Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Category - Music & Entertainment

Sounding like a great idea: Q&A with Audibility


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Sep 08, 4 48 14 PM

Sometimes, fixing a business problem is as simple as taking a walk – and having some great friends.

It was 2010, and Brianne and Jared Mees, co-founders of the Portland hybrid handmade retail marketplace and record label Tender Loving Empire, were in the middle of what they called a “do or die moment”.

They had launched Tender Loving Empire 2 ½ years earlier, in a 700 square foot space at ActivSpace in NW Portland, and despite early successes at the record label and retail store, and great community support, the recession and high expenses had them treading water and in danger of sinking.

Something had to change, and change fast. Thankfully, they decided to take a stroll in the West End neighborhood of downtown Portland. There, on 10th Avenue, they happened on an empty storefront next to the local boutique Radish Underground.

Brianne remembers that moment well. “We were just walking down 10th and Stark, just on a walk, and saw that this place was available for rent, and we realized that this is what we should do and we needed to jump off the cliff again, just like when we quit our jobs (in 2007) and lived off our savings for 2 ½ years”.

They were also fortunate that they also happened to be good friends with the Radish Underground owners, Gina Morris & Celeste Sipes.

“Our landlord in the West End didn’t ask for one bit of financial information, they went off of Gina & Celeste’s recommendation –they got us that space”, noted Brianne. “We just really got lucky”.

But it wasn’t really luck that got these two entrepreneurs that (now) prime downtown retail location that eventually led to an ongoing business renaissance that is continuing with the launch of a 3rd retail location on NW 23rd – I’d call it something else.

It was their joint passion and determination to build a financially thriving artist & craft community network, in a town that could really support one.

The journey to Portland and the start of a business


Brianne and Jared Mees

Their journey to Portland started in England, when Brianne and Jared met while studying abroad in Oxford. They both happened to live in the Los Angeles area so when they got back from the semester in England they became a couple, and eked out a living doing service jobs, while at the same time scratching their artistic itches.

Jared was doing visual art and paintings, participated in poetry groups, and was editor of two different poetry publications. Brianne made purses. They also started a rock band called “July” (which was the name of their future daughter).

Eventually, frustration set in. “Living in the suburbs of LA, we didn’t feel like we could get any traction”, noted Brianne, and Jared added he didn’t want to “spend most of my time doing something I didn’t want to do (to make ends meet)”.

At that point, instead of doing what most couples do in that situation, that is, move to more fertile artistic ground, they decided to live in a jungle in Panama for 4 months, on a little house on stilts with no running water and no electricity. They slept in a tent inside the house.

“Looking back”, remembers Brianne, “it really taught us that you could do anything with your life – you could be creative, you could think creatively, you needn’t go through the motions. You could make things happen that seemed difficult, or out of the ordinary.”

Added Jared “We had no money, we had no security – we basically had nothing.” But, it proved to him that “You don’t have to live inside the expectations you (and others) set up for yourself”.

Having survived the Panama experience, and with $40 in their pockets, they returned to the US, going to Colorado to be near family, and then back to Los Angeles for six months. During this time they knew they needed to finally find a better long-term home, and discovered Portland during a western road trip.

“It was like going to Disneyland – it was the most perfect trip. Portland was easy to love”, noted Jared.

Finally, with enough money saved up to afford the move, in 2006 they set out for their new home in the Rose City, and began a slow evolution towards Tender Loving Empire.

As Jared explains, “We (soon) met a bunch of artists, visual artists and musicians; a critical mass of creative people all within a close proximity to each other.

“It was a lot easier to navigate and communicate. We had (in Portland) a community of people that were doing things we loved, and we started stacking things on top of each other. We met a comic artist that we loved, and we decided we would publish one of his comics. My friend had just written a bunch of short stories and we said, ‘we’ll publish your short stories’. And my friend’s band finished their record, and we put that record out.”

“It was very organic – we never set out to make a business, we never set out to make anything happen. We gave it a name Tender Loving Empire because we knew it needed some kind of secondary name in order for it to have a life of its own. For some reason giving it a name legitimizes it in a weird kind of way, I don’t know why.”

“It’s meant to be a very ironic statement – of something that is tender and loving and warm, and also something that is traditionally oppressive and greedy like “empire”.

What was driving the creation of the business at this early stage was the couple’s frustration with the limited options new and talented artists had at the time.

Said Brianne, “(There is) so much talent and all these talented people. Our concept at the beginning was ‘get it out from under your bed, get it out of your closet, do something with it, because you’re an amazingly talented person and nobody is going to ever see it’. We wanted people to be able to see it and experience each other’s inspiration.”

“It was railing against the fact that you would just disappear – your work could just disappear and no one would ever see it”, Jared added.

Jared’s foray into comics and music eventually needed some structure, so Brianne jumped onboard to do the books, and she still does them. “The only reason we have survived is because she did the books – and that way she could sound the alarm when we really needed to think about things”, he noted.

“We never thought of it as a business in the beginning – we thought of it as something that was necessary for artists, and we had all these high-minded ideas on what we were doing, but we realize now that what we were doing was starting a business”.

A strange brew merges into an empire

In 2007 they completed the full transformation into today’s Tender Loving Empire by quitting their side jobs, opening their tiny retail space in NW Portland, and forging full speed ahead.

The retail space was Brianne’s brainchild. As she explains, “My background was making purses and doing craft shows – always into the handmade thing while Jared was doing music. So when I got frustrated just doing the books, I thought, let’s combine our dreams and do everything we love for a living – lets open a store also called Tender Loving Empire, that sells all the stuff I’m into, and all the music from the label.”

It may seem like a strange brew, mixing a record label with a retail store selling handmade art and crafts, as Brianne acknowledges. “Sometimes our record label audience is very different from our handmade gift shop audience business, and it’s been hard to marry the two, and explain our brand. But the root of it, what we get back to, is that it’s all people making art that we wanted to provide a platform and some structure for – it all makes sense together.”

Adds Jared, “People walk in, and they’re not confused when they walk in, so it’s more just explaining there’s multiple facets to it – everybody gets it very quickly in the context of a store. I think we’re explaining it better than we ever have, it’s just that it’s artists of all types, together – and that’s all we ever wanted.”

The little ActivSpace location in NW wasn’t ideal, but it was a great training ground. Jaried notes, “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for them –we were month-to-month, we got our feet wet, we were practicing – we never had any experience in retail when we started.”

Photo Sep 08, 4 46 09 PM

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

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years, but then the great recession really kicked in, and the “do or die moment arrived” in 2010. But fortunately, they took that walk downtown, and caught the front end of the West End retail expansion that is still ongoing today, drawing crowds of tourists from near and far.

It enabled Brianne and Jared to finally be able to hire employees and get out from behind the counter, but that new location still didn’t push things over the hump. It took a baby and an employee “intervention” to do that.

In 2011, Brianne became pregnant with their first child (daughter July, born in 2012), and things slowed down. She noted, “Because of the situation, we coasted for a good year – it was OK, but we weren’t making any more forward progress, and the employees that were still with us at the time, they came to us and said “we need you to inspire us – we need you to show us that the company is going somewhere, in order for us to want to stick around and have it be our future”.

“That was my ultimate motivation – we realized that if we were going to stick around we needed to do something, we needed to get to the point where we originally envisioned it back in the day, and actually being something that could help artists, and not just this tiny thing”

That revelation led to what they called a “cleaning up the business’ and opening up the 2nd store in SE Portland, on 35th and Hawthorne.

Noted Jared, “What we didn’t realize was that we were steadily growing our business, and that the only reason it was beginning to feel that the wheels were coming off was because we had gotten bigger, and we were still feeling like it was tiny, and so we had to really embrace what we had, and we needed to get some tools in our tool belt to actually deal with this and the size it is.”

“We started doing some accelerated programs, we started reading some business books, we started actually thinking about the business side of it as an element that was interesting – (we got) a street MBA, in a lot of ways. We were talking to a lot of people, and zeroed in on a lot of people to help us.”

Pulling the artist community together in the big ‘petri dish’

Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro

That homework, and the support of a business community happy to help, has paid off. Jared attributes it to the Oregon spirit of collaboration.

“The same reason I wanted to come up here for music – the community – is the same thing on the business side, that same acceptance and camaraderie, even if you are competing against someone. It’s not as cutthroat and crazy as it could be in other places. Everybody has a lot of civility to them, and they’re generally rooting for other people to succeed, and that’s what has gotten us through this recent renaissance that is happening.”

This renaissance has created the community they were looking to build back in 2006 when they started Tender Loving Empire. They have 8-10 active record label artists, and are about to release their 60th record album this fall. Many more music artists participate in their compilation recordings.

And, in the retail locations, Tender Loving Empire supports over 300 artists, most of them local.

It’s getting to the point where Brianne and Jared can say with great pride that they are financially supporting many of these artists from Tender Loving Empire sales alone. “It’s so meaningful”, says Brianne, “that we can help them so much financially – the effect on the economy is real, and really touching, and the fact that all three of our stores will be in highly touristed areas – I love it, because the tourists are leaving their dollars in our community”.

As for the future, Jared notes “Because of ActivSpace, our friends, the community, the support, it (Portland) was the “petri dish” in which this experiment has thrived. We feel confident we can take this to many cities nationwide and make it viable, but it happened here and it was one of the few places it could have happened”.

“It’s an exciting time, and its nice to feel positive, because there’s been a lot of ups and downs, and we know that this is a good time, since we had a lot of wake up calls.”

“The people that work for us are amazing, and we’re only as good as the people we have working for us, and they’re top notch, and they believe in it (our vision) as much, and some days more, than us”

Adds Brianne, “We see lots of different paths…in the last 1 ½ years we’ve grown from 5 to 15 employees, we tripled our business, I think for the next year (at least) we’re going to let the dust settle. There are a lot of things to figure out and clean up.”

But in the meantime, she notes, “We are exciting about continuing – we’re having fun. We’re back to the fun”.

They also keep taking those walks. They found their latest location on 525 NW 23rd on another casual stroll. These two certainly subscribe to the old Latin phrase “Solvitur ambulando”.

Translated, “It is solved by walking”. Indeed it is.

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

A harmonious collaboration of people, nature, and business


Tom Bedell is not the stereotypical image of a serial entrepreneur. In fact, he embodies the look of a modern-day hippie, equipped most days with a navy headband and blue jeans. But don’t be fooled. Bedell owns Bend-based Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments, one of the largest acoustic guitar and mandolin designers and manufacturers in the country.

“Deep in my heart I wanted to have a workshop here in the United States of America where we could design and build our own instruments. And that was my dream,” he said.

On Nov. 30, 2010, that dream became a reality when he purchased Breedlove Guitars in Bend.

“What’s my favorite thing about coming to work every day? I get to design [guitars],” he said. “ I get to go into the wood stacks and pick out pieces of wood and dream about what they might sound like.”

Auspicious beginnings

Bedell started his entrepreneurial journey at the age of fourteen in 1964, the same year The Beatles made their first live American television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

breed 5“The whole world changed in terms of music and Rock and Roll,” Bedell said. “In every town across America there was a garage band on every block. We all had guitars, we had these little amplifiers. Most of us weren’t any good, but it was the lifestyle … It became the beginning of a whole social-change movement … and music was the vehicle to express all of that. It was the way that poetry came to life in everybody’s life.”

Filled with passion for guitars and music, Bedell wanted to become a part of the industry and started importing guitars from Japan.

He turned to his father, who owned a fishing tackle company called Pure Fishing that Bedell would later go on to inherit, for resources. Bedell sent a telex to Pure Fishing’s purchasing agent in Japan. He asked him to go to Hiroshima, the epicenter of musical instruments, and find a source for guitars. The agent obliged, which birthed the start of Bedell Guitars.

“I just went through (the catalogues) and picked the instruments that looked of interest and ordered some samples,” Bedell said. “I didn’t know much about how to price them. So, I just doubled the prices, which meant that I was at half the price of the main businesses that were around then.”

An ever-changing tune

Bedell’s first workplace looked nothing like Two Old Hippies’ headquarters does today.

His sister helped put his brand name on his guitars and he hired a friend with a driver’s license to take him to different music stores to start wholesaling guitars.

“My parents’ basement was my warehouse. My sister was my quality production person. My friend was my driver and delivery guy. And I was the salesman,” he said.

breed1Today, Bedell employs 135 people and leases three different buildings, totaling 50,000 square feet on the east side of Bend off American Loop. He expects his 2014 payroll to reach about $5.35 million and estimates his company will produce about 5,000 instruments next year.

The company sells three brands: Breedlove, an acoustic guitar label that strives to be innovative and has been manufactured in Bend since 1990; Bedell Guitars, 1960s classic-model guitars built using sustainably-sourced woods; and Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments, one of the top mandolin companies in the country, which Two Old Hippies acquired in November 2012.

The acoustic guitar market has been strong for several years, Erin Block, research analyst for the National Association of Music Merchants, wrote in an email.

“Sales increased by 13.3 percent and the number of units sold increased by 2.7 percent from 2012 to 2013,” Block wrote. “When you look at the 5-year trend, sales have increased 54.1 percent.”

Employees first

In nearly four years, Bedell grew Breedlove from 50 to 135 employees. And this year, he said the company grew by 40 percent.

Bedell attributes his success to following his father’s rules of operating a business:

breed 4“The whole reason that we’re in business is to create opportunities for the people that make up the company,” he said. “It’s not about the company, it’s about the people. The reason we are here is to create a culture and lifestyle and opportunities for the people that are our company. It’s not for shareholders. It’s not for money. It’s not for profit.”

If the employees of Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments come first, Bedell said the company will succeed because everybody will have an investment in the success of the company.

“It’s their life. It’s their lifestyle. It’s how they support their families. It’s how they live,” he said.

When Bedell first took over Breedlove, he said one of his biggest challenges was shifting the company’s culture.

“The culture was very much a hierarchical. It was very much a power culture,” Bedell said. “I wanted to create an entrepreneurial culture where people were empowered, where people felt they could do their best work and be themselves, but yet had a set of values that they shared that had a commitment to one another.”

Like many entrepreneurs today, Bedell started with humble beginnings. In 1966, two years after Bedell ordered his first guitar samples from Japan, he opened his first retail store in Iowa.

“Some of the stores I was selling to weren’t paying their bills, so I would pick up equipment at their store to get a credit,” he said. “I had all of this equipment and then, later that fall, I opened my second store.”

Bedell started going to school half days and running his business in the afternoons and evenings.

“It was a glorious life,” he said. “So, in my golden years, I wanted to return to that wonderful life and become a teenager again,” he said, referring to operating Two Old Hippies Stringed Instruments.

In February of 2009, Bedell and his wife, Molly, acquired a local music store in Aspen, Colorado, and named it Two Old Hippies.

“We just thought it would be fun to run a music store,” he said. “But Molly and I both have a terminal illness that we have to work. We’re going to work until we die.”

While his wife operated the Two Old Hippies boutique that still sells accessories, clothing, as well as guitars, Bedell went to Asia to design and build his own line of Bedell Guitars. By fall, he had developed a wholesale business and started selling Bedell Guitars throughout the country.

But that wasn’t enough. Bedell wanted to make guitars in the U.S.

Embracing opportunity

“I had my eyes and ears network open to where might and opportunity come along and one of the companies I got to know were the folks here at Breedlove,” he said. “Unfortunately Breedlove had fallen on tough times and so the owner had no choice but to sell it and came to me with an opportunity. I was just thrilled to death. This is a dream come true.”

Bedell has earned a reputation for always following his dreams.

“I think I always followed them. I don’t know that I always got them,” he said. “Life is real, right? You have your ups and you have your downs and you have reality that you don’t want to deal with, but you have to.”

breed3The key to his success, Bedell said, is never giving up.

“Everybody has reasons to quit. There are 10,000 reasons to stop; why you’re going to fail, why you shouldn’t pursue it, versus a handful of dreams about how you can succeed,” he said. “The people that succeed are the ones that persevere through all the reasons to not win, and win.”

In the next five years, Bedell said his goal is to make Bend the number-one place in the world for a consumer to buy the finest guitar available.

“I would love to have a showcase place where musicians from all over the world can come and they could really study their play style and their music and we could design guitars specific for them, that are custom for their style of music and their play,” he said.

Bedell said he and the co-hippies, his employees, are going to bring that dream to life.

“Every barrier and every challenge that gets in the way of that, we’re going to find a way around it, over it, through it, past it and it’s not an option,” he said. “You have to have this sense of future, this sense of hope, this sense of knowledge that you know it’s up to you, whether you succeed or whether you don’t. It’s not up to all the other people or things, or excuses, or barriers of frustrations that pop their head up.”

“Life is like a whack-a-mole,” he said. “And you have to keep whacking at it.”

For more information, visit http://breedlovemusic.com, follow Breedlove on Twitter, or like Breedlove on Facebook.