BEND, Ore. — Venture capitalist Dino Vendetti is buzzing through his adopted hometown of Bend — showing off attractions that he thinks will one day establish this picturesque Central Oregon city as a new entrepreneurial hub.
With a sports rack adorning his Toyota Prius, Vendetti — the founding partner of Bend-based Seven Peaks Ventures — notes a new technology co-working space under development.
He then passes a 10-acre patch of scrub brush and rock outcroppings on the west side of town — the future home of Oregon State University—Cascades. The site is perhaps the most important development in Bend — a location that eventually will house the only 4-year undergraduate university in Central Oregon.
The goal? Enroll 3,000 to 5,000 students on the new campus by 2025 — an ambitious undertaking to say the least, but one whose momentum does not appear to be stopping now.
Most importantly to Vendetti, the new campus will house a computer science department, with professor Marc Rubin recently tapped to lead the charge.
Bend is beautiful, attracting outdoorsy folks who love the mountains and rivers. It also attracts entrepreneurs in droves.
But one of the big things holding back Bend — a playground of the rich which has attracted multitudes of techies from Seattle and San Francisco over the years, not to mention a growing cadre of startups — is the lack of technical talent.
That’s something I hear repeatedly on my travels here this week, where I am attending the 11th annual Bend Venture Conference. There just aren’t enough engineers — at least not yet. KardioFit founder Jim Miller, the former CEO of Seattle-based ReFlex Communications, relocated to Bend with his family two years ago. But he decided to keep his engineering team in Seattle.
LeadMethod CEO Justin Johnson, who also recently relocated to Bend, is contemplating an engineering office in Seattle for his marketing software upstart.
While software engineers are tough to find in Bend — as they are in most places across the globe— serial entrepreneurs, senior tech leaders and high-net worth techies who’ve already made it are about as common as winter snow on Mt. Bachelor. Vendetti estimates that there are more than 40 emerging software companies in Bend, not to mention a growing group of biomedical and aerospace/drone startups. And don’t forget the craft brewery business, with Bend home to more than two dozen up-and-coming beer makers such as 10 Barrel and Crux.
KardioFit’s Miller is just one of many entrepreneurs — largely from Seattle and San Francisco — who’ve chosen to plop down in Bend for family and lifestyle reasons. Sunshine, skiing and, of course, more microbreweries than just about anywhere on the planet keep this new crop of tech entrepreneurs firmly anchored in this old lumber town.
Why? There wasn’t anything else to do.
“People who moved to Bend in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they had to start a business to have a job,” said Vendetti. “There was no big company. There was no printer division for HP. There was no regional office for Microsoft. There was none of that.”
Because of the lack of a major employer, entrepreneurs started to feel right at home in Bend.
KardioFit’s Miller is one of those as he talks about trail running and mountain biking in the same sentences as building his new company.
As Miller sees it, Bend could be the next Boulder — the cool Colorado college town which has become a hotbed of startup talent, largely on the efforts of venture capitalist Brad Feld.
The Brad Feld of Bend
If there is a Brad Feld-like figure in Bend, it’s Dino Vendetti.
The former Silicon Valley and Seattle venture capitalist — he previously worked at Bay Ventures and Vulcan Ventures — is involved in nearly everything in Bend’s burgeoning startup community — from the new OSU campus to the Bend Venture Conference to the Founder’s Pad tech accelerator.
At a reception Thursday night held at the Broken Top lodge prior to the conference, a handful of attendees ask me: “Have you met Dino yet?”
Vendetti bought a home in Bend about 10 years, but he moved to the city permanently two years ago, part of a larger migration of technology professionals to Deschutes County.
“It’s frickin’ sunny here all of the time,” says Vendetti with a laugh. “You know that big yellow globe in the sky that we call the sun that we don’t often see in Seattle? I wake up to that everyday.”
The sun is one thing. But many wanted to simply drop out of the rat race (and escalating traffic jams and prices) of Seattle and San Francisco — choosing the high desert lifestyle in a town of about 80,000.
That migration — and money — uniquely positions Bend, says Vendetti.
“This is not just a short term phenomena. This is a trend,” says Vendetti when speaking of the rise of regional entrepreneurial hubs like Bend. “And I think it is a good one, because there is talent in a lot of different places. And you just see it happening around the world.”
Bend will not become the next Seattle or Silicon Valley, nor do the residents really want that. But it could be a regional hotspot, much like Boulder.
“I think Bend is unique unto itself in a lot of ways, but the closest analogy for people to think about is probably Boulder,” says Vendetti, who has consulted with Feld about building regional startup ecosystems. “But Boulder is different because it really is a bedroom community of Denver. And Boulder is much more geographically isolated.”
Its ‘Own Little Thing’
Bend, on the other hand, is a short hop flight to the Bay Area and Seattle, one of the reasons why tech executives at companies such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn have chosen Bend. Marketo Chief Marketing Officer Sanjay Dholakia makes the weekly commute to his company’s headquarters in the Bay Area, telling a local TV news crew recently that he gets to go on vacation every weekend when he returns to his home in Bend.
“For a lot of the talent that are in those major metros, we are very, very accessible,” says Vendetti. “You are not going to telecommute each week from Boulder to San Fran. You’d go crazy. The flight is too long, and it is just too much. It is very feasible (to commute from Bend), and that has allowed the talent to migrate in.”
On the flip side, Bend’s driving distance from any other major city — it is about three hours from Portland and seven hours from Seattle — makes the city “it’s only little thing,” says Vendetti.
That makes Bend a vibrant place right now, a place where it feels like an entrepreneurial ecosystem is really just taking root. The Bend Venture Conference, which is taking place today and attracting more than 400 angel investors and VCs from across the region, is a big part of that movement.
“It is a lot of fun,” says Vendetti. “it is a great time to be an entrepreneur. And I think it is a great time to be an entrepreneur in Oregon. I would say, it is probably a frustrating time to be an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.”
To that point, Vendetti cites a discussion he had recently with a Silicon Valley company which is considering relocating to Bend due to office space constraints. It is too early to say whether that company will arrive in Bend, but Vendetti certainly believes more entrepreneurs will relocate to the high desert in the coming months and years.
“It is still early. It is still reasonably embryonic in terms of the growth of the tech community here,” he says. “But today versus a year ago, versus five years ago — it is night and day. You can see it really growing.”