Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Category - Apparel & Outdoor

The ripples of design: The Soul River Runs Deep story

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Chad Brown’s journey has been a winding one.

It’s a journey that has taken him from Texas to Iraq, Somalia to New York City, and Asia to Portland. But more than the journey itself, the company he’s founded along that journey, Soul River Runs Deep, is the embodiment of a belief and mission.

“Soul River is about the embodiment of our rivers and our personal relationship in and with nature. Your ‘soul river’ is defined by your interest, passion, and love for anything in Mother Nature that is precious and healing to you.”

The brand is about bridging the gap between two different worlds – urban and nature – and syncing the two worlds as a fusion of humanity, a stand for social justice, equality, artistic expression, and nature.

It’s a brand whose origins have to be traced back along the meandering journey of a creative mind.6-860x514

The evolution of a designer

Chad’s creative tendencies started at a young age, and through a simple gesture by his mom.  She would give him a poster board from the grocery store and he would draw characters from his picture books in ink.

Simple? Yes.

But that gesture allowed Chad to evolve into an expressive and artistic person.

“As a youth, I was immersed in various extracurricular art programs within the community, public school system, and even the Art Institute of Dallas to study commercial art. Like many young, starving student artists, I needed to pay for my books, the classes, my supplies, and just school in general. That’s when I dropped out to go into the Navy.”

Chad’s time in the Navy included serving in the Operation Desert Storm Campaign in Kuwait and the Operation Restore Hope Campaign in Somalia. But even during those campaigns, he’d find opportunities to design through projects like a “how-to” manual for the command, which served as an aid for Navy and Army on-load and off-load transportation.

Once Chad left the Navy, he returned to school and completed his BFA in Communication Design at The Intercontinental University in Atlanta, Georgia. He stayed in Atlanta for a year freelancing and working as a young designer for Upscale Magazine.

“I knew that I had potential to go further but, like many artists, my strong suit was not sitting down and American-Lemon-Tie-Reversedfilling out paper applications for days. I remember sending my application into the Pratt Institute along with a cover letter that was written on a torn up fast food bag. I figured If these people know how to see beyond words on a paper, they will accept me.”

To Chad’s surprise, the administrators at Pratt believed in his potential and looked past his fast food bag cover letter and accepted him into the program. The Institute is based in Brooklyn, and while the New York City pace can sometimes swallow up people, Chad relished it.

“Living and studying in NYC inspired edginess, raw talent, and authentic perspective for me. At the time, I had never felt more expressive and true to myself. I graduated with a Masters of Science in Communication Design and the world was my oyster.”

But as he opened up that oyster, Chad quickly realized that the being a designer in NYC is not for the faint of heart. It was tough, hard and highly competitive. He worked for various agencies and design firms doing typography design, packaging design, identity development, fashion, and photography. But the agency world was not one he’d linger in too long and a moment that changed many people’s lives forever, played a role in his.

“After the Twin Towers came under attack on September 11, 2001, the economy went ballistic and, like many others, I lost my job. Actually, it was on that exact day when I was let go. I needed to survive in New York City and freelance was my only option. I came to realize, however, that I much preferred living and thriving as opposed to surviving. Surviving was symbolic to the struggle. I knew I could do better than struggle!

“Stepping out independently was, is and always has been in my DNA. I’m not one to follow the masses nor really work for the man. I’ve always been able to adapt to those environments but being so much of a creative, I tend to conceptualize and design really well independently.”

And working independently was something Chad relished at. He started as primarily a freelancer and evolved into more of a consultant, working with a broad mix of clients, including working and collaborating with Russell Simmons and his business Phat Farm. Chad was brought on to develop and design their running shoe launch.

Eventually, Chad’s freelance career took him overseas to do do design consulting and branding development in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, as well as throughout the US, including Los Angeles. During this time he wore many creative hats; from art directing, to working with photographers in front of the camera, to being the photographer shooting fashion ads, as well as working on high concept campaigns bringing “big ideas” to life.

“I helped launch the TIVO campaign in Los Angeles through Campbell Ewald West. Opportunities like these gave me more confidence in knowing I could take on the world of freelance. I was eventually hired to rebrand for Epic, a leading international garment fashion house in Hong Kong. As Asia’s industry leaders and one of the world’s leading garment manufacturers in the fashion industry, Epic boasts clients with internationally recognized names such as GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch, Costco, Levi’s, Hollister, Sears, and H&M, to name a few.

“My role was not just to rebrand, but to recreate the image of the company with a fresh appeal to European, North American and Australian clients with executive buying powers. I hired a team and conceptualized the branding, photography, and video. We shot film and photography in three different countries and ultimately delivered a successful outcome”

Life was going good for Chad. But life is not always a straight path with a defined ending. 12115596_1061797197194325_4396068783544269536_n

The soul of a brand

Chad moved to Portland and continued to focus in on his creative work, but there was something that kept pulling him in a different, and sometimes dark direction – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

His once focused journey became more uncharted and riddled with uncertainty, and where he found solace was fly fishing on the beautiful rivers of the Northwest. He was introduced to the sport and he began to learn and love more than just the sport itself. The river became the place where he found the embodiment of hope combined with solace.

The place where a brand vision was hatched.

“One day, I waded out into the river and began casting with my hand half-submerged in the cool water. I felt the current pushing a strong and consistent force against my legs and the sun was beaming warmth overhead and, for a moment, I felt a surge of strength run through me as if my inner-being was re-awakened.  My mind felt clear and my soul inspired. I knew my talents and abilities could be merged with my newfound source of survival to provide exceptional, one-of-a-kind apparel and accessories for clients and customers and a medicine for my soul. Little did I know that it would spread to be much more than that! This was the ultimate conception of Soul River Runs Deep.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 10.02.32 AMThe brand of Soul River helped Chad merge his passion for design and expression of creativity; it was the celebration of humanity and the desire to want to create a product line that speaks of nature and displays an artistic approach.

And that expression started with the design of the Naiad – a Greek goddess.

The Naiad is the nymph of the rivers – the protector, She lives only in healthy waters and clean environments and represents mother nature as her ambassador of aquatic and natural life amongst the rivers. Many anglers see this symbol as their good luck on the water. This initial design also led to an overall brand direction.

“My artistic process is walking between the natural world and the urban world merged with inspiration from Greek mythology and fantasy and striving to give a different perspective of beauty, nature, and eclectic modernism. Using weighted-line style design and incorporating shapes, space – both positive and negative – intricately to play into an organic and playful art that we know and can identify as well as position a unique breath of fresh air. “

As Chad evolved the brand and the products around it, he experimented in more than just soft goods and attempted to design his own Soul River fly fishing reel, an attempt he emphasizes will never happen again. He sold some of the reels, but realized this was not his best pursuit and use of talent and now the focus is squarely on soft goods. A line that is inspired by, and a merging of,  military style and outdoor urbanism. A combination that defines the brand, and the various brand extensions Chad is working on.

“Design is intrinsic in everything that I do, even if it’s not seen or being worn. In my own space or in the outdoors with youth and vets, it is all connected to the artwork which is expressionistic, building the brand into the deployments of my non-profit, giving experiences that create a lifetime opportunity for veterans and youth.”Image-1

Evolving the brand in Kenton

The growth of Soul River Runs Deep, and a desire to make it more meaningful and approachable, led Chad to open up a small retail location in the vibrant Kenton neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that is eclectic, but also has a growing local business community that Chad saw an opportunity to be a part of.

The neighborhood is also a less hectic than other areas in Portland, which Chad admits is a positive to him.

“Kenton is a little low key which is actually an advantage for me because 95% of the time I am running the shop solo and have meetings or appointments with clients elsewhere that I have no option to miss. Saturday mornings and holidays bring out shoppers who are strolling by and wanting to engage with shop owners.  The buildings are still original and have character and charm. It’s easy to let your imagination tell stories of Kenton’s history. In addition, the food scene is bustling and tends to have its own heartbeat.”

The Kenton neighborhood also stuck out to Chad because it still holds history, as the gentrification isn’t as rampant as in other neighborhoods and that demographic base is very important to the bridge Chad is hoping to build – an accessible location to the diverse demographic which the brand of Soul River serves.

“The local demographic was important to me for a variety of reasons. I was aiming to be in an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood, one that was accessible, and one that was familiar for inner-city youth and families to visit. I appreciated that I was twenty feet from the bus and MAX line, making it more accessible for today’s urban youth. If you peek around Kenton, you won’t see any other business like Soul River Runs Deep. If you look at other fly shops, they tend to be close to rivers or on outskirts of towns…not typically in the center of the urban world. Soul River Runs Deep is so much more than a fly shop – we are a haven for new anglers of color and recently returned veterans, a boutique space that anyone can find something uniquely designed and created from Portland, and a unique shopping experience that boasts raw creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Inside the retail location you’ll find more than just Soul River branded products. Chad offers a few fine local goods for customers, and that gives the shop a different and eclectic dynamic for the customer. Soul River is an anthropology mashup between art, design, nature, and fly fishing.

But forging a new retail brand while supporting a growing nonprofit poses many challenges, challenges that many entrepreneurs can relate to.

“At this very moment, the biggest hurdle is the balancing act of running a retail shop, being a creative and doing freelance design work, and directing a grass-roots, new non-profit. It’s incredibly taxing and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for ‘me,’ but I believe that the entrepreneurial path is the right one for me. With that, there are oftentimes no ‘days off.’ I have to be aware of my limits and take care of myself, but at the same time I am always creating concepts, brainstorming, and networking.”

However, in addition to the challenges, there are many opportunities on the horizon for the Soul River brand. The work Chad has done around his nonprofit, Soul River Runs Wild, is well documented. He has bridged a gap between urban teens, the environment, and veterans to being mentors for these inner city youth while teaching them the art of fly fishing.

Chad sees the opportunity to bridge the design world to inner city youth and veterans.

“This is something that I have definitely considered. Right now, I integrate design and photography in secondary and tertiary ways – designing a fly on the vice, providing opportunities for expedition participants to help the videographer. Someday, I do plan to integrate this in a richer way, but not this year.”

Trying to not do everything at once is something Chad is working on doing, and evident in the advice he’d give his former self.

“Focus on one company at a time.”

For now though, Soul River Runs Deep and Soul River Runs Wild continues to build bridges that connect design to the outdoors and inner city youth to veterans, and where success is not solely focused on the bottom line, but on the impact you have on others.

For more information, visit www.soulriverrunsdeep.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo.

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With PENSOLE, D’Wayne Edwards Erases Barriers to Training Aspiring Footwear Designers

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D’Wayne Edwards is a footwear designer in Portland. He holds 30 patents and has produced more than 500 designs, mostly sneakers, including those created for star athletes like Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter. He is one of a handful of people ever to design an Air Jordan. His cumulative sales total, spanning a 26 year career, adds up to $1 billion.

In 2011 and at the peak of his career, Edwards left his position as design director at Nike’s Jordan Brand, and began training aspiring designers through his PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy in Old Town Portland. It was his personal quest to break down the socioeconomic barriers that have kept many talented artists out of the design business.

The motivations for his mid-stream career change and the launch of PENSOLE come from his own personal experience as a poor black kid from South Los Angeles.

“All young people have to see who they want to become.”

                                                                                                     D’Wayne Edwards

 

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

The roots of an artist

Edwards was the youngest of six children, raised by a single mother in Inglewood, California during the 1980’s. He began drawing sports figures when very young but by age 12, he focused on the shoes because, “they were the most challenging thing to draw.” He had support at home—his mother and brothers were artistic too. But no one believed there was a future for a him in the design industry.

Throughout high school, Edwards continued to draw—always shoes. He had a job at McDonalds and was told he could one day become a store manager and earn a good living–$40K a year. His school guidance counselor suggested he join the military.

Noticing a small ad in the LA Times, Edwards entered a design competition sponsored by Reebok. He submitted a drawing and won. Reebok withheld the prize–a job with the company–because Edwards was only 17. They suggested he come back after he finished college.

Even if he’d had the money to attend, there were no design schools at the time with specific curriculum for footwear design.

After high school Edwards attended Santa Monica Community College, studying business management and advertising. Working at a temp agency, he was assigned to LA Gear as a file clerk. Noticing suggestion boxes placed around the office, Edwards put a hand-drawn sketch of a different sneaker in the box every day, suggesting they hire him. It took six months, but the owner of the company finally called Edwards in and decided to give him a shot.

When Edwards was hired as a designer at LA Gear in 1989, he was 19 years old and one of two African American athletic footwear designers in the US.

Edwards eventually left LA Gear and went on to Nike, and by 2008 Edwards was designing for Jordan. He began reflecting on the industry and his role within it, recalling, “At this time kids are getting killed for shoes that I’ve designed and/or worked on…It was difficult for me…I was making the product–even though I wasn’t the owner of the company–but I was associated with the idea.”

 Photo Credit: Marcus  Yam


Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Changing the conversation and industry

Sensing a need to find a better path, in 2010 while still at Nike, Edwards taught the first PENSOLE class in partnership with University of Oregon. He asked friends with sneaker websites to post bulletins, getting applicants to submit drawings. Edwards funded the first session, paying for 40 students to attend. In the end, “That just felt better to me than creating new products and new shoes for people. Even though I loved what I did, I found more satisfaction in helping people.” In 2011 Edwards resigned from Nike to devote himself to the academy.

PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy is a lofted, creative-classroom space. It’s modern, bright, and suited to collaboration. The large, high-ceilinged room is defined by a few low walls to allow clusters of students to work. In the foyer, small-scale shoe boxes line the wall, representing students that have been placed with a brand after graduating. On the opposite wall is a suggestion box.

Beside that are photos of students who have arrived late to class and suffered the consequences–10 push-ups for every minute of tardiness. An over-sized, clear vase sits on a shelf nearby, full of pencil shavings accumulated during each month-long, intensive course—mounting evidence of the energy expended during the 14 hour days that students typically work.

The only way to attend PENSOLE is to earn a place in the academy by submitting one drawing of a sneaker, sketched by hand in pencil. Edwards receives an average of 500 drawings during each application period from which he will select 18 -25 students, based solely on their drawing. He makes sure that no two students in any class come from the same place. Selected applicants must be 18 and pay their own way to Portland. But the competitive, merit-based program covers the cost of tuition, housing, and supplies, removing socioeconomic barriers. So far, students from 35 different countries have attended the academy.

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

PENSOLE Academy is a mix of old-school rigor and innovative classroom experience. Edwards insists students use their hands and draw with pencil, a process that helps them tap into their creativity and connect to themselves as individuals. Computers, in his view, are limiting.

Stenciled on the walls and tables are memorable quotes from authors that range from Shakespeare to Bruce Lee. He starts each morning with a quote, a website, and discussion of a historical figure, all aimed at helping students develop their potential. He also assigns daily readings from the classroom library with content ranging from business to motivational topics

“I don’t have a set curriculum,” says Edwards, who doesn’t tolerate laziness. “You can’t skip one day…Part of it is getting [students] to be present so they can understand when they come here they need to be ready to work. The more you can prepare for the unexpected, the better off you’re going to be when it’s time to adapt in the professional environment…We’re training you the way you’re going to work.”

A community of more than 70 adjunct footwear designers, along with Edwards, comprise the faculty. PENSOLE’s materials lab offers the same selections available to major footwear brands. All facets of the business are taught, including consumer profiling, storytelling, terminologies, palette development, strategic thinking, and marketing plans, while at the same time cultivating leadership skills.

Edwards sets a very high standard for students to meet. “I treat them the way they want to become, which is a professional. So if you want to become a professional one day, this is what it’s going to take to get there.”

Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

PENSOLE has attracted the attention of top design schools, including The Art Center in Pasadena, California and Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. Edwards established partnerships with these institutions and others, traveling to teach the PENSOLE curriculum at their campuses. These institutions realize that the classic business and dress shoes are designed and manufactured much as they have been for decades,  but the radical innovation in the industry comes from athletic footwear. (Edwards discusses the impact of the sneaker on Science Friday).

The Academy is supported by a network private donations, school scholarships, and corporate sponsors, including adidas, Nike, Foot Locker, ASICS and many others. In exchange, brand partners that sponsor classes may own the student design product, which they can choose to manufacture and sell, compensating the student for their work. (This PENSOLE graduate writes about his days at the academy)

PENSOLE itself is not an accredited institution. Its validation is grounded in results.

To date, 145 PENSOLE graduates have been placed in the footwear design industry, many of them here in Oregon. The list continues to grow, currently including Nike/Jordan, adidas, AND1, North Face, New Balance, Wolverine, Timberland, Keen, Converse, Cole Haan, Under Armour, and Stride Rite.

Still, notwithstanding this early success, many of the barriers Edwards faced as a kid nearly 30 years ago are still deeply entrenched.  Today, fewer than 100 individuals, less than 5% of footwear designers in the US, are people of color. Many of those have been mentored or taught by Edwards. Looking at gender balance within the industry, the figures are similarly alarming. So few females attempt to become footwear designers that Edwards is planning to offer a PENSOLE class just for women.

 Photo Credit: Marcus  Yam


Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

Edwards remains undaunted by the task of changing an industry from within. “PENSOLE was created to service the entire footwear industry, and everything about how we operate is about community.”

In fact, the calendar for 2016 demonstrates how his vision for PENSOLE continues to expand. In addition to teaching 8 class sessions throughout the year, a new partnership was recently announced giving students an opportunity to design footwear for Levi’s. For the first time, PENSOLE will launch its own branded product.

Fans of the immensely popular World Sneaker Championship, founded by Edwards, are already participating in the current 2016 competition that was launched in February. And in responding to requests from teachers and students across the nation, a program for high school students is currently in development, to be partly funded by a community-ownership campaign called SOLEHOLDER.

D’wayne Edwards and PENSOLE will keep knocking down these walls, one by one, driven by the words of Bruce Lee on the school wall:

“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”

Bruce Lee

 

 Thanks to Davia Larson for her contributions to this story.                                                                                                                                             

 

 Photo Credit: Marcus Yam


Photo Credit: Marcus Yam

 

Learning by doing: The Homeschool Outerwear story

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The journey for Homeschool Outerwear’s founder, Danny Clancey—a journey to create some of the finest technical outerwear—began in a climate where “outerwear” is often nothing more than a shirt. In Hawaii.

Yes, Hawaii.

Sun to snow. From wanting to be in the water, to finding the best ways to keep the water out.

But for Danny, the path to being an outwear apparel entrepreneur can be traced back to his roots in Hawaii.

“I come from an apparel family,” he said. “My dad was a successful entrepreneur and I always admired how he built his business, treated his employees and had this core desire to make a quality product. The fact that I grew up around an entrepreneur who essentially came from very little but accomplished a lot showed me it was possible—if you have the drive, passion and desire to do what needs to be done. That was something I aspired to.”

IMG_9714Danny came to the mainland to get his degree. While pursuing his education, he got turned onto snowboarding. But coming from Hawaii, he never had the need to buy or own any kind of technical product. But a funny thing happened when he started wearing technical clothing – he became fascinated with the idea that you could be protected from the harsh environments with the proper clothing.

“I think coming from a place with no snow makes it an interesting story, as to how I developed this weird desire to make the best technical outerwear in the world. But those initial insights and fascination stuck with me, and created some weird drive to develop really good technical product that looks clean, and works in harsh conditions regardless of activity.”

Heading for the hills

After college, Danny came to the NW to pursue a degree in apparel design and immediately started working in the industry on the design side, first for K2 and then Columbia Sportswear. The latter brought him to Portland, and also gave him some knowledge of not only how tough the industry is to break into, but what goes into the entire design to production process.

“My time at Columbia prepared me for what I’m doing now. I had knowledge and drive but my time at Columbia showed me the “nuts and bolts” of how to get a product made, and the process that goes into that. I was there long enough to become dangerous so to speak but still retain the drive and optimism needed to go on my own. Sometimes if you stay somewhere too long you lose that.”

Danny didn’t stay in one place.

That desire to create unique and highly technical outerwear led him to strike out on his own, and the knowledge gleaned from watching his entrepreneurial father gave him an innate sense of confidence.

“My dad’s reaction to my decision to go my own way was also not what I expected. The first thing he said to me was ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’ The second was ‘How can I help?’ That moved me to the point where I felt I could do this and was prepared to face the realities and hardships of this business and find a way to pull it off.”Ghost-Shell

Crafting an outdoor apparel brand

As Danny made the jump into launching an apparel company, one thing became clear: the need to have a memorable and meaningful brand on which to build a new outerwear line. A brand that evokes a certain feeling, but also holds true to the core beliefs of the company.

“The name homeschool comes from the idea of learning by doing; doing for ourselves as a small brand what a bigger brand can’t or won’t do. We didn’t start with a price point and work backwards like you would at a bigger company. We decided to make the best product we can, which in itself is not a unique concept, but one that just isn’t done much anymore.”

From the outset they believed that authenticity is something that money can’t buy, and therefore didn’t spend money on trying to convince their customers they were the real deal, and the brand name fits perfectly with they wanted to do.

“Some people love it, some hate it, and I don’t care. You can’t please everyone and we aren’t going to try. The brand promise is that we are going to deliver product that allows you to spend more of your precious time outside doing what you love and the weather won’t be a hindrance. We have done this by learning what works and doing what we say we are, super simple yet really hard to pull off.”

Getting traction and movement in the chaotic and competitive apparel market took a focused Universe-Both-SKUsapproach. Danny was a designer by trade, but he was well aware that the technical specifications and features are just as important as the aesthetics, which the team describes as ‘clean and mean.’

Designed from the ground up

“We use a technology that we believe is revolutionary and dramatically enhances comfort outside, called 37.5. It’s an activated Carbon technology that increases breathability and dry time significantly. We also believe ‘cheap’ product is a false economy. We build our stuff to hold up to hard use over multiple seasons. Technology, style not fashion, durability and a great brand story are the foundations of Homeschool.”

Design and technical performance. A crafted balance in which there is a lot of subtlety and nuance in how they are different and they don’t try to over simplify the product or the message for a less sophisticated consumer.

Even as they promote their current lines, the Hood and Baker Series, the company is looking to the horizon and preparing their next line, and that preparation requires an evaluation of what has worked and what hasn’t – and also new ways to extend the brand.

“It’s been an evolution as we learn what works, and what does not. We do best with our high end product and our best selling pieces are our most expensive. Right now it’s all about ‘hybrid’ apparel that combines really technical fabrics or stories but looks like stuff you can wear in your day to day. We evolve the brand and product every season and strive to make it better and better. We are introducing a women’s product line next year and we will begin offering a technical 3-season product as we expand and grow, but ultimately how we evolve has to make sense. The last thing we want is a bloated line that tries to cover everything and everyone. That is a recipe for disaster.”IMG_9715

Challenges and Opportunities

Danny had the entrepreneurial passion in him when he set off to launch Homeschool Outerwear, and that passion has enabled him to go from concept to growing company. But the challenges in starting any business start to come at you fast. The moving parts associated with an apparel company, including materials, sourcing, manufacturing, and sales channels, all have to be dealt with at once, which can seem daunting to a first time founder. He watched his dad run a business that made Aloha shirts, while he wanted to make the ‘space shuttle’ of technical clothing.

Homeschool Outerwear focused on being small and nimble at the outset, with a line that was as tight as possible. They established a relationship with a good factory and started to get samples made, which is when they started to be taken seriously.

But each of those steps can be seen as insurmountable barriers.

“It’s overwhelming. I’ve dealt with it by not thinking about everything at once. Find the barriers and break them down one at a time. I have a lot of really good and talented people around me that believe in this brand and have made huge personal sacrifices to help bring this idea and product to fruition, for which I am eternally grateful. I believe that without the small brands’ point of view, there is no progression or energy in the outdoor space and that helps drive what we do. A belief in the product and that we are bringing something to the table that has been missing for a really long time.”

Heavy-Days-Both-SkusThat belief is what not only drove the design and construction of the apparel line, but also how the approached retailers and talked to consumers. Taking the approach that their products are good enough to be in the top retailers so let’s start at the top and see where we get.

“When we first launched the brand our focus was on 20 of the best retailers in the country, and we ultimately got into 18 of them in our first year, which was a major accomplishment because these are shops that typically take 3 years or more to break into. We haven’t lost many customers over the years and I think it’s partly because the major apparel players consolidate retailers and consumers are looking for an alternative they can get behind.”

Danny and his team also saw an opportunity overseas and have grown their distribution in Japan.

“Japan has been great for us, I think the Japanese consumer really appreciates quality and technology and are willing to pay more for that quality. Small brands with unique stories really resonate in Japan. We also have a great partner and distributor over there who is doing it right and willing to work hard to make the brand a success.”

The growth challenges that come with any early stage company continue as Homeschool Outerwear looks to scale. Raising investment money. Expanding the sales channels and growing revenue. Continuing to evolve the lines, while maintaining the brand essence. Hiring new talent and retaining the core team.

Danny knows that at every step there will be more barriers to break down one at a time, but he is also aware that Portland is the perfect place to build this type of company.

“ The environment and closeness and proximity to the mountains, ocean and a large active consumer base make it easier on a lot of levels. There is also a lot of great talent due to the big brands being located here, and a great entrepreneurial scene. The challenges are probably the same as they always have been. Even with the great infrastructure and entrepreneurship scene we have here a lot of people still don’t get what it means to start a business though, and I have always found that interesting. Unless you’ve done it there is no parallel.”

And now that Danny made that leap and has done it, what advice would he go back and give himself after he left Columbia?

“Wow, That’s a tough one. Be prepared for the long haul. If I knew what I had ahead of me I probably wouldn’t have done it! You need a little of that naiveté in the beginning for sure. Despite everything this is experience has been the most rewarding of my life and the most challenging, and I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I try not to have regrets.”

For more information, visit www.homeschoolouterwear.com, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Instagram

Where is the fashion? A look into Portland’s apparel scene and where it’s headed

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This story was written by our high school intern, Akhil Kambhammettu. Akhil is a junior at Jesuit High School and beyond this story, will be acting as our student Built Oregon reporter over the next year. 

Streetwear is hard to define.

Everyone has their own interpretation of what it means, but the one thing we do know is the streetwear industry is booming. With brands like Obey and Stussy growing into multi-million dollar companies within a few years, the door is open for smaller brands to be successful.

Portland is known for its alternative and dynamic culture, but what about its fashion scene? As a teenager, clothing and style is an indispensable part of my identity. From jogger chinos to the trending elongated tees, I’m always looking for new designs and styles to stand out. That is why I created Blue Market. Blue Market is not only an online marketplace for designers to upload their clothing lines for the public, but we also help designers who don’t have the resources and knowledge to create sophisticated designs and establish themselves as independent designers. There is a lot of hidden talent in the Portland area that just needs a little push to share their art with the public.

11406924_1115754201773204_729951032786562650_nI got the chance to meet with a couple clothing designers and local retailers to get a sense of where the Portland fashion scene is headed.

Jae Fields’ One Man Show

First, I met with Wookie Fields, founder of Jae Fields, a local Portland streetwear brand. Working out of a small studio on NW 5th and Couch, Wookie is a one man show and handles everything, including sales, branding, marketing, patterning, and designing. “The idea behind Jae Fields is to bring quality and premium apparel with the right fabric for the right occasions”. His collection includes a wide variety of elongated tees, quality denim and joggers; all of which I have a weak spot for. But what sets him apart is the durable and stretchy fabric he uses in his t-shirts that contribute to his standard of “versatility and functionality”. Creating high quality yet wearable apparel at a reasonable price point allows Jae Fields to stand out in the streetwear industry.

1610974_1137211819627442_505780576469448928_nWhen asked about the current Portland streetwear scene, Wookie says, “There isn’t one, and that’s what makes us so unique”. I asked Wookie what he likes about being in Portland, and he explains “everyone supports each other”. Connections are very important in the fashion industry, and in Portland there is a lot of support from both the public and fellow designers; however, there is no organized support structure for designers. This is apparent at Portland Fashion Week, one of the most popular fashion weeks in the U.S, where the connections and community are still going through some growing pains.

“It is really hard to get to know [the designers]. They make, present, and they’re done”. If Portland Fashion Week were to leverage their connections and popularity, a lot of local designers like Wookie would benefit. When asked about the future of the streetwear industry, Wookie simply says “Staying alive”. To elaborate, the streetwear industry is becoming saturated with more and more brands, some with potential, and some going nowhere. “It’s so easy to start a brand, but not many people have the knowledge to keep the company going (where the “staying alive” part comes in). It’s going to be more about the story you tell and who wears it. Not what you sell but how you sell it.” By the looks of it, Wookie has both under his belt.

Bridge & Burn keeps it simple

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 3.27.30 PMNext I met with Erik Prowell, founder of Bridge & Burn, a Portland based outerwear apparel brand with a focus on simplicity. Erik was born and raised in Bend, Oregon, so the northwest style can definitely be seen in his clothing. Erik started his clothing venture while creating graphic T-shirts, where he met a local manufacturer that opened the opportunity for him to start his brand, Bridge & Burn.

The inspiration behind Bridge & Burn was to create simple, clean, and timeless outerwear. From their wide collection of plaid shirts to their khaki windbreakers, Bridge & Burn combines a comfortable feel with an Oregon aesthetic. When asked about starting a brand in Portland, Erik explains, “[Portland] is the most supportive community. I mean everyone is willing to help each other.” Just as Wookie had mentioned, there is a lot of support from the design community and local boutiques.

With retail connections and support from brands he met during trade shows, Erik was easily able to get into many retailers, and transition smoothly into the market. Although there are many talented and supportive designers in Portland, Erik sees a lack of proper infrastructure for these designers to create and produce streetwear products, as he still struggles to find a reliable local manufacturer. The future of Portland apparel is really to create a solid foundation and support system for aspiring designers, so the Portland fashion scene can grow.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 3.25.43 PMSo what are the next steps for Bridge & Burn? “I’m just trying to build a really solid team… and slowly grow the company.” Bridge & Burn started out small with only five jackets for men and five for women, but has slowly expanded their line to include T-shirts and pants. With warmer weather becoming more common as well, Bridge & Burn has been expanding out of just raincoats and windbreakers.

Erik offers a little advice for young designers like myself: “At the end of the day you just really have to believe in yourself, and it’s not easy at all. You have to believe in your vision and hustle.”

After all this digging and research, one theme stays common throughout: The Portland fashion scene is growing. There are a lot of small shops and boutiques out there, but there is also a lot of hidden talent to be explored. The only way that talent can be unlocked is if they have enough support and resources. Established brands in the area need to engage up and coming designers, and the rest of us need to show our support for small brands by following them on social media, sharing with friends, and maybe even buying their clothing. As teens, fashion and style are part of who we are, but we also have the power and responsibility to create trends and support new ideas and clothing. If we stay on this path, Portland will be the future of the fashion industry and the place to be for creatives and designers from around the country.

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

For more information on Bridge & Burn visit www.bridgeandburn.com or follow them on instagram, Pinterest, and twitter.

To stay updated with my company, Blue Market,  follow us on instagram and twitter.

 

 

 

Shaping a new kind of snowboard

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They say you find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but what do you find on the Rainbow Chair at Mt. Bachelor?

For James Nicol and Ryan Holmes, cofounders of Snoplanks, they found was a spark of inspiration to create a new kind of snowboard — one that connects the mountain to the waves.

“On the chair we were discussing board and ski design and looking for something that had a more surf-like feel than your everyday “all mountain” equipment,” Nicol said “Being a surfer, I was also hoping to bring some of the concepts from surf design to snowboards in terms of rocker profiles and side cuts.”

10906495_1033428906673912_9184266040313148061_n (1)The idea of Snoplanks would not remain a concept for long. James harkened back to his surfing past — one that included shaping boards — and started the process of creating the initial prototypes.

And in that process of shaping, James found clarity for the concept and, ultimately, for himself.

“In the past I had shaped surfboards. And what I found is the process itself is a very peaceful and insightful undertaking. Shaping is a lot like riding powder or surfing. It’s a completely mind clearing activity, and I always walk away from the shaping room feeling better than I did when I entered.”

Crafting the plank

So with a cleared sense of mind, the duo began testing both the shape and the materials.

“I started working with our first boards in my garage that winter by building extremely primitive shapes from plywood, bending them with steam, and glassing them like surfboards. The original boards were very basic,  but actually extremely fun in powder. These first shapes were the backbone of the brand that led to where we are today.”

11885704_1178084902208311_1724488971785787825_oNicol knew that birch plywood, e-glass, and resin could only take them so far. So he started to look for options that would not only perform better but allow them to scale.

“I built a homemade press in spring 2013 and started experimenting with maple and birch veneers, doing a variety of layups to produce different flex and strength. When I found bamboo, however, that… that was a game changer. The strength to weight ratio was unmatched and I knew when I stepped on the first bamboo plank that we had something truly unique.”

Bamboo enabled the Snoplanks team to hone both the supply chain and production. But the choice to use bamboo was not solely based on technical performance alone. Bamboo from a sustainability standpoint appealed to Nicol and Holmes, as well. They wanted to make every plank as environmentally friendly as possible, which includes using tung oil as the finish, donating all of the scrap materials to Hangr Supply, and donating a portion of every sale to Protect our Winters.

But as many craftsman know, being sustainable in your production does not result in a subpar product, and these planks are built to last.

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Photo Credit: Pete Alport

“Our boards our extremely durable. We provide a refinishing kit if you want to sand and re-stain the deck. As the boards are 100% bamboo and fiberglass, they do need a bit more care than your standard board, but they can take a solid beating and we have not yet seen one break to date.”

Lessons learned and opportunities ahead

With sales doubling year over year, and a brand that has received its fair share of press, you’d think James and Ryan had done all of this before, but in fact they are first time founders. Not unlike many entrepreneurs, they have maintained their other jobs and hustled to get to this point.

“This is the first startup either of us has ever been involved in. I still work another job to pay the bills and keep the company rolling. Of course, the dream is to grow the business and employee our local community,” Nicol said. “We’ve learned a great deal to this point in terms of branding, product development, and marketing. The key element is figuring out where the most bang for your buck can go on marketing yourself when you have no marketing budget to speak of. I think we have done a good job of that thus far and are taking time in every step to ensure that it is done the right way.”

Snoplanks is striving to be a reputable US manufacturer of snowboards and skis within the next 5 years, all while building a company and culture in the town they call home. That plan includes expanding operations and hiring local talent.

“We hope to grow and prosper right here in Bend, Oregon. One thing we decided early on is that we will never outsource our manufacturing abroad. We are a craft company making handmade boards right here in the USA, and that is how things will remain,“ Nicol said. “Bend in itself is a brand. Breweries, Mountains, Rivers, Art/Music… Bend has it all. We feel blessed to be able to have a business here and to be able to represent such an amazing community with our product.”

11822987_1169132113103590_1525954944984278470_oThat community of supporters and followers extends throughout the Northwest. They are looking to expand sales on the West Coast this winter through strategic outreach and collaborations; with one of those recent collaborations being with Bend based Deschutes Brewing, where they had the opportunity to build boards for their national marketing team.

With growth comes both opportunities and challenges, and the team at Snoplanks is focused on addressing each in equal measure.

“To grow we are going to need to upgrade our equipment so that we can fill larger orders and expand our distribution. This obviously requires capital and therefore we are going to be working on raising this capital for the 2016/17 season. ”

But with the hopes of El Nino bringing much needed snow to the NW, they do not foresee their fundraising slowing down their business trajectory nor distracting them from continuing their sales growth — growth that is best experienced in knee deep powder.

Photo Credit: Pete Alport

Photo Credit: Pete Alport

For more information, visit www.snoplanks.com, follow them on  Instagram, and like them on Facebook

For more information on the photographer, Pete Alport visit his Facebook page. 

Grayling Jewelry designs a sparkling merger of business and community

Grayling Built Oregon Grayling copyright Nicholas Peter Wilson

There’s a rather cryptic looking building in Portland on the corner of NE Sandy and 31st Street with a banner at the top that says simply, “The Bindery.” Inside this shared space is a beautiful mix of wood, glass and high ceilings that together create an airy, open vibe. This eclectic setting is home to Grayling Jewelry—both its corporate office and showroom. Katy Kippen, its creative force, designer and owner, has been passionate about jewelry making since she was a young girl.

“I grew up around rocks in Montana where my grandfather was an avid collector and stonecutter. He made pendants and rings for friends and family as a hobby. I loved it and started making jewelry too.”

That love of jewelry design has been a constant in Kippen’s life no matter what else she was doing—and this hard-working woman has done a lot. After graduating from business school she began work as a buyer’s assistant for high-end boutiques in Montana. Over the next seven years Kippen went from assistant to lead buyer and eventually operated as a partner in tandem with the owner.

“I didn’t know it at the time but everything I did as buyer, every trade show I attended, and all the jewelry lines I reviewed were market research for what would eventually become Grayling Jewelry. I got an amazing education on the wholesale and retail side of the fashion industry as a buyer. I’m really lucky to have that foundation. There are so many valuable insights you pick up just by doing the job every day.”

Big scary leap

By 2009, several things happened that made it clear it was time for a change. After seven years with the same company Kippen was burnt out. She’d been living and breathing the business and intuitively knew it was time for a change. The recession had also hit and the vision for the business was moving in a direction she wasn’t interested in following. Kippen stepped down, with a big question mark about what would come next.

“I knew that I could design and sell jewelry. It was something I had done all my life off and on. I also knew all the jewelry lines out there from my years as a buyer. Even though I’d been working independently and really operating as if I was the sole owner, I wasn’t. The idea of now starting my own business all by myself was very scary.”

Despite that anxiety, Kippen knew in her gut that designing jewelry was the right next step for her. She shared her concerns with good friend John Rink, a gold and platinumsmith.

“I told John how much I wanted to go back to making jewelry and he offered me a bench in his studio, plus access to all of his equipment, for just $200 a month. That was an amazingly generous offer, and just seeing all the tools he was making available to me was inspirational.”

Jewelry Stores Portland GraylingThat was the very beginning of what would become the thriving wholesale and retail business that is Grayling Jewelry today. Kippen is quick to point out that she did not make this journey alone. She had help, especially from her husband, mentors and customers, all of whom supported and contributed to the early days of the business.

Kippen believes the unique consumers here in Portland, who support high quality, handmade products, helped shape the direction she took.

“When I first sat down at that bench in John’s studio I had no idea what kind of jewelry line I wanted to produce. In the end, I decided to design for myself, and people like me, who are sensitive to metals, can’t necessarily afford fine jewelry, but really value locally made quality pieces. I knew I wanted jewelry that was fun, expressive, versatile and timeless.”

“Oregon is a unique place with an educated consumer base and a lot of support for entrepreneurs. I’m not sure that Grayling would be as successful as it is today if it was based anyplace else in the country. I’d like to think I could have done this anywhere but really I think the collaborative thinking that happens here has been a key to our success.”

But it wasn’t until Kippen took her collections out in the world and started to get feedback that she was able to really hone in on what would ultimately become her signature collection.

“Don’t be afraid to listen to customers and ask a lot of questions,” advises Kippen. “I’m a huge fan of asking questions because to me there’s a synergy in those conversations with buyers that helps you understand what does and doesn’t resonate with customers. We tried a lot of different things and kept refining our vision based on customer feedback until we got to the point we’re at today. Finding people who are willing to share their opinions is golden. Some of our most popular pieces came to be based on those conversations.”

Portland helps make (and grow) the maker

For Kippen, collaboration comes in many forms, including organizations like the Oregon Small Business Development Center (OSBDC). “I’ve had brilliant experiences and met some of the most inspirational people through that organization. I wish I had known about them much sooner. I’d encourage business owners to check out the classes there. I’ve found them tremendously helpful.”

The OSBDC is just one of the ways that Kippen believes that Portland uniquely supports entrepreneurs in becoming successful.

Katy Kippen

Katy Kippen (photo by Jeremy Kirby)

“One of the most incredibly special things about living in Portland, and I can’t speak to the rest of Oregon because I’ve only lived here, is the great network of people who have deliberately chosen to live here and come to the table with amazing experiences and are willing to share them. There is an unspoken ethos here that if you were helped by someone, if someone gave you that kernel of knowledge that helped you grow your company or made your life better, it’s only right that you do the same and help the next person along their journey. I truly think that idea of community and collaboration is very unique to Portland.”

So with a thriving business poised for continued growth how does this entrepreneur define success now that she has six years of experience under her belt and a national customer base?

“I don’t really believe in the traditional definition of success anymore,” says Kippen. “I even stopped subscribing to business magazines because the theme always seemed to be that there’s more to do, grow larger and faster, think big. The message is meant to be inspiring but it supports this perpetual idea that we’re not doing enough. I remind myself that I’ve blown out of the water the dream I had as a 16 year old to own a jewelry business, and that I’ve surpassed what I dreamed of achieving. Business success to me means surrounding myself with people who embrace an ever changing vision of Grayling and help me execute on it, so that we can all have lives filled with family, friends and adventures.”

And just in case you were wondering, the name Grayling comes from a gray freshwater fish, similar to a rainbow trout, only its “rainbow” is on its dorsal fin—a fish with an accessory. According to Kippen, “Their colors are absolutely brilliant, so full of shimmer and shine, just like I want all of my designs to be.”

You can find out more about Katy Kippen and Grayling Jewelry on her website, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and on Twitter.

Angling into a compelling business

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Start-up lesson number one, if experience is our guide, is to invest in a product unique to Oregon that is about to be the topic of a major motion picture. It worked fabulously for Oregon Pinot Noir following Sideways. But before that, it worked even better for those in the business of angling for fish with a rod, reel and fly.

The Pacific Northwest’s boutique fly fishing industry found its unexpected spokesman when Brad Pitt chased big fish against the incredible backdrop of Montana in A River Runs Through It. Talk about a visual marketing campaign.

“That movie kicked the fly fishing business in the tail,” Jon Bauer, founder of Bauer Fly Reels in Ashland, Ore. recalled recently. “That propelled the fly fishing industry for ten years. All these people saw the movie and fell in love with it and had to go do it.”

Bauer was one of those caught up in the momentum, which also grew because of a dramatic sweep of history. In addition to Pitt, another big name of that era – Ronald Reagan – had a little bit to do with it. The Cold War Era fell with the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Defense spending dropped. Back in places like California, machine shops bore the brunt. Many had to reinvent themselves just like a Bauer, a race car driver with a machinist background.

“Everybody and their brother who had a machine shop was trying to make a fly reel in the 1990s,” Bauer said.

Bauer beat them all to the punch and he did it by literally reinventing the wheel.

Re-inventing the wheel

Bauer, now 65, was in his early forties with a new family when he needed a new career. Being a race car driver doesn’t prepare you for much outside of racing. He said he considered a startup business within the field of racing that he knew well.

11043050_929517320414677_4805936100096403220_n“That was, for me, deep water,” he says. “You had to have a lot of money and I didn’t.”

What being a race car driver did prepare him for—combined with his machinist background from his youth—was to make things.

“In racing we were designing widgets all the time. That’s how you stay ahead and win,” he says.

So the next career move, he figured, would involve some type of new widget that he could put his name on and sell. Riding the aforementioned wave of interest in fly fishing and being an angler himself, he thought a lot about the reel.

“It’s a pretty simple device and they’ve been made in a certain manner for many, many, many years,” he says.

That lack of innovation created an opening. Also, coming from a different industry all together, he thought differently than those trying to improve the reel. He thought about truck winches and race car wheels and how both generate power and speed. He applied some basic physics, a larger wheel (called an arbor) and new clutch technology, all of which came together in a patented design that makes Bauer Reels one of the best reels on the globe still to this day.

“Large-arbor fly reels are the hottest thing in fly fishing since the introduction of graphite rods in the 1970s,” wrote Field and Stream magazine.

“It’s illogical to have it any other way,” Bauer says. “It was not only large arbor, but a one-way clutch that I designed. Eliminating the number of parts, better costs, less things can go wrong. It was a game- changer. It was totally different and that’s what made such a big splash. As a result, any reel company of any consequence today all make large arbor reels. We really changed the industry.”

Oregon made craftsmanship

So start-up lesson number two might just be this: if you expect to profit from a major motion picture and the glamorous star power of a Brad Pitt, your product better be good – industry-leading to be precise. Here, like Oregon Pinot Noir, fly fishing in environmentally protected free-flowing rivers and streams elevate the quality of the experience throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Bauer’s reel remains an industry leader.

10710554_844675922232151_5783647888767386693_nStill made by hand (often Bauer’s hand) in an Ashland shop, Bauer reels are an industry leader in a sport that dates back to second century Rome and the art of Tenkura in Japan. Fly fishing is above all, to those who enthusiastically defend and participate in the sport, an art form. Bauer is a foremost artisan, his supporters enthusiastically say.

“Passionate fly angler, precision fly reel designer and a champion race car driver, I personally don’t think Jon has it in him to do anything in life less than perfect,” blogged Greg Darling, internet sales manager for Gorge Fly Shop. “The first thing I took interest in was Jon’s workbench… clean, neat and all in order.”

From that workbench comes reels others rave about.

“The new RX5 performed flawlessly and this reel just might be Jon Bauer’s masterpiece,” wrote Dylan Rose of Fly Water Travel.

Dave McCoy, owner and guide of Emerald Water Anglers, says Bauer’s reels have served him well fishing in every part of the globe, from Alaska to New Zealand and virtually every continent in between.
“It is very smooth, and has wonderful sensitivity to the drag so it can be set perfectly,” McCoy says.

Business challenges

As it turned out, inventing a new reel system for centuries old technology was the easy part.

“We didn’t quite pull off that plan to retire up here,” Bauer says of his move to Ashland in 2005. “We did hit the peak when we moved out of California, which helped a bit I guess.”

The fly fishing industry had cooled. Again the sweep of history played a hand, this time not for the better. First came Sept. 11, 2001, which dramatically impacted travel. The next few years were bumpy, full of peaks and valleys not uncommon to a small business, even one with a globally recognized brand and industry leading patent.

Then, off-shore manufacturing provided stiff competition as quality increased.

“The whole model has changed because of the influence of what’s being made in China and Korea,” he says. “It hasn’t gotten any easier, but I think there is a little swing of manufacturing coming back into the states. But that takes a long time.”

The tough business climate was only going to get worse.

“2008 really put a stop to everything,” Bauer says. “Fly fishing is a small, tiny, miniscule industry. The recession hit the distribution hard. The larger companies with a broader product line gobbled up the retail side of it which takes us out of the equation.”

Bauer only makes reels. Not fishing poles, not waders, not even an inexpensive bulk manufactured knock-off reel made in China. Distribution networks are critical and most are on life support.

“A lot of fly shops couldn’t make it,” Bauer says. “We use independent sales reps, and of course a lot of them couldn’t make it either. It’s been difficult.”

10849946_872572852775791_3502392861608260093_nBut confidence in both Bauer quality and Bauer himself remains high as those within the industry appreciate Bauer’s contributions.

“Jon is a charismatic, knowledgeable and passionate purveyor of his product,” McCoy says. “In this sport, we need as much of this as possible to inspire and lead the next generation to carry that torch forward and Jon is doing an exemplary job of it.”

The obvious question begs to be asked, so I do. Will the brand be bought out?

“That’s a big topic right now. Because of the ups and downs of the economy we’ve been approached several times, but it’s never been completely done. We’ve built a good brand but there are fewer companies that can afford to buy up these brands.”

Personally, he says, he’d like see an independent like himself—another machinist looking to keep the machines running—buy him out. But he’s listening to offers. He’s considering the exit strategies and thinking seriously about the future of the sport he loves. He still has a place on the Williamson River in Southern Oregon, the place he bought to retire and fly fish that still beckons.

“I gotta figure out that puzzle,” he says, which is not altogether unlike the puzzle of the reel itself that he solved and launched himself into the history books of a historic sport.

For more information, visit Bauer Fly Reels or like Bauer on Facebook.

Forming a darned good business

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

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

She shakes her head at the décor.

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

It didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imaginatively stitched

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

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

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

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

Big dreams afoot

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

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

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

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

Red, green, striped, and skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wholesale enchilada

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

“I remember being really nervous,” Carrie said.

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

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

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

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

Even the best socks need to be pulled up

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

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

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

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

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

One minute later, that all changed.

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

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

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

Call in special ops

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

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

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

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

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

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

People first

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

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

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

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

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

Growing beyond Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

A turn for the better

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You could say the folks at Rolf Prima are reinventing the wheel, but undoubtedly, they’ve heard that one before.

That’s because it’s basically true.

The company, based in Eugene, Oregon, makes some of the most respected specialty bike wheels out there.

In 1997, original founder Rolf Dietrich patented his wheel ideas, including a new paired-spoke technology, which, according to rolfprima.com, “neutralizes the left and right outward pulling forces,” allowing for lighter rims and fewer spokes in total.

eIMG_7940“It started a revolutions in wheels,” says current owner Brian Roddy. “You might say, ‘Oh, wow, it’s rounder,’ but it’s about the weight, the strength, the aerodynamics, the materials … You can save weight to make it faster.”

Dietrich licensed his wheels through Trek in 1997, and the company made them for several years, during which Rolf wheels made their debut in the Tour de France in 1999.

Changing lanes

In 2001, Dietrich’s license with Trek expired, and he decided he wanted to start his own business, possibly in Ohio. He got in contact with three engineers he’d worked with at Trek, who by then had moved to Eugene to work at Burley. Roddy was one of the trio.

“In 2002, when Rolf wanted to start a separate company, the three of us were already here, and we said no to Toledo,” Roddy says.

Eugene it was. That began the era of Rolf wheels being built in Oregon.

Dietrich’s team added some new technologies over the years and began winning notice for them, but not widely.

“In mid-2005, we were best in class, but we were terrible at telling that story,” Roddy says. “We expected people would come find us. We weren’t aggressive. We didn’t introduce new things, and the market changed without us.”

By 2009, Dietrich was ready to retire, and Roddy’s fellow partners wanted to move on, so he bought them out and became the sole owner of Rolf Prima and reconfigured the business.

“In 2009, we refocused on product development as a company,” he says. “But we also spent more energy on making a concerted effort to tell our story.

“Making the best thing in a vacuum turns out to not be a great business practice.”

The company expanded its product lines, adding in 2010 single-speed and CX models and in 2012 all-Carbon Clincher road models, an alloy mountain model and more.

Crafting new wheels

But the keyword in the company’s story turns out to be “handmade.”

“We’re built in the United States, hand-built in Eugene,” says Brooke Stahley, marketing manager. “We’ve been manufacturing in the U.S. since the start.”

As such, they’re not competing with most of the wheels available in the U.S., which are largely made by machine.

eIMG_7920“It’s not just wheel assembly,” Roddy says. “It’s very much a science of getting the tension of the spokes just right. You can just put the parts together and it looks just like a wheel, but try to ride on it, and it’s going to come unglued.”

The people making those minute adjustments couldn’t be more invested in the product.

“Cyclists build our wheels,” Roddy says. “Our builders actually race, and they know, in a group race, you never want to hear, ‘There’s a problem with my wheel.’ ”

The main reason they’ve kept all their production local is to maintain that level of control over their product and its quality.

“In the bike industry, it seemed like all companies went overseas by the mid-2000s,” Roddy says. “We could join the race to the bottom and have the sales get higher, but …”

“We stayed true to ourselves,” Stahley says.

Build local

Forget outsourcing. Instead, the Rolf Prima team has been making strides toward bringing even more of its production processes in-house.

For a long time, they could not find a U.S. source for rims.

“We had a subcontractor in Taiwan, and one vendor was totally messing with it and delaying again and again, and then introduced almost the exact same rim themselves,” Roddy says.

They scrapped it 100 percent and moved on, and then in 2013, they learned of a company that had once made rims in the U.S. that was selling all of its equipment.

eIMG_7915Rolf Prima bought the equipment and moved it to Eugene, and earlier this year, in-house rims went into full production.

“We’d have gladly always made the rims here,” Roddy says, “but we couldn’t before.”

Now, an aluminum extrusion of 15 feet long goes into a roller, and out comes a double circle of metal that will be cut to create two rims.

Another machine is programmed to drill the holes for the spokes, in whatever configuration this particular wheel might need.

“For an all-silver rim, we can do the whole thing in-house,” Roddy says. “Working flat-out, we could make a whole wheel by the afternoon.”

That’s not how it’s done, firstly for efficiency reasons. But also because most of the rims are anodized, a process that takes place outside of their workshop, but nearby at Quality Metal Finishing Inc., another Eugene business.

Nearly every part of a Rolf Prima wheel but the spokes, which hail from Belgium, is U.S.-made.

Bringing another aspect of production under their roof means space is at a premium.

“Our limiting factor now is the ability to store,” Roddy says.

Becoming a bigger wheel in the community

They’re looking for new digs, but staying local of course, while they continue to build their place in the community.

“We’ve been here for twelve years now, and we’ve been the best-kept secret in the bike industry for seven of them,” Roddy says.

But that is changing.

Everyone at the company is an avid cyclist, and they participate in many of Eugene and beyond’s cycling events.

“Engineer Joel is at all the races,” Stahley adds.

Rolf Prima also sponsors a local “factory team,” a training group that wears the company’s gear at events and races under its name, in turn receiving special pricing on wheels.

The company’s story is certainly spreading, as its number of local fans has grown.

“It used to be, we’d see someone in town on our wheels, and we knew who it was,” Stahley says. “Now, we don’t always know.”

But whoever that cyclist might be, they should know they’re invited to come to Rolf and get a look at how their wheels were crafted.

“We’ve gotten lots of support from Oregon bike shops, especially in Eugene,” Roddy says. “We’ve made people understand: This was made here, right down the street. Now we can show them around, and they love that.”

For more information, visit http://www.rolfprima.com, follow Rolf Prima on Twitter, like Rolf Prima on Facebook, or follow Rolf Prima on Instagram.

An overnight success, 20 years in the making

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It’s rare to use the words “hot tub” and “great idea” in the same sentence. But those two seemingly incongruous terms came together on a pivotal day in August 2010. Lem James relaxed in the hot tub with his son discussing business and life, which wasn’t unusual for the pair.

Lem had spent the last several years seeking the perfect startup idea—a niche idea to be exact, so the conversation focused on startup ideas to opportunities. He had watched and compared businesses inside very competitive markets and niche markets. But nothing had quite fit the mold.

All it was needed was a spark.

“Hey Dad, why don’t you build those concrete ping pong tables you saw in Germany?”

And that was all it took.

Lem recognized a viable product and innovative idea.  Permanent, outdoor table tennis tables took something familiar and turned it on its head. Lem liked the purposeful creativity of combining ping pong and concrete—two things that didn’t seem to mesh—to create a new outdoor experience in public places.

But this would be more than a niche market; it would be wide open without any competitors and an immediate customer focus; Parks & Recreation.

From a fleeting idea, a permanent table

Normally, “outdoor” ping pong tables need to be set up every day and put away at night. This, combined with play, causes them to wear out every few years. Left outside, table tennis tables deteriorate rapidly.

A concrete table, however, can stay outside through harsh weather and doesn’t need to be set up and taken down at all. This was the key.

Concrete tables could save money for parks, military bases, community centers, and even home owners. Using concrete completely redefines where table tennis works. Instead of backyards and garages, tables can be installed in parks and outdoor school yards.

Forming a business as sturdy as its product

Within a week, Lem had AutoCAD sketches and plans to build forms. As he shared his idea, however, others raised concerns. Who would buy these concrete tables? Wouldn’t shipping costs eat up any profit? Who would even think to search for a product like this? America just wasn’t familiar with the idea. It was a luxury item and, in 2010, we were in a recession.

P1020652With his work experience, Lem knew parks across the country and beyond would be interested, and he knew the channels to reach them. As for shipping, that’s a normal cost of doing business. Even when others shared their concerns, the passion grew.

“Every once in a while, we had to do a gut check because they were putting out a few quotes but nothing was selling yet,” said Lem. “We had to hone in on our product and our marketing to put our products out there to our target markets without traditional advertising. We began selling a table here and there. Then, once we could put enough story and photographs together to show tables in parks, schools and nice backyards, sales started rolling.

“It’s frustrating to watch potentially good businesses start and poke around, and then evaporate before they even get the traction to move forward. I’ve watched several businesses fail to launch in this manner. Many times so much time gets spent on making a perfect product that marketing and sales get ignored.

“A lot of these businesses get launched by very smart successful people, but people who don’t need the business to succeed. They have other successes that are easy to fall back on. Early on, a friend asked what my back up plan was. I said plan A was to succeed wildly, and plan B was to succeed mildly. There was no backup plan to fail. If we ran into failure, we would plan around it and continue. Don’t quit.”

During the first year, the company focused on developing and improving the tables, adding steel nets, integral concrete dye to offer color options, and making other refinements. Concrete chess tables were a natural addition to the product line, and these weren’t as foreign to the American market. The playing squares are marble inlaid tiles in a background of polished, exposed aggregate concrete in an array of color options, including recycled glass.

Why Oregon?

The entrepreneurial community in Oregon supported Bravado from an early stage, including the Roseburg Small Business Development Center and Young Entrepreneur Society (YES), a Roseburg group that supports new innovation.

These groups provided the cross pollination of ideas, which has been central to Bravado’s product development and marketing. In addition, they provided crucial support to a founder with a unique concept. Lem was able to pitch ideas and get feedback from a unique cross section of business thinkers and fellow entrepreneurs.

Oregon is also home to an array of groups, like Portland based City Repair, who are great supporters of the placemaking movement. City Repair builds community projects—like turning an intersection into a public park. They describes placemaking as “a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.”Permanent outdoor games—especially table tennis—fit in perfectly with placemaking by providing the community a gathering point where everyone can play.

Best of both worlds

As Lem perfected the engineering and production of the ping pong tables, his mind began to turn to other product opportunities based on the company motto, “Everybody plays!”

Cornhole, a simple, but not very well known game immediately came to mind. The bean bag game was easy to adapt to concrete and place as a permanent feature in parks, while also creating a more entry level product line. Foosball was added to the product line after a table tennis fan sent a picture of a similar table in Paris. While the actual forming and production took some fine tuning, the actual game itself is to pick up and learn.

Foosball and cornhole allow almost anyone to begin playing and then develop mastery over time—just like the sport that inspired the original product.

Work that inspires activity

Lem shares a contagious enthusiasm for his products and the games they facilitate. it’s not just about selling something and making money. These tables are on the cutting edge in concrete work, the placemaking movement, and the sport of table tennis.

Bravado Outdoor’s table tops are recognized in the concrete industry for design and finish work and have been featured by different suppliers. The tables are another example of combining two different disciplines: concrete engineering and concrete countertop finish work.

These publicly available tables support the developing of ping pong in America, and integrate into the urban placemaking design movement; where sidewalks, corners or small urban spaces are turned into an oasis where people can gather. Where an old empty lot can become a miniature neighborhood gathering spot with ping pong and chess as the focal points.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 3.25.47 PMThe sport of table tennis, in particular, has been a second tier sport in North America, usually played in garages and basements. But Bravado is taking table tennis into the outdoors and public places, putting the sport front and center and giving more people across America and the chance to hone their skills. The Bravado team strongly believes that by making table tennis more accessible, the level of play will be raised—ultimately helping the US become more competitive on the international scene.

Lofty goal? Sure. But the accessibility of basketball courts in parks and urban areas has definitely played a central role in the development of many top players, and while there is a big difference between basketball and table tennis in regards to the idea of being a competitive sport, accessibility and awareness are still critical development steps.

And once in place, these tables will be around for years to come. No nets to replace or backboards to repair. No play structures to fix. No swing chains to replace. Just hours of enjoyment by kids and adults alike.

And much like the products they have developed, Bravado has created a solid company, firmly grounded in the community that supported them from the beginning.

For more information, visit http://www.concretetabletennis.com, follow Bravado on Twitter, or like Bravado on Facebook.