Monday, November 13th, 2006

Shaping the future of Maine’s economy?

Out of the whole LibraryThing thing, I am most proud of the buzz page, which collects some 750 positive quotes about LibraryThing, almost all from blogs. Second to that are the invitations Abby and I have had to speak at library conferences. (Invite us to more! We sleep on sofas and eat like birds.)

But this has to run a close third: being select by the Maine paper Mainebiz for its “Next List.” Apparently I’m one of the “ten people shaping the future of Maine’s economy.” (Here’s the story in Google’s cache.) Mainebiz threw an awards party at the Portland Museum of Art, with wine and canapees and people in suits.* None of the party pictures turned out, so here is my son reacting to my lucite trophy-award-paperweight.**

Great as the honor is, I can’t avoid thinking “If I’m moving it forward, Maine’s in big trouble!” LibraryThing has only two employees in the state (a third makes her home among our former collonial masters).

Fortunately, LibraryThing and I are proxies for something far larger and very real: you can launch a web startup in Maine. We attended with John McGrath and Kristy Dahl of Squirl, another good example. That’s not quite a trend, but could it become one? I think so.

Maine is supposed to be a VERY bad place for tech start-ups. Loose talk about the “anihilation of distance” notwithstanding, startups cluster very strongly, with places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA far in the lead. As Paul Graham put it, startups happen where you find “rich people and nerds.” Having both in abundance is, as Graham writes, quite rare. New York City has rich people, but no nerds. Pittsburgh has nerds, but no rich people. Compared to either Portland is a desert. Forget rich and nerdly—Portland hardly has PEOPLE. We’re the largest city in the state, and have 63,000 residents (compared to more than 100,000 for Cambridge, MA alone).

So why and how is Portland a good place for tech startups? LibraryThing worked because we began as a one-nerd operation. (Later, after much effort, LibraryThing hired Chris Gann, a Silicon Valley “blow in.”) And it worked because we didn’t NEED a rich person. It cost almost nothing to set up, and made money from the start. Back in the dot-com years the servers alone would have required angel funding. Now they don’t. (There’s a good NYT story on this phenomenon.)

Once you dispense with hiring and funding, it’s all about where you want to live. Fortunately, my wife is an author and can live anywhere. Portland is cheap—rent is about half what we were paying in Brookline, MA—and was close enough to Boston for me to continue freelancing for companies there. Later, when LibraryThing started, cheap rent helped balance the checkbook.

We chose Portland over other options because it’s just such a great city. We live two minutes from the Eastern Prom, a gorgeous tableau overlooking Casco Bay, and a great place to walk when you need to get away from a computer to think about data structures. We’re five minutes from the center of Portland, which is small but “real,” with funky businesses, an independent theater and an excellent internet cafe, known as “Tim’s second office.” And actually Portland DOES have rich people. The New Yorkers and Bostonians stop by on the way to the summer house or skiing, and some very nice restaurants have sprung up to serve them.***

All-in-all, not a bad place for a start-up.

I didn’t meet all the other winners****, but congratulations to architect and Renaissance-man Mitchell Rasor (MRLD.com) and Jeffrey Wood, founder and web developer for the worthy non-profit eHope.

*Who knew Mainers had suits? You hardly see them, even downtown. Where are these people hiding?
**Right after this photo was taken, Liam pushed it across the flooboards and I discovered that lucite scratches easily. Oh, well. Sic transit gloria plastici.
***If there were a decent Chinese restaurant, it would be paradise.
****And I completely dropped the ball on meeting Tom Allen, our congressman. Librarians may now scold me for it. I want to button-hole him about his vote for DOPA, the bill forbidding social networking sites in libraries which would, inter alia, illegalize many of LibraryThing current uses and future plans.

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