Portland: 5 things you need to know before setting up shop in Weird Central

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Swift's director of strategic planning offers words to the wise about everything from beer to barking speakerphones

Portland is hip, happening and weird.  It hosts the popular annual Design Week, and lots of agencies, entrepreneurs and designers are setting up shop in Rose City because of its quirky allure. However, there are a few things you should know before touching down and p*ssing off the locals.

Embrace Portland’s work/life balance
On first entering the agency scene, you’ll be shocked to learn that the lights in lots of people’s offices automatically shut off at 6 p.m. Sure, you could turn them back on, and there’ll be nights when that’s needed, but it’s a nice gesture that speaks volumes about the atmosphere in which many of us work. Having now been in a few offices in Portland (PDX) I can attest to the fact that more often than not, people go home to eat dinner with their families instead of setting up shop with plastic forks at their desks. If you’re opening a business here, be cognizant that most offices don’t burn the midnight oil.

Know that making eye contact with strangers is OK
"Don’t speak to strangers," or so the old saying goes. As a now-Portlander, I request an addendum: "Don’t speak to strangers… unless you live in Portland."

People here are friendly, and it feels more like a big small town than a city of anonymous individuals cohabiting. It’s something that takes a while to get used to if you have actually lived in a larger city. For the first three years of my PDX life, I had difficulty being nice to people in the grocery store who wanted to tell me their whole life stories. Now, I have come to expect it. Strangers talk to one another here, and they make eye contact on the street because they want to greet you and say "hello." Why? Because Portlanders are genuinely happy. Embrace it. Don’t be surprised if people off the street walk into your office just to find out what your business is about.

It’s not all about the beer… but it kind of is
Craftsmanship rules the roost in Portland. Whether it’s beer (one of our nicknames is Beervana), coffee, woodworking, you name it. We are a city of weird makers. We have monthly celebrations of the arts here (first Thursday, last Thursday, first Friday, last Friday, if you turn up, feel free to claim a Wednesday!) and are dedicated to the makers within our city. Shops stay open longer, there are street fairs supporting local artisans, and galleries open their doors to the public until the wee hours of the morning. If you can make it by hand, we want to know about it and more often than not would prefer paying people who do so than giant conglomerates. Just check out the decor in Pacific Northwest (PNW) agencies and you’re sure to find items made by hand by the locals rather than furniture-store items ordered in bulk.

The creative scene in PDX is huge but so small (everyone knows everyone)
Due in part to the fact that we embrace creativity in all forms and because our city is small in comparison to others in the US, the agency talent here has grown over the past few years.

This is thanks in part to the big shops already here, including, W+K, Nike and Intel, who’ve hired talent from across the globe and shipped them into Rose City. Plus, our Californian neighbors seem to have gotten a little sick of the sunshine. Whatever the cause, you can thrive in the creative agency scene, whether you want to go full time or freelance. Big shops have opened satellites here, and small shops that grew up in the PNW are living on practically every corner. The Portland Ad Federation as well as Working Not Working are two local resources that offer major benefits to those within the field.

Pet allergies won’t work: Rip City (another of our nicknames) loves pets
I used to joke that the way you could measure the size of your apartment in a new city was by examining the size of people’s dogs. NYC has Chihuahuas. PDX has mastiffs. We embrace pups and want them with us all of the time, so we’ve created an atmosphere that allows furry friends to join us at restaurants, shops and even our offices. In fact, PDX is one of the hotbeds for bringing your four-legged friends to work. Having been in most agencies in the PNW, those that don’t allow dogs seem like they are posing.
Warning: you will hear barking on conference calls with Portland shops. Take it as a sign of love.

Agatha Asch is director of strategic planning with Swift.


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