Sometimes, fixing a business problem is as simple as taking a walk – and having some great friends.
It was 2010, and Brianne and Jared Mees, co-founders of the Portland hybrid handmade retail marketplace and record label Tender Loving Empire, were in the middle of what they called a “do or die moment”.
They had launched Tender Loving Empire 2 ½ years earlier, in a 700 square foot space at ActivSpace in NW Portland, and despite early successes at the record label and retail store, and great community support, the recession and high expenses had them treading water and in danger of sinking.
Something had to change, and change fast. Thankfully, they decided to take a stroll in the West End neighborhood of downtown Portland. There, on 10th Avenue, they happened on an empty storefront next to the local boutique Radish Underground.
Brianne remembers that moment well. “We were just walking down 10th and Stark, just on a walk, and saw that this place was available for rent, and we realized that this is what we should do and we needed to jump off the cliff again, just like when we quit our jobs (in 2007) and lived off our savings for 2 ½ years”.
They were also fortunate that they also happened to be good friends with the Radish Underground owners, Gina Morris & Celeste Sipes.
“Our landlord in the West End didn’t ask for one bit of financial information, they went off of Gina & Celeste’s recommendation –they got us that space”, noted Brianne. “We just really got lucky”.
But it wasn’t really luck that got these two entrepreneurs that (now) prime downtown retail location that eventually led to an ongoing business renaissance that is continuing with the launch of a 3rd retail location on NW 23rd – I’d call it something else.
It was their joint passion and determination to build a financially thriving artist & craft community network, in a town that could really support one.
The journey to Portland and the start of a business
Their journey to Portland started in England, when Brianne and Jared met while studying abroad in Oxford. They both happened to live in the Los Angeles area so when they got back from the semester in England they became a couple, and eked out a living doing service jobs, while at the same time scratching their artistic itches.
Jared was doing visual art and paintings, participated in poetry groups, and was editor of two different poetry publications. Brianne made purses. They also started a rock band called “July” (which was the name of their future daughter).
Eventually, frustration set in. “Living in the suburbs of LA, we didn’t feel like we could get any traction”, noted Brianne, and Jared added he didn’t want to “spend most of my time doing something I didn’t want to do (to make ends meet)”.
At that point, instead of doing what most couples do in that situation, that is, move to more fertile artistic ground, they decided to live in a jungle in Panama for 4 months, on a little house on stilts with no running water and no electricity. They slept in a tent inside the house.
“Looking back”, remembers Brianne, “it really taught us that you could do anything with your life – you could be creative, you could think creatively, you needn’t go through the motions. You could make things happen that seemed difficult, or out of the ordinary.”
Added Jared “We had no money, we had no security – we basically had nothing.” But, it proved to him that “You don’t have to live inside the expectations you (and others) set up for yourself”.
Having survived the Panama experience, and with $40 in their pockets, they returned to the US, going to Colorado to be near family, and then back to Los Angeles for six months. During this time they knew they needed to finally find a better long-term home, and discovered Portland during a western road trip.
“It was like going to Disneyland – it was the most perfect trip. Portland was easy to love”, noted Jared.
Finally, with enough money saved up to afford the move, in 2006 they set out for their new home in the Rose City, and began a slow evolution towards Tender Loving Empire.
As Jared explains, “We (soon) met a bunch of artists, visual artists and musicians; a critical mass of creative people all within a close proximity to each other.
“It was a lot easier to navigate and communicate. We had (in Portland) a community of people that were doing things we loved, and we started stacking things on top of each other. We met a comic artist that we loved, and we decided we would publish one of his comics. My friend had just written a bunch of short stories and we said, ‘we’ll publish your short stories’. And my friend’s band finished their record, and we put that record out.”
“It was very organic – we never set out to make a business, we never set out to make anything happen. We gave it a name Tender Loving Empire because we knew it needed some kind of secondary name in order for it to have a life of its own. For some reason giving it a name legitimizes it in a weird kind of way, I don’t know why.”
“It’s meant to be a very ironic statement – of something that is tender and loving and warm, and also something that is traditionally oppressive and greedy like “empire”.
What was driving the creation of the business at this early stage was the couple’s frustration with the limited options new and talented artists had at the time.
Said Brianne, “(There is) so much talent and all these talented people. Our concept at the beginning was ‘get it out from under your bed, get it out of your closet, do something with it, because you’re an amazingly talented person and nobody is going to ever see it’. We wanted people to be able to see it and experience each other’s inspiration.”
“It was railing against the fact that you would just disappear – your work could just disappear and no one would ever see it”, Jared added.
Jared’s foray into comics and music eventually needed some structure, so Brianne jumped onboard to do the books, and she still does them. “The only reason we have survived is because she did the books – and that way she could sound the alarm when we really needed to think about things”, he noted.
“We never thought of it as a business in the beginning – we thought of it as something that was necessary for artists, and we had all these high-minded ideas on what we were doing, but we realize now that what we were doing was starting a business”.
A strange brew merges into an empire
In 2007 they completed the full transformation into today’s Tender Loving Empire by quitting their side jobs, opening their tiny retail space in NW Portland, and forging full speed ahead.
The retail space was Brianne’s brainchild. As she explains, “My background was making purses and doing craft shows – always into the handmade thing while Jared was doing music. So when I got frustrated just doing the books, I thought, let’s combine our dreams and do everything we love for a living – lets open a store also called Tender Loving Empire, that sells all the stuff I’m into, and all the music from the label.”
It may seem like a strange brew, mixing a record label with a retail store selling handmade art and crafts, as Brianne acknowledges. “Sometimes our record label audience is very different from our handmade gift shop audience business, and it’s been hard to marry the two, and explain our brand. But the root of it, what we get back to, is that it’s all people making art that we wanted to provide a platform and some structure for – it all makes sense together.”
Adds Jared, “People walk in, and they’re not confused when they walk in, so it’s more just explaining there’s multiple facets to it – everybody gets it very quickly in the context of a store. I think we’re explaining it better than we ever have, it’s just that it’s artists of all types, together – and that’s all we ever wanted.”
The little ActivSpace location in NW wasn’t ideal, but it was a great training ground. Jaried notes, “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for them –we were month-to-month, we got our feet wet, we were practicing – we never had any experience in retail when we started.”
Things went swimmingly for a couple of years, but then the great recession really kicked in, and the “do or die moment arrived” in 2010. But fortunately, they took that walk downtown, and caught the front end of the West End retail expansion that is still ongoing today, drawing crowds of tourists from near and far.
It enabled Brianne and Jared to finally be able to hire employees and get out from behind the counter, but that new location still didn’t push things over the hump. It took a baby and an employee “intervention” to do that.
In 2011, Brianne became pregnant with their first child (daughter July, born in 2012), and things slowed down. She noted, “Because of the situation, we coasted for a good year – it was OK, but we weren’t making any more forward progress, and the employees that were still with us at the time, they came to us and said “we need you to inspire us – we need you to show us that the company is going somewhere, in order for us to want to stick around and have it be our future”.
“That was my ultimate motivation – we realized that if we were going to stick around we needed to do something, we needed to get to the point where we originally envisioned it back in the day, and actually being something that could help artists, and not just this tiny thing”
That revelation led to what they called a “cleaning up the business’ and opening up the 2nd store in SE Portland, on 35th and Hawthorne.
Noted Jared, “What we didn’t realize was that we were steadily growing our business, and that the only reason it was beginning to feel that the wheels were coming off was because we had gotten bigger, and we were still feeling like it was tiny, and so we had to really embrace what we had, and we needed to get some tools in our tool belt to actually deal with this and the size it is.”
“We started doing some accelerated programs, we started reading some business books, we started actually thinking about the business side of it as an element that was interesting – (we got) a street MBA, in a lot of ways. We were talking to a lot of people, and zeroed in on a lot of people to help us.”
Pulling the artist community together in the big ‘petri dish’
That homework, and the support of a business community happy to help, has paid off. Jared attributes it to the Oregon spirit of collaboration.
“The same reason I wanted to come up here for music – the community – is the same thing on the business side, that same acceptance and camaraderie, even if you are competing against someone. It’s not as cutthroat and crazy as it could be in other places. Everybody has a lot of civility to them, and they’re generally rooting for other people to succeed, and that’s what has gotten us through this recent renaissance that is happening.”
This renaissance has created the community they were looking to build back in 2006 when they started Tender Loving Empire. They have 8-10 active record label artists, and are about to release their 60th record album this fall. Many more music artists participate in their compilation recordings.
And, in the retail locations, Tender Loving Empire supports over 300 artists, most of them local.
It’s getting to the point where Brianne and Jared can say with great pride that they are financially supporting many of these artists from Tender Loving Empire sales alone. “It’s so meaningful”, says Brianne, “that we can help them so much financially – the effect on the economy is real, and really touching, and the fact that all three of our stores will be in highly touristed areas – I love it, because the tourists are leaving their dollars in our community”.
As for the future, Jared notes “Because of ActivSpace, our friends, the community, the support, it (Portland) was the “petri dish” in which this experiment has thrived. We feel confident we can take this to many cities nationwide and make it viable, but it happened here and it was one of the few places it could have happened”.
“It’s an exciting time, and its nice to feel positive, because there’s been a lot of ups and downs, and we know that this is a good time, since we had a lot of wake up calls.”
“The people that work for us are amazing, and we’re only as good as the people we have working for us, and they’re top notch, and they believe in it (our vision) as much, and some days more, than us”
Adds Brianne, “We see lots of different paths…in the last 1 ½ years we’ve grown from 5 to 15 employees, we tripled our business, I think for the next year (at least) we’re going to let the dust settle. There are a lot of things to figure out and clean up.”
But in the meantime, she notes, “We are exciting about continuing – we’re having fun. We’re back to the fun”.
They also keep taking those walks. They found their latest location on 525 NW 23rd on another casual stroll. These two certainly subscribe to the old Latin phrase “Solvitur ambulando”.
Translated, “It is solved by walking”. Indeed it is.