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Josh Friedman (pictured with NedSpace mascot Ace) co-founded Eleven Wireless in 2001 and hopes to launch a seed fund to boost similar start-ups with early capital. The City of Portland has committed $500,000 to such a fund.
John Friess credits the collaborative approach of the Portland peer mentoring group Starve Ups for the $7.5 million sale of his first company, Wired.MD. His new company is Journey Gym, selling portable gyms for travelers.
Ryan Buchanan, the 35-year-old chairman of the Software Association of Oregon, has built his online marketing business eROI into one of Oregon’s fastest-growing companies. He’s also on the board of Starve Ups.
Friedman, a graduate of Portland’s Wilson High School and Oregon State University, worked for Intel in the late 1990s and TripWire around the turn of the century. Both companies served as great learning environments, but it was during his tenure at Intel, when part of his job involved studying potential investments for what would later become Intel Capital, that Friedman recognized what he really wanted to do with his life. He’s been an entrepreneur ever since. He co-founded Eleven Wireless in 2001 to capitalize on the then-nascent market for wireless Internet connections to hotels, and while his timing was not fortunate, he did manage to avoid running out of money and, with time, build a profitable company.
Friedman is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of Eleven Wireless, but he is far from dormant on the startup scene, where he seems to know pretty much everyone. He co-founded NedSpace, a co-working office space in downtown Portland for tech entrepreneurs, with Mark Grimes last year, and as a side project to that popular initiative the two have been working with a group of investors behind the scenes for the past year to create a seed fund. The idea of the fund is to leverage support from the City of Portland to raise $3.5 million to $5 million from private investors, with the goal of systematically feeding Portland’s startup pipeline with small but crucial investments similar to the checks that Doebele has been writing.
Looking back on his experience starting up Eleven Wireless, Friedman, now a wizened 36 years old, says it was difficult to raise money. “Yes, I was a first-time CEO and we had a young founding team. But we had a good idea. We were a leader in the space. If we were in any other city, if we were in Seattle or San Francisco or Boston or Austin or New York City, we would have been funded like that.”
In Friedman’s view, lack of early-stage capital is a “cyclical problem” in Portland. “We have amazing angel investors here,” he says, “but because we haven’t had numerous large successes with young entrepreneurs, there’s not a lot of money going into high-risk deals. So the angel investors tend to be much more conservative than in other cities. They don’t let money go easily. They don’t take a systematic approach to investing. And all of those things are required for an angel community to thrive.”
The problem is serious in Friedman’s view because “for many people if you don’t get seed money, you can’t start the business. You can’t quit your job and leave your house and make the commitment.”
Friedman says the idea of starting a seed fund with public sector support came from Wayne Embree, a longtime Oregon investor who meets frequently with Friedman, Grimes and Harvey Matthews, the former president of the Software Association of Oregon and a creator of the Oregon Investment Fund. In March 2009, the group staged a rally at NedSpace downtown, inviting dozens of entrepreneurs to take the stage and introduce their business ideas and their plans for creating wealth and jobs in Portland. Hundreds of people attended, including Portland mayor Sam Adams and his economic policy adviser Skip Newberry.
Friedman, Embree and Grimes subsequently met with the mayor, and talks ensued with the Portland Development Commission. In February, the city announced it would support a new Portland Seed Fund with $500,000. The new fund will not necessarily be managed by Friedman’s team, which consists of himself, Mark Grimes, Willamette University professor and angel investing expert Rob Wiltbank, and Brewster Crosby, an investor and CEO of the Portland marketing startup Gliffik. The Oregon Entrepreneurs Network is also putting forth a proposal to manage the fund, and other groups may offer proposals as well. The city plans to choose a fund manager by Aug. 20.
“We want to win the money,” says Friedman. “We started the effort. But may the best man or woman win. No matter what happens, it will be a good thing.”