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In Portland, Startups Work Together to Recruit Engineers

Late light illuminates Mt Hood with Portland, Oregon in the foreground

Photograph by Garry DeLong via Getty Images

Late light illuminates Mt Hood with Portland, Oregon in the foreground

Watch out Silicon Valley. Up in Oregon, the CEOs of Portland’s top tech startups kicked off a recruiting campaign on May 29. Their goal: stop stealing each other’s engineers and start poaching talent elsewhere. “I don’t think there are any unemployed software engineers in Portland,” says Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies, a video integration company with 130 employees and $21 million in annual revenue. “So it means that we’re recruiting from other companies here—our friends—and that’s a race to the bottom. A better strategy is to improve the pipeline.”

As a first step, Blackman and his 10 co-conspirators have filmed a five-minute video called TechTown Portland. It takes viewers on a high-speed tour of startups offices, highlighting light-filled lofts, bike storage lockers, and bring-your-pet-to-work policies. A silent cast of tech staffers looks busy but not stressed. The film can be viewed on Vimeo, and is being played at corporate recruiting events.

Three years ago the biggest constraint facing Portland’s tech community was the supply of venture capital, and some CEOs publicly questioned whether not being in Silicon Valley was detrimental. That tide has turned: For the first time since 1993, Oregon bested Washington State, another tech middleweight, in the competition for venture capital, pulling in $146 million in the first quarter of 2013, compared with $100 million for its neighbor, according to researcher CB Insights.

Now Portland businesses see a shortage of talent as the main threat to growth. While the city’s startups employ only about 4,000 workers, they’ve been hiring at as much as six times the rate of other businesses in the state, according to figures compiled by the Oregon Employment Department.

Luke Kanies, CEO of Puppet Labs, an eight-year-old cloud computing company featured in the video, says he has to sell Portland when interviewing candidates for executive positions. “A guy in Paris sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Can you convince me if I take this job in Portland that it’s not the doldrums?’ ”

As of early June, the 11 TechTown companies had more than 110 openings for technical positions. At a conservative estimate of three candidates per position, “that would mean we are looking for over 330 candidates to build a strong pipeline,” says Susy Dunn, senior director of employee success (techspeak for human resources) at Jive Software, a Silicon Valley-based developer of enterprise software that has a 200-person operation in Portland.

Several out-of-state tech companies are setting up outposts in Portland or expanding existing ones. Mozilla, New Relic, and Acquia have all signed leases for bigger offices in the past year, while (CRM) and Oracle (ORCL) have pledged to create 335 new jobs in the area in exchange for state subsidies.

Blackman says he contacted 12 CEOs with the idea of collaborating on recruitment; 11 signed on immediately. “We’re all physically close and run into each other frequently,” says Josh Reich, CEO of Simple Finance Technology, an online consumer banking service with 68 employees, 51 of whom have joined in the past 18 months. Reich moved his company’s headquarters from Brooklyn to Portland in 2011. “Right now I’m sitting in prime downtown real estate, staring at green trees and blue skies,” he says. “And the weather’s never that terrible.”

Each company contributed $2,000 to make the movie, maintaining rights for their own use. The Portland Development Commission (PDC) put $18,000 into the film and facilitated the shoot, which included wrangling city permits, a tight-rope walker, and aerial camera drones. Next up, the coalition plans to launch a shared online job board; it’s also thinking of hosting recruiting events.

Portland’s tech scene is amazingly collaborative, says Patrick Quinton, executive director of the PDC. “They really like to come together around solutions. It’s different than what you might see in other metro areas.”

The bottom line: Tired of poaching engineers from each other, Portland startups have kicked off a drive to lure new talent to the city.

Cohen is the author of The Sex Diaries Project: What We're Saying About What We're Doing (John Wiley & Sons).

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