Must Reads

On The Scene: Jumping on the social train

Social networking can take place on everything from YouTube to the iPhone. The amount of time consumers spent on it tripled in 2009; 56% of Americans want companies to be involved with it; and 85% of social media users are expecting companies to interact with them using it. In short, you need social networks.

“You have to have an investment,” said Eric Peterson of Web Analytics Demystified. “If you don’t get on the social train, you’ll fall behind.”

Portland’s Multnomah Athletic Club recently hosted “Social Networks & the Enterprise Unite: Integration 2.0,” a tech innovation conference held by the Oregon chapter of TechAmerica. Representatives from local tech giants like Intel, Jive Software and Tripwire were on hand to share why social networks have played such a large role in their recent successes, and how other companies can implement the same practices to meet the ever-growing demand for instant communication and transparency, within the company and with customers.

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On The Scene: Green debate gets dirty

It started out amicably enough. Between making jokes about their passion for steak and the absence of fellow candidate Chris Dudley, three gubernatorial hopefuls – Allen Alley, Bill Bradbury and John Kitzhaber – participated this week in a peaceful debate about environmental issues. But when Bradbury brought up the implications of a major campaign contribution Kitzhaber had accepted from an “egregious polluter,” Kitzhaber’s angry response quickly changed the mood.

The debate was held in front of several hundred people at Portland State University and hosted by Environment Oregon, the Oregon Environmental Council, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club’s Oregon chapter. Alley, Bradbury and Kitzhaber – or as another attendee nicknamed them to me, “the engineer,” “the college professor” and “the cowboy” – were invited to share their views on the state’s environmental issues and take stances on some of the more controversial topics. And while the Democratic candidates tended to be more or less in agreement about the importance of increasing green energy use and sustainable timber harvesting, Alley made it clear from the beginning that he had a different approach to tackling environmental issues. “I look at it from an economic perspective,” Alley said. “We’ve made trade-offs over the last 25 years between the environment and the economy. I have to focus on getting the economy going.”

Questions on transportation came up several times, with a good amount of time devoted to the merits of mass transit and alternative-energy vehicles. Transportation was brought up again when a panelist asked whether or not the candidates support the divisive, 12-lane Columbia River Crossing plan. Bradbury was adamantly opposed, which incited approving applause from the crowd. While acknowledging the huge transportation issues Oregon faces, particularly for moving freight across the Columbia River, Bradbury said he would support instead a seismic upgrade on the current bridge, the creation of a new smaller bridge for bikes and foot traffic, and the implementation of tolls to control congestion. “I think that is a very sensible future and won’t cost so much and spend all the transportation dollars that we have in this state,” Bradbury said. Kitzhaber said the project should go forward without delay, but that he doesn’t support the current plan, while Alley said he though the bridge should be bigger – before telling the visibly shocked crowd that we was joking.

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On The Scene: Fixing the transportation mess

The Sellwood Bridge is deteriorating as questions arise over whether Multnomah County or Clackamas County is responsible for its replacement. The approval of funding for the Newberg-Dundee bypass is being criticized as a political maneuver. And the fate of the Columbia River Crossing remains unknown while the debate over its size, impact and whether it should even be built keeps its progress in limbo. In other words, the Portland area’s regional transportation governance is a big, gridlocked mess.

The City Club of Portland recently released a report titled “Moving Forward: A Better Way to Govern Regional Transportation.” Several members of the research committee – Leigh Stephenson-Kuhn, Peter Livingston and Richard Ross – presented the report this week as part of the “Crossing the Columbia: What Does It Mean?” forum held by PDXplore and the Architecture Foundation of Oregon. In front of a small crowd at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the three representatives discussed the conclusions and recommendations the City Club had come up with to solve the tricky problem of moving people at the lowest cost and in the most effective way possible.

What’s tangling up transportation progress so much? The report found several problems with the current regional governance, such as the Oregon Department of Transportation’s control of most of the region’s transportation money (which gives the power to choose and fund projects primarily to state officials). A large chunk of the problem, the report says, also lies in the fragmentation of governance, with federal, state and local government and agencies all having an influence on transportation projects in the area. With so many jurisdictions with a stake in transportation, the result is a lack of clarity on which entity should be responsible for which parts of the system. Many decisions are made on a micro level, Livingston says, when transportation is really a regional issue.

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On The Scene: Home-court advantage

It’s been 40 years since the Portland Trail Blazers made their official NBA debut after being purchased for $3.7 million. Decades later, the franchise has powered through several rough patches — from poor seasons to trouble with the law — with its reputation as a beloved Portland brand intact. Now facing the recession, not to mention a wave of injuries, the Trail Blazers are pushing forward and arguably stronger than ever.

Currently in his fifth season at the helm, coach Nate McMillan was among the speakers at a breakfast forum held by the Portland Business Alliance yesterday, along with chief marketing officer Sarah Mensah and senior VP of business affairs J.E. Isaac. In front of a packed room at Portland’s Governor Hotel, the three franchise representatives talked about what’s keeping the Blazers ahead of the sports-business game, and what to expect from a little project called JumpTown.

McMillan spent a good amount of time praising the work ethic of his team, and the Blazers have indeed been playing with a fighting spirit. With Brandon Roy and Greg Oden among the many star players who experienced injuries this year, it’s remarkable that the team has managed to hold up its standing throughout the season. But what’s keeping the brand thriving while other Portland business sectors are still waiting for that rumored recovery?

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On The Scene: Update your intel

There was a time when constantly checking Twitter updates at work would put you on the fast track for disciplinary action. But for many businesses these days, it might actually be advantageous to devote some work time to exploring the potential of social media and how it can help you understand your business, while also keeping an eye on the competition. Scoping out your rivals’ Facebook friends could help more than you think.

That was the message at this year’s SearchFest, the annual conference held by Search Engine Marketing Professionals of Portland (SEMpdx). Speaking before attendees at the spacious Heritage Ballroom in downtown Portland’s Governor Hotel, three industry experts – Brian Carter of Fuel Interactive, Neil Patel of KISSmetrics and Jordan Kasteler of Search & Social – held a seminar on applying competitive intelligence to social media marketing.

Monitoring website traffic on your competitors’ sites, finding out which of their content is shared and bookmarked, seeing who their fans/friends/followers are – they’re all tactics that fall under competitive intelligence, Kasteler says. Checking social media sites to see what people are saying about your company is also a part of the strategy, and more businesses are starting to catch on; 33% of marketers currently use social media to gain competitive intelligence, compared to 21% who use it but not for competitive intelligence. The goal, Carter says, is to see what you can find out using social media to give you an advantage over your competition.

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On The Scene: A survey that counts

As the 2010 Census rolls around, the U.S. Census Bureau is hitting the road to get citizens to participate. It’s an event that only comes around every 10 years, but it has huge implications for the nation and business, and with more than $400 billion in federal funds on the table for state and local governments, the Census Bureau is hoping people will take the count seriously.

Thirteen vehicles make up the fleet of the 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour, the largest of which made a stop in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square yesterday. Drawing in curious passersby with its 46-foot trailer and entertaining the crowd with live music (despite the misty weather), the event was aimed at helping Portlanders understand every aspect of the census process – how to fill out the 10-question census form, what the information is used for and the benefits of its findings.

People were even invited to share messages with other tour participants across the country in an interactive project explaining why the census is important to their communities. With the vehicles stopping at over 800 events collectively in 1,547 days, the tour is a major outreach effort, and this census also has an advantage that the previous count didn’t have: social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, blogs), which the Census Bureau is using substantially to spread awareness about the tour and its mission.

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On The Scene: Ideas flow for the CRC

The $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project has much more at stake than improving transportation between Portland and Vancouver. Environmental concerns, economic implications and – of course – costs are pitting state governors against city leaders as they debate the scope and timeline of the historic project. Meanwhile, some local creative minds have ideas of their own.

The Pacific Northwest College of Art is currently hosting “Crossing the Columbia: What Does It Mean?” – a public forum created by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and PDXplore, and running during select weeks in February and March. As an independent design collective made up of five local designers and architects, PDXplore has worked to examine some of Portland’s more pressing urban design issues over the past few years. Its collaboration with AFO is a forum consisting of discussions, presentations and an ongoing exhibit at the PNCA featuring proposals from the PDXplore members. The exhibit’s purpose: to help the public understand the significance of the proposed CRC and its effects.

The project is in the middle of a tug-of-war between government officials. On one side, the mayors of Portland and Vancouver, Metro President David Bragdon and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Stuart have all criticized the plan’s “unacceptable” effects on the metro area. The four leaders called for a more thorough review of the plan, but Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire recently signed a letter saying the project should push forward with no further delays. “The citizens of this region have watched our two states discuss and plan for a new bridge for over 20 years and they expect us to proceed,” the governors said. State highway planners, they said, are already taking into consideration pollution, sprawl and other concerns. Meanwhile, the ports of Portland and Vancouver have also spoken out in support of pushing the project forward.

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On The Scene: Li-Ning jumps stateside

Li-Ning is already a phenomenal sportswear presence overseas, with almost $1 billion in annual revenue and more than 7,000 stores in China. The Beijing-based retailer has grown a great deal since it was founded 20 years ago, and now Li-Ning is ready to expand its presence and step onto the North American court. Its home city of choice? Portland, naturally.

Li-Ning USA unveiled its first American showroom this week with a grand opening ceremony at its Pearl District location. With sports apparel and equipment – everything from badminton racquets to tennis shirts – lining the shelves, the two-story showroom was officially open for business. Waiters catered to the packed house with champagne and hors d'oeuvres, a DJ kept the energy level high and I even stumbled upon Portland Mayor Sam Adams putting up a rather good fight in a game of ping-pong. Needless to say, it was an extravagant party, and celebration was certainly in order.

The company was founded by – and named after – Olympic gymnast Li-Ning, who won three gold medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Since its launch in 1990, the company has become one of China’s leading sportswear brands, moving beyond its local retail success to sponsor NBA athletes including Shaquille O’Neal and Baron Davis. Li-Ning’s business relationship with Davis eventually evolved to the development of his own basketball shoe brand, following in the footsteps of some of his NBA peers. The showroom’s grand opening this week served as the kickoff of the shoe – dubbed the BD Doom – and Davis himself was in attendance to oversee its launch. “Right now I’m pretty overwhelmed,” Davis said. “I just thank Li-Ning for having the wherewithal and the guts to come to the United States and know that there is room for more [brands], there is room for improvement.”

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On The Scene: Prescription for savings

Going to Walgreens to pick up a generic prescription drug may only cost about $8. But while that’s the price at the transaction, the cost to you as an employer could actually be $16. Why the mark-up? Pharmacy benefits managers often use a practice called spread pricing as a revenue source, costing companies much more for their prescription benefits than they should be paying.

Terry Killilea of Wells Fargo Insurance Services held a breakfast seminar on the topic yesterday morning at the KOIN Center in downtown Portland. Having worked with PBMs in his previous careers, Killilea discussed ways employers can cut down on their prescription benefit costs simply by knowing how to negotiate a contract with the PBM – a move that can save a company at least $10 per employee per month. “It’s unfortunate that virtually every customer of a PBM is running at such a fiscally inefficient fashion,” Killilea said. “The fact is that they’re spending a large amount of money, more than they need to, on prescription benefits.”

Part of the problem lies in poorly negotiated contracts, which often allow spread pricing to take place. Spread pricing is an agreement that allows PBMs to charge employers a higher price for prescriptions than what is actually paid at the point of sale, with the PBM pocketing the difference. While PBMs historically earned revenue through administrative fees and mail-service margins, it wasn’t until the use of generic prescriptions rose in the late 2000s (and the need for manufacturer rebates diminished) that PBMs began gathering the majority of their earnings from spread pricing.

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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.

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