As one of the Portland tech scene’s major events unfolded Thursday night, it was pretty clear that something was missing.
That something was the presence of Portland native Sam Blackman, 41, co-founder of AWS Elemental, who died suddenly almost two weeks ago. Blackman was an entrepreneurial success story, co-founding the Elemental Technologies cloud video management startup and selling it to Amazon Web Services in 2015 in one of Portland’s biggest tech exits.
He was also one of the Rose City’s most prominent and tireless boosters, working hard to convince anyone within earshot that Portland was on the cusp of a breakthrough moment for its tech economy that would elevate it to levels enjoyed by San Francisco, New York, and Seattle.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about how you promote the region,” Blackman said in 2013, when GeekWire readers selected him Startup CEO of the Year. “The biggest challenge for all these cities is recruiting world-class tech people and marketeers and everything else. The awareness of Portland is starting to grow, but it’s still just a couple companies that get most of the headlines. My goal is to help the country recognize that it’s not just few companies getting recognition, but it’s 20 or 30.”
Blackman was on many people’s minds as they chatted with friends and strangers Thursday night at the Portland Tech Crawl, which brought hundreds of people to downtown Portland and the Pearl District on a late summer evening. A public memorial service for Blackman is scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, at the Portland Art Museum in the Kridell Ballroom. Continue reading for perspectives from some of those who knew and worked with Blackman, some of which come via the Technology Association of Oregon.
John Friess, Starve Ups: “Last week we lost of one of the greatest men I’ve ever known personally, easily one of the best leaders that this town has ever seen, and easily one of the best community and civic advocates we’ve ever met. Sam Blackman passed away suddenly, and ultimately, this town and this community will forever be at a loss without him. I don’t know what to say other than I think we should celebrate Sam’s life every day, and I think we should all try to be actually exactly like him. And I just want our hearts and thoughts and prayers to go out to his wife and his children and the community at large. So if we can, I’d like for us to clap our hands together and say thank you to Sam, and tonight, just have him in your thoughts. He really changed this community. Rest in peace, Sam.”
Sharing this photo of Sam Blackman cleaning up our neighborhood. He was always, always giving back to the community. A true leader. pic.twitter.com/feyuBtdn9Z
— Tom Gilman (@tomgilman) August 31, 2017
Jim Huston, Portland Seed Fund: Sam told this story a lot, but the first iteration of Elemental was as a chip startup. That’s when I first met Sam. It failed fast and hard. Sam liked to say that if they hadn’t failed so badly as a chip startup, they wouldn’t have gone on to do Elemental as a software company. And that stuck with him. Sometimes failing fast is the best thing.
Eric Rosenfeld, Oregon Angel Fund: On the afternoon of Sept 26, 2006, Sam Blackman, Jesse Rosenzweig, and Mike West sat down with Hugh Mackworth, Debi Coleman, Gordon Hoffman, Bob Ward, and me in the SmartForest conference room on SW 2nd and Oak. With a straight face, they said they wanted to raise $7M for a semiconductor startup. While they knew video transcoding and decoding as well as anyone, I’m sure I audibly choked on hearing the $7M figure.
Our feedback: we couldn’t be of much help. Most semiconductor startups at the time were burning through $20-$40M in investment before first revenue. Plus, for their solution to work they needed their chips to be embedded in both servers (on the broadcast or streaming side) and PCs and cell phones (on the viewing end). However, as we were exiting the room we mentioned that if they could come up with an all-software approach, we’d be interested. I was certain that was the last we’d see of them.
On Feb 15, 2007, Sam called. He wanted to talk. He was confident they could develop an all-software solution that could improve live and recorded video viewed over the Internet. He wanted to meet again, but this time with a new co-founder, Brian Lewis, another well-regarded video software engineer from Pixelworks.
The Oregon Angel Fund issued a term sheet to invest $205K in Elemental Technologies via a convertible note…conditioned on their ability to raise at least another $100K from others. They ended up raising over $1 million from others. During those early years, no one expected YouTube to become the 2nd most popular Internet destination, and no one could anticipate the success of the iPad, launched in 2010. Both drove market interest in Elemental and put unexpected wind in the startup’s sails.
When Sam called one evening during the summer of 2015 to discuss an acquisition offer from Amazon, he was more apologetic than giddy. He felt Elemental’s market was too small to support going public, a dream he often spoke of, and instead they really needed to merge with a larger company. He laughed when I said, “How often do you get to sell something TO Amazon?”
Sam is a hero and inspiration for those of us who were fortunate to collaborate with him. He was tireless, fearless, selfless. He’ll be remembered not just for growing a world-class, industry-changing tech company in Oregon, but also for his kindness, integrity, and values. He represented the best of our community. We’ll miss him dearly.
— Jake Harris (@jakeondemand) August 31, 2017
Monica Enand, Zapproved: I met Sam in the early days of Elemental when I worked with them while I was getting ready to start Zapproved. Sam knew I wanted to start something on my own so he was always generous with advice and perspective. He taught me how truly hard early stage startups are. So many CEOs try to act like it is so easy and that makes you wonder if you are doing something wrong or if you aren’t going to make it when you run into hard times. Sam was the first CEO I met who was honest and truthful about all the setbacks and difficulties. Watching his journey and success was a big part of what kept me going at Zapproved.
I once set up a meeting for Elemental with Microsoft, and I went with Sam to the meeting. I was naive and nervous that the meeting might not go anywhere (now, older and wiser, I know that lots of these meetings don’t go anywhere). Sam immediately put my mind at ease, saying “Monica, if you only knew how many meetings I have had that don’t end up working out”. Indeed, the meeting didn’t go anywhere, but Sam was truly high-class about it.
Sam was a trailblazer and led by example. Sam was also genuine and caring. He genuinely wanted to listen and understand people. He cared for our community and wanted to see others succeed.
Sam always (insisted) that Oregon is a great place to build software companies. That legacy will live on through all the people who Sam motivated and inspired.
— Emily Barrett (@emmyPDX) September 1, 2017
Kami Toufar, Blu Print PR: Blu Print PR launched in 2012 with two clients, Planar Systems and Elemental Technologies. There is something very special about one’s first ‘official’ client. Those are the clients who are willing to take a chance on you before you even have your street cred. Having the opportunity to work with Sam and the Elemental marketing team remains one of the most valuable learning experiences of my career. Sam’s admiration for Portland and the local businesses that support this community was, and will always remain, inspiring to so many. Myself included.
If anyone would like to contribute to Sam’s memory, an Elemental representative suggested the following:
Under Sam’s lead, AWS Elemental was very focused on community engagement. The Blackman family has asked that donations be made in lieu of flowers to three places. These organizations cover the areas he was most focused on giving back – hunger, the environment, education.