Monday, November 13, 2006

Shaping the future of Maine's economy?

Out of the whole LibraryThing thing, I am most proud of the buzz page, which collects some 750 positive quotes about LibraryThing, almost all from blogs. Second to that are the invitations Abby and I have had to speak at library conferences. (Invite us to more! We sleep on sofas and eat like birds.)

But this has to run a close third: being select by the Maine paper Mainebiz for its "Next List." Apparently I'm one of the "ten people shaping the future of Maine's economy." (Here's the story in Google's cache.) Mainebiz threw an awards party at the Portland Museum of Art, with wine and canapees and people in suits.* None of the party pictures turned out, so here is my son reacting to my lucite trophy-award-paperweight.**

Great as the honor is, I can't avoid thinking "If I'm moving it forward, Maine's in big trouble!" LibraryThing has only two employees in the state (a third makes her home among our former collonial masters).

Fortunately, LibraryThing and I are proxies for something far larger and very real: you can launch a web startup in Maine. We attended with John McGrath and Kristy Dahl of Squirl, another good example. That's not quite a trend, but could it become one? I think so.

Maine is supposed to be a VERY bad place for tech start-ups. Loose talk about the "anihilation of distance" notwithstanding, startups cluster very strongly, with places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA far in the lead. As Paul Graham put it, startups happen where you find "rich people and nerds." Having both in abundance is, as Graham writes, quite rare. New York City has rich people, but no nerds. Pittsburgh has nerds, but no rich people. Compared to either Portland is a desert. Forget rich and nerdly—Portland hardly has PEOPLE. We're the largest city in the state, and have 63,000 residents (compared to more than 100,000 for Cambridge, MA alone).

So why and how is Portland a good place for tech startups? LibraryThing worked because we began as a one-nerd operation. (Later, after much effort, LibraryThing hired Chris Gann, a Silicon Valley "blow in.") And it worked because we didn't NEED a rich person. It cost almost nothing to set up, and made money from the start. Back in the dot-com years the servers alone would have required angel funding. Now they don't. (There's a good NYT story on this phenomenon.)

Once you dispense with hiring and funding, it's all about where you want to live. Fortunately, my wife is an author and can live anywhere. Portland is cheap—rent is about half what we were paying in Brookline, MA—and was close enough to Boston for me to continue freelancing for companies there. Later, when LibraryThing started, cheap rent helped balance the checkbook.

We chose Portland over other options because it's just such a great city. We live two minutes from the Eastern Prom, a gorgeous tableau overlooking Casco Bay, and a great place to walk when you need to get away from a computer to think about data structures. We're five minutes from the center of Portland, which is small but "real," with funky businesses, an independent theater and an excellent internet cafe, known as "Tim's second office." And actually Portland DOES have rich people. The New Yorkers and Bostonians stop by on the way to the summer house or skiing, and some very nice restaurants have sprung up to serve them.***

All-in-all, not a bad place for a start-up.

I didn't meet all the other winners****, but congratulations to architect and Renaissance-man Mitchell Rasor ( and Jeffrey Wood, founder and web developer for the worthy non-profit eHope.

*Who knew Mainers had suits? You hardly see them, even downtown. Where are these people hiding?
**Right after this photo was taken, Liam pushed it across the flooboards and I discovered that lucite scratches easily. Oh, well. Sic transit gloria plastici.
***If there were a decent Chinese restaurant, it would be paradise.
****And I completely dropped the ball on meeting Tom Allen, our congressman. Librarians may now scold me for it. I want to button-hole him about his vote for DOPA, the bill forbidding social networking sites in libraries which would, inter alia, illegalize many of LibraryThing current uses and future plans.


Blogger Luis Villa said...

It isn't too late to contact your Congressman. You've got a hook; write that letter, apologize for not meeting him, explain the issue, and propose a meeting next time he's in Portland. The award (as silly as it may seem in some ways) gives you credibility which lasted longer than the awards ceremony- use it!

[And of course- congrats. Great to see a small startup like yours suceed anywhere in the country.]

11/13/2006 11:26 AM  
Blogger john said...

Your employee Chris is multi-talented -- and dashingly handesome.

11/13/2006 12:18 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I did actually write our two senators. It was something of a fait accompli in the House, but I suppose there would have to be a reconciliation bill.

11/13/2006 1:21 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

My my John, you watch the blogosphere as much as I do :)

11/13/2006 1:21 PM  
Blogger Abby said...

I just can't believe you wore a suit and I didn't get to see it.

11/13/2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

No, that's the tragedy. I DIDN'T wear a suit. I looked like a jerk.

11/13/2006 5:35 PM  
Blogger john said...

I'm not saying I don't have my finger on the pulse of the blogosphere, but most of my monitoring is done by a squadron of robot monkeys (though it was you, Tim, who turned me into an Alexaholic-aholic).

Suits are for suits -- dressing down is très 2.0.

11/13/2006 11:42 PM  
Blogger oli said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11/14/2006 2:11 PM  
Blogger oli said...

A collector of tourist resorts´ hotels´ pics need have a heroic suit to produce dusty thumbnails of lost cities which have no full size pics.
How one survives bravely without cool suits in ancient areas of interest?
(the philologist)

11/14/2006 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those scratches ought to polish out, if you care. They often have the right stuff at multi-user antiques malls all around the NorthEast.

11/14/2006 4:55 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

Wow! Congrats. I'm glad that you are most proud of the Buzz page though. I'm always happy when colleagues tell me that they enjoy my work.

And if they don't, I just refer them to my agent. :-)

11/16/2006 1:32 PM  
Anonymous BTRIPP said...

So ... you're saying that if one showed up in town with a decent grasp of basic Chinese cuisine, and maybe re-located a couple of authentic cooks, one could create a culinary niche up there?

I'm still having a damn hard time finding a job (that gig with the company that was at the Frankfurt Book Fair is still up in the air), and the idea of "running away from civilization" (Chicago) to start slinging Lo Mein in lower Maine ain't the worst plan I've had run between my ears in the past few months!

11/16/2006 11:31 PM  
Anonymous selfnoise said...

Chinese Food - Yeah, it's by and large terrible. There's definitely a niche to be filled. OTOH, don't even think about starting a Thai restaurant.

On suits - There are actually tons of suits in Portland. They don't really advertise themselves, but if you go to certain lunch places or hang around certain plazas during the day, you just might be able to bag one. I work for one of the largest employers in Portland, there are a lot of suits in the building, and next to nobody knows we're here. It's kinda weird.

PS - a lot of the nicest eateries in Portland are actually more local-geared than otherwise, so you needn't worry about the food going bad after Boston falls into a massive singularity created by the Big Dig.

11/19/2006 10:43 PM  
Blogger alex45 said...

I love your blog...
It is very useful today.
As a citizen of Maine I really like the article..
Keep updating...


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