When people think of startup hubs, cities like San Francisco and New York immediately jump to mind, as do smaller startup communities like Seattle, Austin, and Boulder. But it’s rare for any Oregon towns to even register.
That, however, may be changing. Thanks to growing momentum in Bend, Oregon. And thanks to the BendTECH blog chronicling the stories of the startups who are putting Bend on the map.
“We wanted to create a way for people inside and outside of Bend to learn more about what’s happening in our tech and startup communities,” BendTECH blog cofounder and editor Kelly Kearsley said. “This was spring 2014. I think a lot of people felt like there’s definitely more than meets the eye here in terms of startup/tech activity, and to have one place where you could find that information would be valuable — both for people already here and looking for resources and connections, as well as people interested in moving themselves and/or their companies to town.”
A unique community
“We just had a guest blogger — an intern at one of the tech startups here — write a post. And she called out a small fact that I think actually really makes a big difference: People who are here really want to be here. By and large, the entrepreneurs here have lived and worked and started other companies in bigger places. They’ve chosen to be here. They want to succeed in Bend and they want others to succeed here too.”
And that commitment to growing in Bend creates strong collaborative tendencies among those residents and businesses.
“A lot of entrepreneurs here comment on that collaborative nature, they say it’s noticeable relative to other places they’ve lived and worked. I just heard an anecdote of one tech company sending resumes it received to another. People are giving of their time and interested in more than just their own success.”
“It’s cliche, but we’re at a point where rising tides lift all the ships — the more successful companies we have, the more talent we can attract, the more companies can be successful. People understand that. In terms of challenges, I think mature and startup companies here need more tech talent. And though funding has increased, more capital certainly helps accelerate growth.”
Chronicling the journey
While momentum and collaboration are important, communication is often the most critical—and oft overlooked—component of community development. That’s why Kelly and James Gentes founded the blog in 2014, to help provide a foundation for that communication to occur.
“Well the blog is just about a year old, so I wouldn’t say there’s been drastic change since its inception. But what there has been over the past few years is steady growth of the number of new companies here and more local funding available through groups such as Cascade Angels — though I think many would tell you there could always be more capital. Central Oregon startups raised nearly $16 million in mostly seed funding in the past year, and I think the assumption is that we’ll exceed that number in the next year.
“The people doing the heavy lifting in terms of building the startup community are the startup founders. They are the ones taking the risk to transform their ideas into businesses and doing it in a place that they love,” Kelly said. “I like to think that the blog has helped bring attention to what’s happening here and provide support to our growing tech and startup communities.”
Thanks in part to the efforts of the blog, the perception of Bend as a startup community is starting to change. And residents of more formidable and well-known hubs are beginning to take notice.
“What is rapidly changing is the idea that you can start or move especially a tech company here and have it thrive. We have some legacy tech companies that have been here awhile, but now we’re seeing Bay-area companies interested in moving staff to Bend or opening new offices. It’s not just doable, but for a few early adopters — like Kollective — it’s become preferable. There’s still challenges — finding technical talent can be tough. But I think that companies here are starting to make the case that you can be in Bend, have a high quality of life, pay less overhead and still be short distance away from major cities.”
“People might be surprised, but I would estimate that more than half of the blog’s readers are from outside of Bend. They’re people who are keenly interested in whether startups can succeed here and often it’s their dream to be here as well. I’d like to think that the blog shows people what’s possible when you start to think out of the box in terms of where you have to live and work.
And part of the reason for that is that — despite it’s name — the BendTECH blog isn’t just tech.
“We haven’t had any push back on BendTECH,” Kelly said. “We do primarily focus on tech companies, and I would say tech-related news easily comprises more than half our coverage. We’re mostly interested in startups that are looking for rapid growth, usually product companies, so we’re not really covering all new businesses in all new verticals. We don’t cover restaurants or a lot of service business. Bend has startups in outdoor gear, biotech and food manufacturing. Also if you have a startup and you’re hoping to scale, then there’s a lot of crossover in terms of resources and information that you’re interested in. Finally, we see lots of companies — think Cairn — that may not be software companies, but have a tech component.”
Nurturing a spark
“In terms of becoming a catalyst, I’ve been really heartened by the number of jobs posted on our job board and excited when I hear that companies have filled positions from people who heard about the jobs via the blog. That’s full circle stuff and it’s really gratifying. I get choked up! Going forward, I think we’ll continue to create content, raise awareness and start conversations about entrepreneurship in Central Oregon. We want to grow our readership and we also have ideas for events around our #50startups and other blog features.”
The concept for #50startups is part of an ongoing effort to highlight companies in the area.
“#50startups has been really fun,” Kelly said. “I thought of it shortly after we launched as a way to regularly introduce our readers to the various startups here. James and I made a list of startups we knew and felt pretty confident we would have 50 companies to profile, though they aren’t all tech-related. We’re currently in the 30s. They are always some of our best-read posts: the format makes it easy for readers to learn about a new endeavor and the entrepreneurs enjoy telling their stories.”
Finding a voice
“I think that blogging is a constant exercise in experimentation, refining your focus and learning what your audience wants and needs. You try new content and see what garners people’s attention and what really engages them. Sometimes it’s not always what you think.”
“For example, I thought readers would be more interested in advice and service type pieces around creating successful startups. But they’re far more interested in finding info on our blog they can’t find anywhere else — the daily happenings of Bend’s tech and startup communities. So we focus most of our resources on talking about companies, what they’re doing, who is hiring, who has raised money, etc.”
Like many blogs, BendTECH blog makes sure it doesn’t take itself too seriously. They have their quirky side as well. One of their more popular features in recent history has proved to be something that the Internet does exceptionally well: fawn over pets.
“As for the dogs, that was way to insert some fun into the blog and feature the furry friends that keep startup founders and tech workers company. It’s Bend. People love their dogs — in fact, few offices don’t have dogs. So those have been well-read too.”
Only the beginning
“After one year, we have 800 weekly newsletter subscribers and that grows about 10% each month at a higher than 50% open rate,” Kelly said. “There’s definitely an appetite for what we’re providing. We want to keep people interested and answer their questions about tech and startups in Bend. I think we’ll also explore building our revenue through ads and the job board. We just want to keep telling the Central Oregon tech and startup story — and there’s lots more to say.”