November 5th, 2009
Navel gazing: Picking apart Greg Huang’s article on Boston, Boulder, and Seattle to find guidance for Portland
Sometimes, it pays to look outside Portland and the Silicon Forest. To poke up our collective heads, take a gander, and assess what’s going on elsewhere. Even if that brief assessment only returns us to the position of navel gazing about what Portland could and should be doing.
Such is the case with a recent post from Greg Huang at Xconomy, “A Tale of Three Cities: How Boston, Boulder, and Seattle Measure Up as Tech Innovation Hubs.”
Like Greg. Like his writing. Figured I’d find a few good morsels. What I discovered, in addition, were some interesting insights that could help Portland find its way to a looming tipping point.
When I showed up in ’95, what I found was on the software side you had a lot of smart engineering talent but you didn’t have much else.… Not much in the way of entrepreneurial executive leadership other than from these pockets. In the mid-90s, because of the counter-culture community—and the Internet was purpose-built for places like Boulder—you had a lot of people who were independent, very smart, doing their own things.… Yet there wasn’t a broad wave of entrepreneurial experience.… The other thing was that one of the hardest things for first-time entrepreneurs is to have an engaged relationship with an experienced entrepreneur.
Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought it might.
What helped fix the situation? A little incubator called TechStars that did two important things. First, it attracted new entrepreneurs to Boulder. Second, it lined those new entrepreneurs up with experienced mentors to guide them and challenge them to build the best startups possible.
Boston, now another TechStars city, has had a great deal of wealth generated by entrepreneurs. But the startups have been traditional tech pursuits.
What’s Boston seeing now? Chris Sheehan of CommonAngels sees a shift toward mobile and Web.
Boston is well known for growing up with hardware and software companies. You’re now seeing other parts of the IT space building clusters around Boston—mobile, gaming, Web, e-commerce, ad tech and marketing.
And finally, Seattle. Our closest metropolitan neighbor and the town with which we are most often compared. Steve Hall of Vulcan Capital highlighted some of Seattle’s shortcomings—which will likely sound very familiar.
The first is the question of whether Seattle has enough capital. It’s a very short list of funds. You need a critical mass of capital to drive entrepreneurs’ willingness to quit their jobs and burn the midnight oil to start businesses. While I think it’s good for us VCs to have the market to ourselves, you need a little more activity to jumpstart the system.
Complaining about lack of capital? Check. What else? What’s that? Lifestyle? Do tell.
People outside Seattle, particularly fund investors, believe that Seattle is a little too nice. We enjoy our lifestyle too much. Boulder may have a little of this as well.
And can we hit the trifecta with “risk aversion,” Andy Sack?
There’s a greater aversion to risk here than in Silicon Valley or Boston.
So for all the similarities among these three towns and what we’re experiencing in Portland, is there anything we’re doing especially well?
I’d have to say there’s one thing that we’re doing that will help solve all of these other problems: building a collaborative community.
Even Andy agrees that that’s important.
As nice as the Northwest is, it often isn’t as collaborative as I’d like to see it. Competition is good, but in terms of building a world-class city of technology entrepreneurship, I think we still have some things to learn.
But don’t just take my quoted-out-of-context snippets, go read Greg’s piece for yourself. Draw your own conclusions.
Does Portland have what it takes? And what’s missing that could help put us on par—or better yet, surpass—these other cities?