The “One Size Fits All” Model Doesn’t Apply To Startup Communities

Eugene, when it comes to its startup ecosystem, is often compared to other cities of similar size, as if population is the only thing that matters. For instance, it might be tempting to compare the Innovation Districts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the Innovation Districts that are being proposed for Eugene. Cambridge has a population of roughly 110,000, while Eugene has a population of 170,000. 

But, the crucial difference is that Cambridge is part of the much larger Boston metropolitan area. While there are many resources available for residents in Eugene, we don’t have as many resources as a much larger metropolitan area, such as Portland. That in itself is a challenge but is also an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Not only that, for a small city, Eugene’s economy is very diverse. Because there is a broad spectrum of resources here, there is potentially more work put on the entrepreneur to find resources that relate to their specific business idea. But at the same time, broad resources are available because the economy is so diverse. And, entrepreneurs here are likely to be able to interact closely with mentors who can provide them with a broad business overview rather than info focused on only one industry.

“We don’t have another two-plus million people out there at the edges of Eugene,” says Anne Fifield, Eugene’s economic strategies manager. “And, we don’t have a dominating industry anymore, we’ve diversified a lot since the timber industry days.”

The numbers back that up. In 2018 Lane County had 26,000 health care and social assistance jobs and more than 20,000 in retail. The third-largest industry is leisure and hospitality at 17,500, which has slightly more than public and private education (about 17,000). Food and beverage is also huge in Eugene, thanks to temperate weather and good soil which supports the production of more than 250 commodity crops. As of 2018, Lane County is home to 172 food and beverage manufacturing companies, which employ 4,078 people. 

“This shows in our startup world,” says Fifield, “because we don’t have a ton of people coming at entrepreneurship from one particular angle. I think it helps to make our economy more resilient because there’s not a single thing driving it. But it is a challenge at the startup level.” 

Resources here tend to be broad, rather than highly in-depth resources in one area. At the same time, says Fifield, it gives us a competitive advantage over other areas because there’s a low barrier to entry for just about any startup someone can think of.  

Raj Vable, founder of Young Mountain Tea Company LLC in Eugene, grew up on Lake Superior but moved to Eugene for graduate school. Vable started his sustainable tea company in 2013 after graduating from the Eugene Regional Accelerator business accelerator program. 

“I chose to develop my business in the Eugene-Springfield area specifically because I felt it was the type of community that would support impact-driven businesses,” he says. “And I think that largely has proven to be correct.”

Vable says there are also a lot of networking opportunities here, precisely because there is such a diversity of entrepreneurs. “I passed through the Eugene Regional Accelerator specifically because I was looking for some type of expertise to gain from myself, but I have also always believed in the power of mentorship. It’s the presence of both of those things, the programming and the mentorship, that is most valuable to a business in the long run.”

Vable says it’s important for entrepreneurs to connect all the resources that are available and to tie it together. In Eugene, long-standing resources in addition to Eugene Regional Accelerator are the SBDC and Fertilab, funding sources such as NEDCO, and Fertilab’s ID8 program. The Eugene Regional Accelerator can help do that. 

The latest economic data from Henry Field, Lane County’s workforce analyst with Oregon’s employment department, points to statistics showing an elevated number of new business establishments in Oregon. The most recent data on business starts from Oregon is from 2014, but it shows about 25,000 young businesses (under five years old) that year. Not only that, but nearly 80% of businesses survive their first year, which is up from about 70% in 2009. When you’re ready to get your business off the ground, working with a resource such as Eugene Regional Accelerator can help tick that number of surviving businesses even higher.