BuiltOregon

Author - Andrew Bolsinger

Learning through fun and games

There’s no shortage of things one could say about Jeff Tunnell, founder, creative director and managing partner of Spotkin, a Eugene-based startup focused on educational game development. He is a successful entrepreneur, founder of tech-based startups, electronic game pioneer and an educational game visionary whose goal now is nothing less than to “change the world.”

But perhaps few things say as much about Tunnell as this: Those who know him don’t doubt he can accomplish exactly what he says.

“I know a lot of serial entrepreneurs with high batting averages, but none like Jeff Tunnell,” says Brett Seyler, founder of Americana Game Studio, based in San Francisco. “To have achieved this in the insanely dynamic and challenging field of video games is still more astounding. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s ever done it.”

After three decades in the electronic gaming industry, Tunnell launched Spotkin in 2011. The goal, according to Tunnell, is ambitious, to say the least.

“We are four or five guys in an office who think we can change the world,” he says, “and we are absolutely going to do it.”

Old School success

Tunnell is one of the few people who can make such ambitious claims and remain credible, largely because of a proven track record of success that dates back to the groundbreaking games of the 1980s.

“There’s a book that was published a few years ago called Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good by a Silicon Valley journalist covering startups,” Seyler says. “The title of this … is a kind of general sentiment I hear repeated in conversations down here. In Jeff’s case, it’s something like ‘Three Times, You’re Michael Jordan.’”

Tunnell founded and attained successful exits for Dynamix, GarageGames, and Pushbutton Labs.

“He has an incredible amount of energy, drive, and vision,” says Tunnell’s first business partner, Damon Slye, who teamed with Tunnell in Eugene in the 1980s to launch Dynamix. “In the early days we always felt we were the underdogs trying to catch up to some of the larger studios.”

It didn’t take long for the pair to learn they could not only compete but lead the way. Slye recalls a time when a Dynamix flight simulator went head-to-head with a major gaming company.

“We were concerned their product would crush ours in the market,” Slye says. “Despite the competition, Red Baron became a huge success both financially and critically. That’s when I realized we were now market leaders.”

Sierra On-Line bought out Dynamix in 1989. Tunnell stayed on for the next ten years and helped release a string of notable success like Trophy Bass and Pinball, he says.

The Incredible Machine

In 1993 Dynamix released one of the better educational games ever produced, according to various game websites and reviewers, called The Incredible Machine.

The Incredible Machine“By accident we made one of the most educational games of all time,” Tunnell says.

The game used similar visuals and audio to virtuosos of that era like Donkey Kong, but it was educationally focused. Tunnell and team based the game on simple notions of physics with logic that could be proven and replicated. Its appeal also tapped into the intrinsic interest many have in solving puzzles with logic.

The magazine Computer Gaming World called The Incredible Machine “one of the most innovative and deceptively addicting products to pass this way in quite a while … a well-oiled imagination machine with a very broad appeal.”

Its appeal stood the test of time. A recent YouTube review channel called “Lazy Game Reviews” likened The Incredible Machine to the famous game Tetris, calling it “timeless. They just got it right the first time.”

Democratizing tech

Eventually Tunnell and some engineers from Sierra broke away and founded their own company called Garage Games, which had its own unique educational component. The company built games that helped others make games.

Garage Games“Our whole mission was to democratize technology,” Tunnell says. “We built up a huge community. I was trying to stand up for the Indies and telling them what I think they can do.”

Seyler, who was studying at the University of Oregon before starting to work at Garage Games, says the company’s “frugal, yet still hyper-competitive culture, combined with world-class engineering talent, gave the company ample runway to tackle very difficult problems in game development and support a community of hundreds of thousands attempting to make games in their own right.”

He credits Tunnell with creating the culture that allowed others like himself to thrive, including hiring a twenty-something intern, Seyler’s college friend Josh Williams, as the eventual CEO. Williams had already experienced entrepreneurial success, but Seyler credits Tunnell’s mentorship and faith for helping Williams thrive and, as a result, helping them all become incredibly successful.

“I don’t know very many people Jeff’s age who would have handed over the reins of his company to a kid in his mid-20s who just happened to be incredibly hard working and brilliant,” Seyler says.

Making the greatest hit greater

After the successful sale, Tunnell launched Push Button Labs, which became another successful startup, eventually being bought out by Disney.

Orc from Mighty KnightsNext came Spotkin with its ambitious goals and its focus where Tunnell began: educational games like The Incredible Machine.

“It was the game I worked on that I liked the most,” Tunnell says.

Contraption Maker, the first product on the technology platform that Spotkin has built over the past three years, is also the “spiritual successor” to The Incredible Machine, according to Tunnell.

Spotkin’s games, Tunnell says, are first and foremost good games. They aren’t built by researchers and educators but by people who know how to make entertaining games. He admits he can’t yet pinpoint exactly why a game can make such an impact on child. He just knows it does, just as it did with The Incredible Machine.

“What if we build a thousand games likes that? I honestly think what we are working on…” he pauses to collect his thought, “it’s basically… it’s huge.”

An open playbook

Despite the lofty ambition Tunnell is forever pragmatic, having seen every twist in this rapidly evolving market. Indie programmers, like indie movie makers and singers and other artists of various ilk are in fashion these days. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. In fact, it’s harder because the competition is far broader.

“So many people want to be involved in this,” Tunnell says, “But this is a really, really hard business.”

Contraption MakerSeemingly always combining education with business, Tunnell blogs about his successes and failures with equal openness. He has posted several changes they’ve made at Spotkin as well as missteps so that others can learn from his mistakes. One example is Spotkin’s shift from making mobile apps to software development for the personal computer.

“There are a million and a half games in the app stores,” he says. “It’s just too hard to get noticed. So we decided to come back to PC and prove our product works.”

He blogged about these changes, carefully chronically his struggles, including a detailed description of his failed plan to take a game called QuickShooter and dominate the app store market. His blunt assessment of their struggles make for compelling business reading.

Eugene’s stature

In large part because of the influence of Tunnell and Slye and others who worked with them over the years, Eugene has emerged as a pocket of excellence for game makers, a virtual remote location of the Silicon Valley if you will.

Tunnell, Slye, Seyler, Garage Games’ CEO Williams and others connected to the businesses were Oregon residents. When they became successful many simply didn’t want to leave. Soon they were attracting hundreds of others with similar interests to the city.

“There are 200 to 300 professional game developers in Eugene now,” Slye says. “It’s the largest game development community between Seattle and San Francisco. Eugene is more affordable than the Silicon Valley, and is a better place to raise a family. People who are here are here to stay.”

One downside is the lack of funding in Oregon compared to the wealth in the Silicon Valley, which leaves many of the startups looking out of state for capital, Slye, who is president of another startup MadOtter Games, says.

“I’d like to see this change,” he says, adding that there are numerous opportunities with great products and potential for investors. “We’re looking for some now.”

Educational games can thrive

Tunnell says two factors ensure Spotkin will succeed. First, educational games have incredible power when done properly. Second, because they aren’t often done properly, the opportunity to succeed in this billion-dollar industry remains untapped. Monetizing the investment remains a crucial part of Tunnell’s plan at Spotkin.

A bigger problem is the educational system in general, Tunnell says.

“We spend trillions a year in education, and name someone who thinks it is working?”

Spotkin has developed a technology platform that makes what Tunnell calls “smart games for kids.” The opportunity is “huge,” Tunnell says more than once. Rapid advances in technology like new software, apps and mobile devices all open possibility for new educational games. All of which circles back to Tunnell’s simple, yet lofty plan to forever shape the educational gaming market and how we approach education in this country.

“We don’t need to make billions of dollars, we don’t need to be the types of guys who I think are strangling education these days. We don’t have to be greedy. We can change things and still make a good living. A small number of people can change the world and change the way things are happening. We can do it.”

For more information, visit http://spotkin.com/, follow Spotkin on Twitter, or like Spotkin on Facebook.

Swimming in business, sustainably

As the daughter of an Oregon fisherman, Laura Anderson spent enough time on boats to learn and respect those who make their living at sea. She also learned such a life wasn’t for her. But a few years traveling the globe—first in the Peace Corps and then working as bookkeeper in Vietnam—conspired to reconnect her future ambitions with her salty past. She eventually returned to Newport, Oregon to earn her living from the riches of the Pacific Ocean, much like her father did.

“Dungeness crab, king salmon, fish prized around the globe and it’s all right here in Newport,” Anderson, 44, says. “Some of the most valuable natural capital of the world – in both quality and quantity – is right here outside our doors.”

Good catch, bad pay

Anderson never shirked from a challenge of succeeding in two industries—restaurants and fishing—that are like the aftermath of great battles, littered with carcasses of those seeking success.

BoatsFormer business partner Al Pazar says when Anderson approached him about a fish market/restaurant across from the marina that would pay for the catch directly, she caught him on the right day. He had just come in with a pristine load of salmon only to find the price paid to him less than half of what a catch like that should warrant.

“I was pissed,” he says. “I just worked really hard and took care of them and got nothing for them.”

He said yes on the spot. Anderson originally was going to work for Pazar. But her dad convinced her to ask to be a 50/50 partner in respect to her unique experience, education and role in operations. Local Ocean Seafoods was born.

“That was definitely the best advice I’ve ever been given in my life ever,” Anderson says. “That was game changing. I would never had the gumption to ask to be a partner.”

An effective supply chain

Pazar helped recruit other fishermen to provide the stock. For fishermen like Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, the match was ideal. As he grew older he no longer wanted to spend weeks at sea, he says.

“I was looking for something I could fish for a few hours,” he says. “I thought they’d never take all the fish I could catch. Well, I ate my words.”

Another vital piece fell into place when local fish buyer Amber Morris came aboard as the designated “fish goddess.” Her local knowledge and exacting standards helped build the company’s reputation, says Anderson. Thompson agrees, crediting Morris as a vital tie between Local Ocean and the fishermen on the docks.

“She knows who to get and where the best fish are,” Thompson says. “They make sure that I can still sell my fish. It’s a give and take.”

Making sustainable and local profitable

Instead of braving rough sea, Anderson braved a battered economy to forge a thriving seafood restaurant and fish market that has become the state’s standard bearer for locally caught seafood and sustainable fishing practices. Local Ocean is built on Anderson’s own deep roots and the state’s longstanding fishing economy.

“I’m a believer in what she’s done and the model they have there,” says Thompson.

Laura Anderson of Local Ocean SeafoodsHe’s not alone. Pazar credits Anderson’s resolve for the company’s success.

“The reason why Laura was a perfect partner is that she has no fear,” Pazar says. “With that kind of confidence you can’t fail.”

The company combined Anderson’s various interests and experiences with Pazar’s connections to the fishing community. Pazar, a fisherman by trade, is also a successful entrepreneur. The partnership was one of shared philosophy and a strong sense of place.

“That’s kind of the allure of the place,” Pazar says. “It’s a nice blend. You look at the fish while you are waiting for the table. You can take fish home and you can look out and see the boats that caught it. You can roll down the windows on a nice day and feel like a part of the bay front.”

A seafood experience

Anderson agrees, saying the entire experience from sustainable catch, fair wages to fishermen, to sound business practices that benefit the local economy all add up to the unique success of Local Ocean.

Seafood“The vision really has not changed in the ten years we’ve been in business. We give them the best seafood experience they’ve ever had in their life. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear our exact mission statement come out of people’s mouths,” she says.

Though the original idea was a fish market with small deli attached, it quickly reversed into a restaurant with a fish market attached. Interest in sustainable catch helped the company thrive.

“I had no idea when we started this how successful it would be. We’ve exceeded those projections of 10 years ago 20 times over by now,” Anderson says. “They say in business things don’t work out how you plan, and in this case that’s a good thing.”

Pazar says the business still stands for his philosophy that ensures the highest quality. He calls it a “vertical integration” that in effect tells the story of a given fish that’s sold and eaten.

“If you have chain of custody from the minute it’s caught until it’s on a guy’s plate, you are solely responsible for that quality,” Pazar says.

The fisherman have bought into the story as well, he says.

“People are very proud to have their name on a tag on the fish in the case. It’s a big deal. People take pictures of it and it speaks to value, quality and sustainability.”

Ready to scale?

Anderson bought out Pazar a few years back, which Pazar says went reasonably well for a profitable business both felt so passionate about.

“We had an exit strategy built in. We’re both reasonable people. It went well. It was tough letting it go, but I’m still very attached to things I built and that promote my philosophy of seafood and marketing. I know it’s in good hands. It’s a pretty good gig,” he says.

So good that the question is often asked: is this lightning in a bottle or is it ready to scale? It’s a question Anderson herself can’t answer, at least not yet.

“There are no shortages of requests for us to replicate this,” she says. “My gut sense is we have this serendipitous thing here. Local Ocean Portland, for example, may not have the same feel, that kind of terroir that makes this work so well.”

Fishing economy done right

Anyone connected to Local Ocean is connected to the local economy and the greater issues of sustainability. As fishing is threatened around the globe, they say Oregon has set an example for fishing done right.

Boat“What Oregon does better than anybody else is to try to have sustainable fisheries,” Thompson says. “I think it’s up to 95 percent of the fish in the state of Oregon is certified sustainable. That’s a big accomplishment.”

Anderson is as much a part of the advocacy for sustainability as she is a business owner (“I like to think I’m a voice of reason, not an activist,” she says). Her platform adds to consumer knowledge. She is so integrated into the entire ecosystem she never considered cutting corners, she said.

“For me its inherent in who I am, and it comes no doubt from my legacy of fishing with my family. I feel this almost over-arching protectionism toward the industry,” Anderson says.

Part of improving that distribution chain, Thompson says, is changing laws, improving the supply chain and continuing education of fishing practices. All of it has to work together for both sustainability and profitability.

“There’s a big challenge in the state of Oregon,” Thompson says.

So much so that in coming years, Anderson would like to be involved in the ongoing issue of improving delivery of the riches of the Pacific Ocean to inland markets.

“My next step is making that link between valley and coast. Distribution hubs and microprocessing,” Anderson says. “There’s a big disconnect in distribution for the small guy. That’s where I see myself. Is it related to Local Ocean? Yes. But is it the heart of our business? No.”

It seems a safe bet that one way or another Local Ocean and Laura Anderson will be involved in the challenge.

For more information, visit http://www.localocean.net/, follow Local Ocean on Twitter, or like Local Ocean on Facebook.

The heart of Dutch Bros. success

When you are selling love there is no limit to what you can expect to accomplish. Selling amazing coffee doesn’t hurt, either.

But perhaps it’s that love that explains the optimism and enthusiasm of Dutch Bros. co-founder Travis Boersma.

“We are uniquely different,” Boersma says. “The mindset of our service is ‘quality.’ And the product is ‘love.’ Love is the product. I don’t know any other company that love is their product.”

He’s got a point, and yet speaking to a guy who built a coffee cart into a $150 million dollar coffee empire, one quickly realizes he is anything but esoteric. He’s serious and enthusiastic—and more importantly, successful. The man sells love and has made millions doing it. Can’t argue with that.

Coffee talk… or not

I expected to talk to Boersma about coffee. Lots and lots of coffee sold in hundreds of franchises throughout seven states all from a hub in little known Grants Pass, Oregon. Still, I can’t help but drill down just a bit on this love thing.

Boersma is happy to provide specifics.

Travis Boersma“What is love, right?” he says. “To me it’s really just demonstrating your heart for the cause. That’s what our people achieve in so many different ways.”

The product of love, he says, is given when a dog bone is ready for the pooch that’s a regular customer just like the human driving the car. Or when the haggard mom who is always running a bit late drives to the window and the Not So Hot Chocolate is already being made for the kids in the backseat.

“It may just be a quick pit-stop, and the customers are in a hurry,” Boersma says. “But it’s a magical experience that can be a positive aspect of their entire day.”

That’s love, Boersma says, and few things make him so happy as to see the mission exemplified by his employees.

Dutch Bros. Creative Director Dan Buck says this focus is far more than just a slogan. It is the measuring stick for everything an employee does.

“Our philosophy, at its core, is just love our customers. And you are empowered to do whatever you have to do to do that,” he says.

Buck says he sees it play out every day, especially when employees try to “play a role” they think the company expects.

“People have a B.S. meter,” Buck says. “We work tirelessly to coach our people up or move them out. We try to truly love each other. We repeat that over and over again. Talk about it, practice it, coach it, train it, preach it, and teach it. We mean it when we say it.”

Few things thrill Boersma more than when he sees that effort filter through his company.

“One of our new managers had a meeting with his crew and said ‘Two things are most important to me: Love on the customers and love each other as a crew,’” Boersma recalls. “That’s all that needs to be said. That was the message. Everything else then falls into place with the recipes and prices and black and white realities we are conditioned to in the business world.”

Born of caffeine

At 21 years old, Boersma was just kicking around the idea of a career about the same time a grunge band from Seattle launched a whole new genre of music. Boersma didn’t know it, but his Nirvana came in the form of cataclysmic change in the local economy that had sustained his family for three generations.

Roasting“Back in the day, before we got into coffee, my family was third-generation dairy farmers,” he says. “My brother and I were in a place that we had to adapt to a change. That meant selling the cows and doing something different. What seemed devastating at the time was a blessing. The objective is to find the seedling of the equivalent advantage and realize it’s an opportunity.”

The opportunity was that coffee cart. The brothers wanted to be near the main shopping center but ended up downtown. It worked. And the original store that came out of it remains in business to this day.

Boersma credits those early years with his brother Dane, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2009, and his parents with building the foundation for Dutch Bros.

“Mom and Dad demonstrated love regularly,” he says.

His brother, who Boersma still refers to as “the wise man,” mentored him through the business expansion, leading by example.

“He was my brother and business partner and he was my best friend,” Boersma says of Dane. “He exemplified it. He didn’t just preach it. He walked it.”

Growing the love

Together they set a course for expansion that would honor first Dutch Bros.—affectionately called DB by everyone in the company including the founder—core product of love. They are far more than talking points but a real culture, Boersma insists, for himself, the franchise owners, the corporate staff and the barista’s themselves.

Bags of beans“Culture is never-ending journey and a focus of never arriving,” he says. “The customer experience is everything. The employees and people involved in every area of the business are responsible for providing that experience. The coffee is the product they come for, but they come back for the people—the interactions and the feeling. Generally it’s a day-in and day-out experience.”

But for Buck and others in DB, the culture starts with Boersma.

“Whatever you see with Trav is whatever you get,” Buck says. “He happens to be one of my favorite people because he tells you what it is and tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t spin it.”

Observing and borrowing

Boersma points out that he and his brother didn’t reinvent the wheel of a company culture with an emphasis on the customer experience. He adopted models of success that preceded them, including In-N-Out Burger and Les Schwab Tires, among others.

When Les Schwab died in 2007, former Oregon business owner and retired management consultant Joe Sherlock wrote a blog post that captured this unique approach to business.

“How did this remarkable success happen? Les Schwab formulated an ironclad policy that ‘the customer rules’ and built a culture within every employee and every store which embraced this philosophy… The company actually does what every company ought to do,” Sherlock wrote.

Boersma had already long applied those same lessons to DB, much like he adopted In-N-Out’s culture of quality and service.

Business Week writer Stacy Perman wrote a book about the burger franchise’s success, including treating employees generously, keeping the menu simple and focusing on customer experience, all things central to DB operations.

The DB mission

As Perman wrote, In-N-Out burger’s unique focus on controlled expansion has protected the company’s brand and ensured that quality has not suffered. Expand slowly on your own terms with your own goals, she writes, which might as well be the playbook used by Boersma and the Dutch Bros. team.

Dutch Bros lidsBoersma is well aware that the coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest has started to take on across the country. Drive-thru coffee stands are not yet as ubiquitous as they are locally. Yet he refuses to lose the company culture.

“We probably could have sold 1,000 to 2,000 franchises and made a gazillion dollars that would have rode a wave that is typical today in America, but it likely would have crashed.”

It all goes back to mission, he says more than once. Each franchise is a part of the company’s long-term “compelling future” and also part of the same “compelling future” for the owner, the employees and the local community. All have to fit together or the mission is compromised.

“Ten years from now I see a healthy growth rate that is sustainable with our company that’s providing young people a chance to live their dream, inside of DB or outside of DB,” Boersma says.

This explains why the company only sells franchises to employees and protects the territories of its franchise owners. Buck says the company sold initial franchises to non-employees and the impact on culture was profound and immediate. They quickly adapted a policy of selling only to employees. Buck says every day from points all across the country offers to buy franchises come in.

“We just say, ‘with all due respect, no’” Buck says. “We are just not going to do that. We would just be another coffee company. Our culture is our top priority.”

“Fear has no seat at the table”

Having met most of the ambitions he and his brother first laid out back in the 1990s, Boersma does not lack for current challenges nor see significant changes up ahead. The business works, it fulfills his ambitions and his personal mission statement, which has a lot to do with those principals of integrity and character. Asked about threats to his business, he changes the word to change.

“Fear doesn’t get a vote at our table,” he says. “The objective is to adapt to change and be wired into what’s going on in the world, because the world is changing even faster than before. So we have to adapt to change. If you don’t adapt to change then that’s when you can get blindsided.”

Just as the changing world forced him off the dairy farm and into the business of selling love, he is ready for those challenges that will inevitably arise.

“Life happens,” he says.

While some would say he’s “made it,” it’s a flawed concept as far as he’s concerned.

“The most important thing that I don’t think a lot of people realize is a lot of people think if I can get to this point I’ll have it made,” he says. “We see it all around us. They get to that spot and that’s when they become complacent and that’s when they start to descend. They fall into this fallacy of ‘I made it and now I’m going to live this life on Easy Street.’ Easy Street is a lie. The reality is its constant never-ending improvement and we’re going to grow until we depart.”

That’s why the mission continues. He refers to it often and even at one point recites it verbatim without being prompted. It flows from his thoughts as a normal part of the day. “I Travis Boersma…” he begins. As it concludes it says as much about where Boersma has been as where he fully intends on continuing to go. “… defy the odds to be a force for God and a force for good. I hope to meet the man that I am someday when I die, not the man I could’ve been.”

I still didn’t get to talk about the coffee.

For more information, visit http://www.dutchbros.com/, follow Dutch Bros on Twitter, or like Dutch Bros on Facebook.

Craftsmanship meets impact

The old Quonset hut situated near the I-5 freeway has been a fixture for decades in this southern Oregon town, but the energy level and innovation taking place inside is entirely new.

The Quonset also represents a calculated gamble that not only can manufacturing re-energize this rural Oregon community with good jobs and high return on investment, but that the business within – Roguewood Furniture Company– can compete with venture capital dollars that are most often associated with 21st century technology rather than old-school product making.

Harmony in discord

But don’t tell Elizabeth Bauer this gamble isn’t prudent. Her whole business is built on taking discordant ideas like this one: scaleable investment in rural manufacturing, or like this one: sustainable forest products, and making them not only meaningful, but profitable and of high community value.

20141021_Roguewood_0162Bauer, 37, is the president and founder of Gilded Rogue, an Ashland, Ore. investment company that launched last year. It has since purchased three southern Oregon businesses, including Roguewood and its retro Quonset hut.

“This is a good company that just needed a little bit of love,” she says of Roguewood.

Bauer came out of the grocery industry where she worked as a CFO for massive company with 2,700 employees and annual sales of nearly half a billion dollars. She said her time in corporate finance taught her that many businesses are lacking the language to compete for investment dollars.

“I’d hear all the time,” she says. “There is nothing to invest in. I know it isn’t true but I realized they are speaking different languages.”

Which lead to those seemingly discordant terms being merged together in an old-school business model that can attract cutting-edge investment dollars.

Embracing rural Oregon

“There is a lot of angel money for startups, but not as much for ready-to-scale investment. That’s our sweet spot,” Bauer says. “We’re really about accelerating. We’re trying to get companies out of that first stage and into stage 2 or 3 expansion.”

Bauer said the mission is straightforward and simple. They are looking for companies within the rural Pacific Northwest that have potential sales growth and potential social impact.

Both, she insists, are critical.

“The impact is built into the costs, say, like the wood we use,” she says, because compromising local impact would dissolve the mission. Each company under the Gilded Rogue umbrella must be focused on “benefiting a social issue and making a difference in the world,” according the company’s website.

Building on what works

“The do-good stuff is more than a slogan in the daily operations of Roguewood. It translates in observable ways into the work place, just as when Quin Wilson, a Roguewood furniture designer, returned from a hunt for reclaimed wood. Wilson described the value of the large beams he brought back like trophies of his latest expedition.

20141008_20141007_Roguewood_0175-3I got this out of a saw mill they are tearing down in Klammath Falls,” he said.

He struggled to hold the massive beam—perhaps a 2×12 to an inexpert eye—on its end.

“See how tight that grain is. New timber today may have as much as 1/3 of an inch gap. But this is so much higher quality…” Wilson explained, then segued seamlessly into his plans for converting the beams into a new artisan table.

Wilson plans to smooth out the grain (“just a little, so it’s smooth, but still looks right”) and fill in some holes. On the spot he bought a significant amount of the wood on site and dragged plenty back in his truck.

“How much?” Bauer asked.

“$2.50 a square.”

“Very nice,” she said.

Wilson was also excited about a new wood he’s exploring as a potential product.

“I just found another type of wood I think we might want to take a look at. It is yew wood. It’s a salvage wood. It has a lot of potential,” he reported.

Bauer encouraged him to take a look. No micromanaging here. That freedom, Bauer says later is a big factor in Roguewood’s plan. Bauer, who is now serving as the company’s CEO, is building the business around the craftsmanship and quality that already existed. The employees will be the eventual owners, so autonomy now—with a guiding hand on the business side—is critical. Empowerment is a big part of the growth strategy.

“It’s like putting floaties on a company instead of tossing them into the deep end,” Bauer says.

Economic Rebound

Based on the early explosive growth under Bauer’s leadership, Roguewood won’t need the floaties for long. The word is out in the community as well. Former employees are returning, applications in hand.

“I shouldn’t have left,” one man says as he quickly dropped off his application.
Inside the Quonset hut energy and activity hums. Different sections are used for making different products. The smell of steel saws burning through hard wood mixes with the noise of machines in high gear. But the relaxed vibe of the work represents more high-school woodworking class than high-pressured manufacturing.

In October Roguewood hit $250,000 in sales and ramped up to 60 employees, up from $120,000 in sales and 17 employees back in July. November sales will hit $350,000, Bauer says.

“We just need to get them out the door,” she says of recent sales.

November will also be the first month of a new strategic partnership with Sawyer Paddles and Oars, which agreed to move its manufacturing into the Roguewood site. Employees will be able to cross-train in both furniture manufacturing and paddles, according to Sawyer President Peter Newport.

“I think Liz is an amazing leader,” Newport says.

The partnership fits with what industry experts say is the future of American manufacturing. John Bova, director, MTN Capital Partners LLC, told Industry Week streamlining is the future of American manufacturing.

“The types of decisions that needed to be made include streamlining of go to market, successful new product introductions from a strong pipeline and steady global business investment. Those will be key characteristics for manufacturers poised for higher growth levels,” Bova said.

Lead with sales

It’s all part of the process Bauer envisioned when she first focused on Roguewood.

“Sales came first,” Bauer says. “Then came the employees. Now we’re connecting all the dots,” said Mariam McVeigh, Roguewood’s director of sales. She shares that the arrival of Bauer and her team has infused the company with creative energy.

20141021_Roguewood_0472“It’s like my handcuffs came off,” she says. “The potential always has been there. We have the product and quality and we have the reputation. Now we have the possibility.”

McVeigh used her personal connection to an employer at the Wild River Brewing Company to land a new account. Shaun Hoback, manager of the brewing company, said he just signed a contract with Roguewood for new dining room tables and matching décor that includes old photos of the mills in town and new sustainable products made there including Sawyer paddles.

“Those paddles are gorgeous,” Hoback said. “We want to connect first and foremost with local companies. But the story behind the wood, the company, the industry here, all plays a part in why we want to do business with them.”

Bauer also brought in a team of professionals to help Roguewood organize its front office. One of those is Sam Leaber, systems administrator for Gilded Rogue, on loan to Roguewood.

“Companies don’t always know what they need until it all goes wrong,” he says.

By having Leaber available, Roguewood can improve its online presence without the added cost of a full-time IT guy. Bauer’s husband also pops in, helping out with any number of tasks as needed.

“The more we do this kind of stuff,” Bauer says, arms sweeping across the spartan office space, “the more they can do what they do best, building a great product.”

Significant impact

For all the business savvy, the mission remains impact-centered, much like Wilson’s hunt for reclaimed wood and Bauer’s determination to build a solid, permanent workforce. It also is evident in the exit strategy Bauer has in mind, which is to eventually sell the company to the employees themselves.

Because the company was undervalued and is now getting the lift it needed it should soon hit industry standards, Bauer says. That realized growth will allow the employees to buy her out. It means a company will sustain in the community that gave it life and will benefit that community long after Bauer is on to other projects.

20141023_roguewood_0240-2Bauer knows profits are critical. But unlike much of the venture capital world that is looking for the explosive dividends of tech companies that require 10 times the amount invested in returns, Bauer says the same return can be realized with a lower rate of growth with fewer failed investments.

“There are a lot of companies out there that don’t fit the 10x model,” Bauer says. “But we sort of put them together to outperform that model. We don’t have the eight in ten failure rate to absorb. It allows us to succeed.”

It also allows them to continue to make an impact, like donating money to the Ashland-based Lomakatsi non-profit that educates children about forest health. For every piece of furniture Roguewood sells, Lomakaski is given money to plant a tree, Bauer says.

Bauer says the company must excel and the impact must be reflected in the product, which “drives money into impact.”

She says the overall aim of the company is connecting the diverse artisan craftsmakers in the Pacific Northwest to the burgeoning market of clients across the globe.

“If we can do wood products right, in a sustainable way, here in Southern Oregon, in timber country, well that’s a great model for everyone,” Bauer says.

A model Bauer is willing to gamble on.

For more information, visit http://www.roguewood.com, follow Roguewood on Twitter, or like Roguewood on Facebook.

Fording the rapids of Oregon entrepreneurship

Peter Newport laughs. “I do chaos.”

In addition to the many roles he plays—from budding Gold Hill, Oregon, mayor to president of Sawyer Paddles and Oars—Chief Pot-Stirrer is also in Newport’s personal mix.

Newport is the former chief executive of Breedlove Guitar Company, a renowned custom instrument maker based out of Bend, Oregon. After selling the company in 2010, Newport moved to southern Oregon and bought Sawyer Paddles and Oars.

And it’s that fast-paced, 100-percent, year-over-year growth path that he helped generate at Breedlove that Newport wants to repeat with the similarly renowned custom paddle maker in Talent, Oregon.

But in the three years he’s been at Sawyer, the growth trajectory is slower than what Newport thrived on with Breedlove.

“We are growing Sawyer slower than we grew with Breedlove,” Newport said. “I’m engineered for 100 percent growth. I don’t have a whole lot of patience and it’s painfully slow. We’ll start ramping up our growth in the coming years.”

Nothing a little chaos can’t stir up

Tracking down the man known as “Crazy Pete” isn’t easy, especially in the middle of shifting manufacturing operations to Grants Pass, Oregon. in a partnership with custom furniture company Roguewood.

In fact, it seems wherever sawdust is flying and gorgeous wood products are crafted in Oregon, Newport can be found.

“He should be here later today,” Roguewood CEO Elizabeth Bauer says on a Monday afternoon. “Pete is just awesome. He’s a superstar.”

The next day at the Sawyer shop in Talent, Newport is again missing in action.

“He started real early this morning and I don’t expect him back anytime soon,” co-owner Zac Kauffman, says. “Things are a bit crazy around here right now.”

The company is making significant advancements, including the strategic partnership with Roguewood. It’s a partnership that has the two companies combining equipment and employees in the same facility — a temporarily chaotic move that will likely create an even higher level of product quality and consistency.
“Our peak seasons are opposite. It’s going to be beautiful. It will allow us to keep a steady workforce year round. We’re hoping if we cross-train on furniture and paddles and oars we can switch for whatever orders we need to get out the door,” Newport says.

Man in the middle

"Crazy Pete" Newport

“Crazy Pete” Newport

Any significant change will find Newport directly in the thick of it.

“Wherever the bottleneck is, that’s where I like to be,” Newport says a few days later, when he finally slows enough to talk.

In short, he wants more chaos because — for a die-hard kayaker turned entrepreneur who is now in the business of making fantastic paddles and oars – turbulence is not only expected but welcomed.
“I was taught how to communicate that type of chaos,” Newport says. “It leads to a fair amount of time in meetings but everybody’s on the same page.”

Finding a Niche. And another. And another.

Like many entrepreneurs, Newport spent a fair amount of time finding his own direction. His central Oregon upbringing weathered into him a love for the state, love for the extreme outdoor sports the region is known for, and love of music and love of adventure. All of these facets, in one way or another, have shaped Newport’s life trajectory.

The defining moment? When he took a kayaking class, “on a dare.”

“It totally changed my life,” Newport says, “The Bend and the Oregon boating scene is pretty advanced and I had a lot of great paddlers around me and fell head over heels into kayaking and that’s pretty much all I wanted to do.”

Newport navigated through Oregon colleges, including Southern Oregon University, University of Portland, and Portland State. By 1995, he wanted to try out for the 1996 Olympics in kayaking.

“It was a longshot,” he admits, “but I ended up breaking a bunch of ribs before I could even try out. But during that time I realized… wow, pretty much everything I was trying to do got shut off within a couple of weeks. I got kinda depressed.”

He followed his wife back to school—this time for an actual education—landing at Oregon State University.

“I was so sick of school and not knowing what I wanted to do,” he says. “But, when I went to OSU I ended up finishing pretty much near the top of my class in business.”

That led to a stint with Pepsi. Newport was working for the beverage company in marketing when Bend-area business leader Jim Schell sought him out. Schell, an entrepreneur and co-author of Small Business for Dummies (who still says on his Linkedin profile that “my favorite thing to do is to connect the dots,”) enticed Newport to consider working with a Bend- area company.

“He called me up and said, ‘Crazy Pete, have I got a perfect project for you.’” Newport recalls.
Soon Newport was the general manager of Breedlove Guitar, with a plan to earn more of the company each year moving forward.

“It was nightmare for three years,” Newport said. “Then we finally figured out how to grow it profitably.”

He also began slowly buying out investors. He became the chief executive and over the course of 11 years bought out most of the partners what he calls a “a great formula for budding entrepreneurs.”
Those wonderful, chaotic, 100-percent growth years soon followed and Breedlove Guitar Company became known as an industry leader. The company’s 500,000 annual sales hit $10 million and Newport sold it.
The experience helped craft Newport’s personal vision, combining his love for Oregon, its signature products and all the state has to offer in terms of lifestyle, recreation and environment.

“I really like niches where we can execute being number 1 or number 2 in quality, so we can dominate it,” Newport says.

The question that had once depressed Newport now enthralled him. What’s next? He wondered.

Method to the “madness”

Crazy Pete isn’t all that crazy when you get right down to it.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, he’s learned to combine his passions with past experiences to build success. But Newport kept the nickname given to him decades earlier while working at Pepsi.

“One day they called me the ‘Crazy Pete ‘and it just stuck. I thought it was kinda funny because I wasn’t really that crazy. But then I saw a definition for crazy as simply being open to another point of view,” says the perpetual pot stirrer. “It also gives me a lot of license.”

whitewaterJust as riding whitewater in a kayak, Newport keeps a fixed gaze on how best to navigate. He credits a book he read that said to be truly happy as an entrepreneur one must “design your dream customer,” Newport recalls.

“That was probably the most significant hit over the head I’ve had in forty years. I read that line and that changed everything. I was so excited to get a white board out and trying to fill it out,” he says.
That effort funneling down to a list of businesses where he could work with his dream customer. The list was short. One name long in fact. Sawyer Paddles and Oars in Talent.

“I used to work at Sawyer,” he said. “I wondered if they were still kicking.”

He sent an email to the company’s owner, Bruce Bergstrom. When he didn’t hear back immediately, he called. When he got an answering machine, he started driving to southern Oregon. On the way he called again and then again until at last Bergstrom picked up.

“I said, ’Hey, teach me how to run the company and I’ll help you retire.’ And it was kinda silent for a while then he said, ‘we’re gonna need some beer.’”

They met that day in May 2011 and penciled out a plan.

“Then we made it happen,” Newport says.

Playing in unison

The similarities between Breedlove Guitars and Sawyer Paddles and Oars are hard to miss, starting with the names: both remain branded by the vision of their respective owners who lived in Oregon and saw the opportunity to stunning craftsmanship into niche products of exceptional quality.

Both needed a healthy amount of Crazy Pete’s chaos to truly scale into a leader in their respective niche market.

“I love the initial quality,” he says of Sawyer but could equally be speaking of Breedlove. “We have dramatically improved the consistency and global excellence.”

To scale these niche manufacturing businesses takes more than pot stirring. Newport again is relying on his past experiences. At Breedlove the guitars were known for its innovative graduated top and bridge truss construction. At Sawyer the company has made innovations around some of their paddles that improves their competitive edge, Newport says. The company intersected with the rapid growing Stand Up Paddleboard markets through innovation becoming the first to create a tapered oval carbon fiber shaft. The tapering cuts the weight by 30 percent, Newport says, while the oval shaping makes it less fatiguing.

“The oval allows you to relax your grip so you don’t have to work so hard to aim it where you want it to go,” he says. “It’s probably the best racing paddle in the country right now.”

Shane Perrin, founder of SUP St. Louis, backs up Newport’s claim.

Perrin says he is considering changing his entire fleet over to the Storm Stand Up Paddle, which he describes as “ultra-tough.”

Equally important is a crucial factor often associated with Sawyer.

“Made in the USA,” Perrin says. “Says it all right there. I love that they are made there in Oregon.”
According to Sarah Layton, CEO of the Corporate Strategy Institute, Inc. , quality is spurring the comeback of American manufacturing.

“We conducted an informal survey of manufacturing CEOs, and the general consensus is that manufacturing will make a comeback in the US. The reason is partly because of perceived poor quality coming out of other countries, mostly China,” she forecasted.

Perrin is proof of that trend.

sawyer-oars“It’s been sad to watch companies that originated making their products here and then source through China so they can make more money,” Perrin says. “Almost always that product’s quality declines.”
Among the other moves Newport made to launch Sawyer’s growth curve was connecting directly to those like Perrin. To do that, he aggressively recruited Kauffman whose connection to the company goes back 30 years as an outfitter and guide trainer. Newport enticed Kauffman with the opportunity of ownership through sweat equity, a typically entrepreneurial move that has worked out as well as he could have imagined.

Like Perrin, Todd Freitag, owner of Grassy Knob Guide and Outfitters in Bandon, Oregon, knew Kauffman for several years. Sawyer sponsored Freitag’s steelhead tournament and Freitag serves as a regional ambassador. He speaks with intimate knowledge of his favorite product a square v-lamb top oar.

“It’s an absolute beautiful piece of wood,” Freitag says. “When I first saw them I couldn’t believe them. It’s almost like a piece of art. When you run those oars down the river you always attract attention.”
Freitag is quick to point his fellow river rats to Sawyer.

“There’s a lot of other great products in other states to, but let’s try to employ those craftsman who are local first. There’s tons of stuff in Oregon,” Freitag says.

New rivers to run

So the age old question of what to do with his life has become increasingly clear amid the chaos, Newport says. He wants to run a $100 million company in Oregon and has a typical turbulent way to meet his goal. It starts with becoming the mayor of Gold Hill, a town of 1,200 residents that sits on less than a square mile of land in Jackson County.

“I’m a die-hard Oregonian,” he says. “I think Gold Hill will be the coolest town in the world. Ten years from now it will be known as the best place in the world… it already has the best white water on the Rogue.”

The wannabe mayor is quick to list Gold Hill’s vision and virtues, from recreational marriages, a new parks plan, a 5,000-seat amphitheater that he hopes will rival the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.
“That’s where Sawyer as a brand belongs and it will become a $10 million company. Then all we need to do it cherry-pick ten other $10 million companies. As the mayor I’ll have reached my goal.”

Turbulent? Chaotic? Crazy? You bet. Doable? No doubt about it for Crazy Pete Newport. He’s seen it clearly and even drawn the whole thing up, a necessary first step for any entrepreneur with a dream, he insists.

“Anytime I start a project I take a poster board and draw a picture of the company in the future. I put it right next to my desk so anyone can see it,” he says. When we make a decision we ask, ‘does that get us closer to that picture or further away?’ It so easy to see when you have an image of what you’re going to become.”

For more information, visit http://www.paddlesandoars.com, follow Sawyer on Twitter, like Sawyer on Facebook, or follow Sawyer on Instagram.