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December 4, 2012 | last updated December 4, 2012 1:56 pm

Website targets Portland's 'budding startup ecosystem'

Photo/Matt Dodge
Photo/Matt Dodge
Johann Sabbath, of Tide Creative, has launched a new website for Portland area entrepreneurs that he describes as "a community of entrepreneurs, investors, technologists and creative misfits who love building scalable companies.”

A reckoning

StartupPortland founder Johann Sabbath shares what makes Portland a good place to try entrepreneurship, and what still needs a little work.

The good:

  • Accessibility. "You can be brand new to the city and knock on the door of a place like CashStar -- one of the hottest startups in the state -- and get facetime with the CEO and ask his advice. You're also literally a phone call away from getting the chief of staff of our state senator in Washington, D.C."
  • Cooperation. "Startup culture is collaborative in general, but in Portland, the major stakeholders really want to see people succeed. You can't be a secretive, combative startup entrepreneur who is doing it on their own in this city. It takes a team."

The bad:

  • Telecommunications infrastructure. "Right now we don't have fiber optic connectivity in Portland. We can be very efficient consumers of data, but uploading is very slow. That affects high-resolution creative producers or anyone producing video, but that kind of thing can be affected very quickly when you have access to fiber optic connectivity; it creates more parity and you can create as much as you consume."

A new website aims to be the go-to directory for Portland's startup community, helping entrepreneurs navigate local business resources, events and organizations.

"It's really difficult for a new person in Portland to understand who's who and what's what; it's not really an easy landscape to navigate," says Johann Sabbath, the entrepreneur behind StartupPortland.com and the co-founder of mobile software startup Tide Creative.

Sabbath says the website will act as a clearinghouse for information on all things entrepreneurial while showcasing the region to those from away.

"The basic intention is really to articulate the critical mass of our startup ecosystem in Portland and ferret out the things that people don't know about," he says. "It is a community of entrepreneurs, investors, technologists and creative misfits who love building scalable companies."

Created by Sabbath and Tide Creative co-founder J. Sandifer, the website was inspired by EntrepreneurialByNature.com, a Colorado-based site that offers branding campaigns to local startups.

Akin to Portland's own Buy Local campaign, the Colorado site asks members to display its logo, on their websites and to be listed as part of the site's startup directory.

StartupPortland will take a similar tack, encouraging — but not requiring — member organizations to use its logo to increase visibility and awareness around the city's startup community.

"The people involved in StartupPortland believe that Portland has the core components of a budding startup ecosystem," says Sabbath. "That's kind of a hypothesis at this point, but we really want to see it articulated."

After growing up in the area, Sabbath left to earn his entrepreneurial stripes, working on the economic policy portfolio of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, where he helped businesses navigate federal rules and regulations.

Returning to Maine to study for a graduate degree in business, Sabbath fell back in love with his hometown. He soon put his D.C. experience to use, helping to launch the Portland Regional Chamber's entreverge awards before taking a position with the Bangor chamber of commerce.

A spate of wanderlust took Sabbath to a small farm in New Zealand, where he arrived at a three-pronged approach to capitalizing on his entrepreneurial aspirations.

"Coming back from New Zealand, I realigned my vocational, civic and academic selves around entrepreneurship," says Sabbath. He enrolled in Babson College's MBA program, started Tide Creative and launched StartupPortland, the latter his "civic offering to the community."

"It's really fun to organize around entrepreneurship because it's something that everyone can agree on. For me, it was nice to get away from polarized political issues and work on [something] that brought people together," he says.

Sabbath also hopes to use the site as a means of connecting Portland with other startup cities. For example, he sees potential in establishing a relationship with the startup community in Boulder, Colo., a city of "the same economic demographics, if not the same economic scale," according to Sabbath. "It's a huge startup community that is led by entrepreneurs."

Sabbath says he's careful not to inundate the local startup community with more information than it needs, or replicate services offered by other organizations helping entrepreneurs.

"We are not trying to duplicate any ongoing efforts of these [places] like the Maine Technology Institute or the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development with our own programs or networking events, we are just a place for people to find out about [that] stuff," he says.

But Sabbath also sees a potential role for StartupPortland as a connector and sounding board.

"It could be a vehicle to identify needs in the startup community that aren't being met and [informing] certain organizational players about those needs," he says.

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the local creative economy organization Creative Portland, lauds Sabbath's consideration of the city's existing entrepreneurial organizations.

"He has spoken with me and [Creative Portland President] Andy Graham right since the beginning and has been very candid with what his goals are," says Hutchins.

As the head of a group charged with attracting 10,000 creatives to Portland, Hutchins says her group's mission could jibe well with Sabbath's effort.

"He is trying to provide really practical information for entrepreneurs who are trying to get something up and running. Creative Portland is pursuing a much broader agenda in trying to attract people to the region, but if they could benefit from an organization like StartupPortland, so much the better," says Hutchins.

The website's focus on scalable companies speaks to a rising class of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who, raised on the lore of Facebook's Zuckerberg, aren't afraid to aggressively pursue what could be the next big thing.

"In the organizational era you needed an organization to create value, but in this social era, anyone can create value. It's very empowering and I think it's important to bring attention to companies that have a big vision or take a lot of risk," says Sabbath.

Locally, he points to companies like online gift card pioneer CashStar that leveraged a small nugget of an idea into $30 million in investment and attracted young talent to the city.

"There is now more of an effort to develop a paradigm that really embraces a scalable business model and risk taking. [CashStar] is really a poster child of that and an example of what is possible," says Sabbath.

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