Portland – the one in Maine – could be just wacky enough for your startup

Lighthouse living

Startup City: Portland

Sure, there might not be a TV show celebrating Portland, Maine’s quirkiness, but the city is plenty weird in its own right. Or so Jess Knox, founder of Maine Startup and Create Week and Portland’s unofficial startup ambassador, suggests.

“It has this really robust creative community that’s predisposed to some wackiness, which is really important to startups,” Knox told us.

Thanks to an off-kilter sensibility and a very supportive economy, Portland startups have excelled in the fields of bio-pharm, fin tech, and specialty foods, and they’ve done so with and without financial support. Bootstrapping is big here, Knox told us. It’s a do-it-yourself kind of city that in many ways is still a small town. Case in point: “I don’t lock my house – that’s how low the crime is,” Knox said.

But if startups want the taste of a big city they’re just a few hours away from one. “We’re very much a northern suburb of Boston,” said Knox. Lots of folks take the two-hour drive down to Beantown to collaborate on projects and work with companies there.

“You can do work down there, and you can live in this phenomenal area,” said Knox. He considers it the best of both worlds.

The City’s Startup Support
Knox has his hand in almost every aspect of startup development here, and that includes Maine Accelerates Growth, which he calls “the nation’s most innovative program for ecosystem growth.” MxG funds startups and supports the state’s entrepreneurs with events and programs.

Knox also runs Maine Startup and Create Week, which is celebrating its third year in June. This seven-day event takes place throughout the city of Portland and includes events, speakers, over 200 panels, and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow entrepreneurs, investors, and supporters.

Pubhub is a meet-up held in Portland every month where startups gather to find out how fellow entrepreneurs got funding, got staff, or got sold. Although startups are encouraged to practice their pitches during meetings, the events are casual in nature – no PowerPoint presentations, please.

Sample the City’s Startups
You can indirectly thank Cashstar, the most well-funded startup in Maine, for all of those gift cards you receive during the holidays. Over 300 retailers sell digital and physical cards through Cashstar, which bills itself as a provider of prepaid commerce solutions to retailers and restaurants.

Veterinarians have lost income and even patients thanks to online e-commerce pet medicine companies, but Vetsfirstchoice would like to help. The company provides vets with an online pharmacy and access to thousands of products, and the company gives pet owners, including horse owners, an easy way to get the medicine they need. The company raised $52 million back in July.

Chimani makes apps for exploring and touring National Parks. “We like to think of these apps within the tradition of the telescope or astrolabe of our adventuring ancestors –instruments to help us navigate the natural world,” the company writes. The concept was born of a hiking frustration. Co-founder Kerry Gallivan was on the trails of Cadillac Mountain and hoping for some idea on where he was going but was without cell service. Chimani apps work without wifi or data signal.

Aaron Anker, the chief granola officer at Grandy Oats, looks to fellow eco-friendly and sustainable companies in his state, like Tom’s of Maine, for inspiration, he said. Grandy Oats is well on its way to having that sort of name recognition. The $5 million-dollar company, based an hour outside of Portland, sells granola, nuts, trail mix, and hot cereal to national retailers like Whole Foods.

Food, Booze, and Recreation
There’s about one restaurant for about every 300 Portland citizens, and they’re not just serving lobster rolls (although if lobster rolls are your thing Eventide Oyster Co and the Bite into Maine food cart make the best, in our opinion). Many restaurants have been recognized by James Beard Foundation, including noodle shop The Honey Paw, a semifinalist in this year’s Best New Restaurant category. And Fore Street, which received a nod in the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant category, and helped launch the farm-to-table movement in the city when it opened in the Old Port District in 1996.

The breweries here are award-winning, too. Allagash Brewing Co’s Rob Tod is a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional. And at last year’s Great American Beer Festival, Maine breweries won medals in 21% of the categories, the most of any state.

You can work off all that food and booze on a bike tour of Peaks Island, just a quick ferry ride away from Downtown Portland. Take a detour from the rocky coast and walk through the Battery Steele, an eerie, abandoned military reservation that’s been taken over by graffiti happy residents.

Every month during First Friday Art Walk, galleries and museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, open their doors for free. Over 3,000 people take over the downtown area during the event, which also includes live performances.

Not quite convinced you want to move? Creative Portland, the same group that organizes the art walks, connects would be Portlanders to Portland residents “with similar interests who can answer their questions about who to know, which neighborhoods to live in, where to walk the dog, where to buy local produce, or the best place to launch their kayak,” as part of the organization’s 2 Degrees Portland service.