendly to startups and entrepreneurs? Who knows? But there are certainly a ton of people embracing that entrepreneurial spirit—in thousands of different ways. And there’s a cooperative community that helps all of that happen.
But see, that rampant diversity will also be one of the reasons why Portland doesn’t land on these types of lists without a lot of scoffing. Because, beyond the whole green and clean tech thing, we’ve put far too little effort into focusing as being the hub of X. Especially in tech. And that’s the real problem here—and the reason calling “WTF?” on the Entrepreneur listing has its place—finding our niche or niches that will help that thriving entrepreneur vibe transition into a successful business community.
So yes, John, and yes, Mike, financial comparisons or IPO comparisons make the list look a little off or the metrics skewed. But there is something else happening here that isn’t played out in those metrics. Something I hope John swings by to see and I hope Mike keeps covering. Something is happening. Something cultural. Something about Portland and its residents.
And maybe none of these entrepreneurial startup efforts will amount to a hill of beans. Or create millionaires. Or even solve any problems. But that doesn’t make them any less entrepreneurial. Nor does it make Portland’s community any less friendly to those entrepreneurs.
There’s a reason Portland is on that Entrepreneur list. Portland is the most entrepreneurial town in the world.
(Image courtesy Matt McGee. Used under Creative Commons.)