BuiltOregon

Category - Northwest

Forming a darned good business

Carrie Atkinson picks up a framed photo from her desk and gives a slight grimace before handing it over.

“Day one,” says the founder of Sock It To Me while passing along a picture of herself from a decade before, taken on her first morning of business at Portland’s venerable Saturday Market; Carrie looks a bit chilly standing under a canopy she bought from Craigslist and next to a table she lined with paper lanterns and grass skirts.

She shakes her head at the décor.

“I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea,” she says. “It was cheap.”

It didn’t matter.

That first day was on the cold side, but Carrie’s soft, stretchy socks were priced right, and she sold 27 pairs. Sales held relatively strong, and months later, the Nebraska native’s kitschy booth had moved to the wholesale market. Within a year, Carrie was plotting to quit her day job, and a decade later, she stood in front of a 25-person Sock It To Me team and celebrated the company’s 10th birthday like any 10-year-old would.

OK, maybe not any 10-year-old—but definitely the coolest one you know.

… and a llama“We had a jumpy castle and a llama,” Carrie says, sitting up straight in her desk as dance music bops along in low volume from the desktop computer speakers in her Southeast Portland office.

“And circus games,” adds Sock It To Me CEO Michelle Walker, unable to contain her smile. “Those were great.”

Indeed, they sound awesome, but Carrie’s mind is still with the llama.

“Rojo, the therapy llama,” she says with a slight look of whimsy, “wearing our socks and a top hat.”

OK, right about now you’re thinking, “I wish I had that much fun at work.”

You’d be correct. Sock It To Me’s socks are fun (tacos, ninjas, mustaches, monkeys, beer, and other magical items are common subjects). But don’t be fooled: The imaginatively designed creations are no joke to Carrie and Michelle—they’re serious business. Not that they take themselves too seriously.

Imaginatively stitched

Just ask Sock It To Me’s design team, which is within earshot of Carrie’s open office door, unpacking a box of socks sent as proofs by the company’s manufacturer to ensure artist vision has been fully brought to fruition. The group huddles, laughs, and cheers as they check out their latest creations for the first time—next fall’s line, in prototype form.

“Treats are trending—donuts with eyes, or cupcakes.” says Alicia, a senior designer. “Cats and dogs do really well for us—animals wearing sweaters, you gotta have that. And anything mythical—unicorns and narwhals.”

Alicia holds up a sock with the latter locked in an epically cartoonish battle, adorably stitched in stretchable, shin-sized glory for all to see. Her voice deepens to that of a movie trailer narrator: “Two horns, one battle.”

It’s a funky take on a fairy tale, and the type of thing Carrie in no way expected when she started Sock it to Me in 2004 with 40 pairs of Korean socks, some cheap party favors, and a secondhand table.

Big dreams afoot

After graduating college and teaching English in South Korea for a year, Carrie had moved to Portland to be close to friends. With her degree, effort, and an enterprising spirit (she’d sold lemonade and jelly beans as a kid, had a homemade-clay-necklace empire in junior high, and hawked T-shirts she printed at the 2002 World Cup), Carrie figured she’d be handed a “real job” soon after arriving.

“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” the Nebraska native says sarcastically. “You go to college and you’re automatically granted this job, right? But that’s not how it happened, especially in Portland, where there’s so many educated young people.”

Carrie spent two years applying for jobs left and right amid a tough economy. She was able to get a foothold on her finances with steady, part-time employment at a house-cleaning company for $9 an hour, but nothing close to a career came calling.

Carrie brainstormed ways to go into business for herself. Two ideas bubbled to the top, the first involving a mobile auto-cleaning service that would specialize in detailing cars while they sat in parking garages. The other was socks.

Red, green, striped, and skull

“When I was in Korea, there were all these outdoor sock vendors in the streets of Seoul, just a person standing behind a table with socks stacked on top of it,” Carrie remembers. “No packaging, no labeling; you’d just buy them, like a fruit stand—get a couple and take ‘em home.”

St Johns BridgeCarrie liked the softness of the knee-highs especially—quality she’d never seen in the States. She wasn’t an obsessive sock person by any means,(“Those exist,” Carrie assures), but whenever she saw them in the markets, she’d likely buy a pair or two. Fast-forward three years, and Carrie wondered if those same-style socks would appeal to Portlanders. After much deliberation, she bought an $800 plane ticket to Korea on a mission to find a wholesale market.

“I had nothing to lose, so it was a pretty easy decision for me,” Carrie says. “If I had the real, salaried job like I’d been looking for, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

She ran down a wholesaler and bought 10 pairs of red, green, striped and “skull,” then stayed up until 2 a.m. with her Korean family labeling each set with country of origin and fiber content so the socks could be legally sold stateside. She stuffed two suitcases full, declared the loot, paid her duties, and headed back to Portland.

“And the first weekend back,” she says, “I went to Saturday Market.”

After an encouraging first day, Carrie’s sales slowly but surely ticked up amid months of cleaning houses weekdays and tending the table weekends—where despite some slow summer months, it was clear Carrie’s socks had legs. She replenished supply through a Korean import broker who’d helped her legally tote the goods on her first trip and continued to be busy at Saturday Market, especially in comparison to her neighbors.

The wholesale enchilada

Hoping to kick her day job once and for all, Carrie walked into Naked City, a boutique on SE Portland’s proudly weird Hawthorne Blvd., hoping they’d be interested in buying Sock It To Me socks wholesale.

“I remember being really nervous,” Carrie said.

Not that she gave such a feeling enough time to show. Carrie happened to catch Naked City’s owner, Julian Recanzone, in the shop that day and asked, flat out: “Do you want to buy some socks wholesale?”

Before Carrie could give any sort of pitch, Julian answered.

“She’s like, ‘Yeah, OK,’” Carrie says with a laugh. “It was totally normal for her to buy wholesale, but not for me.”

The first few six-packs sold out in a couple weeks, and Naked City asked for more. Carrie visited other boutiques to peddle her wares, and eager to get in front of more store owners and buyers, learned from Julian that many store owners stocked their shelves through the bi-yearly MAGIC fashion marketplace and trade show in Las Vegas. With insight into where store owners wandered—and what they were looking for—Carrie visited MAGIC the first time solely to walk the show, scope the vibe, and see what kind of practical items she’d need (order forms, business cards, and the like) to make a splash. She brought along 20 designs to exhibit on her next visit, and began placing orders. Suddenly, Carrie’s Saturday Market success story had international customers.

Even the best socks need to be pulled up

Michelle knew she was in for a tough conversation before she even sat down.

She’d recently relocated to Portland from Texas to be closer to family, moving west and taking some time off after 12 years of business strategy and brand marketing with PepsiCo. Friends of friends introduced her to friends of theirs, and soon, between setting up her new home and helping her family get settled in, Michelle found her calendar dotted with lunches—networking with a side of business consultation.

“I sort of fell into this advisory role, which was natural for me,” she says. “I found it really rewarding and fun.”

One of her favorite mentees was Carrie. After being introduced and finally connecting through various entrepreneurial circles, things clicked, and Michelle and Carrie started meeting regularly for coffee, brainstorming, and idea bouncing. That is until one day, when Michelle arrived at the café with some bittersweet news: She’d been mulling a job offer, and was all set to accept. Ready to get back to full-time work, she preferred something steady over the consulting work she’d essentially picked up by accident since setting foot in Portland.

“It was corporate, a little more in line with my background,” Walker says. “I have bills and a family, and it was stable—a known entity and compensation package. I knew what I was getting into.”

One minute later, that all changed.

“She was trying to break up with me,” Carrie laughs. “I had to snatch her up.”

So Carrie asked Michelle, flat out: What if Sock It To Me could afford you?

“My mind was blown,” Michelle remembers with a laugh. “That kind of changes a lot.”

Call in special ops

A rapid-fire negotiation (Michelle was about due to accept her other offer), quick risk assessment (“I didn’t totally know where the business was going,” Michelle admitted) and lots of soul searching (“I had a heart-to-heart with my husband, and he said I clearly wanted [to work for Sock It To Me] by the way I was talking about it,” she said) later, Michelle was on board. Her acceptance was for many of the same reasons she’d been meeting with Carrie in the first place.

“I think you have something super fun going on here,” she remembers telling Carrie during what was supposed to be their last regular meeting. “And you’re going to continue to be successful.”

“Super fun” was a certainty, but success requires more. Carrie thought Michelle could help get the nine-person company aligned, polished, and more professional.

“I’ve always described her as a Navy SEAL trained in business,” Carrie says. “Special ops.”

Michelle met with each member of the team and immediately recognized Carrie’s personal story resonated with them, and that Sock It To Me’s brand values were cohesive, no matter what words folks used individually. She excitedly wrote up a short comic strip about what she thought the brand story was and what it meant, then rolled it out slowly to her new teammates.

“Everyone touched it, massaged it, blessed it,” Michelle says. “And everyone gravitated toward it pretty quickly because people were so close to what it could be.”

People first

Beyond the foundational branding work, Sock It To Me has also taken pains (however pleasurable) to make daily life around the office more fun. Like observing pie day (on 3/16—otherwise known as Pi Day), holding a competitive Halloween sock-design contest, embarking on laser tag treks, and offering Hawaiian trips for hitting sales goals (they’re footing the bill for 41 people to go this spring). Or having their customer service reps officially change their titles to “special agents” striving to bring “super-mega-awesomeness” to every phone call, email, and conversation. Or having warehouse workers fulfilling orders hand-draw doodles on every invoice. (“It’s so easy and people love tweeting and Instagramming about it,” Michelle says).

Sock It To Me HalloweenOr, perhaps most importantly, always leading off managers meetings with people-focused topics before getting to business matters.

“Hiring, team issues, birthdays, trips, weddings, baby showers—we always talk people first,” Michelle says. “Because people make the business.”

The numbers follow, and lately, they’ve been good; Sock It To Me has grown to 25+ employees, with 90% of their business wholesale and the rest direct-to-consumer via their web site or kiosks in malls during the holidays. They’ve found what they need to stay a leg up on the competition in Oregon, where, in addition to a deep pool of contract designers, Portland’s reputation as an apparel hub means there’s plenty of talent nearby to help with everything from inventory and printing to building trade show booths to modeling, fitting, and sizing.

“The whole toolkit is right here,” Carrie says. “Our socks come right in through the Port of Portland, which is handy, and there are lots of creative people here who can wear our funky socks.”

Growing beyond Oregon

Three years ago, the business took what Michelle called “a hockey stick turn” that saw high double-digit growth spurred by a focus on distribution and new markets for socks, like kid’s and men’s. Bigger accounts like New Seasons followed, and now, with an eye on the underwear market, Sock It To Me has employees set up on folding tables in conference rooms, packed into a now-cozy office adjacent to a large warehouse they’ve also outgrown.

This is probably part of the reason why, for Sock It To Me’s big birthday bash, Carrie dug into an old folder and chose to read a handful of letters to the revelers. It wasn’t fan mail she was sharing—it was rejection letters from jobs applied for 10 years before.

How else would you keep your feet on the ground? (Socked, of course.)

“It doesn’t fully absorb,” Carrie says. “It’s too big to absorb it all—you just keep working.”

For more information, visit http://www.sockittome.com/, follow Sock It To Me on Twitter, like Sock It To Me on Facebook, or follow Sock It To Me on Instagram.

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.

Finding a new way through recycling

Alando Simpson takes one look at my shoes and decides to keep the tour short.

“I don’t want you to step on any nails,” he says.

His boots sink into increasingly softening ground as we circle the small house at the center of two acres in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood. The house—or, more precisely, its basement—is home to City of Roses Disposal & Recycling, a waste hauler-turned-recycling-facility founded by Alando’s father, Al.

Alando stands next to one of the pieces of heavy equipment lined up against the wall of the house.

“The grinder,” he says, reaching into a small pile of spare parts and filling his hand with a softball-sized metal tooth that will soon be chewing wooden building debris into 3-4 inch chips prime for paper mills. At one point in its rumbling, diesel-fueled life, somebody scrawled “The Beast” in black marker on the side of the grinder’s front panel—a name Alando says fits a machine that can slice and dice its way through 40 cubic yards of wood per day during construction season.

“That’s a lot of good wood,” Alando says, as places his hands back in the pockets of his brightly colored Columbia jacket.

City of Roses truckThe Beast sits quiet today, but the rest of City of Roses’ recycling facility is abuzz. A half-dozen men dressed head-to-steel-toe in reflective gear pick away at a pile of drywall pulled from a site near Lloyd Center. Under a barn-sized structure flanked by piles of different colored plastics, films, metals, wires, and cardboard, the men sort debris while negotiating the movements of ever-beeping heavy machinery. To their left and right, expanding collages of industrial, commercial, and residential waste is being salvaged and stockpiled by City of Roses and its growing recycling division, CORE.

It’s a cold January morning. Our breath hangs in the air, as does a patch of fog at the other side of the lot.

“If we can’t find value, it’s going to be a cost,” Alando says. “So we try to recycle as much as we possibly can.”

Turns out, “waste not” is more than a good business practice for the Simpsons, it’s a way of life.

A consuming hobby

We walk past the vehicle scale that’s a staple of most recycling facilities and Alando stops next to a truck parked at the front of the house. It’s a lot like the rig Al drove to drop off his oldest son at Northwest Portland’s Lincoln High, he says, a bit beat up with rusty scars that stood out amid BMWs and Lexuses, but just as functional.

City of Roses dumpsterTo call Al “frugal” is an understatement, Alando says, describing his dad as notorious for rarely ever spending money—and almost never buying anything brand new.

“Unless its underwear or socks, he’s always going to buy used,” said Alando.

Enjoy the fruits of his labor? Al rarely had a moment, especially after he started City of Roses in 1996—while working full time as a truck driver for the City of Portland’s maintenance bureau.

“It was supposed to be a hobby,” Al said. “I used to go drinking beers with the buddies every night. That shit got old, y’know? I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I had to figure out something else to do. I knew I could drive a truck, and I needed something I could do after work and on the weekends.

“Garbage—they’re open seven days a week.”

A recurring work ethic

Al was born and raised in the Humboldt neighborhood of North Portland. His father, Oscar, worked on the railroad.

“He worked all of the time,” said Al.

Besides his weekday gig, Oscar took a second job managing the apartment complex where the family lived. He collected rent, mopped floors, and kept the toilets running on weekends and after hours.

“I remember he used to ask me to help him mop the floors and I always wanted to go play basketball or football on the weekends,” Al remembers. “Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It makes me feel bad now, that I didn’t.”

“The times he’d say,” Al pauses, switching to the lower octave even older men reserve for imitating their fathers, ‘Go on, boy.’”

Oscar died in 1976 when Al was 20. But his work ethic lived on in Al.

Al realized that, while Oscar worked hard—and he, himself, worked hard—it had always been for someone else. A fact he continued to consider as City of Roses grew in the early 2000s, and he began feeling spread too thin. Family members urged Al to retire from the city and focus on his own business.

He said he couldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“His standard line was that he wouldn’t retire from the city unless we had our own facility,” says Alando, 31, who joined the family business in 2004 and graduated from Portland State University in 2007. Once on the inside, Alando quickly saw why his father—and a hauler like City of Roses—would want its own recycling center to process the goods: Picking up and carrying waste from homes and businesses to recycling centers and landfills was only so profitable, particularly with waste fees, overhead, repairs, and taxes inching up as the business grew.

The idea of a facility had legs, but it was just an idea. Al and Alando weren’t sure where to start.

The light bulb moment

Al started with a single truck. One that had been sitting in front of his house for three months before he landed his first job.

Climbing into the truckHe poured all his free time into City of Roses, which grew steadily. Eventually, the phone was ringing too much. Al wasn’t exactly enjoying his “hobby” anymore. Family and friends helped for stretches here and there, but the seven-day workweeks mounted, and those closest to Al grew increasingly worried he’d work himself to death.

Taking over the family business can be a tough sell as it is, but when that business is trash? Alando wasn’t exactly feeling it, especially in his early 20s.

“My life was too easy,” he said. “I was doing a lot of fun stuff because a friend of mine was in the NBA, and my life was too easy. My dad was working his butt off.”

That didn’t sit well with Alando.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I can hang out in this environment,” he said. “To essentially rely on the revenue of friends to determine success—that doesn’t make a man in my eyes.’”

Alando started at City of Roses working admin roles, where he often dealt with contractors. Their most consistent complaint centered on low recycling rates for their projects, particularly if they were striving to achieve LEED certification. Alando felt their pain, but as a hauler taking debris from site to dump, there was little City of Roses could do.

“That’s when the bulb went off,” Alando said.

City of Roses would open the facility Al always talked about, but it would specialize in helping contractors attain higher, more accurate recycling rates than the competition—often multi-billion-dollar, multinational waste companies who aren’t about to overhaul their proven operations model.

“Recycling is not why they’re in business,” Alando says. “The margins on landfilling are higher because there’s no labor. They’re going to recycle what they can, because it’s the status quo thing to do, but in reality they’re just trying to move stuff as fast as they can.”

One person’s trash…

Alando soaked up everything he could about LEED and wrote a business model targeted toward a niche, but growing market of contractors seeking higher recovery rates and the certification that went along with it.

The banks passed, but after receiving assistance from the Portland Development Commission and State of Oregon, traversing Metro and DEQ regulations, and paying system development charges, City of Roses had what it needed to break ground on its own facility in 2011. They spent a financially shaky 2012 under construction (“There were times we didn’t pay ourselves,” Alando says) and were officially permitted to “tip” (AKA dump) waste on April 1, 2013.

Quickly securing an 18-month job at Intel enabled City of Roses to build cash flow and acquire equipment (used, of course) like trailers, fifth wheels, tractors, boxes, excavators, and forklifts. And less than five months after the facility opened, Al retired from the city. But he’s by no means stopped working.

“I’ll come out here on a Sunday, and he’ll be here doing something,” Alando says. “He can’t stop. It’s almost a gift and a curse.”

“It’s gift because you see the work ethic, and you understand what it takes. But the curse is when you’re trying to implement different procedures and processes and tasks.”

Alando smiles.

“The numbers get skewed because he does things outside of what’s supposed to be recorded data,” Alando says. “I’m just trying to get him to understand that he’s going to be more of an asset to the company if he provides wisdom, instead of his actual hands-on work.”

I ask Alando how Al takes that constructive criticism.

“He’s not hearing it,” Alando laughs. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

Building up by tearing down

Al and Alando’s desks sit within a few yards of each other in the basement office, a space whose wood floor carries the basketball lines from the gym it was salvaged from. Al’s desk looks too organized to be heavily used—its neat stacks of papers and business cards a sure sign the older Simpson does most of his work out on in the field.

“Shit, I work harder now than I did when I worked for the city,” Al laughs, toothpick out the left side of his mouth, a bright-yellow construction vest across his chest. “That was a gravy job. This is work.”

Alando and AlOne look at Alando’s cavernous office area shows the workaholic tendencies didn’t fall far from the family tree. In addition to being vice president of City of Roses and CORE, the father of two chairs the Oregon Sports Authority, helps run the FAST (Fitness And Sustenance Training) camp, sits on the state transportation board, and is treasurer for the National Association of Minority Contractors.

What’s more, Alando CrossFits on weekday mornings at 5:30 and plays hoops on Saturdays.

His calendar mirrors the walls of his workspace, which is covered with posters, notes, and maps of Portland. A large, hand-written list tacked above his desk stands out.

It reads: “THINGS WE NEED FOR GROWTH”

Beneath, there are practical purchases (“more drop boxes” and “newer equipment”) and larger projects (“new wood process” and “obtain a franchise”). But when it comes right down to it, the area Alando thinks will best build up City of Roses is, ironically, tearing things down.

“We’re looking at deconstruction and demolition,” Alando says, noting the highly regulated and often politically franchised waste industry can present more barriers than growth opportunities, especially when his competition is multinational corporations. “I don’t really have the ability to take their market share. So for me, it’s ‘how do I create new markets or concepts within the industry?’”

With a deconstruction division, City of Roses would add taking apart buildings (while carefully maintaining anything that has value to it) to its hauling and recycling repertoire. They’d pick a structure clean of salvageable 2×4, 4×6, or 2×6 pieces of wood and either resell them or grind them into material for fabricated and engineered wood (which Alando says can be more sustainable than concrete and steel and more flexible than traditional wood during earthquakes).

“A lot of demolition companies will haul their own debris, but none of them have their own recycling facilities—so at the end of the day, they’ll at some point pay for waste,” Alando says.

“We can recycle whatever waste we have. Salvage, reuse, recycle, discard—especially in a sustainably conscious region like Oregon, it gives us a lot of upside for providing alternative value. There’s a different cultural sentiment here. To me, Oregon is just one word that’s an extension of the term ‘organic.’ It’s the original root way of how people should be.”

For more information, visit http://www.cityofrosesdisposal.com/.

Brewing the next great beer town

For months, a group of guys in Salem, Oregon, would meet up on Thursday nights, jokingly calling it “choir practice,” but much of the time the talk turned to one topic: beer.

Most of them were brewing on their own and thought their beers were not only pretty good, but also better than a lot of the craft brews on the market.

“We were basically sitting around daring each other to do this,” says Matt Killikelly, now one of the owners of Santiam Brewing. “Eventually you run out of excuses.”

Santiam Brewing launched in July 2012 with nine locals as equal partners in the business, most of them also serving as employees.

The craft brewery, now one of six in Salem, makes many varieties of beer, as well as a number of cask ales and oak-barrel-aged beers.

Though the choir practice guys had drive and plenty of ideas, it was a quick process once they took the dare.

“It was about 18 months from when we decided to start a brewery to when we served our first glass,” says Killikelly.

As quickly as they started, they found success.

In 2013 and 2014, its Pirate Stout has won the Oregon Garden People’s Choice Award. Its the product of one of Santiam’s other specialties, barrel-aged beers. This one is aged in barrels that once contained Rogue Distillery Dark Rum and also has a “brief encounter” with some coconut before its placed in kegs.

Brew more beer

Santiam’s partners each have a role in the business, but basically each of them is an equal, whether they’re the head brewer, the manager of the tasting room, the legal adviser or, as Killikelly is, the sales manager.

eIMG_7906“There are some corporate titles, but only because running a corporation requires it,” Killikelly says. “They’re meaningless in a group of partners where all are equal and no one is anyone’s boss.”

The lack of titles may be seen as unusual, but it’s worked for them. Almost since its opening, Santiam Brewing has been in expansion mode.

“Once you start a brewery, it’s a neverending growth curve,” says Killikelly. “You make more beer, you get a bigger clientele, and bigger market share … so you make more beer.”

To that end, in October, the brewery converted to a ten-barrel system, and its three-and-a-half barrel system sits in its workspace off McGilchrist and 19th streets, waiting to be sold to a new owner. Meanwhile, the shiny new tanks reach toward the ceiling, dominating the space and serving as a symbol for the greater demand for Santiam’s brews.

“We started out as a brewpub that sold some beer on wholesale,” says Killikelly. “Now we’re turning into a production brewery with a tasting room.”

Their expanded space includes the tasting room, the physical plant containing the brewing equipment, and a grain room that’s walled off to keep the dust from the barley contained. There’s also a laboratory where samples are tested for yeast production, among other things. In another building across the way, Santiam has office space and product storage.

The art of the cask

But the real work is done in the tanks, and—for its most specialized brews—the casks and the barrels.

“The cask-conditioned ales and barrel-conditioned ales and sours are ‘beer geek treats,’ that is, things that make beer geeks happy,” Killikelly says. “We love beer, so we go the extra mile to make unusual beers.”

Santiam’s tasting room typically offers four cask-conditioned ales, and they’re the real deal.

“We create it the old way,” Killikelly says. “We put it in the cask with a little extra sugar and yeast and let it do its thing.”

eIMG_7899“Its thing” is a secondary fermentation that naturally carbonates the beer without having to force carbon dioxide into it and allows it to be served at 52 degrees instead of chilled down to numbing refrigerator temperatures.

Not everyone who claims to be selling such brews is telling the truth.

“It’s annoying to us that others are selling ‘cask-conditioned’ beers and then filling them with carbon dioxide in a bright tank,” Killikelly says. “If I just get clear bright beer, it’s not conditioned. You want to see sediment from secondary fermentation.”

Every bit of extra time and energy is worth it to create Santiam’s small, carefully attended batches.

“There is a differential, whether your taste buds appreciate it or not,” Killikelly says. “There is a lot of flavor for the same amount of product.”

Getting the chance to taste these flavors in all their many varieties is driving a change in the beer market — and not just the craft beer market, he adds.

Variety is the spice of life

“Craft beer drinkers want to try different beers, not drink the same thing over and over again,” Killikelly says. “Brand loyalty drinkers are going down.”

For proof, look no further than the supermarket shelves, where even Budweiser, Coors and Miller are starting to vary their products in response to this demand.

“They have the market share, for now, but not the future.”

Santiam’s own market looks to be continuing its growth curve.

“The next big thing is our Golden Sultan being accepted for the Portland Holiday Ale Festival,” Killikelly says of the event, which ran December 3-7, 2014, at Pioneer Courthouse Square. “It’s a very big deal to get a beer into that event.”

But on a larger scale, Santiam Brewing has a bigger dare in mind: to help build Salem’s reputation as a craft beer town.

“Portland has a great reputation, of course,” Killikelly says, “and then Eugene is growing and Bend, too. Salem didn’t, but now we’re getting the news out.”

One of the first steps is working with the other brewers in town to revive the Salem Brewery Association, which went quiet in the 1950s or so. The group started meeting again in early November.

Next is to create a Salem brew festival—to complement, not compete with the existing Cinco de Micro and Oregon Garden’s Brewfest—and to put the proceeds toward a “Drink Local” campaign.

“We’re trying to carve out that reputation here,” Killikelly says.

For more information visit, http://www.santiambrewing.com or like Santiam Brewing on Facebook.

Finding a market at the market

Portland’s artisan ice cream craze all started, really, with love for a local farmers market.

In 2004, Lisa Herlinger was working at Milo’s City Cafe on Northeast Broadway in Portland when she started doing a farmers market booth with the Portland Chefs Collaborative.

“This is so awesome,” she thought. “I love being on the site of the farmers market.”

Herlinger loved it so much, in fact, that she began racking her brain for a way to participate on a more regular basis. The problem was that she’d gone to culinary school and had no intention of becoming a farmer.

“I thought, okay, what can I do?” Herlinger said. “What can I do to sell something at the farmers market? Because I love it and I’m not going to be a farmer.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.00.38 PMAnd then an idea struck, inspired by childhood memories: ice cream sandwiches. But not just any ice cream sandwiches—artisan ice cream and cookies made by hand from locally-sourced ingredients. A look around the market revealed no ice cream, so Herlinger applied as a vendor and got in.

Milo’s had taught Herlinger how to make stovetop ice cream, and now they allowed her to use their commercially licensed kitchen in the evenings to start her business. In the beginning, Herlinger did everything herself, from picking up ingredients at dairies and coffee roasters and farms to crafting her ice cream base and baking cookies to selling at the market.

“I was working literally crazy, crazy hours,” Herlinger confessed. “And I’d make like 75 sandwiches a week and sell them at the market.”

But all that work paid off: The ice cream sandwiches were a hit, and Ruby Jewel was born.

As the summer wound down, fans of Herlinger’s creations wanted to know how they could get their hands on their favorite treats during the market’s off-season. In the midst of doing research on the state of artisan ice cream sandwiches in the commercial market — result: there weren’t any to speak of — Herlinger entered and won the Food Innovation Center’s first Food Fight, netting herself $2,500 worth of services from FIC including use of their kitchen, access to their packaging lab, and advice from food experts.

From there, Ruby Jewel was able to launch into grocery stores such as New Seasons Markets and Whole Foods Markets in Oregon and Washington (with Herlinger acting as both ice cream maker and salesperson). The following years had Herlinger hiring her first employees—including sister Becky and production gal Alice—setting up a dedicated production facility, and opening an ice cream shop on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. In 2014, Ruby Jewel has two scoop shops and can be found in grocery stores in Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

Over ten years into it, they’re about to outgrow their current production space. Herlinger has also just hired her first salaried employee, an operations manager.

“I spread myself way too thin,” Herlinger admits. “But with these new additions, I can focus my energy on product development and sales. We’re definitely at the next stage of growth.”

Growth, indeed. From local farmers market to international grocery chain, Ruby Jewel is a story of passion, creative thinking, and collaboration — oh, and ice cream. Let’s not forget the ice cream.

For more information, visit http://www.rubyjewel.com, follow Ruby Jewel on Twitter, like Ruby Jewel on Facebook, or follow Ruby Jewel on Instagram.

A knight in shining armor, on a Dark Horse

Mike Richardson has stopped the interview to take issue with the reporter’s cell phone and audio recorder.

“This is what you need,” he says, holding out the latest iteration of Apple’s iPhone. He snaps a photo of his visitor and touts its resolution and color quality.

“The older you get, the more you have to point out to people that you’re staying on top of things,” he jokes.

No one doubts that Richardson is on top of things these days. As founder, president and publisher of the Milwaukie, Oregon-based Dark Horse, the Oregon-born maverick has built a multi-million dollar entertainment empire by doing business as anything but usual.

Presenting… Dark Horse

Founded in 1986, Dark Horse has made its mark on the industry with a roster of edgy characters and gripping storylines that have transcended traditional comic book frames into films, television, merchandise and more.

DHP3 #7 REGULAR CVRThe creepy, kooky family includes creations like The Mask, Hellboy, Sin City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conan, Star Wars and many more—making Dark Horse the third-largest comics publisher, trailing only DC and Marvel.

Today, Dark Horse employs about 150 people, including employees at four Things from Another World retail shops, and works with nearly 1,000 other artists and writers. Its Dark Horse Entertainment television and motion picture division, which has produced 28 films and TV series, has a dozen more projects in development, including Dark Matter, a 13-episode series based on the graphic novels that will air in spring 2015 on the SyFy network, and Tarzan, coming to the big screen in summer 2016.

This year may go down as the best in company history—no small feat considering that it accomplished the same in 2013 with a 25-percent increase in revenues.

Bookstore and digital sales have been strong, buoyed in part by stories based on video game properties like The Legend of Zelda. All-ages titles based on the popular game Plants vs. Zombies, written by Eisner-award winning author Paul Tobin, have caught on faster than a zombie invasion, selling over 500,000 copies in the past year.

The merchandise division Dark Horse Deluxe caught lightning in a bottle with the official Game of Thrones character figurines, of which Richardson says they can barely make fast enough to keep pace with demand.

buffyOther plans include expanding its stable of contributing “mainstream” authors. Fight Club 2, a 10-issue sequel, will be written by author Chuck Palahniuk, while an upcoming edition of Dark Horse Presents will include a story by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. Meanwhile, the Joss Whedon “Whedonverse,” which includes longtime favorites Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel & Faith, Serenity, and others, continues to expand, as do the Japanese manga publications and partnerships.

Even now, on the eve of losing his highest profile license, Richardson sets his sights higher.

Origin stories

“In this country—underline that—you’re going to eat, and you’re going to have a place to stay,” Richardson says. “It might not be the best place to stay and it might not be the best food you could find in the best restaurant, but you can eat and you can sleep.” And therein lies freedom to pursue your dreams.

A Milwaukie, Oregon, native, Richardson earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Portland State University in 1977, where the 6’ 9” student lettered in basketball alongside basketball legend Freeman Williams (whose 3,245 career point total trails only Pistol Pete Maravich among all-time NCAA Division I men’s players).

When Richardson’s wife, Karie, became pregnant, he took the somewhat unconventional step of quitting his job as furniture package designer—and encouraging his wife to leave hers as well.

“I quit because I didn’t want to work for someone else.”

Together they moved to Bend, Oregon, where Richardson leased a 400-square-foot retail space. He worked construction jobs building houses while getting his store ready.

Pegasus Comics opened on New Year’s Day, 1980, even though he was still getting the space ready.

“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you be open while you’re doing this?’ So I walked over and flipped the sign around to ‘Open.’”

Our hero’s journey

Like many small business owners, Richardson struggled at the outset.

A month in, his landlord offered to let him out of the lease “because how could I make money in comics?” Late that winter, his friends staged an intervention, where they tried to get Mike to take his old job back. He was not deterred. “It didn’t matter. I knew where I was going. Every day was better than the last day and every week better than the last week.”

Richardson treated the store like a real business “rather than a hobby shop” and advertised on television and radio. He focused on building cash flow and expanding his business. He learned accounting. In the meantime, his wife worked as a waitress to support the family.

“I didn’t take home a regular income for seven years—I put it all in the business. We lived in a duplex that was the cheapest one I could find and socially, when we met new people and they came to our place we never saw them again. I didn’t care—I was into building my business.”

Creator rights

From those early days, Richardson would fly in comic book artists for in-store promotions, and then take them out to dinner.

“They all complained about the same thing: They’d create these characters but they didn’t own them.” This was nothing new, Richardson says the practice harkens “clear back to [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster—they created Superman—got paid a few hundred bucks and were let go a few years later out their own door.”

Frustrated by a lack of quality content available to comic sellers, Richardson decided to try something different.

“We offered creators complete ownership over their material—and we paid them Marvel and DC rates.”

His comic book company launched in 1986 with the anthology Dark Horse Presents #1.

The issue introduced Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, a speechwriter who transforms into a one-ton creature (a seven-foot-tall likeness stands just inside the entryway at the Dark Horse offices). The early catalog generated sales, buzz, and industry awards, and Dark Horse was off and running. His logo, a black knight chess piece, confirmed his status as an outsider to be reckoned with.

Own your work

Not long after, Richardson inked a deal with Frank Miller, one of the biggest names in comics, best-known for his work reinvigorating franchises such as Daredevil and that other Dark Knight, Batman. Miller’s work led to the seminal series Sin City, and helped attract other A-level talents like Mike Mignola.

“You can own it. We’ll pay you to produce it. And we’ll be partners in it. If you decide to leave, you can leave.”

That’s the pitch Richardson makes to artists and writers who crave financial independence and creative control.

“I’ll go up to a creator from one of the big two [DC/Marvel] and ask what they’re working on. ‘Oh, Spider-Man.’ Well, why don’t you do something for Dark Horse?”

“They ask me why they would do that, and I ask them, ‘Who did Spider-Man ten years ago?’ They don’t know. ‘Who did Sin City 20 years ago? Oh that’s Frank Miller. Who did Hellboy 20 years ago? That’s Mike Mignola.’ And the light goes on.”

Today, many companies in the industry have followed this approach.

“If you have the talent to do it, you should be out creating your own material,” Richardson says.

The Force will not be with you, always

Many Star Wars fans rejoiced at Disney’s $4 billion 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm, Ltd., which signaled new hope and new films for the venerable franchise. The announcement from Disney, whose holdings already included Marvel Comics, even included the long-awaited release date for Episode VII.

For Dark Horse, it signaled the beginning of the end to a two-decades-long partnership with George Lucas, during which time it had published multitudes of properties related to the Star Wars universe. (A framed thank-you note from Lucas hangs in the Dark Horse lobby.)

The transfer of rights to Disney and Marvel takes place in January 2015. Aside from running closeout specials on Star Wars merchandise, Dark Horse has set its sights on backfilling the loss with deals Richardson was hustling to make while at New York Comic Con this October.

He acknowledges the outsized presence of The Force in his catalog, but hastens to point out that this represents only six percent of the bottom line—an amount that entails a tremendous amount of work and energy to maintain.

“I’m not happy about it, but these big licenses coming in will more than make up for Star Wars.”

Aliens and Predators and BRAAIIINSSS

Licenses have been a way of balancing creator-owned content almost since the inception of Dark Horse.

“Our diversity is what has kept us going,” Richardson says. “Trust me: I’d like a Batman or a Superman. But our Batman is Hellboy. Our Superman is Sin City. Our Spiderman is The Goon.”

Those properties build up faithful and sustaining audiences over time, but in the meantime, Richardson saw a need to fill a financial and creative gap.

“Let’s take our favorite movies and make sequels in comic book form.”

Aliens Fire and Stone TPB 4x6The idea was simple enough, but in the late-1980s, movie tie-ins were typically low-budget cash-grabs that did little to extend storylines or expand imaginations. Then came Aliens, Dark Horse’s follow-up to the Ridley Scott blockbuster, and soon thereafter, Predator. These series sold hundreds of thousands of copies while engaging new readers with the comic book form.

With Dark Horse at the helm, the company pushed the properties even further, creating an unholy mash-up: Alien vs. Predator, selling sold copies “in the millions” Richardson says, and the AvP franchise was born.

This fall, Dark Horse announced the latest AvP installment. This time, the “A” is for Archie and his pals Jughead, Betty, and Veronica who will face off against “P”—which is still the Predator.

“If Archie approves some of the covers I’ve seen, I’ll be shocked,” Richardson laughs.

Shocking, indeed.

Today, these property licenses are big business for books, comics, and merchandise at Dark Horse. Other big sellers include Tomb Raider with Lara Croft, Plants vs. Zombies, and even Tim Burton’s “Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys,” a line of figurines designed by the iconic filmmaker.

Despite comics’ traditional status as “low culture,” Richardson has always approached the form as worthy of craft and quality. When a coloring shop once returned an issue with sub-par results, he called the owner to complain. “What do you care? It’s only comics,” the owner replied. “That was the last job he ever got from me,” Richardson says. Instead, he spent the money to bring coloring operations in-house, building a system from scratch.

Browsing the digital racks

“Every generation has an affinity for the technology of its time. The rest of us can grab onto it, but never understand it the way they can, and maybe never see the same kind of potential.” These digital natives don’t just live with this technology, “They live inside it.”

That’s Richardson’s roundabout way of explaining his ongoing pursuit of digital platforms for comic books.

The days of picking up the latest in a comic series at the corner drugstore have long-since passed. The market for these “floppies”—32 pages with two staples—has given way to more immediate content online and omnibus collections that can be read more like a novel.

As a publisher and a retailer, Richardson sees this digital step as inevitable, and one that other companies will have to take eventually. Rather than joining some 75 publishers on the industry-leading Comixology platform, Dark Horse spent a considerable sum to create its own digital storefront and app.

Leading the charge

Richardson doesn’t fear getting ahead of the curve on this. Dark Horse fully embraced the social media network MySpace as a platform for original content back in the late-2000s (those stories have since been collected and anthologized in paperback).

His goal is nothing short of “the entire Dark Horse library available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, in every deliverable form of distribution in existence, in every country in the world, in seven languages. If people want to anticipate what we’re going to do in the future, that’s our grand vision.”

And with improvements in technology, this creates a better reading experience anyway, says Richardson. “Comics readers today are more likely to be 25 than 12, and they’d rather have a book on a shelf than a comic in a box.” His preference? “I like it both ways.”

While Dark Horse has made an industry-wide impact with its focus on creator rights, it’s also had a pronounced impact regionally. When it began in Portland 28 years ago, “there was no comic books industry” out here, Richardson says. Dark Horse drew a crowd of creators for the coloring, lettering, illustration, writing and more, and many of those went on to create their own companies or characters.

Meanwhile, interest in comics continues to grow nationally as well as here in Oregon. Portland’s own Rose City Comic Con has ballooned from just 4,100 attendees in its first year to approximately 20,000 in its third, while the DIY ethos of comics and publishing, as a form for storytelling and creative expression, fits within the rising maker movement as well as the ecosystem of content creators working in the digital space.

Still working

atomic-legionWhat’s most surprising about the fact that Mike Richardson still writes is that he has time to do so. But, this is the man who first envisioned The Mask, among other characters. On his desk is a copy of The Atomic Legion, a new collection that he’s written, chronicling the adventures of a familiar-yet-forgotten set of superheroes.

He also finally completed Ronin 47, a retelling of “Japan’s Alamo,” that he has researched and studied off-and-on for 20 years, including visits to temples and graves. Working with longtime Dark Horse collaborator Stan Sakai, the two produced the five-issue series, which was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014.

Richardson stays busy outside of work. Although he’s never illustrated any of Dark Horse’s comics, he’s taken up drawing again. He’s trying to improve his electric guitar skills. His basketball team won the championship at the 2013 World Master’s Games in Turin, Italy, and he finished restoring a 1973 red Corvette that he spent three years finding parts for.

He’s a grandfather now (or in his words, “father with daughter with daughter,” and when asked how long he plans to stay at Dark Horse: “Right now? Until I’m dead.” He clarifies: “40 years.”

“I’m a storyteller,” Richardson says. That defines what he does, and the ways in which he does it. He encourages others to take the same kinds of chances because, well, why not?

“The odds of anybody being alive are infinitesimal—if you calculate the odds, you’ll see that it’s impossible for you to sit here. And to be here, in a time when we can live a decent life, when most people in history didn’t get that chance? We are so lucky.”

“I just want to take advantage of that to do something and leave something behind that means something. Let’s inspire people. Let’s do great things.”

“That’s the fight.”

For more information, visit http://www.darkhorse.com, follow Dark Horse on Twitter, like Dark Horse on Facebook, or follow Dark Horse on Instagram.

(Image courtesy Erik Urdahl/PSU. Used with permission.)

Nau and again, time and again

For a sneak peak of Nau’s Fall ‘15 line, your best bet is the main conference room adjacent to the outdoor apparel company’s small lobby. That wall to your right? It’s actually a sliding door, heavy and rough with squeaking overhead wheels that harken back to the Northeast Portland building’s warehouse history—and, fair warning, might give you away.

But the old wooden door also unveils a glimpse of the future: Rolling racks filled with jackets, shells, sweaters and pants, peppered with selections from next fall’s collection that face toward the middle of the room and a long slab of an empty conference table.

Jamie Bainbridge grabs her favorite piece from among the designs that won’t hit stores until next year. Nau’s product design and materials development lead reaches toward a cluster of jackets and fans a black, cape-style coat with an insulated—but not-too-puffy—fill over her arm. “In women’s, we’ve been really bold,” she says. “But it’s the same notion we’ve used since Day 1.”

Recycled polyester? Check. Durable water repellant? Yep. Fashionably cut and logo-free? You bet.

That much hasn’t changed for Nau. Along with their corporate giving—2% of every sale to charity partners like Ecotrust and Mercy Corps—Nau’s seamless blend of outdoor performance, urban fashion and sustainable everything has been the thread that’s run through ups, downs, way downs and every season in between. From grand ambition to giant setbacks to gradual growth. From big-time backing to bankruptcy to being born again (and again). From wanting to change the face of business to just trying to stay afloat.

And today? General manager Mark Galbraith says Nau is that much closer to where they started.

Back to basics

“The original iteration of Nau, at its core, was very much from [Nau founder and Marmot co-founder] Eric Reynolds,” says Galbraith, who along with Bainbridge was an original Nau employee. “He wanted to use business to have a discussion about how to make the planet a better place to be.”

Early stages of Nau designMore than just talk, Nau walked that walk—right from birth—on philanthropy, product quality, supply chain, and global citizenship. The company’s original name, “UTW” for “Unfuck The World” was a not-so-subtle hint at the Nau’s aspirations. They hoped to not only redesign the outdoor apparel business, but change all business. They used phrases like “shifting paradigms” and turned the typical retail experience on its head by allowing customers to reduce the carbon footprint (and price) of their purchase by having their shirt, skirt or scarf shipped to their door instead of the store. They helped pioneer materials and kept a critical eye on toxicity levels—not just for the people who’d wear their products, but the people who’d made them. They designed clothes to be worn (and last) for multiple seasons, leaning on more timeless styles and durable materials that shunned specialty and begged for multi-use. Nau seemingly had every angle covered, and weren’t afraid to point that out—an attitude Galbraith says came from the right place but didn’t always strike the right tone.

“Underlying it was, yeah, the world and business is somewhat fucked up and we can fix it,” Galbraith says. “It felt a little preachy and a little finger-waggy to some people. And I don’t blame them.”

But that’s changed. Or, rather, evolved a bit.

Finding a balance

Nau is no longer “the punk, know-it-all college kid who just graduated and thinks, ‘God, business is stupid and my dad’s dumb, and this what I need to do to fix everything,’” Galbraith says with his best exaggerated-angst eye-roll.

A Nau jacket and bagWhile admitting such an attitude is an important ingredient many new ventures must share, after seven years and tens of millions in funding, Galbraith says a more mature approach has brought Nau closer than ever to reaching its lofty goals. In the same way they strive to balance sustainability and performance with aesthetic, Nau is tempering the youthful zeal behind the business-can-change-the-world bit with earnest work inside the apparel industry that put everyone’s environmental practices front and center.

“One of the most interesting aspects of sustainability is the odd collaborations between bedfellows you wouldn’t think would be interested,” Bainbridge says. And she should know: Part of her official capacity at Nau is working with the Outdoor Industry Association, a 25-year-old trade group that represents 4,000 members and $686 billion in sales. Inspired to help preserve the playground where their products are best enjoyed, Bainbridge worked with OIA to create an open-source tool that provides a relative metric for how sustainable apparel or footwear products are.

Creating a nontoxic environment

The 15-year Nike vet (material research and advanced product design) who’d previously worked at Patagonia (a time in which she met other Nau originals, including Galbraith, who worked at Polartec at the time) said the six-year effort included weekly input from 75 companies and a hearty dose of checking competitive urges at the door. And now that the tool is up and running as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, Bainbridge, and the OIA sustainability working group she chairs are taking on challenges previously left on the cutting room floor.

“We’ve never been able to figure out how to address chemicals and toxicities,” she says. “Three years trying to wrangle with chemists and figure out how we help companies that aren’t filled with chemists understand where their impacts are and how to address those.

“The other big effort is transparency; so if you say that’s recycled polyester, can you prove it from inception to final product?”

Attention to detail has become the defining factor of Nau's productsNau can. In part, because the most tangible representation of their brand is and always will be the clothes themselves, Galbraith says. You can line up your messaging, create a persona and talk all you want, but much like a first date, when customer meets product for the first time and the words or experience suddenly ring hollow, someone feels duped. In a culture where new versions of smartphones are introduced (and sold to a gleeful market) before the previous version’s battery stops holding a charge, apparel is (unsurprisingly) driven by trendy, seasonal wear, and consumers don’t carry an expectation for lasting quality and long-term use.

“For us, the actual product, the craft, the materials it’s made out of, how it fits, how it wears, what it’s like—it’s probably as tactile and real as anything you do,” Galbraith says. “There are three things in your life: A relationship with somebody else, the food that you actually taste and smell and put in your body every day, and clothing you put on right next to your skin and actually live in—there’s probably very few things that are that intimate, and that tactile, that real to what you experience every day.

“And when you’re making clothing it either works or it doesn’t. Having that integrity and focus is what’s always been the at the core of what we do.”

Finding like-minded business people

Which is certainly an approach that appealed to Black Yak, a South Korean outdoor powerhouse that sought out and purchased Nau in October 2013. The 40-year-old mountaineering supplier with a Himalayan-conquering heritage injected new life—and capital—into a company that had been plodding along on the back of Horny Toad, a Santa Barbara, California-based active wear company that resurrected Nau with Galbraith, Bainbridge and three other original employees in 2008 amid economic turmoil, and whose Lizard Lounge helped keep Nau in front of consumers since.

Galbraith calls Black Yak “the Patagonia of Korea” and lauds the degree of both support and autonomy they give Nau as a wholly owned subsidiary. The folks in Seoul mostly stay out of design and brand discussions. Instead, they provide the stout financial and strategic infrastructure necessary to outfit Nau for a climb toward its original ambitions.

“They’re in it for the long haul. And operationally, they’re extremely tight,” says Bainbridge. “They run 300 retail stores in Korea of only their own product, and they can probably tell you, hourly, what sales they’re doing and how they’ve shifted product on the floor. It’s tight—and that’s been really welcome: The cowboy days of the original company, where we had this insane burn rate [are gone].”

Black Yak’s diligent approach was foreshadowed by its acquisition of Nau, a process Galbraith said stretched over nine months and included countless discussions, a surprise trade show visit, sitting in on sales meetings, a peek at the new lines, and time in the office with core management team asking—and receiving—a lot of good, hard questions. After so much promise led to turmoil then to slow, deliberate building, the Nau team wanted to ensure the sale would set them up for a leap forward Horny Toad couldn’t provide, just as the Black Yak team wanted to ensure Nau was serious about its approach to business.

“When we asked Jun [Suk Kang, the president of Nau] the biggest part of why it went down, and what he was interested in,” Galbraith remembers, “’he said, ‘I want this to be the most sustainable company in the world, in the broadest sense.’

“[Black Yak’s] own business practices are much more centered on the responsibility of what a culture has to each other. They’ve very much taken a humanitarian, cultural approach to really saying we’re a family and this is how we really look at business and our relationships. There’s a high degree of integrity, honor and a concern for people and geographies.”

Not to mention great gear. When studying business in the States, Kang—the son of Black Yak founder and CEO Tae Sun Kang—visited the original Nau store in Chicago and brought several jackets back home with him to Korea. Fast-forward five years, and Jun Suk Kang is now splitting his time with Nau while helping the mother ship Black Yak take a crack at the European market—a global reach that means he lives in South Korea, but travels to Portland for about a week per month, “and probably a week a month somewhere else,” Galbraith says in a tone that suggests experience with the joys international travel. “That’s the way it works.”

Nau women's jacketAnd it all appears to be working. It’s a week before a new web site is launched, and 20 new sales reps covering previously unchartered territory descend on Nau headquarters for presentations on the Fall ’15 line. Everyone on the floor is busy. They’ll be beta testing the site over the next seven days, trying out every click and drag a customer might possibly do to veer off-course. Bainbridge says the all-hands-on-deck approach is necessary, daunting, and exciting. But not new: To necessitate the kind of growth they hoped for with the resources they had, Nau re-thought verticals and reconsidered who should cover what at every step.

Nau’s women’s designer, for instance, is also its color czar. Anything to do with color is on her, so she works with textile mills to color fabrics, lays out artwork for stripes, patterns and prints, speaks to China one day and Japan the next, then goes back fitting to garments or building the catalogue after.

“Nobody can be above doing something,” Bainbridge says. “I do stuff I did 25 years ago. That’s just the way you gotta do it. Until you’re big enough that doesn’t happen, but then it starts to get boring.

“When I worked for Nike, I had a guy in the Hong Kong office and I’d tell him to go over to the mill. I had a guy in China and India, someone on the ground to do the work for me. There’s nobody here to do the work but yourself.”

Both the risks and level of work are obvious. But for Nau, the rewards are, too. Bainbridge says at a larger company, the amount of effort and repetition it takes to get countless people rallied around an idea and moving forward is immense. A tagline or a campaign doesn’t just happen overnight. Nau can move more quickly.

“The strange thing about working here,” she says with a wry smile, “is you make forward progress every day.”

Proof in the progress

The year since the Black Yak acquisition has proven it. Nau has added a creative director, a real wholesale sales department, e-commerce director, and a Web team. They’ve built a new trade show booth to solidify their wholesale presence, overhauled their enterprise inventory software and launched a new web site to better reach an audience whose expectations of what an online experience should be are ever-evolving.

“Most of those things you do once or twice in a business, and it’s a big pain in the neck,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a year of foundation building.”

And it’s happening in Oregon, where Galbraith says Nau draws from a pool of talent, but also a way of thinking that—like Portland’s winter rain—permeates the people. The Rose City may not compete for title of worldwide fashion capital with the likes of Paris, Milan, New York, or Tokyo, but its point of view on sustainability and collaborative creative community willing to offer resources and ideas, are second to none. You can characterize it all the way down to cable TV comedy, but the ethos of Portland—Oregon’s intersection of tech, design, and progressive thinking—makes it a place where curiosity and conceptual thinking are equally acclaimed.

“It’s a place where people are looking for stuff that has meaning and substance and is a little bit different than what’s anywhere else,” Galbraith says. “I love that.”

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

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Navigating a confluence of technology and sustainability

Charles Steinback still remembers the day a San Diego fishermen read him the forty-five minute riot act.

It was over breakfast. And the conversation was a heavy one: Regulators were mapping the fishing grounds off the coast of California. And while the end-goal was to carve out habitat protections that would make areas off-limits to fishing, it fell to Steinback to assure they did the least amount of damage to fishing towns.

At the time, Steinback was relatively new to Ecotrust, the Portland-based nonprofit focused on ecosystem and civic resiliency. Fresh-faced and fresh out of college, he had hoped his efforts would be welcomed. Instead, what he got was a proverbial finger in his face. And a nearly hour-long lecture about the meaning of community—from a man who questioned whether Steinbeck even knew what the word meant.

“I took that to heart. It was years ago, but I remember literally walking away from that conversation, going back to my hotel room, and sitting there for three hours writing a ten-page email to Pete about community and what it is, and here’s what it means to me, and here’s why I want to work with you, and why I need you to work with me.”

The email earned the critic’s respect and buy-in. It was a moment that showcased what Steinback would bring to the business of ocean conservation: deep roots in a fishing community, a collaborative approach, and a strong belief that information-sharing can make ocean management—often a divisive, heart-wrenching business—better than it otherwise is.

Combining disparate disciplines

Flash forward, and Steinback is now managing director and cofounder at Point 97. (Pronounced Point Nine Seven, a nod to the percent of the earth’s water in the ocean). The for-profit company, launched as an Ecotrust subsidiary in August 2013, is Steinback’s next career iteration of fresh-faced optimism. It still has him doggedly focused on bettering ocean management.

In its rebirth as a startup, however, Point 97 has taken the former ocean planning division at Ecotrust and made it into something more likely found in the Silicon Valley.

It’s a three-way marriage, if you will, among techies, data geeks, and conservationists.

Stacy Fogel, marketing director at Point 97, puts it this way: “We create technology solutions for ocean management, because these tools enable these communities that depend on the ocean to take care of it.”

Finding the right person

Steinback was the obvious choice to take the reins. “Charles is a smart guy. He’s a really good listener. He’s low-key. But he understands the big picture,” said Ed Backus, Ecotrust’s former vice president of fisheries. When people in fishing towns work with him, they don’t feel like they’re being pushed to acquire something they don’t need. They feel like they’re learning the things they need to pay attention to.

Charles Steinback

Charles Steinback, cofounder and managing director, Point 97

In that way, Steinback hasn’t come so far from his roots. Raised in Astoria, he isn’t from a fishing family. In fact, both of his parents are teachers. But he grew up in an era of mill closures and constrained fishing, and was eyes-wide on the fact that most of his friends’ fathers were unemployed during his middle school years. For him, that competing pressures on natural resources could make a whole town ache wasn’t something he ever had to learn. He knew it. And when he brought that perspective to ocean conservation, he brought something the movement had often lacked.

Though he was in tune enough with his own constitution to know he wasn’t a fisherman, wasn’t going to be a lumberjack, he said always knew he wanted to lend a hand to communities like Astoria. He arrived on the doorstep of Ecotrust in 2001 having just earned a degree at UMass Amherst.

“I literally just walked in, handed them my résumé and said I would do anything,” said Steinback.

Ecotrust embodies something uniquely Oregonian

Why Oregon? The simple answer is Ecotrust, a leader in sustainable fisheries management, which has provided the vision and resources to support Point97.

At a time when much of the regulatory environment—and nonprofits with ocean missions, really—were focused on the idea of “overfishing” as the root of all evil (90s and 00s, mostly), Ecotrust was really successful at plugging into fishermen as a resource and getting at deeper truths about our oceans. Yeah, we’ve overfished. But there are fewer fish for other reasons. Migratory changes related to ocean acidification and rising temperatures have also produced the troubles we see. And Ecotrust was among the first to approach fishermen and fishing communities in an inclusive and collaborative manner to solve problems around these issues.

When states first began to look at carving out ocean areas for marine conservation and renewable energy, for example, Ecotrust was deploying guys like Charles to figure out how to keep those new rules from just gutting fishing towns and family fishing operations. And Ecotrust was also among the first to recognize that some systems designed to prevent overfishing, however environmentally sustainable, are so capitalistic that they have the effect of locking a lot of people out, including whole cultures, while funneling money to people who don’t actually fish.

Ecotrust’s approach is sadly far from typical. There are a great many nonprofits and a whole lot of government regulators too, who until recently viewed fishermen as pests to be gotten rid of, and those fishermen are such a small constituency that they were easily rolled. Now, as conservationists come around to the idea that fishermen have deep knowledge about our oceans, and, oops, wait a minute, we actually also need these people to eat, Ecotrust is way ahead of the game.

Ed Backus, Ecotrust's former vice president of fisheries

Ed Backus, former vice president of Ecotrust fisheries

Now, if other groups want to get any meaningful conservation work done – work that isn’t just knee-jerk simplistic and actually includes preservation of fishing culture and communities – they need a Point 97. What that brand is selling, more than anything, is trust. It was hard earned and carefully built through years of closely listening to real people affected by change. That would not have happened without the respect and expertise guys like Charles and Ed, both of whom really know fishing towns and fishing people, offered fishing people. They learned that in Oregon. You can think of Backus as the godfather of this stuff, and of Charles as his successor, nonprofit or none. And now Point 97 has the secret sauce: they truly believe that American culture is better off if we preserve the culture of fishing people, even if we’ve got problems to solve, and fishermen know they are allies.

Mapping the future

Over more than a decade, he has helped Oregonians map the territorial sea, carving out space for energy development. He’s assisted fishermen like Pete from San Diego in protecting their communities when marine protections came about. But it was his hand in designing an online planning application as part of that California-effort that ended up branding him someone who could use technology to facilitate conservation. That his planning tools paired community needs with habitat protections, and helped achieve more nuanced goals than push pins on a map, got attention. The money seemed to follow.

Now at the helm of Point 97, he says what’s flowed from the company’s launch fifteen months ago is a “lot of interesting growing pains.”

“Growing up in a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily prepare you for running a company,” said Steinback. In that way, he went from a structure that was always chasing money, and stretching its own capabilities, to learning that what works in business is the opposite of that: a model with a tight focus and careful, managed stewardship of limited products.

“We’re full of good ideas. But good ideas that people pay for? And that can support a business? That’s what you have to figure out,” he said.

Point 97 on the job

Though he’s struggled to find examples of for-profit companies that sprung successfully from nonprofit parents, and combat similar issues, he says he’s getting good guidance from the Portland startup community, where its not at all odd to pair funding and development goals with social impact missions. In that sense, being in Portland is giving Point 97 the support it needs to grow from within a model that might make it an outlier elsewhere. And that assistance is unlocking potential.

“I can go meet with a CEO of another startup that’s maybe four or five years along,” for advice and mentorship not available in the conservation community, he said. “I don’t think I would be experiencing those things if we were still operating from within the ENGO.”

Next on the menu?

Software and data portals. Tools for data collection, analysis, and synthesis. And a healthy dose of people-products like civic engagement and advisory services.

The outcome is that Point 97 has turned rugged, no-nonsense fishermen of Oregon’s Dungeness Crab into iPad-toting data junkies, now testing, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the viability of real-time harvest reports on crab. It’s a platform that also aims to offer the fishermen business tools. Other projects have been deployed in the Mid Atlantic, where surfers are mapping recreational use of the ocean as wind turbines stake out space, and in the Solomon Islands, where a new mobile app is tracking fish as they head to market.

Whether mapping boater activity in the Northeast, or building a monster database to underpin planning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the thirteen employees at Point 97, six of them developers, are busy. They were already a revenue positive division before becoming a company. Now, they’re looking for growth.

“When you’re out there providing tools to help people make decisions, to do that on a global scale, you’ve got to get to scale,” said Backus.

That’s why Ecotrust turned its ocean division loose as a for-profit. It was an effort designed to address the fact that, to really have impact on ocean issues, those impacts had to be wide-ranging.

“It carves out a section of space where people have different performance standards, the pace is different, there’s more decision-making power given to the CEO, and things can happen in a much more rapid-fire pace, and that’s what’s needed,” he said.

Continuing to refine

For Steinbeck, his Sisyphean contest still lays ahead. Likely, 2015 will see Point 97 continuing to refine its focus. Though he’s aware the company is doing too much—something he called an “old habit” from the nonprofit days—Steinback said its test is how to tweak a for-profit model in a way that still resonates with longtime partners while attracting customers for the company.

The solution will come from the entire team, one he describes as a group that wins together, loses together, and sometimes wants to rip each others hair out, but always comes back the next day committed to solutions and moving forward.

Steinback says they are realizing that the company may have to limit its direct work in communities in the future. Though working with people is a practice that, in the past, allowed the ocean planning division to gather ideas, solve problems, and measure direct results at Ecotrust, Steinback says its also a practice that’s been expensive and time consuming for Point 97, and is unlikely to scatter the company’s social impact as intended.

“There’s this tension or struggle between working in communities with people and trying to make a profitable company. That’s our biggest challenge. It’s trying to figure out what that transaction will look like,” he said.

When they answer that question, Point 97’s team will be bringing the most successful of the tools they’ve built in their backyard to the world.

“We’ve just barely tapped into that,” Steinback says. And when he talks about really plugging into that success, the characteristic zeal turns on. It’s easy to hear that fresh-faced kid from Astoria.

And it’s easy to understand why he’s still got work to do.

For more information, visit http://pointnineseven.com, follow Point 97 on Twitter, or like Point 97 on Facebook.