Monday, February 16, 2009

Portland, not the other one!

American City Business Journals has named LibraryThing's home town, Portland, ME as the 10th-best place to start a small business. Best of all, Portland beat "the other Portland." (And did you know they were named after us?)

Three cheers for Portland. But at the risk of being ejected from the ranks of Portland, Maine's tech startup community, I think that—wait, there's no local startup community to be ejected from! There's LibraryThing. There's Foneshow (two guys?) and that's about it! What businesses are they talking about anyway?

This city has grown on me. It's scenic, quirky and cheap. My wife and I think we can find both the right school and the right house, and avoid some of the craziness of Boston. But the business climate here leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you aren't in tourism.

American City Business Journals must be talking about some industry I'm not in, with very different inputs. For a tech startup the labor market is a train wreck—way too small and illiquid. Even if you could hire them, the people are wrong. There aren't any top-notch universities spitting smart young hackers out into the local community.* And there are too many people who want "quality of life," which is great if you can get it, but hard-driving companies want hard-driving employees.** As Paul Graham wrote, ambition is a big city phenomenon. New Yorkers want to get richer. Cambridge people smarter. I still don't quite understand what Portland people want. Smart, ambitious people tend to leave Maine—it's a big problem.***

I'm sorry for the harsh tone of this post, but I generally don't hide my feelings. Do you run a local small business? A local tech business? Send me a comment and I'll buy you lunch. As we both know, there are some amazing places to eat around here.

*There are, it's true, more local tech people that it seems at first. But, like Alexandria, they're mostly "in" not "of" Portland—Bostonians who moved to Portland and still service Boston-area clients.
**That comment will no doubt draw objections. But nobody with knowledge of the community in Cambridge or the Valley work can dispute it. Startups work because people make them their lives. Any anyway, when startup people aren't working, they want to hang out with other driven people.
***Back in 2003, a study concluded that "half of the state's college graduates in 1998 wanted to live and work in Maine, but three of four ultimately left." Subsidizing Maine graduates who stay in Maine probably helps, but it's not the answer.

Photo by PhilipC, from Wikimedia Common (link).

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Anonymous Rob Styles said...

Don't people in New York want to get richer just so they can afford to move out and have a better quality of life? ;-)

2/16/2009 5:08 PM  
Blogger Aryq said...

Ah, Tim, if I didn't have such strong obligations in Illinois, I'd come out there to beef up your tech community in a heartbeat!
-Eric Sizemore

2/16/2009 5:27 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, that's what they all say!

2/16/2009 5:31 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

Foneshow is up to 6 people now.

2/16/2009 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Jon Gorman said...

The blog post is on a tech site, but the original article (which I haven't manage to track down yet even though I probably do have access to it through some database) is probably more general in term. The publishers tend to focus on a wide variety of industries from what I can tell. So I'd guess they have some definition of small and they're including all industry....also, if you notice what the blog says it says...

"the survey compared the number of small businesses in the area to metropolitan population and job growth." other words, there's more small business owners and they're bringing in more jobs. And like you, probably having to bring people in from outside. (Thus meaning more people come in as part of a small business, but job growth also goes up). It seems like this survey could be gamed pretty easily if you had a town that was entirely small business with a very rapid growth in some of those sectors.

Like say...your "small" business is a brewery, but you double in size or something like that. Or you had tourist type stuff like restaurants that were locally owned.

Of course, as usual these opinions are largely and completely uninformed.


2/16/2009 5:58 PM  
Blogger Casey Durfee said...

Flyfi is based in Portland.

2/16/2009 6:42 PM  
Blogger Xach said...

I proudly run in Portland. Not quite a real business, yet.

2/16/2009 6:43 PM  
Blogger PortlandHead said...

Tim, I feel your pain. For six years now I have run a Web design studio in Portland, Maine because there's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be.

It has been a sacrifice because there is a shortage of talented Web designers with whom to collaborate on projects. It's made it difficult for me to grow my business. It's frustrating.

Yes, I could go the route of some and hand off routine tasks to the offshore crowd, but to me that isn't very appealing. Plugging people into a virtual company is all well and good, but there's no substitute for a brainstorming session across a whiteboard or in the local coffee shop.

I've been trying to rally what I call the "Digital Creatives" in town for a few months now. I've had a couple guest blog posts in the Press Herald on the subject; here's the first:

Love to take you up on the offer to buy lunch. Let's get this party started.

- Rob Landry
Principal Web Designer
Pemaquid Communications

2/16/2009 9:26 PM  
Blogger PortlandHead said...

@Casey_Durfee I could be wrong, and I wish them the best, but I haven't seen anything from that leads me to believe they will be around for very long.

Their proposition is not obvious to site visitors, their site has some serious usability issues to work out regarding their player, and I question whether many folks bother to download the 10+MB file that syncs up iTunes to their Pandora-like service.

2/16/2009 9:32 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Is FlyFi a morph from that other attempt to take on and etc. I can't remember their damn names, but they always struck me as engaged in a fools' errand, and not well packed for that errand either. They took state startup money, which just illustrates the problem.

2/16/2009 10:47 PM  
Blogger RJO said...

It's easy to imagine Portland being/becoming a center for eco-entrepreneurs in things like (say) microhydro, or wind power, or tiny houses, or electric bicycles (oops, they're in the other Portland). But an extensive tech community is hard without an adjacent university that's heavily involved. The local tech business could perhaps sponsor a regular seminar series at USM or the Maine College of Art (for designers), as a way to inspire folks. And then in a few years endow a LibraryThing Professor of Information Architecture. By the time you retire you'll be at the center of the Silicon Coast (it's more fun to be a founder than an inheritor).

2/16/2009 10:53 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Universities are key. We need more of them. The Maine College of Art is, I understand, very respected. But my contacts tell me the "new media" program is a low-point.

Apparently there's good new media and CS in Orono (near Bangor), where the main branch of the state university is, but Orono is farther from Portland than Boston is! And boy is Bangor not where a tech person wants to be.

It's true we need to get together. There's no community, partially because it's small and partially because people aren't here for being here. There's a fairly famous hacker on Peaks Island, basically across the water from LT offices. But he doesn't answer emails...

2/16/2009 11:07 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Re: Foneshow. Six people? Awesome!

2/16/2009 11:10 PM  
Blogger RJO said...

> Universities are key. We need more of them.

Thinking out loud (my only real talent):

As something of a university entrepreneur, I can testify that universities as institutions tend to be almost completely un-entrepreneurial. They often contain entrepreneurial individuals however, and the key to getting something going with them is just regular face-to-face social contact. I'm a great believer in the power of tea (the occasion, not the drink, and certainly not the plant). A monthly tech-oriented social-hour/seminar, cosponsored by local tech businesses, could go a long way. You may find that the natural home for such a thing wouldn't be the computer science department, but something like a Teaching and Learning Center (the instructional tech center that most campuses tend to have these days). If it were monthly it could draw people down from Orono and elsewhere.

Maine certainly has some top notch liberal arts colleges -- Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby. Summer internships are tried and true methods for growing up new talent. You have to find a place to put them up (USM dorms, e.g.), and pay them a modest stipend; but it's how networks get built.

You've got a successful LibraryThing for Libraries product. LibraryThing for Higher Ed would be another natural.

2/16/2009 11:54 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, it has nothing to do with the university qua institution. It's the people they produce—graduated or not—and the people who are drawn to those people.

2/17/2009 12:19 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

A few points and some perspective:

I'm the founder of Foneshow. I went to MIT. I spent 15 years in Silicon Valley. I was the 200th employee at Yahoo! and worked there from 1996-2000. I retired and moved to Maine in 2004. I started Foneshow in 2006.

"New Media" programs at universities are traditionally not the epicenter of entrepreneurial work. In fact most of the universities that are the center of start ups usually don't have New Media programs. They have solid graduate CS programs.

Web design consultancies are not technology companies, they're service companies who use technology (SEO companies as well). I've worked in both, hard core chip based hardware/software ITV solutions and web design shops (I worked for the company that did Nike and BofA's first sites back in 1995). Nothing wrong with them but they're entirely different beasts.

2/17/2009 6:10 AM  
Blogger jami said...

As a Mainer who left for educational and professional opportunities unavailable to me there, I am certainly interested in this post. I'd love to move back to Maine, but my student loans require me to work somewhere where I can afford to pay them back; I live in DC.

I'm a librarian who focuses in Information Architecture and User Experience Design. My girlfriend is also a librarian specializing in legislative research - even if one of us could get a job in our field up there (a daunting endeavor especially in this economic climate), it's highly unlikely that we both could.

I look forward to the day when we can afford to make the move without either of us compromising our professional ambitions.

2/17/2009 11:11 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Erik. A couple of replies.

Let's have lunch!

I don't bring up "New Media" as the incubator of entrepreneurial work per se. But startups aren't just CS people. In LibraryThing's case, we have only one person with a traditional CS background. Many tech companies have more, but even so, you need the rest of the company—ambitious people of all sorts, but particularly in fields like design, online marketing and etc. Web design firms also aren't startups, but you need to live in a town that has people like that you can hire.

2/17/2009 12:57 PM  
Blogger Erik said...


Lunch? Anytime (of course I'm in NYC this week). The one terrific thing about doing a start up in the old port is that we're totally spoiled as far as lunch places are concerned.

You are of course correct about needing more than just engineers. You are also right that start up DNA is unique and rare. The type of person that thrives in a big company or a consultancy is often ill equipped to do well in a start up environment.

I think one of the weaknesses of MESDA is their seeming lack of understanding of the differences in needs between a tech start up and a tech service company.

I totally agree that staffing a tech start up in Portland is really tough.

2/17/2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger Katya said...

jami -

Interesting. I moved to Maine to become a librarian precisely because my student loans didn't allow me to live somewhere as expensive as D.C. (That said, I'm in Orono, not Portland.)

2/17/2009 3:36 PM  
Blogger pokane said...

The original article can be read at The ranking was not tech driven.

2/17/2009 4:07 PM  
Blogger Aglaia said...

Moving (back) to Portland is definitely on our radar for the future, though probably not until after school (am currently attending City College of San Francisco, and will transfer to State for my BA).

That being said, I'd contemplating e-mailing you, Tim, to find out where you see LT in 5 years or so, and what sorts of opportunities you anticipate there being for new blood. I'm always researching possible post-grad careers and allowing them to somewhat inform my educational path, and I've wished more than once that I'd found LT before I left Portland!

2/17/2009 6:23 PM  
Blogger Wendy C. Allen a.k.a. EelKat said...

I've lived in Maine my whole life, love it, wouldn't live any place else. I'm in Portland every week (again, love it!). I'm hoping to stat a shop in Portland, but getting a loan to do that . . . yeah, not easy, seems like every one is trying to start a business in Portland these days. Competition is fierce.

2/17/2009 10:08 PM  

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