Remembering Sam Blackman

Sam Blackman was going to be the mayor of Portland. He might have even been governor of Oregon. And potentially a senator. But I was always convinced that he was going to be the mayor. He never told me that he wanted to be. I just knew that someday, he would be.

Sam had conviction. And passion. And it was infectious. And that enabled him to found and lead a company. But it could have just as easily been used to lead a city, a state, or a country.

I first encountered Sam, in person, when I saw him pitch at Venture Northwest. He was still a young and relatively inexperienced CEO. And I remember quite clearly hearing him deliver a pitch that was laced with acronyms and industry jargon that I could neither truly follow nor understand. But I did understand that he was passionate about it. And that he was convinced his young company, Elemental Technologies, was onto something big.

And they were, clearly. Resulting in one of the most successful exits Portland has ever seen. And one that brought an Amazon office to somewhere other than South Lake Union. A first for Portland.

But that was to be expected. Sam was full of firsts.

Even though many of us considered Sam a peer, he was so far ahead of so many of us. He was among the first founders to take on the challenge of building a great company in Portland. Rather than relocating to a more favorable environment, he remained in the city he loved. He was among the first to raise significant venture capital. He was among the first to begin championing Portland as a great place to build companies.

But more than anything else, I remember Sam as the first to really understand and embrace the power of community and politics. Elemental became the early leader in hosting events. In speaking to politicians. And in helping to connect the world of startups to the world of politics.

And this civic connection translated in other ways of making the community better. Like Elemental’s internship program, which continues to be one of the best programs introducing younger local folks to the world of technology and startups. And was their first introduction to many of the startups and accelerators in Portland. Because Elemental’s internship program wasn’t just an introduction to Elemental. It was an introduction to the Portland startup community.

And that connection to the community was more than internships. It inspired him to serve as a mentor for many of the founders in town, as spokesperson for our community, and as one of the most easily identifiable CEOs of a Portland startup.

And that’s why I thought Sam was always destined for politics. It seemed to be so natural for him. With an almost Jimmy-Stewart-esque “aw shucks” sort of humility.

I remember him graciously — almost bashfully — accepting an invitation to speak at TechfestNW, one year. And since we didn’t provide much by way of guidelines for his talk, I expected him to deliver a talk on tech or Elemental to the audience at OMSI. Instead, he surprised me with a passionate talk about Portland, the city he loved, and why it was the best place for developers to be. It was a talk that rivaled Alan Weber’s call to action for Portland a year earlier.

I remember frequently seeing him whizzing down Everett Street on his bike, cruising through the Pearl from his home to the Elemental office. He’d smile, holler, and wave to folks he knew. And they’d wave back.

I remember Sam receiving the recognition he deserved. Through awards. And speaking engagements. And other avenues.

I remember Sam giving back to the community that had helped him. Through vehicles like the OEN Entrepreneurship Fund. Or through charitable events like the Elemental 4K runs. Or by suggesting that maybe the tech community should be proactive in working to solve the diversity and inclusion issues that were plaguing it by forming a committee of their own.

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to watch Sam grow up as a CEO. I got to see him come into his own. And see him mature.

Recently, I’d had the luck of being selected to serve on a committee that Sam was also on. And I remember being happy that his voice would be included. And that I wouldn’t be the only one on the committee working to champion the views of the local startup community.

So over the past few months, I’ve seen Sam on a regular basis. In fact, I last saw Sam a few weeks ago. Where he was doing what Sam did in so many roles, asking hard but insightful questions and looking for common ground on which to agree.

After the meeting, I made a point of catching his attention. He smiled. We shook hands.

“We should catch up sometime soon,” I said. “I’d love to hear how things are going.”

“I’d really like that,” Sam said.

I would have really liked that, too.

Rest in peace, Sam. You will be greatly missed.

  1. Nicely, written. My heart breaks for the family.

  2. Whenever I had the opportunity to be around Sam, I was hit by his warm and engaging smile; always making me feel like I was a real part of his journey! Most recently I admired him for speaking out for diversity in the workplace and getting out there and supporting the effort! I will miss his light in our community. My heartfelt condolences to his wife and children.

  3. Cher Skoubo Pizzi August 31, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    I met Sam Blackman at NAB’s first 4K broadcast from the International Space Station. Very impressed with his quality of character. https://youtu.be/AExVC9RqIyc

    He will be missed and our thoughts are with his family and many friends.

  4. Nice write up Rick! Thank you!

  5. Beautiful testimony for an amazing human..

  6. Beautiful words, Rick.

    I’ll remember Sam as humble, a natural entrepreneur, a model citizen, and of course a great family man.

    I first knew of and met Sam as a fellow co-founder in Portland. For a long time, the Jive office was a couple of blocks from the Elemental office – we could actually see each other’s offices. For a while we went to the same gym and I got to know him & his family better. I’ve always admired Elemental and the way Sam ran it. It’s hard to build a company from scratch as a first-timer but he surrounded himself with a great team and was an inspiring leader. He was the real deal, a genuinely nice guy who never said a disingenuous thing.

    Universe dented.

  7. Sam was one of a kind. Sam and I met while we were doing our MBA together in 2007 / 2008. He started Elemental during our MBA and he was the valedictorian of our class. I remember going over to his office when it was just a couple of people. I remember watching him grow over the years from one office to the next. I remember the big challenges he would bring to the class about what markets they should tackle. When I started Tellagence I went to Sam for advice. He sent me to Todd Bauman at Stoel Rives (one of the best decisions we made). He sent me my first pitch deck to take a look at. He told me how to set up health insurance and why we should pay for 100% of our employees’ insurance. All the little things that are so confusing and unknown when you are doing something for the first time and Sam was there for me. I recently had a chance to be at a PBJ event where he was being interviewed about his success. He and I walked out together at the end and talked about how hard and lonely it is to start a company. He had amazing success and I was still trying to get Tellagence there but the similarity was that common struggle to make something great. Even with all of his success, Sam was the most down to earth guy. He understood me and he took time for me. The crazy thing was that I walked him out to his bike that he rode to work every day. That was Sam. He was Portland. We talk a lot about what the Portland startup community needs. We need more people like Sam who are concerned with a lot more than their own crap and are always willing to help others. I will miss Sam a ton. It seems like a bad dream.

  8. I didn’t know Sam at all. But, I work for Amazon in a building he made happen, with people who love him. You can see his influence everywhere. I heard stories shared and smiles through the sadness.

    I went home, through my phone in a box (literally threw it), tossed the ball with my dog, watch my son’s soccer practice and talked about everything with my wife.

    Sam was exactly the same age as me. A runner just like me. A father and an owner of a tech startup (albeit a much more successful one). I didn’t know him but I think I understand who he was just a little.

    Oh, and I scheduled the physical that I’ve been putting off for two years; much to the delight of my wife.

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