I get a question, consistently. The same question I get asked, over and over again, exponentially more than any other question. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone who was born and raised in Portland or if it’s someone who just moved here. It doesn’t matter if they are super well connected or don’t know anyone. It doesn’t matter if they are employed by a large corporation or starting their own business. And it’s one of those questions that seems to confuse just about everyone with an interest in entrepreneurship or startups around here. And that question stuck in endless repetition is this: How do I connect with other people in the Portland startup community…?
Honestly, I get so many questions that I sometimes wonder why I refer to it as a “community.” Sometimes it appears to be more of a loosely amalgamated group of individuals moving in discrete silos, or worse, alone, simply sharing a particular geographic region in common. Like an office building full of people in different businesses who vaguely recognize each other from the elevator but never speak, never collaborate, never connect. Who for all intents and purposes lack the real connectivity to make the community a real community.
And that is frustrating. Because I know all these organizations and event organizers and mentors and investors and individuals that are doing their part to connect people to the local startup community and other resources and each other. People who volunteer their time to make the community a more accessible and collaborative place. People who are paid to create the programs and infrastructure to support founders and startups. And a plethora of people who are always willing to jump in on a Zoom call or have coffee with anyone who asks. All as part of an effort to ensure that startup folks or startup curious people can get access to the support and resources they need.
And I know that these people who are asking me this one question have somehow managed to find their way to me. That they have at least found a foothold or access point in the proverbial community. That they have at least figured that out, probably with much more effort than necessary. And in a more indirect and inefficient way than necessary.
But I also know, even with that connection point, that I can’t provide them with everything they need. Often I can’t even provide a semblance of what they need. As much as I want. I need all those other organizations and individuals and all the value they provide. I need a safety net for the people who have found me. Instead of a long list of other organizations and people who need to start working to go after them.
Because for a community to really work, collaboration is needed. Not a semblance of collaboration. Not talking about collaboration. Collaboration. intense collaboration. And commitment to that collaboration.
But above all, something is needed to align and aggregate those contributors. A front door is needed. Or a campfire. Or a center. Or some other trivial analogy that speaks of being the first stop that anyone, anywhere, recognizes as the starting point of their journey. And that everyone in the city knows and promotes and shares.
But for all our talk about collaboration, connection and togetherness, that doesn’t exist for Portland. I could write a dissertation on why I think this is so, but that’s not really the point. (And if you want to know more about how frustrating this is, take some time with Stephen Green.)
Instead, people enter, or fight to enter the community, through a variety of side doors or random connections or disorganized movement. Sometimes they do. Most of the time, they get frustrated. Or they give up entirely.
And I don’t blame them. Absolutely. It’s an inefficient and frustrating swamp. And it’s a study in making something much more difficult than it needs to be. Worst of all, it is not conducive to the community. In the least. it is corrosive
That is why I have felt somewhat encouraged by some recent efforts at the state level to begin to address some of these issues. Fund collaboration and infrastructure to make “connecting” less of a hassle. And to ensure that both organizations and individuals have easy access to the support they need.
You know, like having a community. Who knows, one day we might even gasp have a “starter ecosystem”. But I’d settle for the community at this point.
Yes, we have been here before. Probably several times. But you know me, you crazy optimist. It is only in its beginning stages. And there’s still a long, long way to go. But it is a start. And your input is essential. So I would like to ask for your help.
I know we are all tired of polls. I understand that you have been asked these same questions over and over again. And I think I’ve managed to hint that I share your frustration. (If not, I can rant much longer.) But if you’re up for it, I’d love to hear from you one more time. Or the first time. Or the last time. Hoping that this time we will do something with your feedback.
If you have a couple of minutes, maybe this weekend, I implore you to Share your thoughts on what’s right with the Portland startup community, and more importantly, what’s wrong and needs to be fixed. And ask your peers, or your limited community connections, to do the same. Because I want you to have access to the community you need. And a lot of other people do too.
Or not. And we can continue to fumble with the frustrating status quo for generations to come.
Please and thank you.
[Full disclosure: PIE is part of a working group that is focused on creating an “innovation hub” for the Portland metro area. I am the cofounder and general manager of PIE.]