Leadership Spotlight: Elemental Technologies

In this month’s Leadership Spotlight, 1000 Friends caught up with Sam Blackman, CEO and co-founder of Elemental Technologies. As the leader of a top-notch tech firm in the Rose City, Blackman isn’t one to rest on his laurels. His passion for improving his community, city, and state is apparent in the initiatives he supports at Elemental. From volunteer hours to a Community Ambassador program, Blackman is a leader for positive change. In this Q&A, he talks about the ways Portland can embrace its Silicon Forest designation without incurring the issues that have crippled the Bay Area.

1000 Friends: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got the idea for Elemental Technologies.

Sam Blackman: I was born and raised here in Oregon. I grew up in Southeast Portland before moving to Lake Oswego in middle school. After college, I joined Pixelworks, a local video technology success story in the early 2000s, and in 2006, I co-founded Elemental with two other engineers from Pixelworks. Our time there taught us a great deal about video processing. In founding Elemental, our goal was to build technology that made it easy to deliver video to next generation video-capable devices over the Internet: mobile phones, tablets, smart televisions, etc. We raised our first round of capital and launched our first commercial products in 2008. Today, we employ approximately 215 people in more than 10 offices worldwide. The company’s spiritual heart is based in downtown Portland, with all of our product development, marketing, finance, and operations teams based here.

1KF: What does Elemental deliver video to these next-generation devices?

SB: Video—aka television—has traditionally been distributed via cable, satellite, or over-the-air broadcast to your living room. But as Internet capacity and mobile devices have improved, people are increasingly watching video on their tablets, computers, and mobile phones—enjoying the freedom to watch anytime and anywhere. Our software enables video content to be processed and streamed to these devices over any Internet connection as well as via legacy distribution networks. Good examples of the services we power that you might be familiar with are ESPN.com, HBO GO, and CNN Go.

1KF: Why did you opt to headquarter Elemental in Portland?

SB: I was born and raised here, and after spending time living and working in other places, I knew that Oregon provided a unique combination of world-class engineering talent and public policy investments that ensure a reasonable quality of life. Coincidence? I think not! Starting a business is a significant commitment. To compete in a very global business, we have to work extremely hard. Here in Portland, with a 15 minute bike commute, I can be an involved father and husband while doing my part to help build a world-class tech company.

1KF: You make it a priority to have your employees volunteer and learn about local issues. Why is this important?

SB: It’s an amazingly fortunate time to be in the technology industry, and given the ‘bubble’ our industry lives in relative to the rest of the economy, there is always a danger we could become removed from the overwhelming needs in our community. By sharing our wealth in the form of our time and energy with organizations and people in need, we can be present to the problems that require solving. I believe income inequality and climate change are the two most pressing challenges we face as a global community, and I hope that Elemental can play some miniscule role in addressing them. 

1KF: How do you see these issues impacting Elemental?

 SB: Relatively-speaking Portland does not have a large amount of wealth, but it is uniquely equipped to demonstrate leadership around initiatives that have the potential to slow down climate change. Elemental’s support for the Oregon Business Climate Declaration is one example of how we are leveraging our collective voice to advocate for the state and city to take even more of a leadership role around this issue.

1KF: Some people worry that tech companies will cause the cost of living in Portland to rise, a la the Bay Area, but you've said in the past that Portland is a great hub for startups. How do you think the Silicon Forest can avoid the problems that other places have encountered?

SB: We are fortunate because our city is fundamentally different than the Bay Area. The tech scene is remarkably collaborative – startup founders and CEOs lean on each other for advice and support. This is the Oregon way, and if we continue to consciously create a software community that works in partnership, we’ll be able to leverage that energy into support for public policies that promote affordable housing, public transit, and strong educational infrastructure that serves the entire region, rather than just those who live close-in.

1KF: We agree that there’s an opportunity to get the tech community interested in issues like affordable housing and displacement. What do you think is the best way to reach and empower people in the tech industry?

SB: Reaching the tech community where they work is eventually going to be a powerful tool, but given the relatively small size of most companies here, this needs to be a long-term effort. This is an industry of extremely long hours and serious devotion to the work. So, when elected officials, public agencies, non-profits, and civic organizations can come to them, it helps. This is also a very action-oriented culture, and people want to know how they can help, right now. They don’t want to just sign a petition or scratch it off a to-do list. We have volunteers who’ve been going to Free Geek or the Oregon Food Bank Garden or the same stretch of the Wildwood Trail for years. I think those types of activities are reasonably representative of the tech community’s current vision for getting involved.

1KF: How does Elemental engage the community?

SB: In multiple ways. First, our Community Investment program, established in 2010, has contributed thousands of employee volunteer hours to local nonprofits, with efforts centering on education, the environment, and hunger. Second, through our Community Ambassador Program, we have hosted events focused on educating the tech community on public issues. Examples include the 2012 Portland mayoral debate, a 2013 forum on the fluoride referendum, and a 2014 open primary ballot measure presentation. By bringing issues right to the office, we’re able to educate the team and others in the tech community, as well as provide thoughtful feedback directly to the organizations or officials representing us.

 1KF: Getting your employees to commute via alternate transportation has also been a priority. How did you get the staff on board with this initiative?

SB: From the founding of the company, we knew that we’d rely on public transit and bike lanes to attract world-class talent to the energetic heart of downtown Portland. Over the years, we’ve been able to expand these benefits—fully subsidized TriMet passes, two hours per month with car2go and ZipCar, and dry, secure bike parking—while still paying dramatically less than we would for a sufficient number of parking spaces. We do our best to walk the talk of cutting down on vehicle congestion and emissions with these benefits, while still providing options to our team, and it’s economically beneficial to the business as a delicious bonus!

1KF: In what other ways is Elemental a sustainability-focused company?

SB: In a variety of ways. When we were of sufficient scale to negotiate effectively in our most recent lease, we ensured that the build out for our current offices earned LEED Gold status. Elemental recently earned our City of Portland Sustainability at Work Gold certification – the highest level. Last fall, when we signed the Oregon Business Climate Declaration, we chose to give our signature some teeth by opting to purchase 30% of our power usage at our three Portland offices—two workspaces and a data center co-location facility—as renewable in the Blue Sky Program. Last year, we gave back 1,323 volunteer hours to the community, many to help make it a more sustainable city, and our goal for 2015 is to contribute at least 1,500 volunteer hours. The costs of these programs pay for themselves not only in terms of our reduced carbon footprint, but in the recruitment and retention benefits that result from the pride that our team takes in how Elemental chooses to conduct business.


If you haven't read last month's Leadership Spotlight on Organically Grown Company, read it here.