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On The Scene: Entrepreneurs share their secrets

Growing big and growing fast is no easy feat for a startup. Particularly in this economy, just getting investment is difficult. But some entrepreneurs do manage to quickly grow their businesses, or even enter established companies and take them to new heights — but not without some bumps along the way. Still, their success stories are valuable resources for anyone thinking of dipping into the entrepreneurship pool.

The top-floor conference room at Perkins Coie’s Pearl District office was packed last night for a panel discussion hosted by the Oregon chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). Three panelists were on deck to share their experiences: Sudhir Bhagwan, former chairman and CEO of SnapNames; Nitin Khanna, founder and former chairman and CEO of Saber Corp.; and Matt Compton, venture partner at Madrona. Each came from different backgrounds, but agreed on many of the ways entrepreneurs can achieve solid returns for both their companies and their investors.

One of the biggest early mistakes entrepreneurs can make is not clarifying role definitions among founders. Compton knows from his work with companies as a venture capitalist that things can get messy when it’s not clear from the beginning what each founder’s responsibilities are and how the company’s stock is allocated among them. This can be particularly tricky when the founders are friends, something Khanna knew from experience; he founded Saber Corp. with his brother and his best friend in 1997.

Jobs Watch: Coming soon, animation jobs

Almost exactly one year ago, Laika’s first feature film, Coraline, made its world-wide debut in downtown Portland. Now comes the news that this dark but endearing work of stop-action animation has been nominated for an Academy Award, launching a small, independent Oregon studio with a 36-year-old CEO into the big-leagues with Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.

This is excellent news for Oregon’s film industry and a validation for the father-son tandem of Laika chairman Phil Knight and CEO Travis Knight. They took bold risks on Coraline, financially and artistically, and their risks are being rewarded. The film has already grossed more than $120 million (twice what it cost to make), and the publicity and gravitas of an Oscar nomination will boost sales as Coraline hits theaters in animation-crazy Japan and tackles the DVD and paid-television markets domestically.

“Five years ago when we were trying to find a partner for Coraline, nobody had heard of us,” CEO Travis Knight told me yesterday afternoon. “Obviously that changes with this nomination. This will make things easier for the business. But it also increases pressure on us creatively. We’ve set the bar high for what we’re capable of doing and we’ve got to live up to that now.”

Editor's Notes: Another river dance in Salem

It just wouldn’t be a legislative session without a water issue to whack around. This will sound familiar. David Nelson, the Republican state senator from Pendleton, has introduced a bill that seeks more water from the Columbia River for uses ranging from livestock, mining and irrigation to recreation, wildlife and fish.

“My wife called me crazy,” Nelson says. That would be Alice Nelson, who is also the senator’s legislative assistant. Crazy, perhaps, because Nelson and Eastern Oregon farmers, irrigators and others have tried unsuccessfully for years to get more water from the Columbia, which is tightly regulated by state and federal rules regarding endangered species, tribal rights, hydro flows and a myriad of other interests.

Nelson is eternally convinced that there’s plenty of extra water in the river, and it’s the way Oregon can climb out of its budget hole. He doesn’t seem to mind beating his head against the wall on this idea. He’s semi-famous for calling the Columbia’s water Oregon’s “oil,” and believes that Oregon could sell its water to parched states such as California for big bucks. “You want to raise some money for education and all the other things? We’re going to have to start looking at our natural resources,” Nelson says. “I’m not saying how or when we should use it.” Nelson says this bill simply restates reserving 30 million acre feet of water that was approved 20 years ago by the Oregon Water Resources Commission and later overruled by the state’s attorney general.

Jobs Watch: Here's to green shoots

Maybe it’s just the crazy El Nino weather patterns, but I swear I’ve been noticing some green shoots popping up through the mud in Oregon.

A year ago at this time I was researching a story about Oregon’s underground economy, and the conclusions I was drawing were downright bleak. The job market wasn’t just down, it was dead. I remember tracking Craigslist Portland for a week and estimating that scams and under-the-table services outnumbered legitimate jobs by about 10 to 1.

That's no longer the case. The ratio is still bad, Craigslist being Craigslist, but job postings have improved from about 200 per day to about 250 per day. And far fewer of them strike me as scams. Metal fabrication operator, therapist and automotive title clerk are the top three entries I see as I browse through right now. These are real jobs with real businesses that are hiring.

Editor's Notes: The tax rumble settles nothing

The tax rumble is over. The Sharks beat the hell out of the Jets. But everyone woke up this morning bruised and battered by the fight. It’s hard to feel great, even if you win, when the street is covered with blood and you realize the fight settled nothing.

For weeks, the Yes lead fighter, Steve “Bernardo” Novick, and the No frontman, Pat “Riff” McCormick, have been tied at the wrists, knives in the other hand, circling and slashing one another on street corners everywhere.

With last night’s passage by the voters of tax increase Measures 66 and 67, the cops blew the whistle and broke up the $12 million rumble. By a solid margin, Oregonians decided to raise taxes on households with taxable income above $250,000, approved higher minimum taxes on corporations and increased the tax rate on upper-level profits.

On The Scene: Portland gets animated

Portland is a town chock full of creative folks, as our booming music and art scenes can attest to. And after posting a record year in 2009 for filming activity, Oregon is even becoming more popular as a shooting location for movies and television series. But Portland still has a long way to go before Hollywood needs to worry, and Hinge Digital hopes to get the ball rolling.

The Hinge founders spoke at the Pearl District’s Gerding Theater at the Armory last night, as part of The Art Institute of Portland’s “Community by Design Speaker Series.” With more than four decades of experience between them at studios such as Laika and Disney, Roland Gauthier, Michael Kuehn and Alex Tysowsky shared with the intimate audience of students and industry members why they decided to start their animation and visual effects studio in Portland last year, and how the city could tap into its creative potential to become a go-to source for digital content.

What first attracted the Hinge founders to Portland – after spending years working in Los Angeles and the Bay Area – were the same things that have drawn many people looking to get out of the rat race: the fresh air, friendly people and overall quality of life. But perhaps more important to their business was the strong sense of community they found among Portlanders, who were instrumental in helping Hinge get off the ground. “It’s a lot different in L.A., much more competitive, much more ‘dog eat dog,’” Kuehn says. “You don’t get the same sort of genuine help that you do here.” And while it’s true that Portland is not exactly a hot spot for the digital content business, that fact was another selling point for the Hinge founders. “If you look at a place like Los Angeles or other industry hubs, they’re pretty well-saturated,” Kuehn says. “Oregon is very much untapped, so there’s a lot of potential here.”

Editor's Notes: Read it and don't weep

The Tri-County News in Junction City and the West Lane News in Veneta died in late December so quickly that they didn’t even have time to write their own obit. The weeklies had been publishing for many decades.

“I just don’t have the money to continue,” owner Andrew Polin, who bought the weeklies in April 2008, told the Eugene Register-Guard. “I’m hoping it will be resurrected by someone.”

That someone came along this week. Not a deep-pocket investor or big-city chain, but a couple of former dishwashers who believe their community needs a local newspaper. Lorenzo Herrera, Nelson Rosales and Jennifer Rosales sent out birth announcements yesterday, proudly announcing that their Tri-County Tribune would begin publishing weekly on Jan. 28.

Jobs Watch: Burn wood not coal

Portland General Electric’s proposal to phase out Oregon’s sole coal-burning power plant 20 years ahead of schedule means the state will soon be losing its largest source of pollution from greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. It also means we will lose a reliable workhorse that has helped keep electricity rates relatively low in Oregon. Replacing the Boardman coal plant will not be easy.

The seemingly obvious solution for making up for that lost power would be to build a new power plant fueled by natural gas. Gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and it is extremely reliable and easy to fire up on demand, to back up renewable resources when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

But I don’t like the idea of replacing one imported fossil fuel with another. I don’t trust natural gas prices. They are low because of the recession but they have a long record of volatility. Cranking up another cookie cutter gas plant may be tempting, but it is far from innovative. And it would cut jobs rather than creating them, because coal plants provide more jobs than gas plants.

On The Scene: Gauging the smart-meter trend

Green continues to be the hot color as we enter another decade, and sustainability efforts are still developing everywhere, particularly in Portland. Electric cars are charging into the auto sector, and more local businesses are offering sustainable products to draw in environmentally conscious consumers. But as the market becomes saturated with all kinds of green services, where else can entrepreneurs look for opportunities? The home or workplace might be a good place to start.

Industry experts and budding entrepreneurs alike met at the swanky Perkins Coie office in Portland’s Pearl District this week for a roundtable discussion on smart-meter trends, and the increasing deployment of the meters in homes and businesses to support a smart-grid system. The discussion was hosted by the Oregon branch of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a nonprofit entrepreneurship group with 53 chapters worldwide. While the attendees spent a good part of the discussion engaging in tangential, friendly debates, the topic focused on some key questions: What opportunities are available for entrepreneurs? And what challenges do they face trying to break into the market?

Supporting a smart-grid network was among the priorities for the Obama administration last year, which announced a $3.4 billion investment for the grid’s development, $30 million of which went to Oregon. The smart meters making up the grid are aimed at providing effective, two-way communication between the consumer and the utility for maximum energy efficiency, while also spurring the economy as a bonus. And with 20% compounded annual growth, technology such as smart meters would not only be good for energy consumption, but also for customers by allowing more accurate bills, among other things. But for entrepreneurs, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of access to meter data due to privacy concerns – a big conversation starter at this discussion given the information’s significance in developing business ideas around the meters themselves.