At Employers Summit, tech CEO shares savings from low-car commuting

At Employers Summit, tech CEO shares savings from low-car commuting

Employers Bike Summit

Regence hosted the Portland
Employer’s Bike Summit.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

About 80 local business leaders and bike lovers packed the second annual Portland Employers Bike Summit Friday to swap advice and anecdotes exactly like Sam Blackman’s.

The awardwinning young tech CEO spoke at one of the afternoon’s panels to show how his company, the fast-growing digital video startup Elemental Technologies, saves money and attracts top-notch employees by putting low-car commuting at the heart of its workplace culture.

Even before Blackman and his two co-founders started paying themselves, they were renting a workspace with bike parking and showers and buying a TriMet pass for every Elemental employee.

Sam Blackman, CEO
Elemental Technologies
(Photo: Elemental
Technologies)

As Elemental has scored big contracts to provide streaming video services to companies like HBO Go, Major League Baseball, and ABC News, it’s needed to grow fast – from 18 local employees in 2008 to 90 this year. And of those 90, only 15 percent drive to work alone in their own car.

Another 49 percent ride transit to Elemental’s Broadway office, 15 percent bike, 11 percent walk, 8 percent carpool and two people (2 percent) use carshare vehicles.

In another world, Elemental could now be spending $235,000 a year on employee parking. Instead, its generous commute benefits cost a quarter of that:

A slide from Blackman’s presentation shows the savings.

“This year we’re going to double the employee count again,” Blackman said. “So all of a sudden we’d be looking at half a million dollars spent on parking if we were a conventional business.”

Elemental, which remains venture-backed and cost-cautious, has also used bike repair and maintenance seminars, internal prizes for participants in the Bike Commute Challenge and (starting next year) “Elemental Rental,” an internal bike share service that employees will be able to use for commutes and midday errands.

To be fair, Blackman’s numbers here don’t include the rental premium Elemental is paying for its downtown location, bike storage and showers. But the numbers also don’t include what Blackman described as the most important value proposition for Elemental: recruiting and retaining a happy,  healthy workforce.

Blackman said bike benefits are becoming essential to local tech companies as they scramble for talent.

“For our business, which is all about trying to recruit world-class engineers so we can compete effectively on a global stage, it’s a hugely powerful recruiting and retention tool,” Blackman said. “We have to move people from all over the country to Elemental because it’s hard to find engineers here in Portland, and the fact that we can show them this bike culture is very very valuable in their willingness to uproot their family and come to Portland.”

Tech startups in particular, Blackman added, “are having to build out very nice bike facilities to try and attract the kind of employees that they need to try and build their businesses fast.”

Friday’s bike summit, hosted and led by Regence Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Oregon, was also co-organized by the Lloyd Transportation Management Association, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and my own organization, Portland Afoot.

Regence spokeswoman Samantha Reese said Monday that the company, which sells health insurance plans to employers around the Portland region, wanted to host the event because of its commitment to environmental sustainability and “plain old healthy lifestyles.”

“We saw it as an important and necessary opportunity to share information about best practices with other employers,” Reese said. “When we’re all participating in that, then it’s a healthier community at large.”

— Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen will be contributing regularly to BikePortland for the next few weeks as we start working out more details of the collaboration announced earlier this month.

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