There's something that statistics just can't capture about the entrepreneurial spirit of a town. In some cities, the do-it-yourself business ethic may spring from a ruined economy. In others, small-business booms were carefully engineered by long-term government policies, or developed as a byproduct of rapid growth. Whatever the case, you'll know it when you step into an entrepreneurial city: There's an openness and energy that permeates the whole culture, an infectious enthusiasm throughout the small-business community, and a faith that any problem can be overcome through dedication and smart decisions. Here are 6 cities we think embody the entrepreneurial spirit—and some of the entrepreneurs that power them to greatness.
The Opportunity: Las Vegas
There may be no place hit harder by the mortgage meltdown than Sin City: After decades of breakneck growth, home prices have slumped 35 percent to 45 percent, unemployment is near 10 percent and the tourism industry is struggling to fill rooms. Those might be the best reasons to set up shop in Las Vegas. With commercial rents, cost of living and employee wages as low as they've ever been in modern memory, small businesses have a chance to do the cash-intensive phase of business development at discount rates. "The slowing economy has provided opportunities," says Kara Kelley, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. "Housing is more affordable than it has been in eight years. Smart business owners can take advantage of that." And when the economy does rev up? They'll be basking in the sunshine.
Pamela Jenkins, The Cupcakery
Cupcakes, it turns out, are recession-proof. Or at least the Kir Royale, Chocolate Peanut Butter and other gourmet flavors sold at Pamela Jenkins' The Cupcakery are. The New York transplant, who runs two Cupcakerys in Las Vegas and opened two more in Texas, is preparing to start up a fifth location near the high-traffic Vegas strip. "If you have a proven idea, the costs of opening a business right now are really inexpensive," she says. "Commercial real estate has tanked. Now is a hell of a time to get in on a good commercial location." But it's not just the cheap rent that makes Jenkins confident in expanding her business. "As an entrepreneur, Vegas is a great place to start a business," she says. "The community appreciates locals and they've supported me immensely. From what I've seen, Vegas is like a giant small town."
The Cooperator: Portland, Oregon
"Portland and Oregon are the only places I've seen where constituency groups that normally fight come together," says Gerry Langeler of Portland's OVP Venture Partners. "They've decided that the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network is the engine where entrepreneurs can go for guidance, training, networking and being introduced to venture capitalists. We just decided that the town is too small to have competing ventures." That kind of cooperation is a boon in a city that doesn't draw the type of capital investments found in Silicon Valley or Seattle. But Portland has made do with the great resources it does have, creating vibrant electronics, clean-tech, health sciences and apparel sectors, and one of the largest and most innovative open source software communities in the world. Plus, the quality of life—Portland is a perennial favorite on most livable and most sustainable cities lists—means a high retention rate for workers. There's only one downside: Portland may be too genial. "For good or ill, the collaborative mind-set tends to diffuse that killer instinct," says Langler. "We don't have too many people obsessed with dominating the world market."
Tarran Pitschka, Wicked Quick
The idea for Tarran Pitschka's clothing line came to him as he stood between two funny cars at the starting line of the Pomona Speedway. "It was pure exhilaration. There were 80,000 screaming fans, and the cars were so loud, I thought my teeth would rattle out of my head," he says. "That's when it hit me: I needed to make a clothing brand based on the human fascination with speed and fear." A few years later, his Wicked Quick clothing line is now available in Nordstrom, Metropark and select Harley Davidson dealers around the country, and has shown up on the backs of stars such as John Cusack. The former Nike and No Fear designer views Portland as a big part of that success. "This is one of the central spots in the world to draw on talent for the apparel business," Pitschka says. "There's so much more optimism and possibility here. There's no reason to be anywhere else." Wicked Quick, which employs 11 full-time employees and contract designers, has seen rapid growth: Pitschka predicts the American-made brand will reach $50 million in five years with the introduction of watches, sunglasses and a Wicked Quick energy drink. Part of that expansion, he hopes, will be financed by local angel groups that have heard his pitches. But even if his company hits it big, Pitschka doesn't anticipate bailing on his city. "There are so many creative people, I can get anything I want designed or made," he says. "Maybe it was chance, or maybe being here was meant to be."