And then, Portland's mayoral race suddenly got exponentially more important for Portland startups

Let me preface this with the statement that I don’t even like politics. Mostly because I don’t get it. I come from a long line of coal miners and blue collar workers. You don’t politick. You just work. That being said, even a political n00b like me can see the writing on the wall. And so, here I sit. Writing my second politically fueled post of the day. Because I wanted to bring your attention to the Portland mayoral race. Because it just got way more important for every startup in Portland.

Before I began ranting, I have to credit two folks with dragging me into the whole “politics” thing.

One was Skip Newberry, who served as the startup and technology liaison for Portland Mayor Sam Adams. As a tech entrepreneur, Skip got it. And he recognized that startups had better damn well get it as far as municipal politics go if they were to succeed. He continues to lean on that political savvy in his role heading up the Technology Association of Oregon. And I continue to learn from him.

The second person was Vince Porter, who headed up Oregon Film before joining the governor’s team in Salem. Like Skip taught me about municipal politics, Vince guided me on the machinations of state politics. And educated me on thinking about the impact of efforts and startups, statewide. Like Skip, he also cautioned me that startups ignored state level politics at their own peril.

So with that in mind, we return, gentle reader, to present day. Where I sit, like the narrator describing his sofa selection to Tyler Durden. “No matter what happens in the Portland mayoral election,” I say. “At least we’ve got that whole PDC thing handled.”

Then one shoe dropped. And today, the other one dropped.

We have just lost cabin pressure.

Suddenly, two of the leaders who have been helping to fill the void left by Skip’s departure from Portland government—Patrick Quinton and Chris Harder—are no longer going to, as the kids say, have our back. And that is more than a bit disconcerting.

You see, the PDC has been doing some really innovative and creative things to help the Portland startup scene over the past five years. And it’s been a far cry from the typical economic development of the “let’s just get square footage leased” ilk. It’s been truly transformative and critical work. Things like the Portland Seed Fund, the Startup PDX Challenge, the Portland Inclusive Startup Fund, Techtown Portland, the Diversity Pledge, and many more.

But it doesn’t stop there. They’ve sponsored any number of tech events, including multi-year sponsorships of TechfestNW. Their teams have worked to champion technology adoption within city government, encouraging government folks to become customers of local startups. Heck, they’re even active on Twitter. The list goes on and on.

But now, they’re no longer going to being filling that void. There is going to be a vacuum.

Which brings us to the Portland mayoral elections coming up this year. Because we’re going to need whomever we elect to step up and fill the gap in a couple of major ways. I see two specific opportunities our next mayor is going to have to move the Portland startup scene forward. But they’re also significant risks that, if ignored, could cause our city could to, just as easily, slide backwards:

First, we’ve been desperately missing a role like the one Skip held at the city. With a whittled down staff, the current administration has little to no time to handle even critical tasks, let alone engage with the Portland startup scene the way Skip and Sam did. This, to put it lightly, has made the current administration a non-entity in the Portland startup scene. A decided step back from the days when the mayor used to show up at hackathons and startup events—or even participate in wacky 30 hour streaming telethons or chatting with podcasters—on a regular basis. We need the new mayor to make this role a critical part of their team. And we need that person—or better yet, people—to be accessible, available, and present in the Portland startup scene. Because otherwise, the mayor and city council will be flying blind in terms of technology, innovation, and startups.

Second, we need the new leadership at the Portland Development Commission to not only take the baton from Patrick and Chris but to sprint further and faster than they were able to do—because the PDC now, thanks to their efforts, has substantial programmatic infrastructure to leverage. And good will. And participation. If anything, it’s time to double down on efforts in the city. And to accelerate activity for the Portland startup scene—especially as we, as a city, broaden our purview into incredibly active entrepreneurial communities beyond the bastion of pure technological pursuits and far more diverse than the homogeneity of its previous iterations.

What’s that got to do with the mayor, you ask? Well, the mayor oversees the PDC. And so, it’s critically important that the mayor we elect decides to continue supporting the momentum the PDC has.

Not to be Chicken Little, but worst case, the sky could very well be falling on our Portland startup scene. At least in terms of municipal support and involvement. We as startups stand, with this election, to lose momentum with the PDC and to continue to suffer a lack of representation on the mayor’s staff.

And this isn’t a “two negatives make a positive” sort of thing. This is more of a “two factors exponentially magnifying one another” in a bad way.

So I’d encourage you to begin to take a more active role in considering, questioning, and communicating your needs to the mayoral candidates. Because honestly, even a political neophyte like me can see this very easily going the wrong way if the Portland startup community’s needs are not raised as a priority.

And, you know me. I’d prefer that we continue to build the most amazing entrepreneurial town in the world.

  1. Nathan McGuiness February 22, 2016 at 9:06 am

    You have this wrong. The best thing to do in tech is avoid government as much as possible. Presently, tech is one place where you are largely free to do the work you wish to do and do so without regulation. Do you really want to be like a third of the country and have your ability to work licensed by the government? Heck, even my hair stylist needs to get permission from the government to do her job.

    Best thing is to use tools like Meetup to run our own show. Avoid mixing it up with government workers. If that means having to work even harder, then so be it. Ignore your present freedoms at your peril.

  2. Well said, Rick. There is much that hangs in the balance for the region’s tech and startup communities with this next election. As the region—including Trimet, the County, and Metro as well as the City of Portland—continue to establish credibility as a hub for 21st civic innovation, the City of Portland will play a critical role. If it’s to be successful, it needs strong leadership from City Hall, which includes the Mayor and the other Commissioners.

    During my time at TAO and with Technology Councils of North America (TECNA), I have had the opportunity to spend time in tech hubs across the U.S. with other organizations like TAO. Those regions that are having the most success with their tech and startup communities benefit from strong partnerships between public, private, and academic sectors.

    One thing that separates regions with strong public sector partners from those without, is whether elected officials embrace the principle of “government as a platform”. This includes a focus on open architecture, open data, improving the City’s approach to IT projects and infrastructure, making the procurement process more accessible to startups and smaller businesses. These things are fundamental building blocks without which an evolution to 21st Century smart cities is not possible. And without an evolution to smart city infrastructure, all of our various policy goals across public safety, economic development, transportation, equity and inclusion, etc. will be that much harder to achieve.

    As I learned during my time working in local government, there are incredibly smart people at the City of Portland, Trimet, Metro, and the County. With the right vision for the region, the tech community can be mobilized to contribute alongside public sector employees and residents to help provide solutions to some of the region’s challenges. Recent efforts around smart city applications as a way to achieve the goal of ubiquitous mobility across different modes of transportation is one such example of this approach in action. It includes elements of transportation policy, equity, health and wellness, public safety, climate policy, and combines those elements with IoT, software, data, and startup-friendly pilot projects. Bike Portland published a great post on this initiative [Disclosure: I was one of many who contributed to the City’s application].

    While PDC has consistently worked most closely with the startup and tech communities over the past seven years, there is no reason why all of the City’s bureaus should not be involved in this work. That is only possible with a consensus around a shared vision at City Hall and across the other local governments with jurisdiction in the area—Trimet, the County, and Metro. And with strong leadership from City Hall, there’s no reason why that vision can’t become our reality.

    Last Friday, TAO hosted a discussion between tech companies and startups and Ted Wheeler and Jules Bailey, and after meeting with both candidates about this government-as-a-platform concept and the work of TAO’s Smart City Lab, I have to say I was impressed by both candidates and their grasp of these issues. It’s important, however, that the candidates—all of the candidates–hear from as many of you as possible in the coming weeks and months.

    Tech companies always talk about how important it is to be close to the customer. In the case of the City of Portland, you are the customer. It doesn’t get any closer to home. And if that doesn’t make you care about this election, I don’t know what will.

  3. Surj:

    I pitched a similar idea to Ted Wheeler last week during Portland Startup Week on behalf of TiE Oregon. Both Kari Naone, and Jorge Guzman are planning a tech-focused event with Jules Bailey and Ted Wheeler for March 17, 2016. More to come soon, I’m sure.

  4. So how about getting one of the bigger tech meetups in Portland to have a “mayoral” clinic style session? What about Thubten’s event or the Lunchtme 2.0 thing? Rick moderate? Puppet as a venue? All that said, if the mayoral candidates are willing and step up to the challenge. Rick?

  5. What are Rick’s chances of getting elected if he runs? Pretty high I’d guess.

  6. This is very concerning. PDX has transformed itself from a sleeping and secret software technology hub (that flew under the national radar) to one that has even garnished more VC money than Seattle at times these past few years. When Skip was at the PDC they recognized software as one of 4 focus industries for Portland’s economic growth–even identifying average salaries in the software segment were over 2x greater than the other 3 industries they targeted. It’s about the economy. This needs to be fixed.

  7. This is concerning. Is there an organized action committee with a platform to take to the city?

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