Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Category - Editor’s Notes

Cracking the entrepreneurial code: an interview with Augusto Carneiro, co-founder of Nossa Familia

Photo Oct 16, 11 05 50 AM

When you walk into Nossa Familia’s espresso bar and roasting facility in Northwest Portland’s Pearl District, the atmosphere is thick with an intoxicating aroma. It’s the farm-to-roaster-to-espresso machine-to table cycle in full display, punctuated by the smiling and friendly faces of the employees there. But there is more than just delicious coffee to be found.

Behind the coffee shop is the roastery, distribution center, and corporate offices. Partnering with Community Vision, a local organization that finds meaningful employment for adults with disabilities, Nossa Familia hires their clients on a daily basis to stamp bags needed for bulk distribution and do other tasks.

IMG_7311 (1)In addition, Nossa Familia has an entire classroom set up with brewing equipment and espresso makers. They teach classes so that anyone can learn to be an expert barista in their own home (see nossacoffee.com for more info on all the services they offer).

It’s a grounded, sustainable and growing business that has been 11 years in the making, led by co-founder and CEO Augusto Carneiro.

Carneiro was raised in Rio de Janeiro, but came to Oregon in 1996 where he attended the University of Portland and earned a degree in engineering. He also met his wife in college. Soon after graduation they were married and became a successful professional couple with good jobs. They bought their own home and started a family. Carneiro was achieving what many of us hope to secure—an education, a career, a home, and family.

And yet for Carneiro, something was amiss.

We recently had a chance to chat with Carneiro at his facility over some fresh brewed espresso; here is a condensed and edited account of a fascinating and engaging founder story and interview.

Winging it in a competitive market

Built Oregon: Thanks for joining us today. So why on earth were you thinking about going off on your own and leaving that secure situation? What was it all about?

Carneiro: I’d wake up in the morning, and it was so hard to get out of bed to go to my engineering job. The company was a fine company. They had good educational programs. I just wasn’t built for it.

Nobody likes to be disappointed with where they are in life. But my advice is, if you are really dreading your day job, just start smiling and figuring out that you have an opportunity to say, “okay, this sucks”. So you’ve already tried something in life that you know you don’t like. Start thinking about other things that you would like.

Built Oregon: Oregon has an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is creative and inspiring, where many people decide to take on established verticals, business sectors that most everyone would perceive to be very, very hard to get into – like coffee, for instance. (There are more than 60 roasters in Portland.)

So why in the world did you get into coffee?

Carneiro: Ignorance is bliss. I think part of it is “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

One of my traits is not to worry about the details. So it’s surprising that I made it through engineering school. And it’s not surprising that I didn’t enjoy being an engineer.

IMG_2541I was already seeing that being an engineer was not, perhaps, the path, and so I talked to a cousin, who had started a roasting company in Brazil. He already had a very successful export company exporting green coffee beans, and (during a trip to Brazil in 2004) we sat down to talk about potentially selling coffee in the U.S.

He was very supportive and sent me to the U.S. with a box. I had a box of 70 pounds of coffee, and it was roasted and vacuum packed. I gave most of it away to family and friends and neighbors, sold some of it, and got really great reviews.

Built Oregon: So it was really just, “Here, take this back with you. See what you can do with it.”

Carneiro: Yes.

Built Oregon: So at the time you were, like, “Okay. I’ll try.” It wasn’t like the passion really hit you yet?

Carneiro: I sat down and I wrote what I thought was a business plan. Again, I went to engineering school, so we don’t have to write business plans. What I wrote was really a marketing plan, listing all the bike shops that I knew, and the bike races and promoters.

I thought, “We’re going to show up to bike events with coffee.” Essentially, that’s what we started doing.

A lot of people come into an industry because they have a passion for the product. Most of the other coffee roasters in town, they became coffee geeks, and then they start a coffee company.

I was not a coffee geek beforehand, and I tell people, if my family had been growing cacao, I’d have a chocolate company. For me, it has always been about the people, the people growing it and our customers, and now our employees.

In the beginning, I didn’t even know how to brew coffee. I just winged it.

We bought this $250 little home espresso machine at a trade show, and we took that to some bike events. At the beginning we showed up to bike races, and I have a friend, he was a big home barista. I had him come over and teach me how to make espressos.

Built Oregon: What happened after you sold that first batch?

Carneiro: We didn’t start it right away. I came back…and then started talking to different people about coffee and how you do this.

I met with a colleague from college. He had a bunch of good questions. I’m, like, “You know what? Do you want to just be a business partner?”

He said “Okay”, so we each put $400 in, and opened the first bank account. This was August 2004.

He had studied business. He knew a thing or two more, knew the right questions to ask. I was sold.

But we still had no clue. Looking back, if I was going to start a business I would have this whole process I’d follow, and we’d be going in three months instead of a year and a half. But again, I was about to have my second child, and had a full time job.

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Making connections and finding a vision

Built Oregon: You were still in your engineering job at this point, correct?

Carneiro: Yes. We started phone calls and meeting for lunch, and meeting in the evening, and going to a few spots and events with our coffee.

We were selling it to neighbors and friends. I was selling it to coworkers at work. We started our first website, and we did some small web sales. But it was really slow. It’s a lot of steps to start a brand. Even picking the name.

Built Oregon: How did you come up with the name Nossa Familia?

Carneiro: We did a naming exercise where we came up with a bunch of names, and then we sent it out to a bunch of people. It included everything from Volcano Coffee to Brazilian Coffee to Copacabana Coffee, a bunch of stuff.

We were having a really hard time, and then I went to a meeting (with his partner). He was, like, “I decided on a name- Nossa Familia” (translates to “our family” in English).

I said “Awesome, let’s go.”

Eventually somebody has to put a foot down.  And it was funny, because all of the feedback we got, one of the people that liked Nossa Familia said, “I like Nossa Familia. It kind of sounds like the mafia.”

fullcycleI’m, like, “Yeah.” But it describes who we are, and it describes our uniqueness.

Looking back now, what really happened is we were shooting from the hip. We both had full time jobs.

Built Oregon: When did you finally quit your job?

Carneiro: May of 2005.  But I still took no paycheck from the company. My first paycheck from the company was in 2007, so it took a long time.

(In late 2005) we went to U.S. Bank, and got a line of credit for $35,000.

Built Oregon: By late 2005, what were your sales like, and where were you selling?

Carneiro: If I look at my 2005 sales total, it was probably $40,000. That included sales from my cycling connections, and I got introduced to the people that run Cycle Oregon.

Built Oregon: Cycle Oregon – that’s an interesting connection.

Carneiro: I showed up with a BOB trailer and rode a couple of days, and promoted our coffee. Then we did one day where we sold bags of coffee, and in September 2005, we had one day where we sold $1,000 worth.

I still remember thinking, “A thousand dollars of sales in one day!”

Then the other cool thing is, the director of the ride, every time we’d meet he’d say “When are we going to go mountain biking in Brazil?”

I said “Okay, let’s go.”, and he said “Okay. I’ll get a few people together.”

IMG_2325I then put together our first mountain biking coffee tour (in Brazil) in November 2005. It was eight people (including the director of Cycle Oregon). It was our first coffee tour.

We didn’t really make that much money out of it, but it was so fun. This is why I started the business. One, to bring the farm to the people, but also to bring people to the farm and really showcase the transparency. And when people come back from there, they are huge advocates for the company.

They really see just how beautiful the farm is, and how well it’s run, and how happy everybody is there.

Built Oregon: So on that trip in 2005 you really made a very personal connection between your family past, and then this business.

Carneiro: It took three years for me. Sometimes things just take longer for you to realize your “why”.

I grew up in Rio. My dad was an electrical engineering professor, but we would spend all of the holidays at the farm. Three months out of the year, we’re at the farm. My grandma has a lot of cattle as well.

We would learn how to ride horses at five or six, but he was pretty protective. He wouldn’t let us go out on our own. But then, when I turned eight, he started having me going out with the cowboys. I was the second oldest grandchild. Now they have 27 grandkids. My mom is the oldest of ten.

Going to the farm, it’s this beautiful, big house. You imagine, as a kid, you have loads of aunts and uncles and you have loads of cousins running around. It’s super fun.

But I was one of the only grandkids that really enjoyed horseback riding, and when I was eight my grandpa started waking me up at 5:30 a.m. He’s the father of ten. He’s old school. It wasn’t like, “Okay, dear. Let’s get up.”

It was more like, “Time to go! Get up!”

Then I would have breakfast with them and my uncles. Now I realize they were doing their daily huddle. They were talking about who is doing what that day, and what the tasks were, and what needed to be done. Then I would go off with cowboys.

IMG_3614We would go herd cattle, and I vividly remember, especially in the winter. It’s pretty cold up there. I had wool mittens and a bunch of layers, and the sun is rising at 6:30 a.m., and I vividly remember riding my horse and thinking desperately that I really wanted all my friends to Rio to come and ride horses with me in the farm.

I wanted to bring everybody to the farm because it was so cool and so beautiful.

I think that’s the analogy.

Built Oregon: That’s where the connection came.

Carneiro: I really want to share that feeling and emotion with everybody. In November (2015) we’re going for our sixth coffee tour.

Everybody has their path

Built Oregon: What happened once you found your vision?

Carneiro: We came back and we said “We need to get our ducks in a row.” So we really launched the company in May of 2006.

This might be something that other entrepreneurs relate with. For a while I couldn’t tell people when we started. If we were talking to banks, we’d say, “Oh, we’ve been in business since 2004,” because we wanted to appear more established.

IMG_7373If we’re talking to other people, I don’t know. You’re in America and we hear about multi-millionaires, the overnight millionaires, the overnight successes.

So here we are in 2006, and we’re still slogging. I’m still not getting paid, and it just felt wrong to say, “Oh, yeah, we’ve been at this for two years now.”

It didn’t feel successful.

Only two years ago did we claim, or say, “We’ve been in business since 2004” This is when we started.

It was because of Cycle Oregon, because I realized, “Holy cow, this is our 10th Cycle Oregon. I need to own up to the fact that we’re a ten year-old company, and who cares if it has taken ten years to get there. Everybody has their path.”

Built Oregon:  You hadn’t yet started to roast your coffee locally- when did that happen?

Carneiro: In 2005, most of our shipments were FedEx. Then, in 2006, we brought a few palettes by boat. It took awhile to get here. I’m thinking “This is going to be tough competing with roasters (in Portland) that are claiming that, if your coffee is not roasted the day before, it’s bad.”

But really, we wanted to be that premium, high end, local coffee. We knew that selling coffee that was six weeks after roast date was going to be tough.

Sometime in 2006 I convinced my grandpa to let me bring in a container consignment. Essentially, my grandpa financed a container, and a container is 40,000 pounds of raw coffee.

So what we did is, that container was two thirds to three quarters green beans, and one third to one quarter was roasted coffee.

Again, the coffee wasn’t old. It just wasn’t as fresh as the competition.

Espresso BeansWe realized the coffee we had was very nice and drinkable, but not as fresh as Portlanders wanted it. I have all this coffee. Let’s just have Kobos (a coffee roaster in Northwest Portland) roast it for us, so we’d have locally roasted coffee.

So that’s what we did.

My thought was, my family (in Brazil) has the cultural know-how. We’re going to buy the cream of the crop. It comes in to Kobos. Then, they roast it based on the roast levels that we have, and we do all of the sales, marketing, and distribution.

So that was 2006, and we had a pretty good year. We went from $40,000 (in sales) to $75,000 in 2006, and to $290,000 in 2007. Then $600,000 in 2008 – (that year) we got into the University of Portland and New Seasons.

Built Oregon: And this was under the same sort of arrangement, where you had someone doing the roasting for you?

Carneiro: Yes. We only started roasting ourselves in 2012.

Built Oregon: When you opened this facility, right?

Carneiro: Yes.

Built Oregon:  So you just kept hustling, trying to get into more stores?

Carneiro: Grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries.

Built Oregon: And you had a sales staff, or was it this you?

Carneiro: Me and my partner.

Built Oregon: Just knocking on doors, using your charm?

Carneiro: That’s right {smiling}

IMG_1319

Shoving up the ceiling (with an innovative roaster)

Built Oregon: Because of the logistics involved of counting on these palettes of coffee to come from Brazil, and the potential bad weather, was there ever a moment where you had to just say, “I can’t deliver. I can’t get it done”?

Carneiro: Product was never a problem. The farms are very successful.

They started in the 1890s, those four brothers. They did really well. They bought more land. So now there’s five different coffee farms in the family. My cousin owns an export company.

Combined, the family probably produces four million pounds of coffee. We buy maybe 10% of one of the farm’s production.

Built Oregon: And you still worked out of your house at that time (2007), yes?

Carneiro: 2007 was the year that, essentially, my wife was tired of us being in the house. Here she had this new baby, and it was a one bathroom house that we had to share.

So we bought the first official company vehicle, and we went to an actual warehouse.

Built Oregon: And then the recession hit, and you leveled off a little bit?

Carneiro: The minimum growth we’ve ever had is 11%.

Built Oregon: So you still kept growing?

Carneiro: We still kept growing, but at $600,000, we were projecting bigger growth because we had been growing 100%. “Of course we can grow 100% every year.” We just thought it was that easy. It was only a couple of years later, looking back, we said, “Oh, that was ceiling number one.”

Photo Oct 16, 12 44 22 PMEssentially, from the $600,000 to $1.2 million, was us pushing the ceiling up, and only last year did we crack through the ceiling again. And we didn’t break it. We just kept shoving it up.

2009 was rough, because it was also the buyout year (Carneiro bought out his original partner). 2010 and 2011 were still rough years. I was by myself. We started losing some of our corporate accounts, because of corporate changes. But even with losing $100,000 of business, we were still growing overall.

Then in 2012, our numbers were a little bit better. We were able to get financing to buy the roaster. We secured this location and moved here in November.

Built Oregon: And that financing was from U.S. Bank?

Carneiro: Yes. U.S. Bank gave us the $75,000 to buy the roaster. It was a great deal.

Built Oregon: How much do they usually cost?

Carneiro: They’re $130,000 new.

Built Oregon:  And it adds all this energy efficiency.

Carneiro: Yes. That’s where the engineering background came in.

It was the engineering know-how without the coffee “geekiness”.

What happened is, this was a new technology (a Loring Coffee Roaster, which has an embedded afterburner and is able to recirculate the heat, saving 80% of energy compared to a conventional roaster).

Photo Oct 16, 11 11 01 AMIt’s a company out of Santa Rosa that started in the early 2000s. They hadn’t yet really proved themselves. There are a few people that like them, because it’s not a traditional drum roaster. The drum is fixed. Hot air roasters have a bad name, but this is a hybrid.

It wasn’t a proven technology, and I ask, “Well, how does the coffee taste?” The only other one in Oregon was in Eugene, so I stopped by over there and I called them, and they really liked it. Then I heard about this guy who won Roaster of the Year award, best coffee at this trade show, and he roasted on a Loring.

I think, “If this guy can win this award (using it), the other people are just talking without experience.”

We bought roaster number six (the sixth one ever built, purchased from another roaster who didn’t like it), and it has been really great.

The Oregon community lends a hand

Built Oregon:  Tell us about some of the help you’ve had along the way from state agencies and recourses, like the Oregon Small Business Development Center (OSBDC) and Grow Oregon (www.bizcenter.org).

Carneiro:  Early on I took a class from the OSBDC (around the time he bought out his partner and went forward on his own). I realized, you know what, I need to own it. I need to learn it. I need to learn it for myself. I took one of their business management classes, and it was really good.

And then recently Grow Oregon got in touch, saying, “Hey, we help companies.”

At that point, this was a year and a half ago. We were starting to look at expanding. We had an initial meeting with them to talk about the company and what it is that they could potentially help us with, and we said, “Well, there’s one, market research. We think we know who our demographic is, but we don’t know, and we are interested in expanding (beyond Portland)”.

To us, that was the highest value they provided, is by sitting down with us and helping us think it through.

By working with them (in conjunction with The Southern Oregon University Market Research Institute, funded in part by a donation from U.S. Bank), it forced us, internally, to look at who our demographic was. They have access to studies. They call it the “tapestry” (ESRI Tapestry Segmentation). There are 67 tapestry segments (in the U.S) of suburbanites, soccer moms and different types of people, at different income levels.

We had a few monthly meetings with them, and they worked with the group that does the research.

Built Oregon: So it’s helping you define those out-of-Portland markets without having to go there and make the mistake of them not working?

Carneiro: Yes. A lot of us like to think we have these great gut instincts. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they are a stomach ache.

Built Oregon: It sounds like they approached you to offer their help at just the right time, when you were thinking about expanding, and they had the reach and research capability to really provide you with some valuable help.

Carneiro: Yeah. I would have had no idea to really do market research. Do we pay somebody thousands of dollars? Do we do multiple trips? I think the fact that we specifically wanted to use the research to expand out of Oregon was an ideal fit.

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The future (and cracking the code)

Built Oregon: Paint us a picture a year from now, two years from now. You’ve invested your heart, your soul, into this. So where do you want it to be?

Carneiro: There’s a lot of ways to answer this.

Our goal, since opening the roastery and the espresso bar, has been to be one of the top in Portland. One of our core values is confidence with humility. So we never say we want to be ‘the’ best in Portland. We want to be known among the best in Portland, because there are some great roasters out there.

IMG_4714But we also want to be the friendliest. One of the acronyms and motives for the company that I created is ABMF, Always Be Making Friends, and we use that a lot. Even my kids are getting tired of me saying it, and it works.

Where we want to be business-wise? Two years ago we set the goal of doubling in size in two years, and we’re almost there. I want to crack through the ceiling again. We want to be in new markets.

What has happened in my entrepreneurial journey is, I’m just now getting ambitious. We just now cracked the entrepreneurial code.

I realize, why not me? These other companies did it. Why can’t we become a national player? Why can’t we become one of the 100 best companies to work for in Oregon?

We’re going be the first B Corp. coffee company in Portland. We’re at 79 points (just under the required minimum of 80 points).

Built Oregon: That’s awesome. This has really been great, we can’t thank you enough.

Carneiro: Yes. It was really fun.

To find out more about Nossa Familia, find them at their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Postscript: For more information about Oregon Small Business Development Center and Grow Oregon, contact The Oregon Small Business Development Center Network, www.bizcenter.org. The OSBDCN provides advising, training, online courses, and resources for businesses. The 19 conveniently-located centers throughout Oregon offer assistance for every aspect of business development and management.

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

Photo Aug 26, 10 12 11 AM

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

Telling stories to change the discussion

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If you get the chance to meet up with me, Terry or Rick to chat about Built Oregon, you will no doubt see our passion for what we’re doing unfold before you — sometimes in self admitted long winded responses.

There will be notes on how we see journalistic platforms like Built Oregon shaping economic development and getting people to lean in and engage.

And how, as Rick puts it, we see Oregonian’s ‘aggressive humbleness’ so many times when it comes to promoting themselves or their companies.

And we’ll make points on how Oregon-based companies set trends because of the unique passions and sense of place founders bring to their craft – whether that craft is technology or food.

We’d also throw in some ramblings about how good storytelling can act as a powerful recruitment tool, along with some deep dives into how we want to tell stories, instigate conversations, and create connections without worrying about ranking for SEO.

Although if traffic starts to taper off, we may have to start running some slideshows like ‘best sticker seen on a founder’s laptop’ (kidding…..although I bet people would click through that slideshow).

The bottom line is that you would get a lot of background into the founding and future of Built Oregon. All of of us tend to bring unique thoughts to the mix, but getting us all together to chat is not always easy.

But with this post, we are pleased to make it easy for you to hear our collective vision.

Below is a video that captures some of the May 12th, 2015 panel discussion around storytelling. The audio is not great, but hey, at least we got some of those ramblings on tape.

You also get a little bonus – some additional observations from our fellow panelists who joined us on that evening, Nathan Lattanzi of our marketing partner Anvil Media, and Krystal South of Oregon Story Board.

So take a listen if you are so inclined, and if any questions pop up after watching it, feel free to drop us a note.  Thanks!

(Our thanks to Fourpoint Media for shooting the video, and our student reporter Akhil Kambhammettu for editing our ramblings down to a (somewhat) manageable length)

 

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

The Wine Left Behind: How Rogue Creamery became a global cheese leader

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A while back, just after the imagined calamity of Y2K and the real calamity of 9/11, a Harry & David vice president and a microbiologist thought it would be really quite nice to restore a historic building in Ashland, Oregon and open a wine and cheese bar. With renovations underway in the city’s boutique Railroad District, they decided to connect with a local cheese vendor. They were convinced celebrating all things local would be a hit. It seemed like a good plan.

They decided they didn’t need the wine. The restoration stopped and a new business plan was launched.

“I was taken by the craft of cheesemaking the first day,” says Harry & David veep turned Rogue Creamery President David Gemmels.

Cheese connoisseurs are equally taken with the legacy cheese products founded by the Vella family during the Great Depression and elevated to a new level of excellence under the leadership of Gemmels and his partner, CEO Cary Bryant.

10636092_10152673844163737_4746405383185978910_nRogue Creamery’s signature product is its line of blue cheese, which has a list of accolades that reads like Meryl Streep’s IMDb page. Caveman Blue was named one of the top 60 cheeses in the world—a Super Gold Winner—at World Cheese Awards in London in 2014. Pile on a host of other awards, write-ups in standard bearers like The New York Times, distribution on the menus and shelves of cultural food mainstays like Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco, and you get a sense of the heady acclaim of the rural Oregon cheese company.

Some even argue that Rogue Creamery’s success and influence extends to the entire artisan food movement that is so pronounced in Oregon.

“The owners of Rogue Creamery created the artisan movement in Oregon…” Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture once said. “They are the real reason why Oregon’s artisan cheese makers are so successful.”

Gemmels, 54, doesn’t hide his surprise and dismay, brushing away with a laugh any notion that all of this was somehow part of a designed master plan.

“We thought we’d open a cheese and wine bar and make cheese a few days a week and life would be great. This just kind of took over. Now, there is no stopping our commitment to this business.”

Recession proof

Not lost on its owners is the reality that this business that started in the midst of the Great Depression has thrived in the midst of a Great Recession.

“It’s resilience through this economy is amazing,” Gemmels says. “We’ve seen its resilience move between food service and full-service deli and direct to consumer and it keeps unfolding.”  10320935_10152776379338737_3979196385482581151_o

Just what is it about cheese that is so recession proof?

“It’s sustenance,” Gemmels says simply. “It’s what truly brings people to the table for conversation. And it’s not only a food, but it’s also something we put in that category of desirable food.”

Get him talking about the aura of cheese and Gemmels hits a different level, switching artfully from the prose of business to the poetry of artistic creation.

“Cheese is mindful, healthy, stored energy that’s been cultured and aged to perfection and its complex in experience that delivers just that … an experience,” he says.

This complexity attracts Gemmels anew regularly, he says. He never lost the enthusiasm he felt that first day learning how to make cheese from former owner Ignazio Vella, a man the company refers to as “The Godfather of Artisan Cheese Industry.”

Replication and evolution

Those first days were long days for both Gemmels and Bryant as they took the family recipes and knowledge of how to make its signature cheese from Vella, who in turn learned directly from his father. Rogue Creamery Founder Tom Vella worked with cheese his entire life until his death at the age of 100.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 12.17.33 PMGemmels says that family legacy, the pride of place, and the recipes themselves attracted them to the business.

“These are brands we grew up with in the Pacific Northwest,” Gemmels says. “We felt it was necessary to preserve those recipes. Both Cary and I shared fond memories of those cheeses being stocked in our family’s refrigerators and enjoyed at meals.”

It was a long tradition that Gemmels and Bryant were determined to honor. The pair worked nearly every day for four straight years, Gemmels says.

The problem, as any Italian kid can relate to, is transferring those intrinsic and artistic recipes into a repeatable, scientific, accurate formula that could be perfected and repeated.

“There were a lot of variables,” Gemmels says. “We wanted to narrow that and understand how to control the quality of the cheeses.”

Gemmels said the task of documentation fell largely on Bryant, a microbiologist by training. “We had to document the recipes, the temperature, the pH levels, the salt and all of the ingredients, the Affinage (a French word for the aging and curing of cheese) and understand the cheese through its life at Rogue Creamery.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 12.23.31 PMIn this arduous process both men became more than business owners. They became cheesemakers, starting with two recipes that had been used for seven decades, Oregon Blue and Oregonzola.

“The recipes for the two cheeses that Rogue Creamery was making when we purchased the business are basically the same formulation now as they were then,” Bryant says. “Of course since then, with cheesemaker classes and advanced training, we have developed our own recipes for seven new blues we produce. We wanted to stay true to the original cheeses but we also wanted to have new recipes that introduced our flavor profiles and interests and also the terroir of our region.”

They set a very high bar, one Gemmels says remains the guideposts for all the company does.

“We have quality standards that are really high,” he says.

The two men and one employee grew into a business than now has more than 50 employees, each dedicated, Gemmels says, to maintaining those guideposts of excellence. Budding cheesemakers now go through a seven-tier, multi-year training process to ensure the exacting standards and the rapid company growth.

“The business continues to unfold,” he adds.

This unfolding includes a new line of fresh cheese, like mozzarella and burata, ice-cream bases, and even its own ice cream that will launch around press time. Look out Ben, look out Jerry. Here comes Dave and Cary.

Poetry is infectious around Gemmels.

The ice cream was developed in connection with Oregon State University. It will feature Rogue Creamery’s “milk profile,” as Gemmels calls it, and will celebrate the local pride of place that is never far from Gemmels’ thoughts. Honey is the future ice cream’s sweetener of choice, with a custard base. Flavors will include local chocolate, Oregon nuts, local berries and local names like “Pilot Rock Swirl,” he says.

The growth fuels the owners’ passion that spills over into charitable giving, a novel bike commuting incentive plan and careful focus on environmental protection, despite a massive new investment in the construction of a dairy farm in Grants Pass. Cows have long been on the opposite side of environmentalists, earning scorn for their gassy contribution to global warming and their heavy-footed trampling of the ground, among other criticisms.

Sustainable dairy overcomes ‘bad rap’

So, about this “sustainable” dairy farm…

Gemmels is unflinching, even quickly offering a must-read book for those serious about the issue called, Cows Save the Planet, by Judith Schwartz.

“The rap is false. It’s not proven. They do generate some gas with every burp,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s certainly in no competition with the automobile and with other fossil fuels.”

The Rogue Creamery dairy farm will be an “eco-cathedral to cows,” he says. More importantly it will Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 12.20.05 PMcontinue the method of production the business uses that unveils its process to the viewing public, “from start to finish,” he says. “Our vats are visible in the Rogue Creamery store. Our cows are visible from the Rogue Creamery dairy.”

The cows are tended by two robots named Matilda and Charlie, Gemmels enthuses, “in a healthy, happy environment.” They are grazers of the local land running adjacent to the Rogue River that imparts the local flavor.

“The beautiful thing about our mix of browns, Holsteins and few jerseys here and there,” Gemmels says, “is that we have that wonderful composition of butter fat and creams that is a signature for Rogue cheeses.”

The cows do their part to help the environment by building needed top soil that sequesters carbon in accordance with the principles of Schwartz’s book.

The eco-cathedral to cows will “showcase an organic dairy that is offset by solar power that creates inspiration for the next generation of farmer that can manage it with an iPhone and using the technology of today.”

Long way from a wine and cheese shop

Exactly the opposite of the slow, intricate process that ages cheese is the frenetic pace of the business growth. Further expansion is inevitable.

“The business is at that stage of growing beyond our comprehension, which is so exciting for us and our community,” he says. “We see the next stage as bringing in some partners that will help us move it to that next level sustainably.”

Gemmels embraces the growth so long as future partners embrace the focus on community and the exacting standards necessary for a globally recognized cheese. The benefit of growth, Gemmels says, is more employees with a livable wage and a positive working environment, which impacts every level of the business, including the cheese, he insists.10688371_10152978880398737_1293249453000364515_o

“You can truly taste that in the cheese; the energy you have and impart is reflected in that. You see it on our cows.”

What might strike some as unbelievable may as well describe the whole story of Gemmels, Bryant and Rogue Creamery. Gemmels still can’t believe it himself, he says.

“It just continued to evolve and unfold into numerous accolades throughout the world, noted as the finest blue cheese in the world and judged as such,” he says. “I’d never thought I’d be a cheesemaker nor a dairy farmer. I just stayed true to the concept of contributing to a sense of place and touching the people in it.”

For more information, visit www.roguecreamery.com , like them on facebook, and follow them on instagram and twitter

 

A Year of Building

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That’s right folks, it’s been a year since we launched the Kickstarter campaign that set Built Oregon in motion.

A year. Wow.

Our simple pitch to the community last year was this:

We’re doing this because we believe in Oregon entrepreneurs. And we’re hoping you’ll join us.

What we have seen over the past year is not only an incredible amount of support from the community, but also the realization that there is a lot more that can be done. So let’s dive in an talk about where we’ve been, and some thoughts on where we are going.

Bringing awareness through stories

Over the past year, we have told 45 stories of entrepreneurship and innovation. Company stories that have ranged from Dutch Bros. and Bob’s Red Mill to Wild Carrot Herbals, Local Ocean and Snoplanks.We expanded the discussion to include stories on groups and organizations like Fertilab Thinkubator and Bend Outdoor Worx who are working to change perceptions and increase entrepreneurial opportunities in areas around the state.

All of these stories were crafted to provide a snapshot of what’s happening around the state of Oregon, focused on the founder’s journey, and an editorial slant tailored towards bringing awareness to new companies and insights into some of the well known ones.

So how’d we do?

Our stories have been read primarily in the more urban areas like Portland-Metro, Eugene – Corvallis and Bend,which is understandable,  but looking at it a bit deeper shows that the awareness and engagement truly is statewide — with 1 session in Fossil, 3 sessions in Nyssa, 30 sessions in Coos Bay, and Elgin is blowing up with 143 total sessions as examples. This is something we are very proud of at Built.

Built Oregon Website Sessions

Built Oregon Website Sessions

With the vast majority of our members and network here in Oregon, we wondered — would Built Oregon resonate across the nation? The answer over the past year has been a resounding yes. Built Oregon has been read in every state in the united States with the most active being on the West Coast.

Nationwide Sessions

Nationwide Sessions

 

However, sometimes just looking solely at the number of sessions doesn’t paint the entire picture. If we drill down and and look at the states from a number of pages per session, the map starts to show a different picture. The folks in Utah average 3 pages viewed every time they visit Built Oregon, Mississippi is around 2.75 and little ol’ Vermont is diving into more than 2.3 pages per visit.

Average Pages/Session

Average Pages/Session

Now, we realize that analytics are usually taken with a grain of salt. Have we increased the awareness of 45 companies here in Oregon and the United States? We truly believe we have, and when we received the following note from Jody Berry, the founder of Wild Carrot Herbals, that belief and the reasons why we will keep doing this just hit home.

52244_445747954334_1770196_o“When the article came out in Built Oregon we had a flurry of activity!  We received many new orders on our website and many more new followers on Twitter and Facebook – within Oregon and all over the country. We are grateful for the thoughtful article that was written and we loved how our story was released along with stories of other entrepreneurs. Not only did we enjoy reading about them, but that association with those other fine businesses also broadened our community. Being in a remote corner of NE Oregon, we really appreciate that connection.” 

 

Making the connections stronger

The three of us always knew that bringing awareness begins a lot of conversations and provides an invaluable service, but engaging in-person really elevates the connections and ability to collaborate. To that end, we organized 4 events up to this point in 2015 — all with a different focus, but similar core mission.

The first event we did was during Startup Week PDX and was titled, Startup Week is Every Week and Not Just in Portland. We had over 120ppl attend the event and a diverse panel led by Vince Porter as moderator discussed opportunities, challenges, acceleration, and collaboration from a statewide perspective.
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The next event was titled Building a Community around Storytelling. It was a fireside chat (ok, maybe just a meeting space at CENTRL) where the three of us discussed the opportunities and challenges of changing the economic discussion through storytelling.

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We circled back around on the third discussion to put it squarely on the makers by teaming up with MadeHere PDX for an engaging panel discussion — The Built Oregon & MadeHere PDX PEP Talk. The maker economy goes beyond just passion projects, and is in fact a huge economic driver throughout the state. The panelists and audience dived into what it means to be a maker and focused on topics like product development, scaling, shipping, raising capital, and the collaborative community here in Portland.

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Our most recent event was titled For Profit and For Good — How B Corp Companies Impact Through Good Business. With terms like beneficial and B Corp being thrown around these days, this event wanted to dive into what it means to be a B Corp and how that designation has helped to shape their respective brands, marketing, purpose, and growth.

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Building and evolving

We had 318 members back our vision on Kickstarter — for which we are so grateful. It has allowed us to do everything you have read to this point (which, come to think of it…if you have actually read this far ping us on twitter with a note that says ‘read it’) and we have continued to see the member base increase throughout the year. So again, thank you.

But we are not content with what we have done. We want to deliver more for our members through continued storytelling, purposeful events throughout the state, and being a central point of collaboration in Oregon. And we want to hear from you — current Built Oregon member or not — about what we could be doing better. So, let us know what you think about Built Oregon.

We are going to expand the storytelling to include more podcasts and video, while delivering the content on new platforms.

We are going to engage organizations throughout the state and be a conduit of ideas and connections.

We will continue to have all events free to our members.

But I think most importantly we will not veer from our core purpose. We are doing this because we believe in Oregon entrepreneurs.

 

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Jessie Burke’s fearless journey to The Society Hotel

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Jessie Burke doesn’t consider failure to be an option.

From the time she and her husband, Jonathan Cohen, put a lien on their house to start the popular Posies Bakery & Cafe in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland back in 2009, Burke has been forging ahead with her entrepreneurial dreams, secure in the knowledge that if she ever hit a bottom, she’d find a way to bounce right back up.

It is a confidence, she notes, that comes from a pretty simple premise.

“You don’t die when you run out of money. You can talk to people. You can ask for help. You do not disappear. That makes me unafraid. I’ve come from the bottom already.”

And it was with this fearlessness that Burke and Cohen have launched their latest project, The Society Hotel in Old Town/Chinatown Portland. In 2013, they and two other partners bought the old Mariners Building on 3rd and Davis, a four-floor structure built in 1881 with a colorful history as a safe house for sailors, a Chinese dance hall, and a McDonald Center for social services.

Their dream was to transform the building, through a complete inside and outside renovation, into The Society Hotel, a unique hostel/hotel hybrid that would be the first of its kind in Portland, and play a key role in the revitalization of Chinatown, an urban area that has been slow to participate in the recent downtown economic boom.

This renovation is nearly complete, and if all goes according to plan, the Hotel will open in October.

But to really get a sense of the entrepreneurial moxie that was required to turn this dream into a reality, we need to step back a few paces—back to when Burke first launched Posies.

Making a difference in Kenton

1010391_10153010440217278_4908613065083742718_nBurke had just left an unfulfilling job in the investment banking industry (an “alternate universe”, she called it) and no longer wanted to be an employee that fulfilled someone else’s vision – she wanted to execute on a vision of her own.

Trouble was, she didn’t know exactly what that business vision would be. She liked the service industry—and had a strong desire to set up shop in an underdeveloped community—owning to her educational background with a Masters degree in public administration, with an emphasis on community development and urban planning.

Clarity beckoned, however, through her love of a certain hot beverage. As Burke recalls, “I wanted the kind of business I’d want to go to every day, and I want to drink coffee every day, so that was the start. I also thought about neighborhood. Kenton was an urban renewal area, so the Portland Development Commission (PDC) had money in the area.

“Nobody was doing anything, and this community development thing interested me. A coffee shop and bakery would be a game changer (for the Kenton neighborhood commercial district). Unlike a restaurant, people aren’t expected to leave. If people started hanging around, more people would hang around, and people would feel safer.”

Burke wrote it all up in a business plan, and above all else, it had to be family friendly. “I thought, I don’t care if it makes a ton of money; if we can survive, and we’ve made a difference, that’s the most interesting thing to me.”

She rented a space on Denver Street, moved her parents out from the east coast so her mother could do the baking, and put the lien on their house for financing, and opened Posies.   It’s been a fixture in Kenton ever since, carving out its niche as a “homestyle” café and coffee shop that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

And now, it’s the next challenge – jumping into the ultra-competitive hotel business.

Leveraging a community to the hilt

20140129_SocietyHotel_078Back in 2013, they quickly rallied around a hybrid hostel/hotel idea pitched by their friend (and now partner) Matt Siegel, and after checking out a hotel in Chicago that had successfully embraced the concept, started looking for downtown Portland property. Burke notes “It’s a concept that needed to happen downtown –there are not a lot of options for an affordable hotel.”

It wasn’t long before they found the right place. One day, after looking at a neighboring property that was for sale, Burke was walking around Chinatown and paused in front of the Mariners Building, abandoned and empty. She took one look in the window and knew it was the place. She put in a call to their real estate broker, immediately.

Turns out the building was owned by a local Chinese fraternity, called a “Tong.” They were able to get them to accept a cash offer before they officially put it on the market. But there was a small problem, the group didn’t have any of the cash in-hand.

Undaunted, they negotiated some time before closing on the building, brought in another partner (Gabe Genauer), and then all the partners went to work to raise the needed money. Siegel, Genauer and Cohen & Burke (as one partner) each raised $250,000. Siegel asked family, Genauer took out a line of credit, and Cohen & Burke crowd-sourced their share from friends and family.

The next step was to finance the multi-million dollar renovation program, and with help from PDC and Lewis & Clark Bank, they got that money too, in Burke’s words “leveraging to the hilt.” All in all, it was a huge reach-out effort that paid great dividends.

It all involved simply casting aside any fear and asking for help, something Burke does naturally. “Asking doesn’t hurt,” she notes. “The worst thing that can happen is they say ‘no.’”

When asked why so many people are frozen in place by the fear of “no,” Burke counters “They don’t fear no, they fear the humiliation. And maybe that humiliation lasts a lifetime, because you are laughed at. They think something else is going to happen.”

Burke has gotten past all that, because she grew up very poor and worked hard to forge a life for herself, believing all along the journey that if there was a will, there would be a way. She knows she will never disappear, as long as the faith in herself remains.

A piece of Portland in Chinatown

_I0A9469The Society Hotel is a reflection of that faith, as the near-completed renovation heads towards its final touch ups before the grand opening. Its hallowed halls and guest rooms have been lovingly restored with a PDX-modern touch, promising its future guests a true taste of the town.

“We want people to experience Portland, even if they don’t leave the building”, says Burke. A community builder still, she says that they’ll be encouraging guests to interact—a typical element of hostels—and also drawn from her experience as a camp counselor as a youth.

A café in the lobby serving locally roasted coffee, Oregon wines and craft beers, Posies pastries and other treats from Portland chefs will further the same “sit down and hang with us” vibe that Burke created at Posies.

As the opening approaches, does any worry creep into Burke’s head? What about the pressure for profit?

“You can raise prices,” she notes. “But there’s going to be a breaking point. What’s the most you can pay for a bunk bed? We’re not in it for the economics. We want it to do well, but it will do well. I have no concerns about making it, and we don’t have to be zillionaires.”

But what The Society Hotel will have is a unique team behind it with a shared vision that puts community and service over profit. Burke puts it this way – “It’s hard to get a group like ours together with crazy different backgrounds who want to do a business like this. There’s no big corporation behind us, it’s just us – 4 local Portlanders with a lot of ideas who thought they could pull this off.”

It’s as she calls it, “an explosion of weird.”

All in a day’s work for this incurable Oregon optimist who has been liberated to dream big while keeping purpose squarely ahead of profit.

For more information visit www.thesocietyhotel.com, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter

Where Craft, Passion & Business Intersect: Lilith Rockett’s Handmade Artistry

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If you ever wondered about the current state of Oregon Craft and its critical role in providing creative fuel for innovation and economic development that goes well beyond the beautiful pieces the artisans create, look no further than the current exhibit at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft (MCC), on display this summer.

It is a curated cross-section of the craft activity throughout the state, aptly demonstrating the depth and breadth of our rich creative resources. It’s also a showcase for the entrepreneurial spirit of the companies and individuals who combine their passion for craft with a knack for business.

Rockett's work on display at MCC

Rockett’s work on display at MCC

One of those creator entrepreneurs is Lilith Rockett, whose handmade porcelain ceramic pieces feature prominently on the second floor of the MCC exhibit. They feature clean lines and unglazed polished surfaces. These are pieces, like simple cups and saucers, that are meant to be used as well as displayed – using simple shapes that “evoke rather than impose”.

I recently visited Rockett in her SE Portland studio to see the artist at work, and to sit down for a chat. Turns out, while she always had the maker itch, it would take a lot of years before she scratched it.

The Long Road To A Revelation

“I always enjoyed making things, since I was a little kid, when I would make stuff an and try to sell it to neighbors – things like Christmas ornaments, going door to door”, Rockett noted.

“Art was the thing that mattered to me most, but I really didn’t get into it until my 20s, when I took a ceramics class at a San Francisco community college, and loved it”

It was the first time she did something where, in her words “time completely disappeared”. But she still didn’t dive headlong into it because, in the late 80’s it “wasn’t cool”.

While still doing art as a hobby, Rockett did a lot of different things to pay the bills–she was a flight attendant, worked at bookstores, coffee shops, and spas, anything “to make enough money to go to school and have a lifestyle that I liked”.

She also opened a self-defense school in New Mexico, and got in the film business as a camera assistant in Los Angeles, where she met her husband Eliot.

In her late 30’s, Rockett’s love of ceramics was reignited when Eliot bought her a bag of clay and a membership at a clay studio. She would work all night making pots, teaching herself the craft. She fell in love with clay, and “made a lot of stuff for the house.”

Then, she attended a firing workshop, and it changed everything. Rockett noted “It was the first time I realized that people could make a living doing that – it was quite a revelation”. It was there when she knew “I was going to be a potter”.

Rockett then worked at a clay studio for a short time learning more about the craft and the business, and eventually decided to go off on her own in 2005, opening a ceramics gallery and studio in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

She noted “It wasn’t a popular move then, doing ceramics, but I was really into them. I never really approached things as a business. I’m super entrepreneurial, but not in the most ‘capitalist’ way, I look at it more like a community project.”

For 3 years, the gallery represented a wide variety of studio potters and designers and artists. Because of her enthusiasm for the craft, Rockett was putting a lot of energy in other artists’ careers, but her own work was stifled, so in 2008, when she moved to Portland, she started doing her own work.

She started with a garage studio behind their house, and then, thanks to a robust demand for her work, moved to a two-level larger studio in SE (just off Belmont Street). To this day, the work is all hers – Rockett has assistants that prep and recycle clay, and clean the wheels, but she does all of the making.

The Business Supporting The Craft

Photo Jul 17, 2 39 05 PMRockett makes for many different people, and a lot of what she does now is for restaurants – all the dinnerware, for example.

Working with creative restaurateurs was a great opportunity for Rockett . “I love the collaborative relationships with the chefs”, she noted. “We do a lot of design work, which is really exciting, and they don’t want me to dumb it down at all. They want what I do. They want that esthetic. It puts my work in an environment with super creative food, and I create these platforms for it, and that interplay is really exciting.”

For Rockett, finding the right balance between craft and business is about finding the right partnerships. “I need to be represented well, with the full range of what I do – otherwise you’re just busy making widgets. With too many small orders it’s just too diffuse.”

She works her way through the business side of things by “feel”, especially pricing. Rockett notes, “I work at the high end of what I do, but it’s hard to figure out. You just play with it and find your comfortable place.”

Is she worried about things like competition from other ceramic makers, from artisans like her to mass-produced dinner sets from China? Rockett looks at it this way – “You just have to go to work, and you’ll figure it out with your hands. What I do is not mass production, but there is a market for it, and there will always be a market for it.”

Photo Jul 17, 2 40 43 PMIn the end, however, it’s still her passion for craft, and the live well lived, that drives her. “I just want to lead an interesting life. I just want to do what I love. That’s why I only take projects I’m interested in. I have to be selective because it’s just my two hands. It has to work for me. I know I have to be able to make ends meet, but it’s not for the money, it’s for the love.”

Lilith Rockett is a maker, designer, artist, and entrepreneur, now living and working in the Oregonian way, using a unique mix of talent, moxie, passion and love to produce beautiful work that blurs the lines between craft and sculpture, consumer product utility and fine art.

Don’t miss her work displayed (and for sale) at the MCC State Of Oregon Craft exhibit, through August 15, 2015, or, you can find it for sale in Portland at Canoe in the West End, at Beam & Anchor on N. Interstate, and at The Joinery at their Woodstock and downtown locations.  Built Oregon is happy to be one of the media sponsors for the MCC exhibit.

You can find out more about Lilith Rockett at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Making a market: Elizabeth Leach and her artful perseverance

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Elizabeth Leach was 24 when she arrived in Portland in 1981, with an artist husband and new baby. She had an art history degree, a good sense of business passed down from her father, and a pressing need to start generating income.

She saw in Portland a city that was a great place to live but that was lacking in the visual arts. In particular, it was devoid of galleries bringing in national level art.  And there, she saw an opportunity. But was there a market?

Undeterred by the risks—and without any previous experience in doing it—she opened the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in downtown Portland. As Leach recalls it, it was “A big leap of faith. Huge. Huge.” 

“So I just started cold calling. I was in a survival mode. I knew 10 people in the city but had 75 people at the opening.  There was a hunger for more galleries. And we were bringing in work from out of town. But then we met all these artists from here that were doing amazing work but weren’t showing here, because the venues were so limited at that point.”

SignsandSignals_Install1_eLeach ultimately decided to foster a delicate balance between reaching and curating a collector group, stimulating the market, and creating an opportunity for the artists living here. Her mission became importing important national and international work while at the same time exporting quality regional work to a larger and broader audience, thus creating a brand new art market in Portland.

“There was a need for an ‘energetic’ gallery—the standard of what people look for when they look at a national level gallery—where the art was always well spaced”, Leach adds.  “But it was ahead of its time. People were asking, ‘Do you have more inventory?'”

But Leach stayed the course despite being so far ahead of the curve – perseverance was to be a hallmark of her business style and philosophy. That philosophy extended to the name of the gallery.

“I didn’t name it after myself out of ego, but because of accountability. So that when people bought a piece of art, they knew who they were buying it from. They knew they could bank on that person’s reputation, in terms of backing up the quality, the resale, and the value.”

It took nearly 20 years before Portland’s education process was complete and the market was “made,” but she survived by selling enough pieces to keep it going, “month by month.”

Leach notes, “The art business is like every other business, and it isn’t like every other business. One person can walk through the door and pay enough money to pay your bills.”

Carrying on with guile and grace

Ann Hamilton 389A9969Eventually, Leach moved the gallery to its current location in the Pearl (on NW 9th, among a cluster of other galleries), and it thrives their today. But not before gutting it out during the “Great Recession” of 2008 with another strong dose of perseverance and guile.

In a trendy, cyclical business like art, Leach has relied on several essentials to survival in addition to perseverance and accountability, and they apply to any business.

“Stay fresh. Refresh yourself. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t sit back and be comfortable. You can’t EVER be comfortable. Particularly in the arts, I think that’s exciting, because it’s about curiosity, and reflecting an ever-changing world.”

She advises artists looking to break out commercially to “keep working, keep producing, keep making.”

Leach adds “The trick is staying ahead of the curve—and not pandering to the market.”

There’s also something refreshingly old-school about her strong belief in common courtesy and follow through, making a point to personally answer all her phone calls, letters and emails.

And best of all, there’s also a cultural community element that Leach has nurtured over these 34 years, ultimately reflective of the Oregon way of giving back and supporting great causes.

“By bringing in outside quality art—and by saying art is worth supporting—customers are buying an object that enhances their lives, and can transform them in the process, and also support a community that gives back. Who gives to charity auctions? Galleries and artists.”

“I’ve never met more giving people than artists. They would give you the shirts off their backs”

Long may this giving community thrive—and persevere—in the Oregon art market that Elizabeth Leach played such a major role in creating and nurturing.

For more information, visit www.elizabethleach.com, the gallery on Facebook, or follow it on Twitter  

Rethinking the Eugene entrepreneurial ecosystem through a Thinkubator

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Fertilab is a non-profit community and network of resources that exists to support the entrepreneurial community in Lane County, Oregon. It’s home to scientists, engineers, marketers, software developers, and founders of just about every entrepreneurial industry vertical. It’s a melting pot of collaborative ideas and innovations, and that’s just what the founders had in mind when they launched this ‘thinkubator’.

“FertiLab grew out of 2 separate ideas, from 4 individuals who were all looking for mid-career changes, but finding few opportunities at their levels within Eugene,” says Shula Jaron, cofounder and Executive Director of FertiLab. “Matt Beaudet and I were interested in the idea of starting a community lab in Eugene, and so we spent over a year visiting community labs around the country and discovered that the Community Lab business model—of just letting individuals come and play around in a lab—wasn’t working. We thought that by not only creating the lab, but positioning it around a space for biotech startups, we could create a winning model.”

At the same time, other people in the Eugene community were looking to jumpstart the entrepreneurial ecosystem through a more focused approach too—one that looked to engage the community as a whole.

Bringing the concept to the community

“Joe Maruschak and Jason Boone were seeing a need for a startup Incubator in Eugene, but they were struggling to find people who shared their vision. The four of us found each other and decided to get some direct feedback from the people we wanted to serve by gathering everyone for a 2 hour event to help pinpoint needs in the community.” Shula states, “Through our guerrilla marketing campaign 50 people showed up for JumpStart Eugene/Springfield, and the biggest discovery was that although there were plenty of people interested in startups and developing innovative ideas, nobody knew each other or had any idea of what resources existed to help. FertiLab as the Hub of Entrepreneurship was born.”

But leveraging a community gathering into an actionable plan does not happen overnight, and the founders of FertiLab looked to use this initial gathering as the springboard to engage a broader community.

“The Eugene entrepreneurial ecosystem, from an organization standpoint, is very small but very cooperative. We try hard to share programming between groups that might be considered competitors because we believe these shared experiences, successes and failures will make the community even stronger.”  Shula adds, “This is extremely important, because our mission is to create a vibrant startup scene, not to create a huge FertiLab organization.  By collaborating with other organizations, we are able to offer founders the best resources for their needs, without diluting our mission. This truly makes what we all do more impactful on the entrepreneurs that we work with, because we are not afraid to refer people to another organization that might be a better fit. We hear this a lot, but it’s true, a rising tide lifts all boats, and when the community has a win, we all benefit.”

A focus on collaboration

The founders realized, based largely on their backgrounds in big organizations,  that they needed to be deliberate with both the space layout and programming in order to bridge the cross-industry gaps.

“ When we opened our doors, FertiLab’s main purpose was to be the entrepreneurial community center. A place where people could come and work on their startups, interact with other startups, find co-founders, partners, mentors, and work in a cooperative environment. This was true of our biotech lab as well. Both the lab and the main co-work space are deliberately designed as open work areas to encourage communication and collaboration.” Shula adds, “ From the very beginning, we recognized in order to truly drive innovation we needed entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds and from different industries to “bump into” each other. So we had this idea that if we could encourage scientists to interact with software developers, and game developers to interact with hardware engineers, we could actually build both a networked community as well as drive some new innovation.”

And how have these efforts played out? According to Shula, their focus around collaboration has already played a role in driving innovation.

“This approach has worked really well to create our community base and a network of resources that entrepreneurs can tap. We have seen the drive for new innovation borne out in small ways so far. An example is one of our tech companies- they were talking about a problem they were dealing with and a game developer overhead the conversation. He was able to offer them a unique solution and a collaboration was created.”

Through the hard work of the founders, an engaged community, and participating companies, FertiLab has been a catalyst in the Eugene entrepreneurial community since its inception. But with growth and success comes new challenges. Challenges that Shula and the FertiLab team are aware of and already planning to address.

“We have an opportunity to grow very rapidly. There is quite a large desire for the type of co-located community that we are building, and our programming is always fully subscribed. We have two huge challenges, however, that will affect how large our impact is. The first is just the physical space that we exist in –while we want to maintain the open nature of our working spaces for the very early stage entrepreneurs, we also have discovered that as our startups grow, they need slightly more private space to work.  Basically, we require some private offices and labs, and dedicated event and classroom space, which we don’t have access to in our current location.” She adds, “The second big challenge is focused around capital — both for the participating companies and for the organization. The ability to provide access to early stage seed money for our companies would be very beneficial. Most of the companies don’t need huge sums of money, in fact, $5,000 goes a long way toward launching a business for the bootstrapped entrepreneur. In addition to seed money, finding the funding to support our mission of realizing the future of economic development in Lane County.”

Growing the mission

With a firm grasp on the structure and growth challenges, Shula and her team are creating a sustainable and impactful organization. But as any founder realizes, along with challenges, there are always a few surprises along the way.

“When we started, we knew we wanted a lab space, but we had no idea if there would be any demand – so it was quite surprising to us how quickly we filled up and continue to have people inquire about vacancy. Now that we know a little more about the market, we can see that there is actually quite a healthy demand for lab space in Oregon and very little actual infrastructure already in existence. In addition, another big surprise is how many new faces we see at every event we throw. An average of 40% of the audience is generally new to our organization. We hold events every week, so you can imagine how many new faces this means! There is a huge interest and curiosity around entrepreneurship and apparently we haven’t fully tapped the market yet.”

And tapping that potential is something the founders and board members are passionate about. Much of that can be attributed to the 4 cofounders’ passion around creating something great for Eugene — a place they all call home.

“All four of the cofounders were committed to making Eugene their permanent home. We believe in the potential of Eugene and I think that this passion shines through when we talk with people. So, we believe we were the right people to launch this organization because we already had defined Eugene as our ‘place’. Most Eugenians are quite passionate about being here and want to see the city thrive”, but Shula points out that Eugene is unique in many ways too. “Eugene is a very grassroots kind of town – so many interesting and unique organizations have sprung out of the earth here, so we appeal quite strongly to the general community. We are not a university or state lead organization. We are home grown and community driven. FertiLab works well here.”

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Shula points out that they are already looking at the next evolution of FertiLab.

“FertiLab is going to go big. First we are expanding out into additional locations outside of Eugene, with Springfield being our first stop with the idea that we want to mine new innovation and entrepreneurs from across the region and state. As a part of that, we are constantly evolving our offerings to meet what the community and our entrepreneurs need, based largely on what is not being met by someone else. This could mean creating our own seed fund or offering for sale a suite of services for startups. We will stay flexible and willing to seize opportunity if it arises. That said, our ultimate goal is to make the Southern Willamette Valley a location of choice if you are starting up a tech or biotech venture, and we hope that somewhere in there people might say they chose Eugene because of FertiLab.”

For more information visit,  FertiLab Thinkubator, follow FertiLab on twitter or like FertiLab on facebook