Needing a change from a four-hour round-trip daily commute in California, Megan McDonald quit her job at Google and took some time off. But it wasn’t until she came to Bend for a user-experience workshop that she decided to give Bend a chance for her fresh start.
“You hear about these small pockets of tech throughout the United States, and it gives somebody like me hope that I don’t always have to live in a big city,” she said. “Big cities are great for certain things, and they’re great to get your career on the road. But I have always wanted to live in a small town and slow down a little bit.”
Bend has been dubbed an entrepreneurial hot spot, as well as a growing tech cluster. It’s received national attention for its ecosystem that includes a startup accelerator called FoundersPad and the largest angel conference in the Pacific Northwest, the Bend Venture Conference. Yet, McDonald, a user-experience designer, had never heard of Bend until several months ago.
“It had never crossed my radar,” she said. “Before Bend, I was thinking I would relocate to Las Vegas, maybe New Mexico or Colorado.”
Dino Vendetti, co-founder of FoundersPad and general partner of Seven Peaks Ventures, and Bruce Cleveland, general partner at Silicon Valley-based InterWest Partners, think a design academy for user experience — the way a customer interacts with a product — could put Bend on the map. They believe it could cultivate talent locally, make Bend a destination for technology professionals and help existing tech companies grow.
Other technology experts think having a more diverse employment landscape, one with midtier companies that have one to 10 high-tech jobs as a supporting element, could give tech professionals more employment options and reduce the risk factor of moving to a small town. However, most agree the tight local rental market is a major obstacle for importing talent and new tech businesses.
Preston Callicott, CEO of Bend-based Five Talent Software Inc., said he housed a software developer and his family for about a week while they searched for a home to rent in Bend.
Central Oregon is strong in information technology professionals who keep servers up on networks, marketing professionals and Web design freelancers but is lacking in professional software developers, he said, which is why he had to hire from outside the area.
“The problem is the skills mix,” he said. “We’re looking for well-trained, experienced software developers who can work as a team to deliver well-coded, maintainable, extensible websites, mobile apps, applications, et cetera.”
Bend lacks available software developers with a professional education and at least a year or two of development with a team under their belts, he said.
“We do receive a lot of resumes from local tech talent, but they often are self-taught freelancers who tend to have no team-based coding experience and write code which is hard for others to decipher, maintain or collaborate with,” he said.
Once the new Oregon State University-Cascades Campus is in place, he said, Bend will start to build a pool of available talent it can draw from without having to import from major metros such as Portland, Seattle and the Bay Area.
McDonald agreed having a user-experience design academy would give Bend an additional edge over other tech clusters.
“(User experience) is one of those things that has been evolving for years, quietly at first,” she said. “Of late, it’s been starting to get noticed by venture capitalists like Bruce who have become aware that (user experience) is extremely integral to developing a good product, a successful product.”
Cleveland said two experimental user-experience design workshops were held in Bend this spring to better understand what work would need to be done to create a local user-experience design academy.
“Having Meg McDonald located locally is a fantastic resource for us (Dino and me) because she has provided us with an ‘on the ground’ look at the difficulties as a high-tech (user-experience) designer currently residing full-time in Bend,” Cleveland wrote in an email.
McDonald said the lifestyle here is exactly what she was looking for. But she’s only been able to find a small amount of work from Bend companies, so she works remotely for customers outside the region.
“I realize that having 20 percent of my client base here and 80 percent of it from outside of Bend, from larger cities … that may be what it has to be for now, individually, for me to stay,” she said. “But I think as tech grows here, there’s a lot more potential.”
Another challenge she’s facing is connecting with the tech community and finding tech companies that can benefit from her skill set.
“I have heard that there’s about 40 tech companies (in Central Oregon), but I haven’t met them all,” she said. “I’ve met and know about five to 10. … That’s what I miss about San Francisco, the many opportunities you have to hear people speak, network with other professionals in the tech industry.”
To fill that need, the BendTECH facility is under construction on SW Emkay Drive. TechSpace Bend, an office that houses multiple businesses and individuals, and FoundersPad will both be located in the space.
The goal is to provide a place for events and collaborative workspace for technology-oriented companies, and an educational curriculum and activities that are relevant for technology professionals, said James Gentes, executive director of Tech Alliance of Central Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to helping tech companies get off the ground.
Thirteen out of 19 offices and seven out of 28 desks have already been rented out, he said, and the space isn’t expected to open until October.
Beyond the physical space, Gentes said he’s creating a website, bendtech.com, that will connect technology companies, entrepreneurs, mentors and technology professionals.
“There’s no one place where people can see who all is in the community and participating in it,” he said. “I think that people want visibility into the startup scene. There isn’t any one place where you can go to find that information. When people see that there’s a lot of that activity, it encourages more entrepreneurship and provides a resource where people can connect with like-minded people.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818,