Google Plans its Stride into Bend

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(Tom Beans, proprietor of downtown favorite Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe in Downtown Bend | Photo courtesy of Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe)

Google is known for going big: big ideas, big data and big revenues. But a new project, Stride, is starting small. Targeting Oregon’s small business community, Stride launched a Q & A social site in Portland last year and plans to hit Bend next.

Stride is a project of Area 120, an in-house accelerator and workshop where Google employees “test their big ideas and build products in an entrepreneurial environment,” according to press materials.

A test drive of Stride’s Portland effort found a loose collection of entrepreneurs asking short questions, usually followed by a few comments. For example, an electronics salesperson inquired, “What are ways to expand your business?” A clothing retailer replied, “Advertise and promote.” Another user posted, “What is the best way to always evolving your business” [sic]. Answered a childcare provider, “Promote it on social media.”

Fly fisherman, book lover and Bend resident Tom Beans became the proprietor of downtown favorite Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe five years ago. After giving Strive a try, he predicted he wouldn’t use the service once it rolls out in Bend.

“I’d prefer to talk to folks I already trust face-to-face when issues arise,” he told CBN. “I can’t see too many established businesses sharing their secret sauce or any kind of info that would give a similar business a leg up. That’s the sort of thing we all hold pretty close to the vest, given the competitive nature of things in Bend these days.”

Bend attracted Stride’s interest partly because it is a “vibrant city” with a reputation for a strong small business community. “There’s so many knowledgeable small businesses in Bend,” said Stride founder Jackie Bernhelm. In looking at where to roll out after Portland, she and her team asked, “Where can we really learn from small business owners?”

Stride CTO Ezra Gorman considers Bend “a really interesting example because it’s a city that has been growing for a while and externally has a reputation for being a hub for exploration of the natural environment.” Yet within the city, “there’s all kinds of thriving industry.”

Also, he observed, “Bend is kind of a regional hub.” At the time of the interview, Stride had no plans for outreach or offerings specific to Redmond, Sisters or other nearby communities. Still, Gorman said, “We want businesses from all the different cities in the area.”

The feel of Stride is similar to other social networking and self-regulating marketplace sites. Users log in, create profiles, click thumbs-up for “likes,” ask and answer questions. “The formatting seems a little weird and clunky considering it’s a Google product,” observed Beans, “but the functionality is all there.”

Bernhelm herself has posted some of the more in-depth answers we browsed on the site. She also started new topics that could generate both community discussion and research data (“Question of the day: How did you decide what type of business to start?”).

While Bernhelm’s presence on the site today is palpable, Stride has no plans to hire moderators or hosts in the long term — people to guide discussions, vet the accuracy of posted information, or provide business advice. Commissioning original content such as articles or how-to videos is not on the agenda, either.

“We rely on the community for moderation,” Bernhelm said. “If we were to make original content, it would be featuring small businesses on the site that had really incredible stories.”

If Stride isn’t the solution for local business owners like Tom Beans, where can they go for advice, information and networking? Beans is a fan of the Small Business Development Center at Central Oregon Community College. He is currently studying in COCC’s Small Business Management program.

“Can’t recommend it enough,” Beans said. “While the group encompasses a wide range of business types, we all deal with a lot of the same problems, and it’s valuable to hear different ways of approaching a problem outside of our own, industry-specific lens.”

Beans elaborated on Bend’s increasingly competitive environment. He described doing business in the city as feeling “more cutthroat” than it was just a few years ago.

“That word may be a little harsh,” he admitted. He rephrased it more positively: “The competitive bar is continually being raised.” He believes that’s not a bad thing from a customer perspective. “There are always businesses looking to move to or open in Bend,” Beans said, “so if you’re not continually on your game and always trying to improve, you won’t be around for long.”

Much of this pressure stems from widespread rent increases. Beans blames the influx of out-of-state, out-of-area money coming to Bend. Ironically, many newcomers are attracted to Central Oregon’s allegedly laid-back lifestyle, outdoor activities and what seems like cheap real estate compared to the Bay Area or Seattle.

Owning a business in Bend isn’t just about fulfilling a personal dream, supporting a chill lifestyle full of hikes and paddle-boarding. “If your business growth can’t keep pace with rising facility costs,” warns Beans, “there will always be someone with deeper pockets willing to take that prime Bend location and pay whatever they have to, to get it.”

A member of the Downtown Bend Business Association, he follows the DBBA’s occasional face-to-face meetings for addressing major issues, along with their ongoing Facebook discussions. Beans also participates in Facebook groups for booksellers around the country.

Central Oregon businesses share information and knowledge through Opportunity Knocks, Bend Young Professionals, Deschutes Public Library’s small business resources and each town’s Chamber of Commerce.

Co-working spaces anchor many remote workers and small entrepreneurs. The Wilds, a cozy space on Century Drive, brims with creative energy. BendTECH now offers two locations, and the inaccurately named Bend Creative Space brings co-working to the town of Tumalo. Upstarts include The Haven, The Collective NWX in Northwest Crossing and tiny JOBB in Sisters.

Nonprofit organization Scalehouse hosts an annual conference, Bend Design, that magnetizes the creative sector, stretching out into art, film, technology and problem-solving on major social issues. Oregon State University-Cascades offers coaching, co-working, workshops and more at its Co-Lab.

An important regional resource is EDCO, Economic Development for Central Oregon. Among its many activities, EDCO hosts networking and informational events such as the popular PubTalk in downtown Bend and the new SCEEN in Sisters. Gorman said that Stride has not reached out to EDCO.

Stride has no plans to open a physical office in Bend. “I’ve been in Portland for a little over 20 years,” said Gorman, whose engineering team is also based there. “Jackie is currently based out of San Francisco…We’re not going to have any full-time staff in Bend.” Stride has sent out postcards to some business owners in the area, and plans to “make sure we have a good presence in Bend.”

“It starts in Portland, then it’s in Oregon, learning from places like Bend,” Bernhelm said. “Then we scale it nationally.” Global is the ultimate goal, although Stride is currently operating without a revenue model.

Bernhelm seems well positioned to go global with a brand. She was vice president of venture capital firm Dragoneer, funding startups such as Airbnb. She previously “led product growth” at Kiva, the influential microfinance platform enabling investors to help people and small businesses around the world — starting at $25. She majored in Science, Technology and Society at Stanford, then earned her MBA from Harvard.

Coming from the high-pressure VC world, Bernhelm finds working for Area 120/Google to be “a different world… It’s weird for me to think in terms of impact.” She now considers her success criteria to be: “Do small businesses come to the site?” Once there, she hopes they will find “information and community.”

Gorman noted that small business owners create data on the platform now. “They’re expressing to each other what sort of topics” they are interested in. Stride and Google can learn from the questions asked, the answers provided and how much traffic each topic generates, among other possibilities. “The bulk of the data and information is stuff from the community, shared with the community,” said Gorman.

Data is a sore point for many people today. Small business owners often get drawn into technologies offered for free by “Big Data” companies, then find it hard to wade out of the vortex. Big Data has been blamed for manipulating elections, shuttering brick-and-mortar stores and facilitating predatory behavior against children.

“Yes, it’s funded by Google, but this is independent,” said Bernhelm of Stride. She said the company is not sharing personal information with their users across other Google products at this time. “I get your skepticism,” she said. “I had it too. I chose Area 120 because… I believe it’s the right direction.”

Bernhelm said she can’t speak to Google’s initiatives outside of Area 120. Plans for future uses of data generated by the Stride effort or revenue were not revealed in the interview. “We just want to have a positive impact in helping small business develop relationships with each other,” she said.

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