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

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

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

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

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

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

Two weeks (and seven months) to a paleo breakthrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The challenges and struggles of the food startup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just get started: sharing perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science of the soil: The Abacela story

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Earl and Hilda Jones — medical scientists with a predilection for research — never thought their explorations would lead them to studying grapes. But sometimes, that’s how curiosity and creativity work, especially here in Oregon.

The hypothesis that drove a winemaker

Earl Jones grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Tulane University in 1965. Engaging in a career of Academic Medicine and research at Emory expanded Earl’s worldview through conferences; travel expanded his discovery of food and wine. Exploring European wine culture was mesmerizing, and Earl gravitated toward the Spanish varietals that he found compelling.

Regional experts said that there was only one region that can properly grow Tempranillo grapes, and the underlying reason was the soil. World Tempranillo experts said the grape couldn’t be grown anywhere else, only in a specific region of Spain. It had been this way for centuries. However, during one of their trips to Spain, Earl met Alejandro Fernandez, a wine expert whose grandfather made Tempranillo 100 miles from the region where the soil was said to be perfect.

That wine was excellent, yet not in the same soil area.  World wine critics raved about this wine in 1982.

Earl tasted the first bottle in 1986 and was enchanted.  Earl was intrigued about this outlier, a good wine from a different soil in a country where a very specific soil was attributed to the best Tempranillo – and yet he was experiencing a wonderful bottle from a different soil base.

That was what convinced Earl that there was opportunity elsewhere, that the soil wasn’t the only contributor to good wine. If there are other variables such as climate that could enable another location in Spain to grow terrific Tempranillo, why not similar climate elsewhere?  Earl formed a hypothesis that he wanted to test; the climate was the actual key to great Tempranillo, more than a single soil type that wine experts extolled for years.

This was a turning point in Earl and Hilda’s lives; they loved medicine and science but were becoming disenchanted with the business, politics and systems emerging in medicine at that time.  Their passion for wine and for research supported work on their evolving hypothesis that they could grow great Tempranillo beyond one small area of Spain.

Earl and Hilda and their family made a tremendous leap based on his hypothesis. It was a big decision to move away from solid positions in medical research and move with their family, whereby uprooting their lives to plant new roots for themselves and the Tempranillo grapes.13501842_10154515837267697_3217463125475619899_n

Climate Science is the Key

Guided by science, Earl started collecting data and knowledge. Grapes are fastidious, needing a correct growing season and the proper amount of solar generated heat, and Tempranillo grapes needs hot weather for their 6 1/2 to 7 month growing season.

Earl investigated locations knowing that Tempranillo had been grown in California, but had not performed well. The wine was inferior in CA, often blended; no one had produced a single bottle of Tempranillo that says “vintage” on the label. Earl also looked into the Southern Regions of Spain where it’s hot too long, and Tempranillo doesn’t do well. Armed with that knowledge, he was confident that he could find a similar ideal climate such as Spain’s Ribero del Deuro.

In Earl’s mind there was always  a major professor’s mentoring: “When you get an idea the idea enables you to develop a theory, read everything you can…but don’t make the mistake of trying to find the answer. Do the experiment.”

With his mind full of data and science Earl started with New Mexico but there were too many undesirable variables like high levels of frost, a short growing season, too much heat in the middle of the summer, and a suboptimal altitude level.  They read about Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, and although the South of France was an early candidate, Earl and Hilda didn’t want to leave their family of five children far away and move overseas.

Their son Greg wanted to study climate science and aspired to a PhD in hydrology. Greg changed his focus to atmospheric science in part because of the passion his dad had about climate.  Decisions about climate and soil characteristics were dichotomous; books were available, but not helpful. So Greg became the first viniculture climatologist, which proved to be  pivotal during the early data collection. With Greg’s help they found the perfect plot of land in Roseburg, Oregon.14258212_10154737794462697_7185350856267408466_o

Finding a home in Douglas County

The climate envelope is a near perfect match in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties, east of mountains. The question was where, within that climate envelope, was the best piece of land.

Earl delved into the problem systematically with topographical maps in order to learn where there would be minimal fog. He realized local airplane pilots knew the climate better than most, and he hired them to fly him over the areas where it’s always sunny, and the fog clears in the morning.

Armed with both topographical maps and his recently acquired knowledge from the flights, Earl drove to find the perfect location- a plot of land near Roseburg, Oregon.

In the early 1990’s, due to the economic conditions, land in and around Roseburg was more affordable than Earl had anticipated. Thus, he purchased more than initially planned, which was great, but they arrived operating on a shoestring. The shoestring budget was a result of the 3 year discovery into the right growing region, plus the additional 9 months to identify the land, all the while having no income. Yet they drove on, based on a great deal of belief that they were on the right track based on the tremendous amount of research they had done.

With the location acquired, Earl turned his focus to finding the perfect vines.

The only source of Tempranillo grapes was California, a place where the grapes had not grown well. Earl asked a winery for all the Tempranillo cuttings they could sell him. And since no one wanted them, he secured them all – 4 acres’ worth in the first year.  It was a great accident of timing that the vines were available. Earl increased his planting to 12 acres, and then added 3 more.

Starting small, they nurtured each vine, learning as they grew.  It is said that entrepreneurs work 100 hours a week or more, and Earl, Hilda and their children can certainly attest to this.  But the land and vines they cared deeply about allowed them to start a new chapter in their life.14560207_10154827370052697_7664395588902437960_o

Building a Winery

With the vines planted, Earl began to focus on developing the winery.  They were welcomed as the 7th winery in the Umpqua valley and the 13th winery in Southern Oregon. Many wineries were starting blends, and some made wine from their own grapes or purchased grapes.

No one but Earl grew Tempranillo at the time, and they chose the name Abacela. Few in the area had heard of Tempranillo, much less grown the grapes.

Coming from the Eastern US, Oregon was new to the family, but from a wine standpoint they were early founders in Southern Oregon. They dove in by learning all of the different valleys and varieties specific to each area in Southern Oregon. In the early years, the land and the winery drained the money reserves, and as with all new wineries, didn’t give back a return on the investment for several years.

To ease the financial burden, Earl secured a part time job practicing dermatology in Roseburg. There wasn’t much managed care and private practices, like the partnership he joined, were still available. Balancing a job while nurturing the vines to a point where they could produce enough grapes to make wine, and bringing this new wine to potential buyers, was tough going.   Eventually the demands of balancing both the medical career and the growing winery led to  Earl making the decision to devote all of his time to the Abacela.

The town of Roseburg was very accepting of Earl. His patients loved him and it was a bittersweet time at noon on July 22, 2004, his last day in practice, when a particular patient wanted to be the last patient he saw. That person is currently 97, and still remains in contact with Earl.

By their third year on their land in 1995, and all the vines were in the ground. In 1997 Abacela produced 238 cases of Tempranillo, and that wine was excellent.  Earl had planted vines that for 100 years didn’t produce good wine in California, but by bringing them to the right climate, his original hypothesis was validated.14100518_10154697759957697_1742172008539755320_n

Chances and Challenges

There were obstacles and difficulties along the way. When they first planted, people couldn’t pronounce Tempranillo, not even the wine people who thought Earl was “temporarily” planting something. At Abacela he also planted Albarino, a Spanish white, as the climate is permissive for those vines as well. In Spain the Albarino is grown in cooler climates than Tempranillo.  Recognizing that the hills on his land have a north side that is cooler, they chanced planting Albarino on the North side of the hills, and are now gathering acclaim for their Albarino wine.

The operations side of being a vintner was new to Earl and Hilda as well. They had to learn business, make hundreds of decisions, study and learn from experts and trial and error. The Abacela exclusivity provided a cash flow allowing them to learn the business.  The winery was also unique at the time, and continues to be.  They did some marketing for Abacela and the wines, however sadly a big potential opportunity for publicity was missed as Earl’s parents passed in 2001, the same summer Abacela entered a SFO international competition and took first place for all Tempranillo. Earl and Hilda could not take advantage of the accolade.

As of last year there are 57 Oregon wineries that grown Tempranillo, Earl started the Oregon Tempranillo alliance and 45 of the 57 vintners have joined. A new national association has over 100 members ,and currently there are about 250 Tempranillo producers in the USA.  Earl and Hilda host interns from US, France, Spain, and New Zealand that come to Abacela for harvest and to work the summer.

As elder statesmen are heralded in medicine, in wine, Earl is the grandpa.  Abacela has 5 interns now from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Aranda del Deuro, a Sister city to Roseburg, and students from OSU and UCC.  While 57 producers mean a lot of competition, the increased knowledge and collaboration are big positives. Organization members get together in growing numbers to talk about the wine, network and collaborate. Greg travels to wine conferences and educates vintners while he runs his own consulting business, and teaches at Southern Oregon University.

Decanter magazine in December 2016 listed the 50 most influential people in wines, and Greg Jones was given accolades in many issues. Someday his son Greg will take over the business of Abacela, keeping it a family corporation. The experiment is an ongoing learning process, and a wonderful success. That sip of wine from an outlier winery in Spain led to the question – why was the wine so good in a different soil?

That question and the eventual answers led to a life change for Earl and Hilda, but one that has led to a remarkable success in the Umpqua Valley.

For more information, visit www.abacela.com, like them on facebook and follow them on twitter12705166_10154139485167697_1601066802562160725_n

Cutting a path to success: The ArcLight Dynamics Story

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Scott Cunningham had a simple idea: he wanted to carve realistic replicas of mountains. But that simple idea proved anything but simple to accomplish.

As he began exploring the project, a friend told him about CNC Computer Numerical Control) machines which could carve any shape he dreamt up. After researching CNC machines online, Scott purchased a CNC router from a vendor, but the quality turned out to be really poor. This led him to rebuild the entire drive system using surplus parts he found on ebay.

Once he fixed that initial machine, he realized that he could also build bigger and better CNC routers on his own.BRiJ-Way-LLC

Early beginnings

Scott worked on the CNC routers for a while, but eventually got into metalworking where he noticed the CNC plasma tables were selling for premium prices. He sensed an opportunity.

“I knew I could build a better one but — more importantly — provide an unmatched level of support,” he said. “At the time, you could read lots of reviews on the internet about how poorly these companies were treating their customers. And many of these customers just didn’t get any education on how to run these tables. It was obvious that these companies didn’t know that negative online reviews could hurt them.”

So in 2009, he started with two prototypes. Out of the two prototypes, one stood out as a potentially viable product — one which looks strikingly similar to the machines they sell today.

Scott used that table throughout 2010 to make metal art which he displayed at the Sunriver Artists Gallery in Central Oregon. This provided a solid trial run, but in his mind he kept pondering if people would actually buy the table.

“At the end of the year I basically threw it up on ebay just to see if anyone would bite, and I sold my first table a month later in January of 2011. That year I built 7 tables in my garage, and sold all of them on ebay.”

15937225_622225007949071_3764450894718195906_oWith initial sales traction and some market validation, Scott started thinking there was a true opportunity around building the CNC tables. That thinking accelerated when the recession cost him his full time job and he found himself unemployed. That change in circumstances opened the door to the beginnings of ArcLight Dynamics.

“With my small severance pay I rented a shop and hired two of my fellow unemployed co-coworkers, and built a website. From that point on the business took off and I hired two more of my old co-workers within a year’s time.”

That initial website had a high level of focus and professionalism. In all of his market research, Scott realized that many companies had a very limited amount of actual product information on their websites. This was a huge negative in his mind. He wanted potential and returning customers to have the ability to find an answer to any question they might have about the tables. There was an additional emphasis around producing comprehensive training videos that would allow their customers to hit the ground running.

“When we started out I created a series to video tutorials that showed our customers how to program and run our tables and put them up on Youtube for anyone to use. At this time no other manufacturer had done this, but from my perspective it was essential. So a lot of people who use other brands of tables used our videos to teach themselves how to run their systems. As a result we became the authority and source for training. “

The focus on the customer from the outset allowed ArcLight Dynamics to slip in and fill the void.

Developing an innovative product

ArcLight Dynamics tables are complete packages, which means that all someone needs to have for a very functional cutting system are standard components. And while this may seem like the norm, that is far from the case, and another area in which the focus on the customer has paid off.

“Other companies often start out with low prices, but the system won’t cut well until you add on options, which add to the cost. We believe customers will get the best bang for their buck with an ArcLight Dynamics table. We combine solid durable frames, combined with easy to use software, and most important to our success, excellent customer support.”

Scott and his team saw the biggest opportunity for their tables within small to medium size shops and businesses, and to gain traction within these verticals they had to be very conscious of the pricing. By keeping all of the parts and production in-house, they have been able to not only control costs, but also maintain high standards.

13305220_521846171320289_2423757534828226125_o“I do all the R&D in house for the design of the tables and develop new product lines. I don’t have formal education in it, but I’ve always had a knack for it. Keeping the overhead low is another reason we have been able to keep prices low. We have been very lucky as we found low cost rental space when we started out, and was able to take over more space when we needed it. But moving forward it is going to be very challenging to find a large enough building to rent or buy in the current market.”

Keeping the pricing low as they were just ramping up was a lot easier than the current production rate of 8 tables per week. So Scott and his team started researching ways to not only maintain their costs, but also create a more efficient process. This resulted in ArcLight Dynamics partnering with the local Fastenal store.

“Fastenal has been a huge help in sourcing and maintaining our inventory. Often I can find the best price on a product on the internet, and they can then match that price or do better. But what is really great is they come to our facility and stock the parts for us, maintain that stock, and often they are able to keep a back stock of our parts at their store. This saves a lot of labor and gives us ”just in time” ordering that helps with cash flow and storage space.”

ArcLight Dynamics started out with four sizes of tables, and just recently added two new larger models. The initial four were identical in design and function, while the most recent tables have larger steel welded frames and a more smoother and precise functionality. The new tables are named the Arc Max series, and are focused larger industrial environments. But new models are not rolled out too often.

“We just came out with the Arc Max table design this year, and so the new product cycle up until this point is about every 5 years. To date our best selling table is our 5’x10’ Arcpro 12000 table, accounting for 30% of our sales.”

ArcLight Dynamics has seen 40% year-over-year growth, which can, in many ways, be directly attributed to the high level of craftsmanship put into each table, along with the high level of customer service. One sector in particular, custom automotive, has really seen an uptick in the adoption and usage of CNC tables. Scott believes the adoption of CNC tables in these smaller shops, not just those focused on automotive work, can be traced back to a combination of things.

“The quality of cut that can be achieved with a plasma cutter has greatly improved in the 6 years, while at the same time, the cost of CNC technology had dropped in price. People have also become comfortable with running computer controlled equipment. They have come to the realization that they need this technology in their shops if they want to compete in the marketplace.”14681025_580637488774490_787406608450889072_o

Connecting to the community

There is a strong connection between ArcLight Dynamics and the Central Oregon community. Scott and his family see not only a place with a high quality of life to raise families, but also one they can help support through providing good paying jobs with benefits. In addition to the jobs, the company pumped $2.25 Million back into the local economy.

Scott also found connections that have been a tremendous help to his business, including Steve Curley from the SBDC.

“I started off taking the two year business development course through the SBDC and that was immensely helpful in getting me to understand how to grow our business. After the completion of that course they told me that we would qualify to continue working with the Grow Oregon program. This is when they introduced us to a new program they were offering,the Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS. This system has been very helpful in bringing the rest of our management team on board so they can start running the company independent of me. It has been very empowering for them and helped me grow from being self employed, to being a true entrepreneur/ business owner.”

Table made for Central Oregon based Noslr

Table made for Central Oregon based Nosler

The training and resources Scott received have helped to shape a great company culture as well. ArcLight Dynamics has been able to consistently move people up from the bottom and into management. This means that every one of their employees started out cutting steel , welding, assembling tables, and lastly, training customers on how to run the tables.

This has resulted in not only a sense of empowerment for the employees, but also created an entire company that has a very deep knowledge base, has a commitment to making sure the table works for the customer the way it should, and knows how each customer can get the most from their tables.

As the company continues to grow at a high clip, one of the biggest challenges facing ArcLight Dynamics will be finding a large enough space to rent or buy to not constrain growth. But taking on challenges like these are where Scott and his team feel most comfortable. They have created a great product, culture, and customer support system, and are more poised to seize on opportunities as opposed to slowing down due to challenges. Scott also has advice for other founders about to take the leap.

“Don’t hesitate, take bigger risks, and don’t be afraid to invest more in your company.”

For more information, visit www.arclightcnc.com and like the on facebook.

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Swallowtail Spirits leverages passion, hustle, and fortitude to build a growing distillery

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Kevin Barrett was spending hours upon hours researching and experimenting with home brewing and distilling, and consuming any content on distilling that he could find. He did all this while only putting a fraction of his time researching geography for his degree from the University of Oregon.

Given how he was focusing his time it only made sense that if he was to carve out a career, one that he loved, it should be around something he was passionate about. Thus, the journey from home distiller to Swallowtail Spirits began.14379769_568685866675742_4984882555288960865_o

Early Beginnings

Kevin started making home brewed beer around six years ago, and did so knowing that it would be the first step to making whiskey. The first spirit he made was a brandy, from 5 gallons of leftover wine from Silvan Ridge Winery in Eugene.

And so began his journey in the distilling craft, characterized by much experimentation.

“ I made a couple of stills and talked with local distillers about the production and permitting process. I made a few whiskeys, brandies and vodkas. Some were good, but most were bad so I researched more to find out how to make them better.”

But through trial and error, the whiskies started to taste better. The taste improvements led to people inquiring if Kevin could make special batches for weddings and one of a kind gifts. But the demand for the early batches led to a bit of dilemma.

“ The aging process is the toughest part though because no batch of whiskey that I have made has lasted for longer than 6 months on oak. Everyone drank it.”

The initial interest in the spirits he was making provided him with the validation needed to pursue starting a spirits brand. But in a crowded market, having a strong brand upon which to build is critical, and Kevin had help from a close supporter in creating it.

“ I wanted to link the distillery to the state in some way. I threw around a few names, but then my girlfriend suggested Swallowtail Spirits after Oregon’s state insect, The Swallowtail Butterfly.”

swallowtail-2With the brand locked in and the distilling process fine tuned, it was time to move past small batch production and bring Swallowtail to a larger market. But ramping up liquor sales is not simply about having a solid marketing plan, it’s about having the fortitude to grind it out.

“ Liquor sales in Oregon are all about the hustle. You or an employee have to be out there with the consumer, engaging with them, explaining the process and getting feedback. Nobody will sell the product better than an owner. We know every detail of the process and are passionate about the business. It’s why I am still out there doing the tastings in the liquor stores. Customers like talking with the owners and when they see how engaged we are they get pretty engaged as well. If you can get them engaged and passionate about the product then you now have a customer for life.”

Kevin and his team hustled. They met customers at markets and stores, and talked about the brand to liquor shop owners. The consumers really liked the Swallowtail vodka, with many folks comparing it to top shelf brands. But Kevin was conservative as he entered the market, and even though he believed passionately that their vodka was as good as many highly regarded brands, he entered the market at a lower price point, a move they looked to remedy as they scaled up.

“ We actually listed it at too low of a price initially. Price point reflects a lot on consumer opinion. If you don’t have a premium price, you don’t have a premium product. We’ve increased the price twice over the last year and have seen no drop in demand.”

The premium level of spirits that Swallowtail produces can be traced back to their distilling process. A process that begins and ends with an intense attention to detail.

The water used in the distilling process comes from the lowland Willamette Valley Aquifer System, which has been filtered over many years through the volcanic sediment. Kevin and his team continue that filtration process to an incredible degree. The vodka is filtered through activated carbon sixty times, which produces a very polished vodka and helps to eliminate the by-products of the distilling process.

“ By-products like congeners and fusel oils are left behind in small amounts in vodka. They are what’s responsible for off flavors, odors and colors. They are also responsible for hangovers. Activated carbon pulls these by-products out of the vodka like magnets, with positive and negative charges. We filter our vodka an insane amount of times to get the cleanest product we can in a reasonable amount of time.”

Given the bounty within Oregon, Swallowtail has a vision to use as many locally sourced raw materials as possible in the making of their spirits. But with scaling up fast, finding those sources takes time, and they are actively searching for local suppliers to make that goal a reality.dsc_0082

Connecting to the community and putting down roots

The distilling process, especially with vodka and whiskey, takes a very particular equipment setup to produce. Swallowtail recently purchased a 300 gallon pot still to make their whiskies. The new equipment will allow them to produce about a half a barrel of whiskey a day. The goal is to effectively ramp up sales and production, and purchase equipment to the point where they can produce at least a barrel of whiskey per day. In addition, they also now have a tasting room where they can really connect to the community and consumer.

In addition, the new equipment allows them to ramp up production of their gin, and Swallowtail is taking steps to expand their offerings even further.

“ We will be producing our own single malt (Scotch style) whiskey and bourbon. November marks the launch of two gins as well; a Navy strength (114 proof) London Dry gin and a American gin (90 proof) as well. A goal of our tasting room is to start sampling 2 different products each month to get input from our consumers. Once we find out what they like, we will produce those liquors as well.”

In addition, Swallowtail has partnered up with fellow Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing to produce a whiskey based on their OATIS Oatmeal Stout. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to purchase the oak whiskey barrels and necessary equipment needed to produce the collaboration.

The time Kevin has put into building the brand to this point has been immense. But he has also connected to, and worked with, a diverse mix of organizations.

“ From the start I have never stopped asking questions. Anyone who would give me their time was on my list. I started with NEDCO in Springfield then moved to SBDC at Lane Community College for help with the business plan, forecasting and strategy for funding.”

The SBDC’s feedback around Swallowtail’s business plan was a huge asset. Multiple people took the time to go over a series of revisions, and as Kevin notes, it still changes every month.kevinbarrett1-300x216

In addition to the help NEDCO and the SBDC provided, Kevin was also accepted into the RAIN Accelerator program. Just like he did with the SBDC, Kevin continued to ask questions, which led him down the accelerator path.

“ I talked with Joe Maruschak at RAIN in February of 2015 about what I was doing. In September I met with Joe and Shane Johnson and finally convinced them that I really had no idea what I was doing. They let me into the program in September and it was one of the most amazing experiences. It’s like taking an MBA crash course in 12 weeks, but you get to focus in on where you really need to.”

But even a crash course MBA program and support from a myriad of business resources can’t speed up the time it takes to launch a craft spirits company. The wait time for permitting can put a serious dent into any solid plan, as the distiller continues to pay rent and insurance without revenue coming in during that time period. Luckily Kevin planned in advance, which allowed him to save close to $60K.

“ I started contract bottling a year and a half before I applied for a permit at my own facility so I already had a foothold in the Oregon market and had revenue coming in.”

That forward thinking and the hustle to get the product onto shelves has led to a 10% monthly growth rate in the state of Oregon, and with the addition of new products, their local growth will continue to grow while also looking towards distribution in other states.

So we’ll certainly keep seeing Oregon’s state insect on shelves in Oregon and beyond over the next few years.

For more information, visit www.swallowtailspirits.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting Our Data Blind Spots: Senrio Brings Needed Visibility to IoT Vulnerabilities

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260f88b-1Not long ago, we sat down with Portland startup founder Stephen Ridley, the founder of Senrio. Senrio is an entirely new approach to data security, a Software as a Service product that easily scales to protect all kinds of companies, from small businesses to major medical, critical infrastructure, and financial institutions.

But because of Stephen’s research on data security and his understanding of technology and consumers issues, we hung around a little longer than usual, and asked a few more questions about recent developments—things we hear a lot about in the news.

For this edition of the Making Oregon podcast we bring you one interview divided into two episodes.  In the first half, we ask Stephen to tell us about his path from teenage hacker to working for the Department of Defense, Wall Street banks and social media companies. He’ll tell us how his love of research eventually lead him to become an entrepreneur—two pursuits that require very different skill sets.

He’ll describe Senrio, how it works, and what makes it different from other security applications. We’ll learn how it addresses the vulnerabilities found in embedded systems. And yes, we’ll explain how ubiquitous embedded systems are—and here’s a hint—they exist in your cell phone.

And, if you’ve never heard of a USB Condom (also called Syncstop) and what it can do to keep your data safe, Stephen will explain what the device he designed and produces in Oregon can do for you.

In our second episode, we back track for a couple minutes and make sure everyone is on the same page with understanding how Senrio works. Then we dive into a discussion about best practices for protecting data, especially if you are a small business.

Stephen will also talk about the vulnerabilities he and his developers find in consumer electronics and how Senrio can play a role in providing solutions. Plus, we’ll get his take on data privacy, metadata and what social media giants like Facebook are doing with the information users supply, whether they know it or not.

network-4Finally, we’ll ask whether data privacy really exists in today’s world and how Stephen balances his awareness of security issues with his own personal practices in daily life.

We want to congratulate Stephen Ridley and the entire Senrio team on their recent launch, and for spending time with Making Oregon. For those who want to read some of the early reviews about the company, you can check out Silicon Angle,  or the Oregonian.

Links to the Senrio video and comic mentioned on the podcast:

Video: https://player.vimeo.com/video/147295095

Comic: http://senr.io/comic

Part 1:


Part 2:

Ignoring the Status Quo and Doing What Matters: The Grovemade Story

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At a shop in SE Portland, Ken Tomita and the Grovemade team conceptualize, design, build and produce an wide array of products, from laptop stands to knives.

They have built up a company that doing what matters in life. A company that rode the wave of early online sales of iPhone cases into building a strong consumer products company that many times ignored the status quo in order to build the company they envisioned from the start.

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Early origins

As with many entrepreneurial journeys, the Grovemade one was hatched between friends who saw an opportunity to work together. Ken was furniture maker and Joe Mansfield had a laser engraving business. They were both self employed and talked often about the latest happenings, or to bounce ideas off one another.

“We’d toss a football in the street talking about ideas when we really should have been working.  Joe had an idea to make a bamboo iPhone case and put laser engraved art on it.  No one had done it.  He asked around and no one was willing to make this for him…. and I thought why not give it a try.”

And just like that, a product company was hatched.

But going from a conversation between football passes to actually designing and producing the cases proved to be challenging, but also an open road to opportunities. In order to make that road a bit more manageable, Ken and Joe reached out to a number of experts in related fields to get advice and feedback on the Grovemade concept.

One of the key people they talked to was Bill Dieter of Terrazign. Bill supplied Ken and Joe with some great feedback, but just as importantly, introduced them to his machinist friend, Chris Rizzo.

“ Meeting with Rizzo was very encouraging because he had so much expertise in CNC machining and he was eager to take on a challenge.  We hired Rizzo, bought a CNC mill, and got to work.  For 9 months or so it was myself and Rizzo huddled over the machine, trying to develop our first product, the iPhone 3 case.“

But buying that machine was no easy decision. Everyone they talked to steered them towards doing the opposite. A CNC machine is prohibitively expensive, and there is also a steep learning curve. But with Rizzo on board, the decision to purchase the machine was ultimately one that made both short and long term sense to Ken. The machines are are usually in industrial spaces – not creative studios.Environment_Grove_MchningV2_408_edit (1)

“ I chose to take the path and buy my own machine because I felt very strongly that the integration of the making process and the design process is the key to great work.  I had worked for years designing and making furniture and I couldn’t let go of that mindset even with the advice from people to not buy our own equipment. We were hoping that magic would happen if people like us had access to these machines. “

With the machine ready to roll, the team got to work. Ken had the knowledge and experience in woodworking, and a sense that the concept of problem solving to get something made is universal. Rizzo had the know how when it came to the CNC machine, but working at a such a small scale made the process feel new to everyone involved.

The team managed to dial in the design and production process for the iPhone 3 cases, and that early product started them on an unexpecting growth trajectory, which opened up new challenges.

“ It was very difficult to develop our first product in a technical sense but the greatest difficulty was in scaling up the company.  Going from 3-4 people to 20+ very quickly introduced a host of growing pains, as I lacked the experience of managing a larger team.  For me personally, going from actually doing the work to leading the work took a few years to grow into. “

Initial product growth and evolving the line

Grovemade’s iPhone cases created a splash when they were introduced, and the initial sales strategy was 100% online. Ken’s brother created the first website and they were up and running. The team looked to leverage digital PR via outreach to bloggers, and in 2010, there were a lot fewer to focus that outreach on, and the popular ones tended to drive a lot of traffic back to the website.

The company continued to focus on iPhone cases until around 2013-2014, when they anticipated a decline in the iPhone accessory market.

“ We made a big business decision to pivot our company from being about laser engraved art on cases to a product company.  We made this pivot because we took a good look at what our strengths and passions were.  Our unique ability is to create great products (not curating art) so we put everything into that.”

Pivoting away from what was the core product line towards a new vision, while a big move, was one that Grovemade was uniquely able to handle given the structure and processes put in place that allowed them to handle the entire chain, from concepting to production and fulfillment.

“ We have the luxury of pushing the limits of both design and manufacturing because we do it ourselves.  We can attempt and do difficult things that in a traditional setup with a separate designer and manufacturer would be very impractical.  In turn, this leads to us creating unique products.“

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And unique and solid products are what they have created.

Their line of desk products effortlessly blends art and craft into a line that ranges from laptop stands and iPhone docks to planters and mouse pads. The Minimalist Wallet came out of the need to create a better product than what is out there, but also one that exemplifies the company’s core focus on the details. And while a pocket knife might seem like a random brand extension at first glance, a deeper look at how it’s designed and made reveals how keeping the entire process under one roof enables Grovemade to stretch the limits on not only design, but also advanced wood manufacturing.

The stretching of the limits can also be seen in the recent collaboration with speaker designer, Joey Roth. The collaboration married Roth’s incredible speaker insights with Grovemade’s unique advanced wood manufacturing process, with the result being an intricate, gorgeous, and one of a kind desktop wood speaker. It’s a process that took over a year to dial-in the perfect shape and sound, and one that is documented in this blog post

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But beyond being just unique and creative, the products are also a representation of the passion behind the company, and a core belief they are instilling into the company as they move forwards – a belief in who they are and what they make, but also about who they are building products for.

“ Find What Matters is our new slogan this year as we go from being about product to being about the spirit behind the product.  We believe that to do great work you have to love your work and believe that is our true difference maker,” adding “ Our next step is to really engage with our customers and have them help us determine where to go next.  We have always been centered around ourselves, just making stuff we want.  While that is great in some ways the next level is to provide solutions to our customers while also making sure the products are things we would really want.”

Culture and community

As Grovemade continues to grow and expand, there has been a constant and concerted effort to build a strong culture, but as any founder knows, that is many times easier said than done.

The team focused on hiring the right people – especially ones that can navigate the complexities of a company that has design to production under one roof. They hired Jim Hassert to oversee the operational aspects, which took the day to day responsibilities off of Ken and his team. But even moves like this didn’t make it easier.

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“ With our organization running more smoothly we could build up the culture.  There were definitely a few years where it was very painful as we started to zero in on what our culture was and many of us no longer fit in.”

But even with the road bumps, the way Grovemade has been built up and evolved makes it unique in the product design space. There are many challenges with integrating design and manufacturing into manufacturing companies similar to Grovemade, but the team wouldn’t have it any other way.“ It’s absolutely key for our creativity.  We feel the freedom to create and also that we are only limited by our abilities.  Basically we have the feeling that our successes and failures are in our hands.  It’s a great feeling.”

There is also a sense that companies like Grovemade can bring back manufacturing jobs to both Oregon and America. And while that is true, the mission of Grovemade is not American job creation, but rather to create inspiring lives. It’s a topic Ken explains via this honest blog post – “Is Made in the USA a Marketing Gimmick?”

The sense of culture also extends outside of the Grovemade walls and into the consumer product community within Oregon. A community that is collaborative and supportive of one another.

“ Our network has been absolutely critical from the early days when it was just us getting started to present day.  We are only as good as the network around us and we strongly believe in learning from others as part of the Grovemade way.”

And what pieces of knowledge would Ken impart on his former self if he could go back in time to the day they started down this road to building Grovemade?

“ I have no regrets!!!  I wouldn’t give him any tips.  Life is a labyrinth, enjoy it!”

For more information, visit www.grovemade.com, like them on facebook, and follow Grovemade on twitter and instagram20150303_GroveMade_1948

 

 

A hive of creative ideas: The Portland Bee Balm and Cascadia Candles story

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The origins of Portland Bee Balm and Cascadia Candles came out of necessity – Brad Swift’s wife Anika ran out of lip balm.

That simple need started him down an entrepreneurial journey that has led to the creation of a successful consumer brand that has traction in retail outlets throughout the United States and Japan. But as with many founders, there is a constant pull to keep evolving and pushing to do something new and unique.

The building of a consumer product brand

As hobbyist beekeepers, the Swifts had accumulated plenty of beeswax. Brad started to make lip balm for Anika and their friends. While the simplicity of plain beeswax offered many of the benefits people want from a lip balm, Brad experimented with a plethora of different recipes until he finally hit on what would become the Portland Bee Balm product line.

Using the resources and skills he had on hand, Brad set out to get his product to market. but as anyone who has launched a new consumer product can attest – gaining initial market traction is a slog.

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The bee balm displays

But rather than be too daunted to move, they took the creative approach to get the bee balm on the shelves, all while Brad was still working full time at an elementary school.

“An artist friend and I spent an evening drawing up a label that included the city skyline, Mt. Hood and a giant honey bee. We had this shrunk down and printed on kraft brown stickers. Once the brand was designed, I got creative with display case building. Using a bundle of cedar shingles and hours of work in the basement of the shared house we lived in, I would build many different designs and offer them to stores for free. I would also offer to take measurements and custom build a display for any space in their store. People were very generous with their time and knowledge. They were the experts in this area and I would say, “You know your store best and I am good woodworker. I’ll build you anything you want to fit any location in your store for free; do you have any ideas?”

This personal outreach and engagement provided the initial market traction for Portland Bee Balm, but the true value was discovered through the conversations he had with store owners and buyers, as the display experiments and conversations with them would prove invaluable as Brad learned how the world of retail operated.

“My market research was mostly conversations with store owners and body care buyers. I tried not to do too much talking, I asked a ton of questions about how the industry works, how their department worked, what sold well, why did they think it sold well, what was the most valuable real estate in the store, and on and on. I would listen for as long as they were willing to talk – eventually they would have to get back to work. A little honesty went a long way – I told them I was new at this and had no idea what I was doing. Any advice they could give me would be greatly appreciated.”

But even with such an outward approach, there was the lack of confidence and knowledge so often felt by first time founders.

“I was rightly afraid that I was coming across as someone who had no idea what they were doing. I felt like people were doing me a huge favor every time they bought my product. It took me a long time to gain the confidence that I was providing something of significant value and they needed me as much as I needed them.”

In addition to the sense of fear of the unknown, there were production issues that created their own challenges and opportunities for knowledge gathering.

“We also had many production issues; a label that didn’t stay on the tubes and displays that did not function correctly.  Luckily I was able to encounter and solve these problems while Portland Bee Balm was still very small because when you are forced to recall all your product because your labels are coming off, it’s nice to only be in three stores. “

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Raw beeswax – each one of these weighs hundreds of pounds.

Brad started to hone in on an initial sales strategy as these early issues were ironed out. He’d would get on Google Maps and walk the street view guy down Alberta, Hawthorne, Mississippi, NW 21st avenue, and NW 23rd avenue. From the look of the storefront, he’d decide who might consider selling Portland Bee Balm and then drop them a cold call with the very soft ask of “Can I stop by and give them some free samples of the lip balm I make?”. As with anything new, it was pretty intimidating the first few times, but like anything it got easier and he got better.

As the number of stores started to grow, the product sourcing started to become a focus of the business. Brad started out using the beeswax from his own hives, but quickly surpassed what he could harvest from those sources. But as a beekeeper himself and the fact that the word ‘Bee’ was right on the label, it was important to have an authentic connection.

“To start with, most balms don’t want to use much beeswax because it’s such an expensive ingredient. But I wanted the recipe to have as much beeswax as possible and to this day, every tube of balm is over one third beeswax.”

In addition to the amount of beeswax in each tube of balm, there also was the fact that their tag line when they started was ‘supporting local bees and their keepers.’ By placing bees first in the tag line, it was a clever way to put the focus on them. A focus that Brad knew had to be more than just keeping his own hives and buying wax from other local beekeepers, because if that was the extent of that belief, it would feel more like marketing as opposed to the truth.

But the truth won out, and started a program they hope to grow as the company does.

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Brad beekeeping

“We started giving away hives each spring. We partnered with Bee Thinking to buy the hives, then we get beekeeping equipment and a package of honeybees with a queen. We give these hives away to people in the community that want to be beekeepers, but can’t afford the significant startup cost. We gave away 4 hives this last spring, our most ever. We don’t do a great job of publicizing and getting press about the giveaways, but it makes us feel good and we know we are not BS’ing anyone when we tell them we support local bees and their keepers. “

Scaling up production and retailers

As the number of retailers grew, there was a conscious effort to not jump up too many rungs on the ladder too soon.

The independent gift shops prepared Brad for the Co-Ops, and the Co-Ops prepared him for New Seasons. He realized there was so much to learn; from lingo, jargon and acronyms to expectations regarding terms, legal, insurance and labeling requirements.

“If you jump too far, it will show and they will probably not want to work with you as it will be clear to them that you are out of your depth and holding your hand through everything will be a huge time sink. The co-ops and New Seasons were great, they helped me through a lot of things, but it had to be clear that I had a base level of knowledge and experience before they brought me onto their shelves.”

But more than just getting on the shelves, Portland Bee Balm became one of the top sellers in  the health and beauty category within the stores it was featured. Safe to say Brad and Anika were very surprised.

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Custom retail display

“I just had my head down and was focused on getting a little bit better with each iteration of displays or labels or production processes. When I looked up we had something that was working pretty well and people were responding to.”

The heads down approach to building a product proved to be the right model for growth, but in terms of personal growth, reaching out to the Portland area entrepreneur and maker world for feedback, support, and advice was critical, and that community was helpful in a myriad of ways.

The community provided a consistent push to keep evolving, evaluating, iterating, exploring and taking risks, which has helped keep Brad moving forward onto the next challenge – challenges that include more than just product refinement and scaling.

“The emotional support has been helpful as well. I’m a solo founder so there is no one at Portland Bee Balm with whom I can share large scale hopes and fears. A group of other founders can fill that role, as there are so many similarities across companies and industries.

The community’s most valuable contribution has been the expansion of perceived possibility. Everything looks impossible until you see someone else do it – like breaking the 4 minute mile. I did not come from a world where people started, owned, bought and sold companies. Successful company founders were generous with their time and advice. I was able to see that there was almost infinite room for growth and increased positive impact. Bringing these large aspirational goals into the realm of possibility has been the greatest gift from this community.”

The development of Cascadia Candles

As Portland bee Balm continued to grow, there was the constant noise around expanding the product line, and the never ending product ideas from outside voices. But much of Brad’s success with Portland bee Balm can be attributed to the ability to resist taking on too much advice, and concentrating on trying to continually improve on what they do best.

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Cascadia Candles packaging

Creative energies, however, do need an outlet. With the need to tweak the design and product slowing down, Brad got restless, and the restless mind led to the latest product line.

“Candles are an obvious choice; we are surrounded by towers of beeswax in this office, as it’s a main ingredient in our balms. However I could never find myself inspired to make beeswax pillars, tapers, votives or tealights – there are already many great companies doing this very well.“

The restless creative energy continued to burn within Brad and at some point he began to think that maybe the shape of the candle could convey the identity of the brand. He thought about releasing a Portland Bee Balm candle, which led to ideas like a raindrop, a tall boy beer can and Big Pink. And while those ideas would have no doubt created some noise and traction on shelves, his mind eventually settled on a more iconic representation of the brand and the Pacific NW.

“Eventually I thought about Mount Tabor and it’s reservoirs. I thought the reservoirs could be in blue wax and it would look striking. As I started thinking about creating a 3D model of Mount Tabor, it became clear that Mount Hood would be a much more recognizable choice. Once I started going down that route I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of modeling and printing 3D geographic features. I felt this new company would be limited if it was under Portland Bee Balm and it needed to be its own entity – Cascadia Candles.”

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Mt. Hood candle

Once the direction was set, Brad set out to do what he does best: do simple things really well.

He dived into learning about every aspect of candle making, including elements most people take for granted when lighting candles and navigating the intricacies of 3D modeling and printing. What seemed like a simple idea quickly became something that consumed his creative energy and led him to not just simply create a candle, but actually learn how to make a unique product.

“You have no idea how many different wick materials exist out there; each with their own burn properties, and how many different sizes they all come in. We tested wicks for days and days. For the candles themselves there are a lot of steps and each one is an opportunity to make mistakes. The topographical data gets transformed into a surface – that surfaces get transformed into a 3D digital model – that 3D model gets edited and sent to the 3D printer. Once the model in printed and exists in the real world, it has be carefully prepared and then cast in silicone. You have no idea how many different types of silicone exist out there! The silicone mold is then removed, and prepared to receive the beeswax. Don’t forget to adjust for the pour temperature and shrinkage of the beeswax as it cools. How do you get the wick in there? These were all great problems and I was able to come up with creative solutions that I am proud of. There will be way more problems to tackle going forward; they never end, but this is what makes the work interesting.”

With the candle design dialed in and production ready to begin, Brad is turning to Kickstarter for support of the project, instead of reaching out to the network of retailers he has built up through Portland Bee Balm.

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Mt. St. Helens candle

Kickstarter offered the best platform to not only share this new product with a large and diverse audience, but it also allows him to gauge if there is truly enough interest in the concept to take the next steps.

Backers generously agree to wait months for their rewards. This will allow us to build out our production capacity to be roughly in line with demand. These candles also feel much more at home on the internet than lip balm. People are online looking for a new, unique gift or object that speaks to them.”

And if the candles do speak to a large customer base, Brad knows that will come with new challenges and opportunities for both brands.

“I think the biggest challenges will involve people. Making sure everyone is communicating, on the same page and feeling supported is happening right now in our 4 person Portland Bee Balm team. If things grow very quickly and we need to add more than a few people I think the biggest challenge will be to maintain the culture we have created. It’s a flat hierarchy with open books and no secrets. Everyone knows everything that is going on with the company and we are all in it together.”

Being transparent and open are the core values that Brad has built Portland Bee Balm on, and will continue to do so as Cascadia Candles comes into the brand fold.

And what would he say if he could go back and give his former self some advice?

“Quit your job sooner, it’s going to work out. Try to relax. Don’t compare yourself to other people that founded a better, faster, cooler, sexier, bigger company. Your instincts are good, Brad’s Bomb Balm would have been a dumb name.”

For more information, visit the Cascadia Candles Kickstarter page and visit Portland Bee Balm at www.portlandbeebalm.com and follow them on facebook,  instagram and twitter

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Sounding like a great idea: Q&A with Audibility

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Portland startup Audibility is closing in on the end of a successful campaign on Kickstarter, designed to help fund the first production run of their personalized headphones. The company is also part of the current cohort of the Portland Development Commission’s Startup PDX Challenge, a program designed to help early stage founders from communities of color. We took a few minutes to sit down with Audibility cofounder and chief operating officer Gilbert Resendez to hear more—ahem—about this young Oregon company.

What was the genesis of Audibility?
Long story short, we worked together on projects for our respective programs at the University of Portland. We wanted to develop a business model that worked to address a lack of access to hearing aids for those with hearing loss. With this in mind, Audibility was born as a consumer headphone company that aims to improve everyone’s listening experience through well designed custom fit headphones for everyday listeners, and access to hearing aids through our partner foundation.

How did you go from just an idea to where you are today?
We started with form in this concept while we were students at the University of Portland in our respective academic programs. From there, we applied for and received the Dean’s Innovation Challenge award at UP. This allowed us to begin working on product development. And after winning a spot in the Startup PDX Challenge, we began to receive the resources to carry out our vision for Audibility. Because of all of that combined support, we’re happy to see our Kickstarter campaign meeting our goal.

The headphone market seems like one that is extremely crowded. How is your product different? Who are you initial target customers?
Everyone’s ear is different. Just like a fingerprint. But the majority of earphones and headphones are not made to fit a generic ear shape.

At Audibility, we recognize the need to customize headphones to ensure comfort and quality. While other custom-fit options do exist, they often require excessive time and money as they require users to visit an audiologist for fitting, or to send images of their ears. Audibility headphones are a “one-stop” solution to achieving an affordable and custom fit.

audibility-boxingTalk a bit about the concept and design of the earphones. Was there a lot of trial and error around the engineering?
Our earphones are uniquely designed to accommodate our custom molding material. The molding material is a silicon-based putty that comes in two parts. Upon mixing the molds, the user will have approximately ten minutes to secure the mold to our earbuds before the material cures into a flexible rubber that maintains the contours of the users EarPrint. In our development process, it was fairly easy to find the right molding material, considering that material very similar to ours is used regularly in audiology for fitting ear-molds for hearing aids. Our cofounder Brian Carter wears hearing aids and was very familiar with this process. The challenges in development came in our industrial design of the earbuds. Our earbuds are designed with gaps in the casing that allow the custom molding material to form in and around the earbud to secure the earbud and become one unit. We used 3-D printing, amongst other rapid-prototyping tools, to iterate several designs and find the best, most fool-proof design possible for our Audibility Customs.

I assume human error is built into the model. People will mess up the fitting. Will you send replacement material if they reach out and say that it doesn’t fit exactly right?
Yes we will! We also provide enough molding material in our initial package for the user to do their fitting again if needed. In the coming months we will also provide instructional videos on our website to assist this process.

Talk a bit about the commitment to give back to the Hear the World Foundation.
For every product that we sell, we’ll give 10% of our revenue to Hear the World Foundation. From the beginning we’ve been strong believers in making sure people have access to hearing aids. Again, with Brian wearing hearing aids, we feel like we have a personal connection to that cause. This is our way of supporting that mission of giving hearing aid access around the world.

Where do you see the company in one year? Three to five years?
In a year we want to develop our online sales strategy and develop our ecommerce platform. In three years, we want to have multiple products surrounded by this idea of having a custom audio experience. By five years, we hope to have been acquired or developed some kind of larger partnership that allows us to eventually exit.

For more information, visit Audibility, follow Audibility on Twitter, or like Audibility on Facebook.

Verifying the Offers: A Q&A with Jake Weatherly of SheerID

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SheerID is an eligibility verification service for online commerce, based in Eugene. Co-founded in 2010 by CEO Jake Weatherly, President David Shear and CMO Marci Hansen, the company currently provides its service to companies like Spotify, Foot Locker, PGA TOUR, and Costco.  We recently sat down with Jake Weatherly to talk about the company and its history, and find out how it’s been able to gain such great market traction in just a few years.

What was the initial genesis of SheerID?
Living in a college town, everywhere we went, we kept noticing how hard it was for students to verify their eligibility and redeem discounts they deserved. We saw that at the airport, in the University library, and even at the college bookstore. As the pattern started to emerge and the pain point became obvious to us, David and I conducted extensive research to uncover what solutions existed. We were stunned that there weren’t companies already verifying eligibility for exclusive student discounts.

Once you had that initial idea, how did you go about developing, testing, evolving, and growing the concept?
I tapped Alex Boone, our EVP of Technology, and sold him on the idea. After hours of testing, Alex confirmed that it was possible to build an API that could perform a binary verification against data sources. From there we spent a lot of time researching data options until we found the right partner for authoritative student data. Upon starting to do TAM research for students, we uncovered there might be an even bigger opportunity around military discounts, so we began developing those two products in parallel.

What were some of the initial hurdles that you encountered as you were entering the market and lining up new clients?
When looking at the classic product life cycle, we realized that we were at the extreme end of the introduction and education phase. So while it was great to not have competition, there was a lot of education to do in the marketplace before we could sell our product.

What were the key pain points that SheerID looked to solve in the market when you launched and how have those evolved as you’ve scaled up?
At our core, we have always been a verification company. We set out to streamline the eligibility verification process for our clients and their customers. Along the way, we have been surprised at how our clients integrate our solutions. For example, we knew from the beginning that we had the capability to host our clients’ verification, but we thought they would be more interested in our API and hosting it themselves. However, because we frequently work with decision makers on the operations and marketing side of the house, the fact that we can get a SheerID-hosted verification solution up and running in six business days with minimal IT support has been a big advantage.

SheerID started with Students and Military, which seems like a great group based on retailer promotions/deals – was there a focus on lining up these two groups first?
There are 34 million members of the military community and 21 million college students. That made them the biggest opportunity for our target prospects.Hurry_bg_img

Was there a measured approach to growth after Students and Military, or more of a database/records access reason for how SheerID has entered the market?
We’ve always gotten a positive response from data partners we’ve approached because our API is designed to ask for a binary response and doesn’t see or transmit PII (personally identifiable information).

As we gained traction and on-boarded new clients, we uncovered two new pain points. Many software companies and other business that offered student discounts wanted to offer academic discounts so adding teacher and faculty satisfied their criteria. We also discovered that several of our clients who offered military discounts to show their appreciation also wanted to extend their offers to first responders. Both new products were client-driven.

Talk a bit about founding and growing the company in Eugene from a community standpoint.
Eugene has been a terrific place to start our company. The cost of living is affordable and the quality of life can’t be beat. Founding our business in Eugene has allowed me to maintain a healthy work/life balance and spend time with my family.

jake_david_2How important is it to maintain a great company culture as you scale up?
Maintaining our company culture is super important to us. We’re a family-friendly, environmentally conscious company. Once a month, we host a family movie night at our office. We encourage our employees to bike to work and stay active by organizing hikes and other outdoor activities. When we opened our new office in Portland, there was definitely a look and feel we wanted to replicate. For example, our desks in both offices are made from recycled doors, and we made it a priority to create comfortable seating areas where our employees can relax and brainstorm. We want our remote employees to feel like they’re a part of the SheerID family. We supply our offices with healthy snacks and high quality coffee, and we’ve signed our remote employees up for Graze subscriptions and coffee subscriptions so that they can enjoy those perks too. We try to create an environment that is very inclusive.

What do you think the biggest opportunities and challenges are on the horizon?
Our core business will always be verification, but our API is so flexible that there are many products we can create and different directions we can take. We’re very aware that in order to meet our goal of doubling revenue this year, we need to scale with focus and choose our next products and opportunities in a calculated fashion.

If your present day self could go back in time and tell your former self some advice, what would it be?
Don’t waste time worrying about the fact that every business planning professional out there says you should never start a business that doesn’t have competition. This idea has legs, so relax, dig in, and enjoy the ride.

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