I grew up here. I left 20-some years ago to go to college and spent most of my career in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. I moved back with my family a few years ago, but even then my work kept me out of the state and out of the country most of the time. About two years ago, I was working on a project for a consortium of out of state foundations and discovered the Freshwater Trust’s StreamBank program. In a little less than a decade, TFT had developed a method for quantifying the impact of streambank restoration on water quality, built a software platform to manage the process of certifying water quality credits, received buy in from local regulators and signed contracts with a few pioneering utilities to fund large restoration projects instead of building gray infrastructure. A decade!! Depending on your frame of reference, ten years is either an insanely long time to bring a single product to market or an insanely short period of time to take a revolutionary model for environmental restoration from back of envelope to regulatory approval.
A decade. The more I poked around Oregon, the more I found projects that embodied this type of persistent, decade scale innovation; Farmers Conservation Alliance, who spent the first 6 years of their existence navigating the web of approvals necessary for their innovative irrigation equipment, a time frame that would have killed a normal technology start up twice over; or Ecotrust, who have carefully shepherded a whole host of projects related to forests, farms and fish out in to the world with this same type of patient innovation.
This patience has historically been a double-edged sword. You talk to any professional investor here, especially in technology, and the will curse a blue streak about Portland’s “lifestyle businesses” and entrepreneurs and employees who don’t work the crazy hours necessary to build a hugely successful business in the 3 or 4 years that investors require. I can only assume they know what they are talking about, but I would like to offer two counter arguments.
First, young, educated, driven people are moving here in droves. Any complaint about Portland or Oregon that is based on past experience is a complaint about a place that already doesn’t exist anymore, and will be even less relevant in the future. The opportunity now is to ask, “Who are all these new people and what do they want to do?” Sure, a lot of them want to grow mustaches and sling coffee, but a lot more of them are driven, creative people who moved here because they wanted something different than what New York or San Francisco offers. What is that something different? I would suggest we don’t know yet.
Second, it’s clear that people here want to work insanely long hours for the promise of big riches, and I don’t think there is any reason to think they ever will. New York and San Francisco are perfectly optimized systems for those types of people, and I don’t think Oregon has any chance of competing for those people or those businesses.
So, what can we be world class at? What do all these people want to do? We haven’t yet seen the full impact from the collision of the patient innovation that has been the hallmark of Oregon for years and the new wave of talent just arriving. I think something really, really cool is about to happen if we can get the right elements lined up to support it.
And that, I guess, is what this blog will be mostly about.
Patrick Maloney lives in Portland, OR where he helps nice people working on cool stuff. He tries to limit his blogging to things about which he knows something.