The San Francisco Bay area has Silicon Valley. New York City has Silicon Alley. The Midwest has Silicon Prairie.
Maine has, so far, lacked such a catchy moniker to elevate its technology scene in the eyes of others. But Dave Kerpen is on a one-person campaign to change that. His suggestion: Silicon Lobster.
OK, some Mainers may cringe, but Kerpen might be onto something. Kerpen doesn’t live in Portland, or anywhere in Maine for that matter, but he’s bullish on the city and believes it has a burgeoning tech scene that could explode, with the proper marketing. Portland is gaining a reputation, and Kerpen wants to be part of it.
He’s CEO of Likeable Local, a New York City-based social media tech company, but he’s chosen to locate the company’s development team in Portland and plans to grow it significantly over the next few years.
Likeable Local’s development team is currently six members strong, with two of those people hired in the past month or so. The team is housed in ThinkTank, the co-working space on Congress Street across from the Maine College of Art, but is “bursting at the seams,” says Hugh Morgenbesser, Likeable Local’s chief technology officer. The company, which builds websites and cloud-based software to help small business owners manage their presence on social media platforms like Facebook, expects to move into its own office space in Portland during the first quarter of next year.
Likeable Local has about 725 small businesses as customers, about 500 of whom are dentists. Kerpen worked with Edward Zuckerberg, a dentist and father of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to develop a vertical — Likeable Dentists — that has taken off. Edward Zuckerberg is also on Likeable Local’s advisory board.
“Our goal is to have Likeable businesses on every Main Street in every town,” Kerpen says. “While New York is a great city to be based in, it’s important to have an office in a real town and Portland is as indicative a town as any where real small businesses are fighting the hard fight each and every day.”
Other verticals have been launched, such as Likeable Nonprofits, Likeable Doctors, Likeable Dry-cleaners and Likeable Jewelers.
It is actually Morgenbesser who deserves the credit for Likeable Local’s presence in Portland. Morgenbesser, a childhood friend of Kerpen, was living in Portland and working as a senior engineer at TripAdvisor when Kerpen approached him about joining his startup. Morgenbesser was interested, but didn’t want to uproot his family, so said he’d take the job only if he could remain in Portland. After being assured that Portland had a talent pool big enough to build a team, Kerpen agreed.
Likeable Local planted roots in Portland in April 2013.
And Kerpen has been very pleasantly surprised by the level of talent Morgenbesser has been able to hire in Portland.
“I have absolutely no desire to build the development team anywhere but Portland,” Kerpen says.
Morgenbesser — who, for the record, isn’t sold on Kerpen’s Silicon Lobster tag — says he’s had no problems hiring talented computer engineers in Portland.
“There’s a lot of talented people here, but not a lot of well-known opportunities, so it’s a great opportunity for Likeable Local to take advantage of the imbalance between job seekers and employers,” he said.
Morgenbesser isn’t naive. If Kerpen’s grand plan of growing the Portland office to 100 employees in the next five years comes to fruition, Morgenbesser says hiring will become more challenging.
That challenge will be tempered by his ability to bring people in from out of state, something he’s been successful with on a small scale so far.
“I think a lot of people chose not to live here because of a perceived lack of opportunities,” Morgenbesser says. “There may be fewer opportunities here, but there are opportunities and we want to be one of them.”
Ben Wasser, 27, moved to Portland a bit more than a year ago with his wife to take a job with Likeable Local. He moved from Pittsburgh where he had recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a graduate degree in information security policy and management. He knew he wanted to work for a startup, but wasn’t attracted to the lifestyle of Silicon Valley. Portland, however, offers a “slower lifestyle” that was more his pace, he says.
The idea of Portland having a thriving tech scene is not far-fetched, Kerpen says. New York City didn’t have a thriving tech scene 10 years ago, he points out. Not until the city made a concerted effort to grow its technology sector did that happen.
Kerpen says he’d like to get the company more involved in the city’s tech scene by hosting events, offering paid internships and some day maybe even by incubating new startups.
“You got to start somewhere and we’re the ones who want to help build Silicon Lobster,” Kerpen says.