Cities Startup Culture

Portland’s Startup Renaissance

Le_Portland Startups

People have come and gone from Portland, Ore., but in the past decade more have come and stayed. Today, Portland is seeing a startup renaissance, made more apparent by this month’s Portland Digital eXperience and XOXO Conference. The city has become a forum where people share ideas they hope could redefine the local economy in the next 5-10 years.

Portland is a lush, nature-rich playpen and migration target for the creative, the hungry (for success as well as fine food and drink), and the active. “We accidentally became the 21st century place to have startups,” says Angela Jackson, managing director of the Portland Seed Fund, a startup accelerator and early-stage investment fund. “We don’t have resources such as wealth creation or critical mass, as other major cities may, so we have to be scrappier to create an edge for ourselves. People are willing to share and collaborate as much as they can here, and when this works in a balanced way, we find ourselves in this ecosystem where startups can truly flourish.”

People move to Portland to build businesses because they value the city’s joie de vivre and livability. The city has become a case study for how legislative and civic efforts to promote green living habits, access to nature, and sense of community turn visitors into believers. John Friess, CEO of Journey Gym and Co-Founder of Starve Ups adds, “The city is packed with people who want to pay it forward. The network is truly that: individuals wanting to bring the community forward together.”

Mobilitus, a mobile ticketing company from Reykjavik, Iceland, whose customers include Live Nation and Ticketmaster, opened its US operations in Portland after extensive research and a national tour. CTO Helga Waage shared her company’s experiences trying to choose from a pool of options, before narrowing the choice to Portland, Austin, and Denver/Boulder. “We needed to set up a US office, so we spent some time picking a place that would fit our needs and had a vibe we liked,” Waage says. “We wanted a place where we could build a company with some stability, where the employees weren’t constantly moving on to the perceived next big thing.”

She adds, “There is no place better to build a company than a place where you can offer your employees a good life.”

Indeed, the brand of good life Portland offers is crucial to many decision makers. Luke Kanies says he moved his company Puppet Labs from Nashville to Portland for the great office space, excellent food and drink, and access to the outdoors. To top it off, Kanies adds, “The fact that it’s extremely accessible to the Bay Area helps in my business, too.”

“What I like most about what is happening in Portland is the pride in craftsmanship,” says AppFog’s Director of Product, Maciej Skierkowski. “Whether you are a chef, shop owner, designer, barista, software developer, brewer—everyone takes great pride in the products they make and sell.” AppFog’s Developer Evangelist Luc Perkins recently wrote on the company’s blog, “There’s a general feeling here in town that the rising tide is truly lifting all boats. Everyone seems to genuinely delight in the success of everyone else, and that means that cooperation and the unencumbered exchange of ideas is the norm.”

There’s no doubt the local environment fuels the fire to create meaning and impact as well as profit. But Joshua Reich, CEO of banking startup Simple, says there’s a lingering misperception that it is difficult to hire here. “We’ve doubled our team size since we moved here from New York City,” he says. As opposed to New York, where “there are hundreds of technology companies working on a small set of problems around marketing and advertising,” Reich says, “in Portland, there is a huge range of problems being solved, and no one particular field dominates.”

Advertising powerhouse Wieden + Kennedy anticipated the rise of the Rose City. Renny Gleeson, the agency’s global director for interactive strategies, teamed up with Silicon Florist’s Rick Turoczy, and Urban Airship’s former product manager Jason Glaspey and current CEO Scott Kveton to co-found the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). The startup accelerator and co-working space has become a symbol of how illustrators, storytellers, and builders are coming together to create businesses and inspire. Says Gleeson, “W+K employs some of the world’s best storytellers, but increasingly the new stories of the connected age are being built at the rough edges of technology and culture where hackers, designers, and entrepreneurs have emerged as a creative class and global cultural force.”

He says PIE was conceived as a collaborative, experimental partnership among W+K, startups, brands, and some seriously world–class mentors. “It’s become an evolving, four-year experiment, fueled in no small part by Portland’s hothouse of DIY world-changers,” Gleeson says. “And best of all, it’s become a real part of the startup ecosystem here and nationally, creating jobs, real value, and attracting applications from as far away as Berlin and Brazil.

The local business climate even inspired hometown giant Nike to collaborate with neighbors for local and global benefit. Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation group opened up a proprietary natural resource consumption databank to a Code for America hackathon and established the Nike Code for a Better World fellowship.

Other major local employers have capitalized on Portland’s talent pool through recent acquisitions. Event planning software giant Cvent acquired Portland startup CrowdCompass for $10 million, with intentions to double its headcount in the next year. eBay established a mobile development shop by acquiring Portland startup Critical Path Software. Two years later, it has doubled in size. These acquisitions and others by the likes of Google, Walmart Labs, Dell, and Cisco have created a buzz that has attracted others such as Salesforce and Facebook to the region.

In addition to attracting big business, Portland is attracting big investors. The fundraising successes of startups Cloudability, Puppet Labs, Elemental Technologies, and Urban Airship show that Silicon Valley VCs are willing to put capital here. And where the startups build, they also live, play, eat and drink. Those dollars create jobs, which in turn lead to discretionary income being spent and spread across local businesses in the neighborhoods these tech startups inhabit, fueling the city’s economy.

From niche artisans to Nike, it’s clear that a culture of openness and collaborative entrepreneurship is spurring serious job growth and expanding Portland’s innovation footprint. Like a living wiki, Portland will continue to evolve as people come and share ideas.

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  • Sheila

    The Portland business community “Establishment” believes that the region’s business environment is terrible, primarily because per capita income is lower than in other places and employment is relatively high. That doesn’t square with what you have written here. I guess the big question is: are Portlanders satisfied with a smaller first paycheck, because they get the “second paycheck” of living the Portland lifestyle?

    • Sheila

      Thats “Unemployment” is relatively high. Sorry

    • Zac

      Sheila, the answer is yes, absolutely.