Must Reads

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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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.”

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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.

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On The Scene: Web ideas for a new day

A new year means a fresh start, and the business community could certainly use one after the bleakness that was 2009. Any signs of inspiration or progress are welcome, and one needs to look no further than the startup community to find examples. And in Portland, the web/software scene has already started cooking up ideas, both big and small.

This week I stopped by the home base of the Portland Incubator Experiment, a glossy workspace that fits right in with the glitzy Pearl District surrounding it. PIE was launched just last year as a way to bring the web community together and give them a space – provided by Wieden + Kennedy – to collaborate and share resources. PIE held its Demolicious! event last night, a quarterly showcase for Portland’s web innovators to share their latest ideas.

Among them was Jason Glaspey, founder of membership diet website Paleo Plan. As an active participant in CrossFit exercise programs, Glaspey knew there were many in the community who were interested in the Paleo diet, but there wasn’t a good deal of user-friendly information about the diet available. Glaspey began putting together a website using WordPress, a Suma plugin, WooThemes, Adwords, Campaign Monitor and a handful of recipes that fit the Paleo standards; $2,500 in out-of-pocket expenses and a few weeks later, Paleo Plan was launched at the end of last year. With downloadable meal plans and shopping lists available in addition to the constantly updated recipe roster, Glaspey says the site is already close to turning a profit thanks to the new partnerships – and free promotion – he developed with some CrossFit gyms shortly after launching.

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On The Scene: Growing up vs. growing out

Helvetia is a quaint community just a few miles west of Portland, whose Swiss-settler roots are reflected in its simplicity. Often nicknamed "Intel's playground," Helvetia draws cyclists and runners from the metro area while bringing in more than 100,000 visitors a year with agri-tourism businesses like wineries and pumpkin patches. And with a number of working farms, it's a regional and statewide resource — and residents would like to keep it that way.

The fate of the community was among the topics of discussion at a debate earlier this week sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Forest Grove News-Times. The forum, taped at the Hillsboro Civic Center for OPB's "Think Out Loud" program, featured Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Washington County Chair Tom Brian discussing the pros and cons of expanding the Urban Growth Boundary in Washington County.

Metro and representatives from the three Portland-area counties are gearing up to decide whether to expand the UGB and what land to set aside as urban reserves for possible future development. A resident of Helvetia was at the forum expressing her concerns about the community being included in the urban reserves; now it seems only part of Helvetia is on the table for inclusion, but residents are now worried about Helvetia being split. But judging from the sound bites collected by OPB, Washington County residents generally have mixed views about the overall region growing up vs. growing out.

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On The Scene: Portland pedals forward

Like craft beer, rich coffee and innovative public transportation, bicycling stands out as quintessentially Portland. An ironic trait given where Portlanders actually live, yet the bike business has managed to boom over the past few years. “It’s not like this town is made for cycling,” says Chris Di Stefano, director of marketing for Chris King Precision Components. “It’s not flat here and the weather is not kind. It really is the spirit of the people, and in this case, the spirit of businesspeople."

Di Stefano was one of six local industry panelists at an American Marketing Association luncheon this week in Northeast Portland. The discussion was centered on the city’s increasingly popular bike culture, what makes Portland a major hub and how all kinds of businesses can capitalize on the ever-growing market.

There’s no question Portland has established itself as a national leader in bike-friendliness, but the world is taking notice, too. “I moved here six years ago [for] the promise of what Portland was becoming, and the more I travel around the country and around the world for cycling, everyone wants to talk about Portland,” Di Stefano says. And he says the local industry’s extraordinary growth over the past five years has as much to do with straight-up biking businesses (manufacturers, parts retailers, etc.) as with bike-related services, such as panelist Charlie Wicker’s Trailhead Coffee Roasters, which delivers coffee throughout the Portland area on bike.

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On The Scene: Marketing with spirit

To most people, cheerleading and marketing don't often go hand-in-hand, other than using pep rallies and bake sales to promote the high school team. Which could be why it was so interesting to hear Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders director Kelli Finglass talk about how she built the cheer team – first conceived simply as an outreach arm for the Cowboys – into a world-famous business brand that sells everything from throw blankets to yoga DVDs.

Finglass spoke at a luncheon this week for the local American Marketing Association chapter, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northeast Portland. Finglass herself was a Cowboys cheerleader from 1984 to 1989; she was eventually brought on as assistant director and later worked in sales and promotions for the Cowboys franchise before being hired as DCC director by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. But the cheerleaders weren’t always an international presence; in fact, before Finglass took the job, the team was operating at a deficit, and moving the team out of the red was one of Finglass’ first challenges as director. But she succeeded in making them profitable, eventually introducing branded items like calendars to promote the team's image and establishing dance camps and competitions — all to expand revenue streams for a group that wasn't originally intended to be a money-maker.

But with the new branding opportunities came the temptation to over-sponsor and slap the cheerleaders' logo— also redesigned under Finglass — on everything. "I was very cautious, which made it a little harder for me as a brand-new marketer to figure out ways that we could create revenue without compromising the mission of the cheerleaders," Finglass said. And when she tried reaching out to Mattel to make a Barbie doll modeled after the cheerleaders, she was denied for years because the company still didn't think the team had a national appeal. It wasn't until Finglass helped the team get its own Country Music Television reality show that a Barbie designer finally took notice two years ago; the resulting DCC doll sold out nationwide in three days. In addition to watching the cheerleaders establish themselves as go-to USO entertainers, Finglass considers the Barbie deal her biggest DCC brand achievement, especially when she looks back at the thick file of denial letters from Mattel.

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On The Scene: Retail awaits good tidings

The end of Halloween heralds the unofficial beginning of the holiday retail rush, and signs of the season can already be seen sprouting throughout downtown Portland; miniature Christmas trees line the sidewalk around Pioneer Square, and department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue are already decking out their storefronts with holiday displays. Yet the number of vacant storefronts in the retail core is a telling indication of how tough 2009 has been on downtown businesses.

New openings have subsided but there are a few notable exceptions; Kettleman Bagel Company opened a third location downtown this summer, and from what I was told there, the store sees a regular morning and noontime rush from the neighboring high-rise business folk. Another recent addition with potential is Simon and Helen Director Park at Southwest Park and Taylor, a new urban plaza that officially opened last week. Located just a couple blocks away from Pioneer Courthouse Square, Director Park is like an artfully remodeled nook down the hall from Portland’s Living Room, featuring a glass canopy and a still-to-be-completed fountain and café.

Neighboring businesses that have endured construction noise and street closures will welcome the prospect of increased traffic and activity in the area, and a quick stop at Flying Elephants Delicatessen showed that the store’s prime location along the new park’s perimeter is certainly giving it a boost. But how much will the park really do for business? It’s difficult to tell so early on, and judging by the sparse foot traffic across the park’s gleaming expanse yesterday, Portlanders largely still don’t know the park is open, or just aren’t coming to it. More ominous is the long-awaited but still-delayed Park Avenue West building one block away, where Tom Moyer’s vision of a 22-story mixed-use tower remains mired in the muck of the recession.

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On The Scene: Job Seeking 101

Software-industry veteran Michael Hoffman was unexpectedly laid off a year ago, but he wasted no time getting back in the game. After 129 days, 74 job applications, 268 emails, 109 phone calls, four career fairs/networking events, 17 phone interviews and eight in-person interviews, Hoffman finally found a job as a senior project manager at Jeppeson Sanderson.

With so much experience in the job-seeking scene, Hoffman has a good sense of which tactics are effective and which are a waste of time, ideas he shared at a seminar this week hosted by the Rose City Software Process Improvement Network (SPIN) at Portland’s World Trade Center. The reality of the job landscape is a bleak one: As of August 2009, the ratio of job postings to unemployed people in Portland is 1-to-7 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics cited on Indeed.com. While that’s not as bad as cities like Miami and Detroit (ratios of 1-to-11 and 1-to-17, respectively), Portland’s competitiveness still outpaces most other major U.S. cities. So what are the best ways for Portlanders to go after opportunities and sell themselves effectively?

As far as online tools, Hoffman prefers using sites like Indeed.com and Craigslist for broad searches; Indeed aggregates job postings from other major sites and Craigslist is often used by smaller companies who don’t want to pay to advertise on the larger sites. In-person search activities like job fairs can be helpful, Hoffman says, but you don’t always have the opportunity to do much for yourself. “When I went to a job fair and there were at least a couple thousand people and you stand in line for half an hour to 45 minutes to have a two to three minute talk, it just becomes a little bit demoralizing,” Hoffman said. However, you can make the most of networking events by having unique conversations with reps that will help them remember you later. And if you’re at a busy single-company event, seek out the reps who aren’t talking to anybody, even if they don’t represent your field; as Hoffman learned, those conversations can lead to an interview with the right person.

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On The Scene: Startups prepare for tax battle

Tucked away among the restaurants and shops in Portland’s Old Town is NedSpace, a co-working office space for startups that combines old red brick architecture with a contemporary Ikea feel. A small crowd was gathered there last night for what looked like an after-work party, but the ambience was in contrast to the serious reason for the meeting. Most of the people were members of the startup community and were there to hear arguments against the controversial business taxes recently passed by the Legislature.

The meeting was organized by members of Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, a coalition of businesses and individuals that collected double the amount of signatures required to get the measures onto January’s ballot — the first time Oregon will vote on a statewide referendum since 2004. Two tax measures are at issue: One raises the minimum corporate tax and one raises personal income tax on the highest-earning individuals.

Bob Wiggins, managing partner of Mount Hood Equity Partners, named several reasons why the issue should matter to startups. In addition to the implications of the taxes themselves — raising the personal income tax alone would make Oregon’s the highest in the country — Wiggins mentioned Oregon’s lack of capital-gain deduction in its income tax and the tax-free appeal of nearby Vancouver, Wash., as added factors that will drive business out of Oregon if the measures are not defeated. “This is as bad as it could possibly get for the startup community,” Wiggins said. “All [these factors] are designed, it seems, to shoot us in the foot.”

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