I don’t know about you, but my neighborhood pool has been a bit over-crowded lately, closer to human stew than the Mediterranean. I’ve spent quite a few evenings there over the past week, soaking in shallow water while the kids swim free, catching up on what the parents have to say about their jobs — or former jobs.
Not surprisingly, I’ve heard some grim stuff: 60-hour work weeks cut down to a trickle, law firms giving up on a decent recovery until somewhere in 2010, newcomers with advanced degrees and great ideas getting nowhere with their job searches.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the economy — and the pools for that matter — might be more appealing elsewhere. But then the other day I wandered into a shallow-end conversation that gave me a completely different impression. I had met Prashant before through the usual stuff, tennis and kids and so forth, but we had never really talked. What I didn’t know is that he’s held executive positions with local firms like Tripwire and Fios; he’s launched a start-up and business is pouring in faster than he can handle it. His partner is a lawyer who lives across the street, and he says that tons of people from his neighborhood are seizing on the momentary lull to build new businesses. As you might expect, he’s got a substantially brighter view of the current trend towards frugality, because it is creating exactly the sort of environment he needs to convince companies to take a chance on his value proposition.
But beyond that, Prashant is inherently upbeat because, well, he’s an entrepreneur. He’s making something happen. That requires initiative, and initiative is hard to find without the right attitude. There’s always a reason not to do it. The challenge is convincing yourself to go for it, and then following through.
I have to say, I found our conversation more refreshing than the pool we were in. I’ve interviewed a lot of people in 20 years of journalism, and entrepreneurs may be my favorite category (athletes tend to be the worst). There's something restorative about hearing people talk about what they want to create, how, and why. At the very least it makes for a lively conversation. My father-in-law is like that; he’s been juggling ideas for new businesses as long as I’ve known him, and guess what? He started up a stem cell bank at a maternity hospital in Athens that's doing great and employing scientists with healthy wages. He’s well into his 60s but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him crank out another start-up or two before he retires.
A few days later, my tennis partner and I got smoked in the quarter finals of a tournament by two young guys who both are building tech start-ups. One on them, Dave, was the guy who convinced me months ago that the magazine should do a big piece about Portland’s red-hot mobile apps community. Well, our piece is finally out, and he was right. Big things are happening in Portland’s bootstrap tech scene, and while not all of these initiatives are creating real jobs, some are and many others will. Business licenses are way up, and at least some of these new enterprises are bound to succeed.
The day after I got knocked out of the tournament, a childhood buddy of mine passed through Portland and told me about the ceramics business he is building. We talked a while about the bad rep business gets every time there is an economic downturn. Much of it is of course big time justified when you look at the behavior of the creeps who ran Enron and Bear Stearns. But it’s hard to be anti-business when you talk to someone who comes up with a fresh idea about how to do something better, gets a patent on it, and works his or her butt off to convince people to buy it. There’s been a lot of hand wringing bemoaning all the irresponsible risk-taking that dug us into this economic hole. But let’s not forget that without the gutsy few among us who are willing to take some risks to get things going again, we will never dig our way out.
Unfortunately, these budding entrepreneurs are unlikely to get far if they don’t have money of their own to invest. Remember the bank I mentioned last week? It’s finally released its quarterly letter to stakeholders, and the news is not happy. After backing two ethanol plants that flopped, Shorebank Pacific has swung to a loss and is being forced to cut back on lending to meet its capital requirements, under intense scrutiny from the FDIC.
Still, even with all of that pressure weighing on its shoulders, Shorebank managed to lend money to a couple of promising local businesses recently, including a factory that converts cow poop into methane to generate electricity. Time will tell whether that venture will soar like wind farms or crash like ethanol plants. But it's definitely worth a try.
Ben Jacklet is the managing editor of Oregon Business.