At a shop in SE Portland, Ken Tomita and the Grovemade team conceptualize, design, build and produce an wide array of products, from laptop stands to knives.
They have built up a company that doing what matters in life. A company that rode the wave of early online sales of iPhone cases into building a strong consumer products company that many times ignored the status quo in order to build the company they envisioned from the start.
As with many entrepreneurial journeys, the Grovemade one was hatched between friends who saw an opportunity to work together. Ken was furniture maker and Joe Mansfield had a laser engraving business. They were both self employed and talked often about the latest happenings, or to bounce ideas off one another.
“We’d toss a football in the street talking about ideas when we really should have been working. Joe had an idea to make a bamboo iPhone case and put laser engraved art on it. No one had done it. He asked around and no one was willing to make this for him…. and I thought why not give it a try.”
And just like that, a product company was hatched.
But going from a conversation between football passes to actually designing and producing the cases proved to be challenging, but also an open road to opportunities. In order to make that road a bit more manageable, Ken and Joe reached out to a number of experts in related fields to get advice and feedback on the Grovemade concept.
One of the key people they talked to was Bill Dieter of Terrazign. Bill supplied Ken and Joe with some great feedback, but just as importantly, introduced them to his machinist friend, Chris Rizzo.
“ Meeting with Rizzo was very encouraging because he had so much expertise in CNC machining and he was eager to take on a challenge. We hired Rizzo, bought a CNC mill, and got to work. For 9 months or so it was myself and Rizzo huddled over the machine, trying to develop our first product, the iPhone 3 case.“
But buying that machine was no easy decision. Everyone they talked to steered them towards doing the opposite. A CNC machine is prohibitively expensive, and there is also a steep learning curve. But with Rizzo on board, the decision to purchase the machine was ultimately one that made both short and long term sense to Ken. The machines are are usually in industrial spaces – not creative studios.
“ I chose to take the path and buy my own machine because I felt very strongly that the integration of the making process and the design process is the key to great work. I had worked for years designing and making furniture and I couldn’t let go of that mindset even with the advice from people to not buy our own equipment. We were hoping that magic would happen if people like us had access to these machines. “
With the machine ready to roll, the team got to work. Ken had the knowledge and experience in woodworking, and a sense that the concept of problem solving to get something made is universal. Rizzo had the know how when it came to the CNC machine, but working at a such a small scale made the process feel new to everyone involved.
The team managed to dial in the design and production process for the iPhone 3 cases, and that early product started them on an unexpecting growth trajectory, which opened up new challenges.
“ It was very difficult to develop our first product in a technical sense but the greatest difficulty was in scaling up the company. Going from 3-4 people to 20+ very quickly introduced a host of growing pains, as I lacked the experience of managing a larger team. For me personally, going from actually doing the work to leading the work took a few years to grow into. “
Initial product growth and evolving the line
Grovemade’s iPhone cases created a splash when they were introduced, and the initial sales strategy was 100% online. Ken’s brother created the first website and they were up and running. The team looked to leverage digital PR via outreach to bloggers, and in 2010, there were a lot fewer to focus that outreach on, and the popular ones tended to drive a lot of traffic back to the website.
The company continued to focus on iPhone cases until around 2013-2014, when they anticipated a decline in the iPhone accessory market.
“ We made a big business decision to pivot our company from being about laser engraved art on cases to a product company. We made this pivot because we took a good look at what our strengths and passions were. Our unique ability is to create great products (not curating art) so we put everything into that.”
Pivoting away from what was the core product line towards a new vision, while a big move, was one that Grovemade was uniquely able to handle given the structure and processes put in place that allowed them to handle the entire chain, from concepting to production and fulfillment.
“ We have the luxury of pushing the limits of both design and manufacturing because we do it ourselves. We can attempt and do difficult things that in a traditional setup with a separate designer and manufacturer would be very impractical. In turn, this leads to us creating unique products.“
And unique and solid products are what they have created.
Their line of desk products effortlessly blends art and craft into a line that ranges from laptop stands and iPhone docks to planters and mouse pads. The Minimalist Wallet came out of the need to create a better product than what is out there, but also one that exemplifies the company’s core focus on the details. And while a pocket knife might seem like a random brand extension at first glance, a deeper look at how it’s designed and made reveals how keeping the entire process under one roof enables Grovemade to stretch the limits on not only design, but also advanced wood manufacturing.
The stretching of the limits can also be seen in the recent collaboration with speaker designer, Joey Roth. The collaboration married Roth’s incredible speaker insights with Grovemade’s unique advanced wood manufacturing process, with the result being an intricate, gorgeous, and one of a kind desktop wood speaker. It’s a process that took over a year to dial-in the perfect shape and sound, and one that is documented in this blog post
But beyond being just unique and creative, the products are also a representation of the passion behind the company, and a core belief they are instilling into the company as they move forwards – a belief in who they are and what they make, but also about who they are building products for.
“ Find What Matters is our new slogan this year as we go from being about product to being about the spirit behind the product. We believe that to do great work you have to love your work and believe that is our true difference maker,” adding “ Our next step is to really engage with our customers and have them help us determine where to go next. We have always been centered around ourselves, just making stuff we want. While that is great in some ways the next level is to provide solutions to our customers while also making sure the products are things we would really want.”
Culture and community
As Grovemade continues to grow and expand, there has been a constant and concerted effort to build a strong culture, but as any founder knows, that is many times easier said than done.
The team focused on hiring the right people – especially ones that can navigate the complexities of a company that has design to production under one roof. They hired Jim Hassert to oversee the operational aspects, which took the day to day responsibilities off of Ken and his team. But even moves like this didn’t make it easier.
“ With our organization running more smoothly we could build up the culture. There were definitely a few years where it was very painful as we started to zero in on what our culture was and many of us no longer fit in.”
But even with the road bumps, the way Grovemade has been built up and evolved makes it unique in the product design space. There are many challenges with integrating design and manufacturing into manufacturing companies similar to Grovemade, but the team wouldn’t have it any other way.“ It’s absolutely key for our creativity. We feel the freedom to create and also that we are only limited by our abilities. Basically we have the feeling that our successes and failures are in our hands. It’s a great feeling.”
There is also a sense that companies like Grovemade can bring back manufacturing jobs to both Oregon and America. And while that is true, the mission of Grovemade is not American job creation, but rather to create inspiring lives. It’s a topic Ken explains via this honest blog post – “Is Made in the USA a Marketing Gimmick?”
The sense of culture also extends outside of the Grovemade walls and into the consumer product community within Oregon. A community that is collaborative and supportive of one another.
“ Our network has been absolutely critical from the early days when it was just us getting started to present day. We are only as good as the network around us and we strongly believe in learning from others as part of the Grovemade way.”
And what pieces of knowledge would Ken impart on his former self if he could go back in time to the day they started down this road to building Grovemade?
“ I have no regrets!!! I wouldn’t give him any tips. Life is a labyrinth, enjoy it!”