Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Author - Terry St. Marie

A paleo bar 2 million years in the making: The GROK story

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Bryan Capitano of Portland had been in the web design industry since the late 1990s, running a number of different web companies and software startups, when a few years ago, he wanted to try something different.

He needed a new challenge, and before too long, assisted by a recent lifestyle change to a paleo diet, he found one.

Bryan recalls, “I had experimented with super low-carb diets and things like that. And I just wasn’t healthy on those kinds of things. But I noticed that when I was off of grains and wasn’t eating bread, I lost weight easier. I had tons more energy, and I felt better in general. It was just figuring out what worked for me, and then I saw the paleo diet and it was like, ‘Well, that seems like sort of a low-carb thing, but much healthier.’ So I tried that and it just really rocks. It works for me.”

After starting the diet, “I’d go into grocery stores and look for paleo bars or snacks on the shelves, and there was nothing. There was an empty space for it, and it was like, perfect. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a paleo bar.”

The crazy thing was, Bryan had absolutely zero food product making experience.  But there was something intriguing about it. “I loved the learning experience of diving into something that I know nothing about. It was a fun challenge.”

Two weeks (and seven months) to a paleo breakthrough

So he and his wife did some internet recipe research, went to their kitchen, and started to make bars. That wasn’t a scary proposition for Bryan. “I love spending time in the kitchen cooking. It’s one of the things that I kind of do for de-stressing. So coming up with recipes didn’t scare me at all.”

Over the course of an intense two weeks of baking “My wife and I made probably a half a dozen batches of different bars and were like, ‘I like this one, I don’t like that one’, winnowing it down to something that we did like.”

With a winner selected, Bryan needed to find some willing outside taste-testers and initial buyers.  He had a friend competing in cycle races who suggested to him that the races would be a perfect place to pass them out and get some feedback.

But he still needed to come up with some packaging, and true to his fearless spirit, he simply put the bars in brown parchment and wax paper, wrapped them in garden twine and wrote “GROK Bar” on them.

The name came from the paleo community. As Bryan explains, “I’d been following some paleo bloggers, and that community had adopted the name ‘grok’ as a nickname for ‘ancient caveman’”.  That was the catalyst. He started kicking around names in his head, “Grok, caveman….the caveman bar……the GROK Bar. Perfect, that’s it. The GROK Bar!”

CVPGQNqUsAAkqk2Bryan started attending the cycle races and got a lot of positive feedback, leading to a return to the kitchen and a few tweaks to the recipe, and a need to take the packaging and the brand messaging up a few notches.

Like most enterprising startup founders short on cash but rich in connections and know-how, he was able to work a few trade deals with graphic designers, getting them to do logo and packaging design in exchange for web design work.

After more success selling bars direct to consumers at cycle and running races, Bryan hit an inflection point – to generate the sales necessary to really make the business work, he needed to outsource his manufacturing and distribution.

“I looked for a co-packer, and that was a bit of a challenge, because most co-packers want you to buy like 50,000 to 100,000 units. I didn’t have the check to write for that. I didn’t have the market to distribute 50,000 bars to people. So I had to find a small batch co-packer.”

By reading the back of similar locally-made bars at his local New Seasons, he was able to track down a small-batch company in Salem, Oregon.

As Bryan recalls, “I called them up and said, ‘Hey, I got a bar. You guys want to make it?’, and they said ‘Come on down. Let’s talk about it.’  So I brought some samples, and they said, ‘This is a great bar. We’d love to make it.’ They could make anywhere from 1,000 to like 30,000 a month, so it was a great stepping stone.”

So for just a “few hundred bucks” of upfront capital he was able to generate a template to stamp out the bars, and after adding in the cost of the ingredients and labor, Bryan put in his first order of 500 – a mere 7 months after baking that first GROK bar in his home kitchen.

Soon after, GROK bars were found on the shelves at New Seasons Market, Made in Oregon stores and some local food co-ops.

The challenges and struggles of the food startup

Getting on those crowded shelves looks like a daunting task, but Bryan noted that “At first I was a little nervous, because I’m not really a cold-call salesman, but I had some other friends in the food industry, and they’re like, ‘You know, this is really easy. You just contact their food buyers, and say hey, I got a product. I think you might be interested in it.’ So I did that once or twice, and after that, I wasn’t nervous anymore.”

In the future, Bryan would love to get into national chains like Whole Foods and Costco, but at present he’s focusing more on direct-to-consumer sales because those margins lead to better profitability.

CTZnZYYW4AA99e4Also, like any product producer concerned about margins and brand, he’s constantly thinking about issues like price, shrinking the bar size (their 2.4 ounce bar is currently one of the largest in the market), upgrading the packaging, and expanding the flavors (right now there are just two – almond cranberry and hazelnut almond).

And as the business grows there’s always the hurdle of getting the appropriate capital and financing.  Bryan noted “The struggle has always been funding because I don’t want to take on investors. I’m just self-funding and growing organically, and my wife and some family members have helped out a little bit. So funding has been a bit of a barrier, but I think it could also be considered a good thing because it hasn’t like exploded the business to the point where I don’t know how to manage it. It’s allowed me to grow with the business as a manager, as the business grows itself”.

But in any case, GROK bars have quickly made their mark on a Oregon health bar market that was looking for great tasting paleo alternatives, exceeding Bryan’s originally modest expectations when he was cranking out bars in his kitchen.

“You know, when I first started, I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll make a handful of bars and see if some friends and family will buy them’, and, it would be so wonderful if I got into New Seasons and the Made in Oregon store. I achieved those goals much faster than I thought, and easier than I thought. So it kind of surprised me.”

“Although there were a couple of periods during the summer of last year where I was spending several days in the kitchen, making bars one by one, and then driving out to a lot of sporting events. I said ‘I can’t do this. I’m getting tired of this. I want to quit.’ But then once I transitioned to the co-packer and that weight got lifted, and the sales started going up, and I started getting into stores, I said ‘Okay, this is going…I like the trajectory of this”

Just get started: sharing perspective

Bryan also offers great advice to someone thinking about starting a food or product business of their own.

CTULYmwUYAA_LyE“I have a lot of friends and other people that dream about starting businesses, but they draw up a lot of roadblocks on why they can’t do it. And my advice is just to get started. You’ll find that once you get the ball in motion, people are willing to help you, and you overcome the roadblocks faster and easier than you thought you would, just with like any startup.”

And for this native-born Oregonian (he’s from Beaverton), his community, and the state’s reputation as a collaborative and helpful place to have ideas blossom, have also been a great plus.

“Oregon, and Portland in particular, has a really creative maker ethos behind it, and I’m sure that that helped tremendously. The colleagues that I leaned on, my graphic designers, my PR and marketing people and other people that helped me along the way, they’ve all started businesses as well. And so, here it’s ‘I scratch your back, you scratch my back.’ I have to believe that that spirit is much stronger here in Portland than it probably is in other places.”

Indeed, where else can a web designer with no previous experience in food products blend a personal lifestyle and diet choice with a strong desire to launch a product, come up with something as unique and flavorful as the GROK bar, and get it into the stores within 7 months of whipping up the first bar in his home kitchen?

Only in Oregon.  With thanks to the caveman, of course.

To find out more about GROK bars, visit their website, or find them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter

Little Boxes celebrates the vibrant Portland small business community with its black friday/small biz saturday promotion

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Editor’s Note: We profiled Little Boxes last year, and once again this annual Portland small business promotional event and prize raffle, featuring over 200 local and independent merchants, will take place on November 25th & 26th , 2016. You can find out more and download their app on their website, and you can also follow them on Twitter and on Facebook. Built Oregon is happy to be one of the sponsors of this event, and we’re reprising our 2015 profile below. 

It was early November 2011. Portland jewelry makers Betsy Cross and Will Cervarich were only 3 months removed from opening their first Betsy & Iya brick and mortar retail location in the northwest part of the city, on 24th and Thurman.

It had been a hectic and exhausting 3 months for this couple, who before opening the store had built a thriving wholesale business in Portland making and distributing their handcrafted jewelry to more than 100 locations around the country, and not surprisingly, Cross ended up getting ill and got her first day off at home in a long, long time.

She decided to camp out on her couch and watch TV. That was a decision that changed Cross & Cervarich’s lives.

As Cross explains, “There were already commercials happening for promoting Thanksgiving and Black Friday. And instead of just spacing out like you normally do with commercials that you don’t care about, I got mad. I thought, ‘What is it with Black Friday that every year, it gets worse and worse?’ It’s like, ‘Completely kill yourself to buy the best presents ever at the cheapest prices by staying up all night or waking up at four in the morning…’ ”

The anger generated a big question.

10805674_732905163466667_3671726183326341710_n“I felt a real sense of empowerment to focus on the shops that had given us so much support and business throughout the years”, Cross added. “I’d been in Portland for a long time. How come there’s nothing existing already for these kinds of shops? Why isn’t there a focus? We’re not going to be able to put our shops 50% off, or 40% off. But we don’t have to. Why? Because we have great shops, with a different experience.”

That night, Cervarich came home to hear a new idea for a group retail event on Black Friday.

Cross recalled, “Will came home and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And sometimes in our business relationship, one of us will have an idea and the other one will say, ‘Oh, that’s not a good idea. No way we can pull that off.’ ”

This time, he says ‘That’s genius’, and gets on the computer and immediately comes up with the raffle part of it.”

They also immediately emailed a few of their friends in their retail network to test the idea. “People wrote us back that night” Cross noted, “and said, ‘That’s a great idea and I’m in. So tell us what we need to do’ “

The event also needed a name. Cross recalls, “We were obviously thinking about ‘big box’ stores. And what is different (with the smaller stores)? What is special about gift giving? Little, special boxes wrapped in a particular way. That’s something that smaller shops are really good at.”

So it would be called “Little Boxes”, and something transformative was born.

Betsy Cross & Will Cervarich and their Betsy & Iya Retail Store in PDX

A different way to shop Black Friday

Just a few weeks later, the pair pulled off the first Little Boxes, pulling together the retail network, promoting the event all over town and in the press, and distributing paper booklets that recorded raffle entries for cool prizes to all who visited the 100 stores on that Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

It was a huge success. Cross added “We had shops telling us that they previously had horrible days on Black Friday, because people didn’t think to shop there. They put their energy into the bigger stores.”

And it had the added benefit of being a community experience, something actually enjoyable on a typically hyperactive shopping day. Cervarich notes, “Our whole idea is that shopping, especially on these two days where you’ve just spent time with family being thankful, and celebrating a year with family, shouldn’t about rushing to the store and getting coffeed up, and killing yourself to shop.”

In 2012 they did Little Boxes again, with an even larger network of stores, nearly 200. They also added the ability to gain extra raffle entries by buying merchandise at the stores – the more the person shopped at Little Boxes stores, the more chances they had to win.

The raffle is the big draw. Notes Cross, “It creates a light, fun-filled, game aspect. And I think our main thing was always not just the importance of supporting local, which is an important movement and an important part of our economy, but that our main messaging would be that our shops are just something special, and something different than the alternative shopping experience on Black Friday, especially.”

LB_Budd-+-Finn03By 2013 they topped 200 stores and added an iPhone app to make it easier for customers to find the stores and tally their raffle entries. Last year they tweaked the app with more features, and had even a few more stories participating, and now, in 2015, they are introducing an Android version of the app.

Through the years, Cervarich and Cross have made sure the messaging and tone of the event has was not about being negative about the big box experience on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. It’s meant to be an additive experience. Says Cervarich, “It’s always been important to us to stay positive. Our messaging never is negative on the big box stores.”

An act of leadership in an environment of trust

And, the couple has always made it clear that big profits were never, and still are not, the aim of Little Boxes. Cervarich notes, “It wasn’t about making money off of this idea. It was about doing something that we felt was going to be good for our shop, of course, but also going to be good for Portland shops. Especially shops that we had worked with (and continue to work with) for a number of years”

These two entrepreneurs were uniquely positioned to create this event because there are few other makers in Portland that have the kind of reach of the Betsy & Iya retail distribution network. And by being inspired, almost by divine providence, by a bad Black Friday TV commercial, they answered the call to pull that network (and many other retailers) together under a common banner, to generate a big local economic benefit that otherwise wouldn’t have existed without it.

It was an act of leadership, supported by a communal sense of trust. Says Cervarich, “There is an innate sense of trust (in the Little Boxes network), so when we came to a shop-owner, they weren’t being solicited by somebody who was only doing ads, or only doing something where it was taking money. We had worked with them, so we had a personal relationship, and we also were on their side.

1475786_732905446799972_2431213108730702047_n“And so I think that really helped our credibility. And people felt like, ‘Okay, well, these guys get it. It’s a promotion where it’s coming from the inside out.’ ”

The unique sense of collaboration and cooperation that distinguishes both Portland entrepreneurs and consumers also plays a huge role. Cervarich notes, “I give a lot of credit to Portland. If not in Portland, where else (could it have been successful)?

“Portland shoppers, they get it already. And so we just needed to give them a little push of a reason to go out on Black Friday. And that sense of community has been a huge reason why Little Boxes has become successful.”

And yes, Cross isn’t angry any longer. “It’s brought a ton of joy to our lives in the shop, and just the sheer excitement that we see on shoppers’ faces”, says Cross. “We’ve had a few people say, ‘I never even knew your shop existed and now I’m coming every year. I’m going to participate in Little Boxes every year’ “

You can find out more and download their app on their website,

Linking the physical and digital worlds: A conversation with Sce Pike of IoT startup IOTAS

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Recently we chatted with Sce Pike, CEO and founder of Portland tech company IOTAS, an Internet of Things (IoT) application designed to deliver the smart home experience to renters and the smart building experience to property owners. Pike caught the entrepreneurial bug in college and since then has started 4 companies, all leveraging her vision of IoT as a transformational technology with societal and environmental impacts that go well beyond profit. To that end, Pike will be a panelist talking about the New Clean Tech Economy at the upcoming GoGreen Conference in Portland on October 5th (Built Oregon is a sponsor – tickets available here).

I always like to ask about that particular moment in an entrepreneur’s career when the light goes on and they take the leap? What was that moment for you, and can you expand a bit on how your career journey brought you to that inflection point?

rtemagicc_iotas_sce_pike_web-jpgI’ve always been entrepreneurial. Perhaps it’s because my parents were immigrants and ‘owning a business’ was the only way they knew to provide for the family and also believed that was the American dream. They borrowed money from their family and friends to start a business, this was the only way they knew how to work. I suppose they instilled in me similar values. In my Senior year in college, 1997, I started a web development company. I started another company in 2000, then again in 2007, which was very successful, and IOTAS in 2014. I guess I have the 7 year itch for starting businesses.

Why such an interest in IoT?   You saw this as a “next big thing” well before most of us nearly 10 years ago.

Good question. My interest with IoT peaked when I was in the mobile telecom industry with Palm back in 2000. I saw mobile, specifically smart phones, as the next big thing and I knew that software, (applications and services) for mobile devices would be so much more valuable than just selling the hardware. In 2007 the iPhone showed everybody how to do that well. Seeing that change in the telecom world: from selling hardware to selling services to generate revenue, I wanted to take that same change to the real estate industry. The shift from selling only hardware to hardware + software yields exponential value. This is true for the real estate industry as well, instead of selling just 4 walls and a roof, if they can digitize their homes they can sell services and software that would generate limitless revenue. IoT is the only way to digitize buildings. It’s a way to create that layer of interaction between the physical and the digital worlds, and that’s where it becomes really interesting.

What role has Oregon (and Portland) played in developing your ventures ?

Portland has been great because it’s a place where people really care to experiment and connect, and they’re not financially motivated as long as it makes a valuable difference in people’s lives. It makes for a really good environment to innovate; you can find people who are passionate and willing to connect with you, and they’re willing to take a risk and do something different. We were lucky that Capstone Partners was willing to do this with us, and experiment with their building. It’s the people, they make a bigger difference than capital ever could.

Let’s talk about IOTAS – what led you to start this IoT venture, and what problem are you solving with this service for apartment developers and owners?

The typical age group for early adopters is 18-35, which fits the Millennial demographic. With this group, home ownership was only at 35%, since most of them were renting. They also live in the ‘Subscription Economy,’ where access to value is more important to them than ownership – e.g. the death of CDs and DVDs and rise of Netflix and Spotify. So what would be the perfect product for these Millennial early adopters?

I believed that the perfect product for early adopters would be an elegant Smart Home product which would be the gateway drug for IoT. It would not cost them thousands of dollars and should not be DIY. This product shouldn’t require them to install bunch of hardware, set it up, and then when they move next, force them to uninstall it, pack it, move it, reinstall it, and set it up again in their new rental.

A true Smart Home would also be a complete home. Rather than just one thermostat, a couple of lights, random devices, or outlets, a smart home would be 100% of lights, 100% of outlets and thermostats, with sensors throughout.

Luckily for me, at the same time that this was going through my head, Capstone Partners, an innovative Real Estate Developer in the Pacific Northwest, reached out to me to ask about a technology differentiation that they could market to their residents in an upcoming building. They made me realize that the Multi-Family-Home (MFH) industry is ready for a radical tech overhaul.

The next step was evaluating the MFH market size and understanding trends in the market. Based on my research, there is a trend towards Urbanization, where cities are the next big deal because resources are limited, and it’s more effective to share resources in cities versus a spread-out inefficient infrastructure like suburbs. This urbanization is a global trend and that means that Multi-Family-Homes will be growing in volume.

For developers and owners we hope to accomplish four things: 1) Get more people to the buildings. 2) Use the technology to show units faster and spend less time between showings. 3) Rent apartments for more because of the value added by our technology. 4) Make buildings cheaper to manage by automating tasks that are currently done by walking around the properties.

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There’s a big “green” piece of IOTAS – the electricity savings. Have you scoped the potential impact in reduced energy use as your company scales and its use is more widespread among the 24 Million apartments in the US? I bet that number is pretty big.

We actually only count 18 million apartments as our target market, because we focus on buildings with 5 dwellings or more. In our testing, we’ve found that our technology will save a minimum of 1.36kwh per sq. ft. per year, up to 6.74kwh per sq.ft. per year. On average, those apartments are 982 sq.ft. which totals 17.7 billion sq. ft. That comes to a potential energy savings of 119,000 gigawatt hours every year, which is enough to power all of New York City over that same period of time. That’s also $7.3 billion dollars of potential savings at 8 cents per kilowatt hour, the going rate for the northwest.

What does this social impact factor (the energy savings) mean to you relative to the “making money” side of the business? In other words, how will you personally define “success” for IOTAS?

aaeaaqaaaaaaaao5aaaajdnlmtnhmdvmltnjnzgtndjmyi04njdhlwexzjvhymvkmdy4oqFortunately for us, the two are completely linked. The more success we have, the more energy we save, and the more money we make. Personally, the more social impact we have the greater my satisfaction will be with IOTAS and what the team has created.

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur you can pass along to our readers?

People. Surrounding yourself with the right people is critical to success, not just in business but in all aspects of life.

Look into your crystal ball and give us your prediction as to when what you’ve called the “huge promise of IoT “ will finally be fulfilled? What needs to happen?

I predict that this will only take about five years to happen. But before the promise of IoT can be realized, there needs to be a standardization of IoT protocols across different industries. That is to say, once industry standards have been established for every step of the way from design, to manufacturing, to sales, to installation and implementation. For example: most smart technology companies have no idea that installation is even an issue because most of their products are currently only being installed one or two at a time. Technology moves fast, and our culture is so entwined now with technology that our acceptance rate for technology is moving just as fast.

You can find out more about IOTAS on their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Tech, foodies and makers converge into a Perfect Oregon cupcake

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Can technology merge successfully with the foodie and maker movements to create a transformative consumer product that changes the way we work in our kitchens?  The Perfect Company is working to do just that.

We recently visited the test kitchen of Perfect Company to bake some gluten-free and vegan cupcakes using their Perfect Bake product, featuring many Oregon-based ingredients, with head of recipe development Matthew Barbee, and COO and co-founder Miriam Kim.

IMG_4602Perfect’s business is to design and develop smart products for the smart home. Through their cool products–such as the Perfect Bake and Perfect Drink, their aim is to bring  “perfection to your kitchen as well as your lifestyle”.  The products merge a simple and elegant scale with a smartphone or iPad app, and walks you through every step of the baking or drink-making process, measuring each ingredient by weight and (literally) telling you when to stop as you put them into the bowl or glass.

It’s also a product and company that’s caught the attention of Oregon angel investors – in November of 2015, the Oregon Angel Fund led a $4 Million investment round which will help the company expand its marketing reach and create new products, including the Perfect Blend, launching later this year.

perfect coverWhile making the peanut butter frosting for our cupcakes, we also chatted with Miriam Kim about the Perfect Company story, their innovative food & beverage products and technologies, and how they were able to go from idea to production of their first Perfect product in just 10 months (you don’t want to miss that part).

And oh yes, the cupcakes were delicious.

You can find Perfect on their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter

Here’s the interview:

And, here’s a list of the Oregon-based products we used in the cupcakes:

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Bob’s Red Mill Flours

Holy Kakow Cacao Powder

Jacobsen Salt

So Delicious Almond and Coconut Milk

Ristretto Roasters Coffee

Aunt Patty’s Coconut Oil

Singing Dog Vanilla

Oregon Olive Mill Olive Oil

Phoenix Egg Farm

Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters

(full disclosure: Terry is an investor in the 2015 Oregon Angel Fund, which has invested in the Perfect Company)

 

 

Lumencor shines a transcendent light on a sustainable path to success

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Back in 2007, a fledgling company took the leap and relocated to Oregon from California, bringing with them a revolutionary product idea and a desire to live and work in a state that could provide them with the best chance to see that idea blossom and thrive.

Today, nine years later that company Lumencor Inc. manufactures its innovative light engine in a 30,000 square foot facility in Beaverton, turning the long dominant, mercury-based lamp world on its head, with not only a superior light source, but one that is significantly more energy efficient and better for the environment, because it doesn’t use mercury (or a bunch of other toxic materials) at all.

To fully conceptualize this you need to erase the image of a traditional light bulb out of your mind, because this light engine is not remotely like a bulb. The light engine features “instant on/off excitation” via electronic control so that energy is consumed (and this is the really cool part) only when illumination is needed.

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Recently we visited Lumencor for a chat with one of its co-founders, Claudia Jaffe, to find out more about the company, its technology, and its exciting potential as an enabler for even more impactful discoveries and breakthroughs in the bio-tech and manufacturing arenas.

Jaffe, who earned her doctorate in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh, is an inventor in nearly all of Lumencor’s patents. She is Lumencor’s Executive Vice President and oversees new business development as well as sales and marketing.

Her husband Steve Jaffe is her fellow co-founder and CEO, so the company retains many of the close knit and humanized characteristics of a family-run business, despite its growth to 60 employees (and still growing) scattered around this large facility.

A better match of business, place and capital

We started by asking Jaffe about their move from California to Oregon in 2007, and their subsequent investment by the Oregon Angel Fund (OAF). It was the very first investment by the then fledgling fund.

“We made a conscious decision to leave California and move to Portland. It is recognized as one of three or four top optics centers in the country and it was an entrée to a whole network of talent in the technical community as well as in finance, legal, marketing, all kinds of services that you need to foster and grow your business. (It’s) a place where we could develop hardware with access to optics, electronics, software and mechanics expertise.

(In Oregon) there’s a desire to build the biotech industry and that’s the market we serve. The investment community was a better match for our initial need than in Silicon Valley. That’s how we found Oregon Angel Fund, and Eric Rosenfeld (the co-founder and manager) has been a tremendous supporter since day one, since we first came scouting and met with him.”

Armed with that initial financing, Jaffe and her team went about developing and selling the technology in suburban Portland. But as with any startup and with any new technology, there had to be an underlying problem they were trying to solve. How did they approach this question, and the even more intriguing question – why hadn’t it been solved before?

“We build lighting that solves certain problems that are just fundamental to LEDs (Light-emitting diodes), but we came to this problem with an integrator’s approach to a solution. We said, ‘We’ll build a modular product so that if the customer needs only red and green light, we can satisfy that. Essentially we have a tool box and can pick and choose aspects of the lighting that specifically suit a given application.’

As a business proposition, there has been a big obstacle to solving this problem. Lighting manufacturers like to build a single product, for example a lamp based on a bulb. Then they just find many, many wall sockets in which to plug. That’s not our approach; we’re integrators.

What we do is talk to the customer, typically an equipment manufacturer, like a microscope company. We ask, ‘What are you trying to solve? What is the technical obstacle? What does the instrument look like? What does it need in terms of the color spectrum, spectral purity, brightness, fast switching time?’ It’s all of these technical performance traits that go into tailoring the light to suit the need. We call it “Tailored Illumination” because we offer control over the spectral, spatial and temporal aspects of the light. In the past lighting couldn’t be so carefully controlled in large part because it was mostly in the form of a simple bulb.

87725-5506057So when you say, ‘Why wasn’t this problem solved before?’, I have to answer because there were so many different aspects, both business and technical, that needed a customized solution, one tailored to the equipment manufacturers’ needs; and those needs vary. Today we have over 100 customers – equipment manufacturers, many individual researchers, labs, hospitals, universities. We offer off-the-shelf products for a larger group of customers but for the smaller group with large volume needs, like the equipment manufacturers, we build a unique product for every one of them. Not a lot of manufacturers of hardware want to do that.”

That begged the question – why don’t they?

“They want to build one kind of lamp. Again, I think our novelty is that we’re very solutions-oriented. You hear it all the time, but we truly are. We tailor our products for the equipment needs, the equipment specifications, and we’re very nimble in manufacturing, very modular in manufacturing and we’ve always had that posture. It’s one thing to impose that after you’ve built the first product, but it’s another thing to envision product with that in mind first.”

Jaffe then spoke about this “old” technology, the good old light bulb, and why Lumencor’s solution is better.

“Lamp manufacturers think about a bulb, and that bulb provides white light. It provides a lot of light in spectral regions that aren’t useful.

(So we said), let’s build white light not from one bulb, one source, but from six different colors as six unique sources, as an example. And if you only need three different colors, we’ll just give you those. There’s no wasted light, because the spectrum that is provided is based on the instrument need or the analysis need as the customer defines it.

Further, it’s electronically controlled so it runs off a DC power supply, not (traditional) AC, much quieter. And it’s electronically pulsed, so you can trigger it on or gate it on and off. When it’s off, it’s because the lights are truly off, not because it’s blocked. All that savings in energy and heat and spectral purity, it’s just a completely different posture for how to provide the light.”

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An enabler of transformative discoveries and inventions

With this better light source, Lumencor becomes an enabler of some grander discoveries and inventions. Jaffe elaborated on this, and those things that have made her sit back in her chair and say, “If it wasn’t for us, this wouldn’t have happened”.

“Well, if it wasn’t for us, some of the kinds of experiments that you can do today wouldn’t be happening. We are truly enabling drug discovery, as one example. Let’s say you want to identify drugs that interact with cells in a certain way. What’s the best way to do that? Watch the cells. But for the most part, the biology hasn’t been done that way – historically you would have a sample of tissue and put it on a microscope slide or create a milkshake literally of cells and add things to it and then test that.

But with our products, the light is kinder, gentler, less disruptive to actual real-time cellular function. Because the light can actually probe at video rates, real-time events in cells, you can literally watch cellular events that you didn’t use to be able to. Tumors are cells gone wild, and with our lighting, you can actually watch the cells replicate in real time and do so in the presence and absence of some potential drug. You cannot do that with a simple lamp.

It’s really interrogating the cell of a tissue in a way that allows you to optically discriminate what you couldn’t see just with the naked eye. This is enabled by the process of fluorescence. Its possible to impose fluorescence in cells or in tissues, to label them if you will with light reactive tags, that allow you to discriminate at a molecular level what’s happening to that biology. The quality of the light very much influences how well you can detect those cellular events.”

A commitment to sustainability

The other side benefit of the technology is its sustainability and environmental friendliness, attributes that Jaffe and Lumencor have leveraged into an overall “green” approach that extends all the way to the packing materials and the building it occupies. Jaffe explains,

lumencor“We built this company, used solid-state components and never used mercury in anything that we ever built. We’re lucky, in that our light engines are relatively low power consuming, they don’t generate heat, and they’re all clean tech. We’ve only ever shipped in recyclable materials and it’s a green kind of process and philosophy we use throughout our organization. It’s a value that we have, a value that the whole organization has, and we just are always thinking about that when we start new processes, ‘How can we do it in a way that is consistent with that value?’

But what about the higher costs to live up to this philosophy?

“The money proposition is very short-sighted. I don’t think there’s any question that, in the long term, it is cheaper to do with a “green” solution. Yes, for the initial investment it may be a little more expensive to buy “sustainable” product. But the overall impact has to include costly waste disposal, long term energy consumption, instrument down-time during maintenance, replacement parts. Plus it goes back to how passionate are you about (being green) – is it really a value for you? I have to believe the scientific community that supports life sciences values this too.“

Following your passion

Lastly, nine years on in Oregon, Jaffe offered advice to those folks that that are thinking about taking the kind of big technological leaps that they took, but perhaps are reluctant because it just seems too hard, even though they have a great idea.

“Isn’t that where all the joy and value comes from, doing something that’s hard? And I also think you have got to follow your passion. I have two little girls, they’re 12 and 14, and I tell them that all the time. ‘Figure out what you love to do and then just do a lot of it. Whether it’s mathematics, arts, music or history, whatever it is, if you have passion and volume, you just discover things more deeply and do them more thoroughly. Do it intensely for a long period of time and expertise will come.’ And that’s what brings you to good work, right?

Before this job, I hadn’t worked for any organization, (I had many different jobs), for longer than two years. I’ve been here nine years and I can’t wait to get to work. We have a very respectful work environment, the people are all great and we know we’re doing valuable work. That makes it much easier to be committed.”

The story of Lumencor epitomizes the promise of Oregon entrepreneurship and its unique take on the role of people, place and the environment, as well as the important role of angel funds like OAF, and the other Oregonians who are willing to invest risk capital to help turn that promise into many successes.

It’s a story that shines an altogether different light than what comes out of their Beaverton factory, but it’s a very bright and illuminating light nonetheless.

To learn more about Lumencor, visit its website at lumencor.com.

FoodWorx: Re-thinking how (and why) you eat

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When people travel, usually uppermost in their minds is what they plan to see — landmark buildings, famous attractions, perhaps well-known works of art. Food is, for many, a secondary consideration of travel. They may want to eat well, but it is not always the main focus of a trip.

That is, unless they fall into a rapidly growing category called food travel. Food travel is the concept that says no matter where you go, you need to eat and drink. So why not enjoy a unique, local food experience and make a memory of it?

That philosophy is why Erik Wolf founded the World Food Travel Association, a Portland-based organization that he leads as Executive Director.

“There are people who travel to go to museums, there are people who travel for shopping, and there are people who travel to New York and London for theater,” Wolf says. “Well, I’m one of those people that travels for food. I end up in grocery stores. I end up in restaurants. I end up on food tours. I end up in food factories.”

The Post-it Note® brainstorm that blended two passions

Erik Wolf

Erik Wolf

Wolf already knew himself to be a “foodie.” Once, after a 15-hour flight to Singapore, rather than immediately collapse on his hotel bed, he noticed a large grocery store across the street and made a beeline for it.

“Jet lag didn’t matter. I was like a kid in a new amusement park. I was going around and seeing the different brands for sale, the different fruits on offer, all the unusual beverages. It was fascinating.”

At that point, however, it wasn’t necessarily a way to make a living. Wolf was working in the tech world in San Francisco. Then in 2001, he “smelled a layoff” and decided to uproot his life and start anew. He moved to Portland, Oregon, found an apartment, and put giant Post-It Notes on the walls to write down his passions and brainstorm a new career.

“What do I like doing? Where do I have connections? What am I good at? And it always came back to food and travel.”

Wolf decided to create a non-profit organization that blended his two passions.

“I wrote a white paper about Culinary Tourism to prove the value to our emerging industry and its potential economic impact. It was a popular paper that was sent around the world more times than I can remember.”

Within two years, he had formed a non-profit association: the International Culinary Tourism Association, which was re-branded as the World Food Travel Association (WFTA) in 2012. Since its inception as an education and trade resource, WFTA has grown to become the world’s leading authority on culinary tourism. It has published culinary travel guides, research on food and beverage tourism, produced dozens of events and conducted seminars to help food-related businesses get the word out to travelers.

A different form of sightseeing

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So what exactly is food travel? It is about helping travelers learn about and explore a local area’s food and beverage culture. That does not necessarily mean meals costing hundreds of dollars per person in a fancy restaurant. According to the WFTA, that kind of customer represents less than ten percent of the overall dining market. And since roughly 25 percent of any travel budget is spent on food, Wolf saw promoting local food and drink as a way to boost local economies and enhance the travelers’ experience.

It was an area of tourism promotion that was still ripe for development. The traditional focus of most tourism offices was on lodging and attractions. At best, there might be a small brochure naming a few restaurants, with no way of telling if those places had paid for the privilege of being listed. Chain restaurants were plentiful.

“When we talk to tourism offices now, often we have to reeducate them. Because they think: ‘Oh, we want the gourmet traveler’ or ‘We should be promoting our 150 cuisines!’ ”

Instead, Wolf says the best thing tourism offices can do is ‘plant the seed’ for good local dining, whether it’s the food cart/street vendor scene, or an area’s famous Key Lime pie. At first, it was an uphill battle. Then the recession of 2007 hit. Tourist offices closed, or their budgets were severely slashed. To cope, they began to look for different things to promote. The WFTA was already poised to help them discover how to package and promote local food cultures to travelers.

Not that all travelers are willing to go outside their comfort zone.

“You will not convince all people to try local food. Some people do all-inclusive packages and that’s fine for them. But then, there’s a level of consumer that does care about where things come from—how food is made and where it’s sourced.”

FoodWorx and the impact of food

Those people are the target markets for the food and beverage tourism industry. The numbers are growing each year. The WFTA expanded its services with lectures and a one-day conference called FoodWorx that explores all issues food-related.

ew photo 13“There are all these food and drink events. Most are great but there’s more to discuss than just sitting there and eating fancy foods and drinking expensive wines. We want to know, what did it take to get that to you? Who was involved in the production of that food? How much fuel was spent to get it to you? And help consumers realize how food impacts their everyday lives.”

FoodWorx 2016 is the fourth annual conference and is expected to attract about 450 people to hear nine speakers and two panels discuss a variety of food issues.

“We take food and combine it with another industry. Whether it’s food and industry, food and tourism, food and technology, food and music, food and health. And then we find an expert to talk about that. Local food and drink samples pepper the day’s talks.”

Who attends?

“It runs the gamut. You get concerned citizens, teachers, retirees, students, journalists and everyday people. You get foodies, restaurant owners, winery people. Plus, a lot of food and drink manufacturers, who come to learn about new industry trends. People travel from all over the world to attend.”

This year’s FoodWorx will be held Saturday, February 20 2016 at the Smith Memorial Union at Portland State University. Live streaming will be available for delegates who cannot attend in person. The forum has become so popular that other cities including Barcelona and Bilbao in Spain want to host their own local FoodWorx, as does Jakarta, Indonesia.

More impact, more innovation

When Wolf founded WTFA, the local food movement was truly in its infancy. Oddly enough, the tragedy of 9-11 had a big impact on people’s interest in food.

“It made people go back in and think about what’s comfortable—family and food. And the local food movement just mushroomed tremendously after 9-11. While he acknowledges that the WFTA can’t take the credit for the local food movement, he does believe that the WFTA was the early trendsetter in promoting food as attraction.”

EW photo 1Wolf says many people talk about the profound impact that the WFTA has had on the world’s tourism industry. “It’s fulfilling to know that we were there at the table, ushering in professionals, helping them to see the potential of promoting food and drink as attractions. And now, as our organization is 14 years old, we have to continue to reinvent ourselves, not rest on our laurels, (and) make sure we’re continuing to innovate, make sure that we’re bringing new and relevant products to market.”

Where does Wolf want this all to lead?

“World domination!”

But in all seriousness, Wolf sees almost unlimited potential for Food Travel. The WFTA has a new annual publication coming out in 2016, titled: Food Trekking in Cascadia. It focuses on the food and drink culture of our Cascadian region. While he may have started out thinking of the overseas traveler’s food experience, Wolf is adamant you don’t have to be a world traveler to be a food tourist. For some, it may mean just heading across town to a new neighborhood to try a new café or pub or wine bar.

Wolf is a firm believer that good food is everywhere—if you know where to look. His life’s mission is to show you where.

Many thanks to KC Cowan for her help and support on this piece

For more information on FoodWorx 2016, visit http://www.FoodWorxConference.com, or find them on Twitter or Facebook .  Built Oregon is one of the marketing sponsors of this event. 

Little Boxes: a Portland small business promotion built on community

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It was early November 2011. Portland jewelry makers Betsy Cross and Will Cervarich were only 3 months removed from opening their first Betsy & Iya brick and mortar retail location in the northwest part of the city, on 24th and Thurman.

It had been a hectic and exhausting 3 months for this couple, who before opening the store had built a thriving wholesale business in Portland making and distributing their handcrafted jewelry to more than 100 locations around the country, and not surprisingly, Cross ended up getting ill and got her first day off at home in a long, long time.

She decided to camp out on her couch and watch TV. That was a decision that changed Cross & Cervarich’s lives.

As Cross explains, “There were already commercials happening for promoting Thanksgiving and Black Friday. And instead of just spacing out like you normally do with commercials that you don’t care about, I got mad. I thought, ‘What is it with Black Friday that every year, it gets worse and worse?’ It’s like, ‘Completely kill yourself to buy the best presents ever at the cheapest prices by staying up all night or waking up at four in the morning…’ ”

The anger generated a big question.

10805674_732905163466667_3671726183326341710_n“I felt a real sense of empowerment to focus on the shops that had given us so much support and business throughout the years”, Cross added. “I’d been in Portland for a long time. How come there’s nothing existing already for these kinds of shops? Why isn’t there a focus? We’re not going to be able to put our shops 50% off, or 40% off. But we don’t have to. Why? Because we have great shops, with a different experience.”

That night, Cervarich came home to hear a new idea for a group retail event on Black Friday.

Cross recalled, “Will came home and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And sometimes in our business relationship, one of us will have an idea and the other one will say, ‘Oh, that’s not a good idea. No way we can pull that off.’ ”

This time, he says ‘That’s genius’, and gets on the computer and immediately comes up with the raffle part of it.”

They also immediately emailed a few of their friends in their retail network to test the idea. “People wrote us back that night” Cross noted, “and said, ‘That’s a great idea and I’m in. So tell us what we need to do’ “

The event also needed a name. Cross recalls, “We were obviously thinking about ‘big box’ stores. And what is different (with the smaller stores)? What is special about gift giving? Little, special boxes wrapped in a particular way. That’s something that smaller shops are really good at.”

So it would be called “Little Boxes”, and something transformative was born.

Betsy Cross & Will Cervarich and their Betsy & Iya Retail Store in PDX

A different way to shop Black Friday

Just a few weeks later, the pair pulled off the first Little Boxes, pulling together the retail network, promoting the event all over town and in the press, and distributing paper booklets that recorded raffle entries for cool prizes to all who visited the 100 stores on that Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

It was a huge success. Cross added “We had shops telling us that they previously had horrible days on Black Friday, because people didn’t think to shop there. They put their energy into the bigger stores.”

And it had the added benefit of being a community experience, something actually enjoyable on a typically hyperactive shopping day. Cervarich notes, “Our whole idea is that shopping, especially on these two days where you’ve just spent time with family being thankful, and celebrating a year with family, shouldn’t about rushing to the store and getting coffeed up, and killing yourself to shop.”

In 2012 they did Little Boxes again, with an even larger network of stores, nearly 200. They also added the ability to gain extra raffle entries by buying merchandise at the stores – the more the person shopped at Little Boxes stores, the more chances they had to win.

The raffle is the big draw. Notes Cross, “It creates a light, fun-filled, game aspect. And I think our main thing was always not just the importance of supporting local, which is an important movement and an important part of our economy, but that our main messaging would be that our shops are just something special, and something different than the alternative shopping experience on Black Friday, especially.”

12247954_912416902182158_2552210165008866107_oBy 2013 they topped 200 stores and added an iPhone app to make it easier for customers to find the stores and tally their raffle entries. Last year they tweaked the app with more features, and had even a few more stories participating, and now, in 2015, they are introducing an Android version of the app.

Through the years, Cervarich and Cross have made sure the messaging and tone of the event has was not about being negative about the big box experience on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. It’s meant to be an additive experience. Says Cervarich, “It’s always been important to us to stay positive. Our messaging never is negative on the big box stores.”

An act of leadership in an environment of trust

And, the couple has always made it clear that big profits were never, and still are not, the aim of Little Boxes. Cervarich notes, “It wasn’t about making money off of this idea. It was about doing something that we felt was going to be good for our shop, of course, but also going to be good for Portland shops. Especially shops that we had worked with (and continue to work with) for a number of years”

These two entrepreneurs were uniquely positioned to create this event because there are few other makers in Portland that have the kind of reach of the Betsy & Iya retail distribution network. And by being inspired, almost by divine providence, by a bad Black Friday TV commercial, they answered the call to pull that network (and many other retailers) together under a common banner, to generate a big local economic benefit that otherwise wouldn’t have existed without it.

It was an act of leadership, supported by a communal sense of trust. Says Cervarich, “There is an innate sense of trust (in the Little Boxes network), so when we came to a shop-owner, they weren’t being solicited by somebody who was only doing ads, or only doing something where it was taking money. We had worked with them, so we had a personal relationship, and we also were on their side.

1475786_732905446799972_2431213108730702047_n“And so I think that really helped our credibility. And people felt like, ‘Okay, well, these guys get it. It’s a promotion where it’s coming from the inside out.’ ”

The unique sense of collaboration and cooperation that distinguishes both Portland entrepreneurs and consumers also plays a huge role. Cervarich notes, “I give a lot of credit to Portland. If not in Portland, where else (could it have been successful)?

“Portland shoppers, they get it already. And so we just needed to give them a little push of a reason to go out on Black Friday. And that sense of community has been a huge reason why Little Boxes has become successful.”

And yes, Cross isn’t angry any longer. “It’s brought a ton of joy to our lives in the shop, and just the sheer excitement that we see on shoppers’ faces”, says Cross. “We’ve had a few people say, ‘I never even knew your shop existed and now I’m coming every year. I’m going to participate in Little Boxes every year’ “

Little Boxes 2015 will be November 27th & 28th, and you can find out more on their website, and on Twitter and Facebook, or you can just download one of their apps here. Built Oregon is happy to be a primary sponsor of this event. See you in the stores!

Why relationships should matter more than transactions – a chat with Charlie Brown of Context Partners

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The greatest innovations come from the density of ideas, and the people connecting around it” – Charlie Brown, Context Partners

When you first meet Charlie Brown, the founder of Context Partners, a NE Portland-based design firm, you’re instantly drawn in by his passion and perspective for building successful organizations through the power of relationships, derived from watching his entrepreneur parents as he grew up in West Virginia, and spending 15 years working with social entrepreneurs all over the planet.

As Brown explains, “I was raised by parents who were very active in our local community and they often dragged me along to meetings. Sitting quietly in the corner I saw how change actually occurs. The world doesn’t change because of one person’s idea or effort—it happens through individuals working together towards a shared goal.”

“While it certainly took a number of years to come to the conclusion that our myth of the hero was more often than not just that, a myth, it sparked an interest about what makes organizations a success and change happen. Through an early career with a dot com, then spending years with social entrepreneurs around the world I saw the most successful organizations harnessed the power of their communities, their social networks, to make their mark on the world.”

Brown has a clear vision of how to use what he calls “community-centered design” to help build powerful relationships, communities and human networks for his clients, and started Context Partners purposefully in Portland in 2010, because it was a place that best reflected that vision, particularly in its unique spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

How success is defined for a client depends on the organization. Brown notes, “Success might be noted by increases in brand loyalty, membership or employee retention or innovations being sourced from new channels. But at the core will always be the ability to track the engagement of the client’s community directly to achieving business results or social impact. At the end of the day it is all about the relationships that are the difference between success and failure for an organization.”

I first met Brown a couple of months ago with the idea of doing a longer written story about Context Partners, but after my first 10 minutes with him I knew there was only one way we could present the rest of his story, his ideas, and his perspective and do them justice – we needed to do a video.

So, Mitch and I made a follow up visit and captured this interview with Brown, to continue our talks on a range of topics related to social movements and entrepreneurship, as well as a conversation about the state (and future) of the Portland/Oregon entrepreneurial ecosystem.

You can also find Context Partners on their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

When chemistry meets creativity: Bullseye Glass’ quest to balance business with a higher purpose

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Dan Schwoerer moved to Portland from his native Wisconsin in 1969 to make glass art, and with a partner he rented an old tire warehouse on the southwest side for $25 a month.

He had recently been in a graduate art program at the University of Wisconsin working with renowned glass artist and educator Harvey Littleton, who was driven to take the manufacturing of glass out of its industrial setting and put it within the reach of the studio artist.

As Schwoerer recalls, “We lived upstairs, my partner and I, and built a glass blowing studio underneath. We went to art fairs all around the west coast and the Midwest.

“That’s how we ran into people who were trying to make leaded stained glass and they couldn’t get the glass. There were only three manufacturers of colored glass at the time, and they were all over 100 years old, and they weren’t about to gear up for a bunch of hippies.

“So we said hey, here’s an opportunity to start a business where we could actually make some money and that can support our glass blowing habit.

And he says with a smile, “I’m still waiting to make that money”.

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Its been a 46 year quest for Schwoerer and the company he eventually co-founded in 1974 to make that colored glass, Bullseye Glass Company, to achieve a delicate balance of art, education and commerce.

While he and his partner for the last 31 years Lani McGregor say they’re still looking for that equilibrium, the company’s longevity and resilience speaks for itself, a testament to their passion for glass, chemistry and creativity.

Learning, teaching, nurturing, and innovating

The company has always taught and nurtured the artists who shared their love of glass, informally at first, and then more formally in 1990, when it created a department of research and education, led by McGregor.

Since then they have opened galleries (most notably in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, now named Bullseye Projects), research centers in Santa Fe, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a research and education center adjacent to their glass factory in SE Portland.

Says Schwoerer, “We always had an educational element, because the 3 of us (Schwoerer and his original partners, who both exited early on), came from a graduate art program – so we ran it that way. It was about that whole concept, learning and dispensing that knowledge to friends and cohorts as quick as you could.

“You would literally be learning things on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and teaching them on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There was such a lack of knowledge, especially in glass. It was industrialized, and it wasn’t a craft media. Glass was always a mystery – its forming, its making – the Venetians kept it a secret.

“Glass compositions haven’t changed in hundreds of years, but when it comes to colored glass, then it gets very complicated and very sophisticated.”

All that learning led to Bullseye’s major technical innovation in the early 80s – the first company in the world to develop a glass specifically designed for the process called kiln forming.

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

McGregor notes “That’s not putting glasses together with lead as is done with stained glass, but actually fusing disparate pieces of colored glass together, so that they fuse together.”

And, adds Schwoerer, “What we were able to do was to come up with a very simple method to test whether the glass was compatible or not. Because initially you had to send stuff to a laboratory, which would take 2 or 3 weeks before you’d get the results.”

From these innovations came the first line of “tested compatible” glasses ever developed by any factory in the world. It turned out to be quite a mixed blessing for the company.

Giving it all away…for a higher purpose

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

“In one way it put Bullseye on the map, but in another way, it almost bankrupted it.” McGregor recalls. “It was something that came very, very close to bringing this company down, but it also was the thing that made everything in this gallery possible, everything in our educational programs, and it is now the thing that is sustaining our entire industry, because we’ve been followed by companies that can’t make a living making glass or stained glass any more, so we’re chased by other manufacturers.”

It was a chase for a relatively small market, since the users of this glass were mostly artisans – Schwoerer estimates the whole industry size is “maybe” $10 Million.

And then there was Schwoerer’s impulse, impassioned by this idea and his educational bent, to share the innovation.

Remarks McGregor, “Now if you had gone to business school you would have taken this and created a product and put it out there and not told anybody how you were making this magic product, but if you were art school graduates, you would write a book telling everyone exactly how it was done.”

That’s exactly what Schwoerer the art school graduate did, in co-authoring and publishing “Glass Fusing Book One”, still considered an essential reference book on the subject. They also went around the country and around the world, personally teaching the process. In effect, they gave it all away, for the good of the craft.

Because they really never wanted to be a business in the first place.

As McGregor succinctly points out, “It ain’t the money” that drives them forward. Schwoerer notes, “We’re totally impassioned. Our goal really is to make sure glass stays up at a very high plateau, so it doesn’t just become a hobby craft.”

McGregor quickly adds “There’s nothing wrong with the hobby craft market, it just that it’s that kind of activity that killed stained glass, frankly – that it went at some point to a hobby craft level. Everything was being chased at the entry level. All the creativity and exploration was taken out of it.

“Our biggest concern is that this doesn’t happen to this (kiln forming) method, that we’re very tied to, and hence, our involvement with the Portland Art Museum, other museums (for example, their recent participation in a Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibit in Portland this summer), and going to international caliber art fairs, to show this work at this level.

“So we’re in this odd conundrum of trying to support the upper end, where there is no money, but at the same time to not lose the income from the marketplace where the money is, and it’s a very delicate balancing point.”

The quest for balance

Has Bullseye achieved this balance, more than 30 years after the innovation that set them apart?

Says Schwoerer, “We’re still searching for it. We have spurts and fits and starts of it, things where we get a project or two that is high end”.

A great example of this higher end work is the beautiful 9 by 15 foot kiln glass panel behind the registration desk at the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland, designed by Portland artist Ellen George.

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

Nevertheless, according to McGregor, “The major part of our income comes from selling to distributors, dealers, and resellers who sell to people doing this at a hobby level”.

It’s the art studio level that Schwoerer and McGregor are still working to develop, especially locally. Specifically, McGregor notes “Studios that are creating both their individual art work and craft work, and also working as fabrication studios for others not in glass. We’ve worked with and helped to grow a few studios along those lines, here in Portland- there are more here because of our presence and the presence of another glass manufacturer.”

A great example of where glass art and commerce can mesh in the studio world would be for architectural elements, like backsplash tiles in a kitchen, for example.

Schwoerer notes “Every city should have a half dozen of those studios, working with the Ann Sacks level of tile outlets and others where they can make something unique. Glass is a perfect material for it because it cleans easily – it’s a material that belongs in architecture, in homes.

“And with us as the primary manufacturer of the feed stock, the raw material, you can buy a kiln for $1,000 and start producing tile in your basement, in your garage, or even in your kitchen. Every day you can be making some tile.”

Photo Aug 26, 10 30 16 AMAdds McGregor, “We all think that customization is what is really increasingly in demand. People want something that is personal – they don’t want to buy the latest thing out of West Elm or Crate & Barrel where you’re going to walk in and see your neighbors.

“What small craft studios can do is to supplement – they may not get the entire job, but they can do the accent pieces.”

Cultivating, selling to, and continuing to educate the maker community directly will be the key to not only growing Bullseye’s revenues to keep the business sustainable for another 46 years, but to keep this beautiful and hand crafted colored glass at the same artistic level as other mediums found in high end galleries and museums.

Because for Schwoerer and McGregor, it’s still about the love of the craft, the educators need to teach, and the chemistry of glass. That’s what has sustained them, through all the ups and downs, for all these years, and will keep driving them forward, to whatever future the business may deliver in their quest.

You can find out more about Bullseye Glass Company at their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook

Tender Loving Empire takes a walk on the artist’s side

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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

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Brianne and Jared Mees

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.”

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Tender Loving Empire’s West End Store, next to Radish Underground on SW 10th Ave.

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’

Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro

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.

You can find Tender Loving Empire on their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Their grand opening party for the 23rd Ave location is on September 17th