Doing Business In Portland? You’re Going To Need Friends

Historian and writer Chet Orloff, “one of Oregon’s favorite history teachers,” writing on Powell’s blog, makes some keen observations about the differences between Portland and Seattle. For our purposes here, I’ll limit the observations to how the Emerald City and Rose City differ commercially.

Power in Portland still resides in social and family ties, far more so, I believe, than in Seattle. Fred Paulsell, a former Seattlite and Portlander who has since, alas, passed away, once explained that business development in Portland is personal, while in Seattle it’s strictly business. As always, however, we know that the truth lies somewhere in between.

People move to Portland because they want to move in and belong. It takes some time for an outsider to get accepted here. People move to Seattle to change things. (Don’t they?) As former Seattle deputy Mayor Ed Devine once said, “if you’re not at least deputy mayor six months after arriving here, you might as well move away.” Perfect!

As an outsider who has migrated to Portland twice–first in 1994 and then again in 2008–I have direct experience with how “personal” business and career development can be in Portland. Making one’s way in this city’s professional circles is slow going and that can be terribly off putting to a person with ambition and an impressive record of accomplishment gained elsewhere.

In a city like Seattle or San Francisco people move in and people move out. There’s a healthy circulation. In Portland, when/if you do gain a foothold, chances are you won’t let go any time soon, which is one reason why there are so few job opportunities for new comers. The people who have the good jobs plan to keep them, forever. This has both positive and negative implications for the local economy. It’s great that Portland employers can count on retaining key staff, but a city (and its key industries) also needs new blood to add vitality.

Portland is home to lots of smart, talented people, but it’s also a place where who you know is more important that what you know. This is a glaring incongruity, in my book. And from a civic and business perspective, it’s pretty clear that Portland could benefit from being more open, more like Seattle.

Let’s turn to Orloff again:

Fear is an element in the Portland personality — fear of growing too big, too fast; fear of too much traffic, too many people, and too much growth. Seattle seems to rush in where angels fear to tread — with haste and hustle and lots of hurrahs.

As an entrepreneur with Portland as my base, I don’t want to dwell in fear and I don’t want my company to dwell in fear. I don’t want to shield myself or my company from outside interests. I want exactly the opposite, in fact.

Perhaps the way I do things runs counter to the Portland current. I’m okay with that. I didn’t come here to conform to Portland’s self-styled nonconformity. I came here to breathe cool Pacific air and feel the fire of volcanoes at my feet. I came here to have a good time, to make friends and build businesses. Are you with me?


  1. Brandon Boyd says:

    Great insight.

    Portland is a unique town…we could all use a little less fear and your philosophy is the right mindset to influence others to let their guard down a little. Long live the anti-cynic.

  2. I most certainly am my friend!

    Great post.

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