Monday, February 16th, 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).

Labels: maine, portland


  1. John says:

    Hey Tim, did you ever revisit this issue? Just curious to see if things changed…

  2. Tim says:

    No, it’s still a bad place to start a small business, at least a technology one.

    Taxes are relatively high on businesses. (They’re good for retirees, which is why we have so many of them.) The political atmosphere has a New England desire for regulation and services, but on a much weaker tax-base spread out over a rural state. We recently got a “pro-business” governor, but he is something of a tool, and hasn’t been able to accomplish much anyway.

    Portland businesses climate is to some extent seasonal. Expansion is limited because towns of comparable size are about an hour away, at best. Education remains a problem. The big and good state school is in an even smaller town far away.

    The local tech industry is very limited—tech people here are mostly the tech people at the bank, the supermarket, etc. There’s an art school here, but it’s small and is relatively weak on the digital side, so the town doesn’t have a lot of cool digital designers who graduated and hung on looking for work. The University of Southern Maine isn’t churning out a lot of computer programmers either. What talent there is, goes south fast.

    Foneshow is dead, despite having a cool idea, and the other tech startups I’ve heard about—a vertical network for golfers, a competitor to Pandora–are too. There are some talented tech people here, but they are mostly freelancers and employees of big companies outside the state, who live here because they like kayaking, or whatever.

  3. Tim says:

    One thing I noticed at TechMaine, the local technology group: People wear suits. Technology people in technology towns don’t wear suits. This is a shame—I like suits! But I think it’s symptomatic. If you want to get hired at a local non-technology business, a suit probably makes you look professional. Where the hiring is done by cool tech startups, a suit would make you look like a tool.

  4. greg says:

    I noticed your twitter comments on this subject. I can’t see Maine ever becoming a tech or business center. The Governor thinks if he lowers taxes and regulations jobs will come. I’d love to see an example of how this has worked. Before moving to Maine I worked(20 years) in the Silicon Valley area. California has a high cost of living, high taxes and a pile of regulations. But it is also home to a lot of universities and talent. People are still moving to California for tech jobs. And money is still flowing there.

    Maine’s biggest University as about as far away from the technology companies as one could get. UOM is still not on the distance learning bandwagon. One can get a MS or PhD online from several major schools around the U.S. But not UOM.

    Mike Desjardins is probably correct about remote work. But in Maine, if you are not at desk (dressed well) then you are not working.

    The dress code thing just makes me crazy.


  5. Mike says:

    Amen on the suits comment. They wear sportjackets with corduroy elbow protectors.

    The people involved w/ TechMaine (before its demise) were the big local companies: Hannaford, Idexx, L. L. Bean, Wright Express, Unum, etc. The biggest reason for that bias was money: TechMaine got a lot more sponsorship dollars from the big local companies than angel investors and venture capitalists. That made them stuffy and wooden.

    Another side effect of that corporate-tilt was that a lot of TechMaine’s services catered to enterprise technologies (.net, Java) and very little to open-source technologies that startups would be more prone to use (Ruby on Rails, Django and Python, PHP, etc).

    The sad part is that even though TechMaine was a voice that didn’t adequately spend its efforts on growing a small, vibrant startup scene, it was the only voice we had. One of TechMaine’s charters was to be a technology proponent in Augusta – and now we don’t even have that.