A hot Wednesday wind blew me into the cool air of NedSpace, a co-working hub for startups on Southwest Third Avenue in downtown Portland. I was on my way to meet Carolynn Duncan, founder of Portland Ten.
I first met Duncan a few months ago when she co-organized with another serial entrepreneur, Pete Grillo, a surprise kazoo sendoff serenade for a mutual friend at Paddy’s. We were criminally awful and it greatly embarrassed our buddy Abraham. Duncan’s enthusiasm and her joy at watching him squirm were immense. I liked that. So we got to know each other a bit over follow-up coffee just as she was launching Portland Ten, which helps early-stage tech startups. I promised to keep tabs. Women are rare in this arena, especially young women. Kazoo expertise is even scarcer.
Which brings me back to NedSpace. Duncan’s second group of entrepreneurs recently started the 12-week boot camp that “combines venture capital investment standards, Getting Things Done methodology, and extreme bootstrapping philosophy.” There also are “workouts” to help founders develop “muscle” and checkups. (I get sweaty just reading this.) Founders have to put in six to eight hours a week and commit to generating $1 million in revenue by 2010. The goal of Portland Ten is to create 10 of these start-ups in the next 18 months.
“I tremble before I come in here. I go home and cry,” says Steve Woodward, a Round 2 entrepreneur. “She holds your feet to the fire.” Woodward, a former reporter for the Oregonian who left the newspaper last year after two decades, is the founder of NozzlMedia — “Pandora for local news and data: a real-time, personalized stream.” I also spent decades working for daily newspapers; it’s a place where you get boiled in oil and eviscerated by vultures every day. If Duncan can make a former journo sweat a little, that says something about how this tall, red-headed sergeant runs her army.
She’s worked for several startups that went down in flames and she’s learned what not to do. When I ask her what the biggest barriers are right now to start-up success, she says without hesitation, “The founders.” It’s not the bad economy or lack of funding that will sink you. It’s your own bad idea or lack of brilliance, recruit, so get back out there and work it.
She’s intense. “I want them to understand how to build a business,” she says. “Prove they can produce a million in revenue.” No lectures, not a lot of paperwork. It’s about thinking and producing. “Carolynn is a doer, not a talker,” says Woodward, who is sitting in a NedSpace conference room with Round 2 colleagues Alan Wizeman, founder and CEO of Cularis, and Don Hollerich, project manager with Databridge. “She makes it real.” Wizeman says the program gives him more focus and clarity than others he’s attended.
Duncan is bootstrapping it herself. She doesn’t charge much — $500 for the three-month program, and it’s just her and one other person on staff. Classic for Portland, where lots of people are working to make something happen on a few dollars and a lot of sweat equity (and premium coffee, of course). Entrepreneurs have this great optimism about life that I admire. They also like to fix things. Duncan is getting to know a homeless woman in the neighborhood and thinks there might be a business solution to getting her permanently off the streets. And Duncan has bigger ideas about applying her business skills to social justice issues.
If she can lead a band of half-drunk, tone-deaf kazoo players to produce a few seconds of recognizable music, anything is possible.
Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business magazine. Twitter.com/robindoussard.