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Embracing the business of vacations

Inn at Haystack Rock

Some people thrive in the corporate world. Antoine Simmons was one of those people.

Working as a middle manager at Intel in mergers and acquisitions, life was good. Antoine had also started to dabble in real estate—buying fixer-uppers here and there on the side, and then turning them for a profit. He and his wife Rocio had also started their family, and by the year 2000 they had two children, Chantal and Rachel, with one more, Elias, on the way, but change was in the air.

As his workload shifted, it became more and more evident that Intel was in the middle of some changes as the company started offering severance packages to employees who wanted to leave. It was then that Antoine recognized an opportunity to strip off his identity of a corporate man living in a corporate world, and venture into an industry he knew little about.

“The writing was on the wall. It came to a point that I had to make a decision, so I finally took off the golden handcuffs of Intel.”

His next life would be as a hotelier.

An organized upbringing

Antoine’s parents were both teachers and owned 10 acres at the edge of Knotts Berry Farm in Cypress, California. The family raised chickens, pigs, turkeys and rabbits, as well as nurtured a small orchard. There, they taught their five boys and three girls the value of a dollar, that hard work was something to be proud of, that horsing around was something you did in the ‘horsing-around room,’ and that—if you put your mind to it—you could become all you wanted to become and more.

“My dad pushed hard. My mom set goals. They were strict and they were organized,” said Antoine. “In high school you are trying to figure out who you are. Trying to find happiness, but it’s kind of artificial. Soon you realize that home is what is real, it’s unconditional.

“My mom was the hardest working person I’ve ever known. She had a monthly planner and she knew who would be doing the dishes and who would be making potatoes a month in advance. She built us a horsing-around room outside of the house for my brothers and me to wrestle in.”

Growing up Antoine worked side by side with his dad and siblings. During the summer, he and his brothers helped his dad build apartments on their property.

“We learned how to work. It was amazing if you look at all the experience we got growing up. When I grew up I knew I wanted to be just like my dad.” Antoine said, as he held back the tears that welled up in his eyes. “I think I am, I think I’m growing up to be like him.”

“My dad is 85, and my mom is in her late 70’s and they still garden and have an orchard.”

After Antoine graduated from high school his parents moved to Hillsboro. He headed off to Utah, where he quickly became a ski bum. He also spent a couple of years in Florida on a mission with the Church of Latter Day Saints, before coming back to Oregon. He has his Master’s in Business at George Fox University in Newberg.

Once he graduated he settled down in Hillsboro where he began working at Intel, the company where he would eventually meet his wife, Rocio.

Antoine didn’t know it at the time. But retiring with a gold watch and a pat on the back was not to be in the cards.

Leaving the corporate nest

On a trip to Cannon Beach Antoine and Rocio stumbled across a house that was in dire need of someone to pull it back from the brink of disrepair. After some research they learned the owner of the home also owned the Blue Gull Inn across the street. They were “absentee owners,” and they wanted to sell both the house and the inn.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 11.56.40 AMBy May of 2000 Antoine and Rocio became the proud new owners of that home as well as the Blue Gull Inn, and then took over the management of it in July of the same year.

They were now hoteliers.

As anyone who has left the corporate world to strike out on their own knows, this is not a decision to take lightly. It is a decision that has to be made more by inspiration than reality. One that stands to result in utter disappointment as easily as complete satisfaction. A decision such as this is completely life-changing, and once made, the corporate world becomes an ever fading part of one’s past. Something that helped them along the way, but in no way defining who they have the potential of becoming.

“This is where the work began,” said Antoine.

“When we took over, all the reservations were done by hand. There was a big book with all the dates and all the rooms, it was crazy. We cleaned all of the rooms and brought the inn to the modern age with online booking.”

“The first time someone booked online was amazing.”

A flare for function

The husband and wife team soon began managing other properties in addition to their own, and in 2004 they created a new name, Haystack Lodgings, to encompass their entire business. They managed six motels in Cannon beach, including Ocean Spray Inn, Sand Trap, Sand Castle, and Sunset Inn, as well as 15 vacation homes.

Antoine and Rocio bought the Inn at Haystack Rock, and in 2011, they signed the papers to purchase the Inn at the Prom in Seaside.

Inn at the Prom“I was so nervous that day,” said Antoine.

Finally, in early 2014, they purchased the crown jewel, the historic Gilbert Inn in Seaside. The Queen Anne style home was built by Alexandre Gilbert in 1892.

With the Haystack Lodgings’ care and attention, The Gilbert Inn is now an 11 room couple’s retreat just steps away from Seaside Promenade, an 8,000 foot long concrete boardwalk between Seaside and the beach.

Time for more focus

Eventually Antoine and Rocio decided to stop managing other properties so they could just concentrate on their own.

“I am constantly striving to learn more about this industry,” he said, his excitement level more like someone new in the business instead of someone who now has 14 years of experience.

“Some of our guests have been with us for so long. You have to change in this business, people want to escape. Our goal is to surprise, to do something a little different, to keep them coming back time and again.”

Antoine said he strives to provide his guests with an ‘un-motel experience’. The proof is in the properties that he continually upgrades and improves. The tile work and carpentry are a shining example of how much he wants his guests to be able to escape their normal day to day life while staying at Haystack Properties. The oceanfront view from immaculate rooms are just a portion of what some of his properties have to offer.

“The Blue Gull Inn has a hacienda design and all of the furniture was built and hand-carved by our carpenter, Victor Campuzano, and our tile work was created by Domingo Victoria. We have been really blessed in our lives. Most people have been with us for more than 10 years,” he said, referring to his employees. “It is like a family, we take care of each other, and everybody feels like a part of us.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 11.57.02 AMAntoine has no regrets about trading in his comfortable corporate career for his life as a hotelier. This life choice suits him. He truly loves getting to know his customers and inviting them back to see what new changes have taken place since their last visit. He gets to teach them about the surrounding area, and all of the beauty that is out there for them to enjoy.

“Being able to take something and get this idea of what it could be, and see it come to life. Taking something old and making it new and seeing it come together, there is no better feeling,” said Antoine as he reflected on his chosen career path.

He also knows he would not be where he is today without Rocio, who he credits his success to.

“I get to work with my family. I get to work my wife,” he said with a smile. “She is such an intricate part of this business. We are partners and co-leaders. We have been able to learn how to run a business together; we’ve done a lot of housekeeping together. Having two strong people that are partners, with the same goals, it helps you trust in yourself, have faith and knowing the harder you work the easier it is going to get. It takes a lot of work to survive in this industry; you have to constantly be thinking on how to improve. I have learned we are the sum of all of our experiences. I try to be the best person I can be, but you can ask my kids, they will tell you I am a major work in progress.”

All three of his children are now teenagers. Chantal is 19, an artist and is attending college; Rachel is 15 and plays soccer; Elias is on the swim team and is now 14. They all spend their summers as part of the housekeeping staff as Antoine instills some of the same ‘hard-work’ ethics into his own children that his father instilled in him. He also teaches them to appreciate the land they call home.

“There is so much natural beauty in Oregon. We have the ocean, the mountains, the high desert; it is the variety that we enjoy so much. I tell my kids ‘look at what is in your own back yard. Our back yard is beautiful. We have national parks, running on the beach, hiking trails… I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

For more information, visit http://www.haystacklodgings.com/.

New cut on an old school profession

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Chris Diaz really had about as much of a chance of avoiding the family business as Michael Corleone. When your brother, brother-in-law, mother, father, grandfather and his brother are all barbers, the odds are you’ll join ‘em, sooner or later.

“I tell people that for me it was easy to get into it,” Chris says, while cutting a stylish fade for the Southern Oregon University student sitting in the barber chair in front of him. “I grew up in barbershops my whole life, sweeping in my grandfather’s shop, sweeping in my parent’s shop. It’s always been that way.”

Chris is a barber at The Flap Top in Ashland, a shop his parents Mike and Terri opened more than 20 years ago. By taking the best of the salon experience – customer service, modern décor, a complimentary alcoholic beverage, for example – and combining it with old school classic hairstyles that are suddenly back in fashion, The Flat Tap survived the downturn in barbershops long enough to enjoy the current wave of popularity.

“Every year you learn and adapt. We’re special because of our kids. They teach us too,” says co-owner Terri, who learned the trade from her father and her uncle.

Another generation of Diaz barbers have expanded beyond Ashland into downtown Medford. Mike and Terri’s oldest son Brandon Diaz, 29, and their daughter Amanda’s husband, Pablo Villa, 32, have teamed up to open The Fellas Barber Shop, which pushes to be current and competitive by tailoring to a new wave of clients.

Flattop1“Cutting hair is the best job I’ve ever had,” Brandon said, noting he’s been working many jobs since he was 16. He points to his dad as his guiding influence.

“If my dad had become a doctor, I would’ve become a doctor and followed in his footsteps.”
The Don Corleone of this family of barbers – Brandon and Chris’ grandfather – long ago insisted his daughter learn to use clippers or starve. Terri learned the trade back in the 1980s cutting mullets and other dramatic long-haired styles. Like many women, she focused first on being a stylist so she could ride the trend toward high-end salons. But soon enough she was back to the basics of barbering.

“He was right all along,” she says of her father.

Barbering is a trade, she says, that has helped her entire family weather all the changes in the industry and the economy.

Innovation in an old profession

After years of falling out of favor, barbershops are back in a big way.

Nationwide, the cosmetology and barbering industry grew 29 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to Inc. magazine. Charles Kirkpatrick, the executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, recently told the New York Times the number of licensed barbers had grown roughly 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, which amounts to about 20,000 new barbers.

According to Forbes Magazine, “North American sales of shaving products is a $3 billion a year business.” A 2013 Salon business study and forecast “showed that like women, men are currently seeking barber shops that are close to their home, offer a wide variety of services and are competitive in pricing.” Major players are moving into the American market, opening high-end franchises across the country.

The trends can be seen throughout the state of Oregon as well. The Barbers franchise has 15 Portland-area locations. It offers shoulder massages and hot lather neck-shaves for an up-scale barbering experience. Another chain, The Bishops Barbershop, has a dozen Oregon shops, all seeking to attract the next generation of customers with its edgy marketing and appeal.

Staying in style

Without even trying to be a trendsetter, Mike said creating a unique experience for men has driven the latest innovations and changes at his shop.

Customers can enjoy a free 10-oz. cup of locally brewed Caldera beer while they wait, a decidedly modern twist. Or like Mike says, they can have a Tootsie Pop as well, a nod to classic Americana.

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“The beer is just like the girls going to the beauty shop getting a glass of champagne,” Mike says. “It’s just a little something extra. Men in particular don’t pamper themselves. We wanted them to feel like it’s a guy’s place. It feels comfortable.”

Mike credits Terri for that classic, modern combination.

“You know what it is?”, Mike says about his barbershop and its success. “My wife said something to me that really stuck. She said, ‘Why does the barber shop have to get old with the barber?’ It’s true. So many shops you see the yellow paint that started off white, the upholstery is old. ‘You have to make people feel welcome,’ she told me.”

Terri says the same thing the next day when Mike isn’t around.

“I’ve always learned that in barbershops, especially in barbershops, the shops grow old with barber,” she says.

She would not let that happen with The Flat Top.

A mix of old and new

Whereas The Flat Top itself—the hair cut, not the shop—remains the coin of the realm for a white man of a certain age, the styles of the ‘50s and ‘60s have returned, bringing a whole new generation of customers out of expensive salons and back into the barber’s chairs.

Styles always circle back around, Terri says, even with new names.

“A fade is a taper,” she says. “That’s what it’s been called. But now they call it a fade. The styles stay the same.”

But The Flat Top—the shop, not the style—continues to evolve right along with it, carving out a niche business in a declining economy. As Mike points out, barber schools across the country, including Oregon’s, have closed.

“They are not producing barbers anymore,” Mike says. “My sons are third-generation barbers. They’re rare because they get the training from us.”

But that too is the secret to business success. By weathering the downturn in popularity and steadily adapting to the trends, the Diaz Family, just like the famous fictional Godfather, has a corner on the market in this corner of the state.

“You’re never gonna get wealthy,” Mike says. “But you’re indoors and out of the elements. It’s not like construction where it’s boom or bust. It’s a comfortable living.”

A sign on the wall may as well be the business motto.

“There’s no school like old school,” it reads.

For more information, visit the Flat Top Barbershop on Yelp.

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.

Adding value to Oregon seafood

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Something about Oregon’s fishing industry smelled off to Duncan Berry. The one-time salmon fisherman had made a livelihood at the helm of Apparel Source, disrupting the global textile industry by shepherding in large-scale adoption of organic cotton by retail giants like Walmart and Target.

“The one thing that’s missing in America is people who are applying their intelligence to raw materials,” Berry says. “We do great films, and great software companies, but what are we doing with the marine resource off our coast right now—one of the last great savannas of seafood? Well, we cut their heads off and we gut them, and we ship them out.”

Sea change ahead

After selling his apparel business in the mid-2000s, Berry semi-retired to his home at Cascade Head on the Oregon central coast to start an environmental consulting service.

To the south lies the Salmon River where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, and beyond that the 529-acre Camp Westwind. Berry and others have helped restore the camp through a stewardship group that he co-founded. Down the cliffs to the west: the Cascade Head Marine Reserve, established in 2014 to protect marine habitat across 18 square-miles of Pacific Ocean. Berry worked on the task force to make that happen as well.

He knew that through time and dedication, positive environmental change could happen, and that business could help drive that change. Which is why he was so perplexed at seafood industry practices that had evolved so little since his own experiences in the business decades earlier.

With ocean habitat in disrepair and species in steep decline, with coastal communities desperate for economic innovation, and with some of most valuable natural resources right at our fingertips here in Oregon—why didn’t someone do things differently?

That, in a clamshell, is the story of Fishpeople, a fast-growing seafood product company based in Portland, with a processing plant on Oregon’s central coast. Founded in 2012, the company’s goal is nothing short of changing our relationship with the sea through business.

Supply chain of values

Berry and his co-founder, Kipp Baratoff, share a commitment to values-based business. Baratoff, the CFO and COO, comes from a background of blending finance and sustainability that includes stints with Meyer Memorial Trust, real estate developer Gerding Edlen, and Equilibrium Capital.

FishpeopleBoth buy into the credo that a healthy economic system relies on a healthy natural system. But they were also aware that “there’s a graveyard of companies out there” that began with good intentions, Berry says: “No margin, no mission.”

To find that margin, the two began probing every link in the supply chain between the fisherman and the consumer.

“We asked two questions: What’s right about seafood in your life, and what’s not so good?” says Berry.

Over the course of nine months, what they heard from “distributors, grocers, mothers, children, fisherman, processors” began to illustrate the nature of the problems and the shape that a solution might take.

“There’s always a consumer that is moving at a faster speed than the entrenched business interests,” Berry says. “And there are those companies that are very nimble—mid-sized and below—that are able to move more swiftly to reorganize supply chains and connect all the dots to serve that customer.”

“If you could create and aggregate demand at the consumer level you could then drive change through the entire supply chain—if you really understood what the consumer wanted today,” Baratoff says.

A better packaged good

Through those efforts, they recognized the emergence a new customer—one that had not existed previously. It was a consumer who wanted quality and easily prepared meals, but was also concerned about source, safety, and traceability of ingredients. Healthy and gourmet grab-and-go was booming.

Berry and Baratoff saw their opening.

“What narrowed the focus was around providing solutions: A super-healthy form of protein, a social and environmental mission, and delivering a food that was being underutilized only because of the delivery mechanism,” Berry says.

They knew that Fishpeople wasn’t going to make change working at the commodity end of the equation—dominated by a couple of “monopolistic titans” not keen on new competition, as Baratoff describes it. No margin. Retail, at the other end of the spectrum, wasn’t financially feasible either.

But a branded product allowed for a relationship with the customer, while still maintaining leverage back up the supply chain. That’s where the change would need to be made.

“We did an analysis of what it would be like if we just cut off heads and gutted fish and shipped them out of state versus value-added them, and it was a swing between $700 million and $1.1 billion,” Berry says. “So we would maintain $400 million more, in Oregon, if we were able to apply value-add like we do with our pouches,” increasing the value of the fish inside by four or five times.

The “pouches” are vacuum-sealed retort packages that contain a shelf-stable product that can be prepared just by tossing the pouch in boiling water for three minutes. It eliminates spoilage and smell, and makes fish a quick and easy meal option.

However, before they could start packaging and selling, Fishpeople had to address some weaknesses in the regional processing infrastructure, finding partners willing to meet their product standards and specifications.

Processing on the coast

ProcessingOn a Monday in November, workers diced up smoked and frozen fillets of Chinook salmon two at a time, using a high-powered water jet that sliced the slabs into a grid of uniform chunks.

Once the fish is prepared, it’s sent to a manufacturing facility in Salem for packaging.

“It hasn’t come easily, but every day is a little better,” says Adam Hoogewind, a food science Ph.D. who heads up quality assurance for Fishpeople. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Fishpeople’s processing facility opened in the summer of 2014 in the tiny central coast community of Toledo. A $30,000 economic development grant from the USDA to the Port of Toledo helped get the space up and running.

Change here has been a constant.

Since opening, plant employees have had to learn on the fly, rearranging the building layout, swapping out machinery, and experimenting with different processing approaches.

This particular step in the food processing supply chain, which would render fresh-caught fish into mouth-size morsels, just didn’t exist here in Oregon. Then again, neither did the dozen or so jobs that came with solving this problem.

“There’s no reason why a marine resource that comes from the coast shouldn’t create economic development at the coast,” Baratoff says.

Growth and shelf-stability

Today, Fishpeople has nine different products that retail at $5.99 in most major grocery chains on the West Coast, and is working its way back east. The varieties, prepared with input from a “flavor council” of cooks and chefs, include soups and sides such as Alder Smoked Wild Salmon Chowder, Albacore Tuna in a Yellow Coconut Curry, and Dungeness Crab & Pink Shrimp Bisque.

“We were at Kroger the other day,” Berry says, “and we cooked up nine different SKUs in the kitchen in their offices and we brought the buyers in and asked, ‘Do you smell anything?’
‘No,’ they said, ‘why?’

“Seafood.”

And that’s the beauty of the product. No strong fishy odors, great flavors, easily prepared, and good for you. Duncan Berry himself has tweaked the package graphics to better illustrate ease of preparation and to educate customers who hesitate at the unfamiliar retort pouch.

FishpeopleThe company’s story—it’s also a certified B Corporation—is an important part of connecting with consumers, but ultimately the product has to stand on its own.

Berry imagines Fishpeople’s customers saying, “You know what? I love seafood, but it is a real hassle to prepare. So, if you could make it convenient for me, and really healthy, and I could trust you because you are transparent? Then I’ll help you change our relationship with the sea. But do something for me first in my life with my kids and my family.”

With plans for expansion, hiring, and new products later this year, Fishpeople is on a rise buoyed by an Oregon-made product that tastes and smells as good as it is—and only in part because of the good it does.

“The most humbling thing is that are other people who want to walk on this journey with us, because we just can’t do it alone,” Baratoff says. “Our consumers have to walk with us, our supply chain has to walk with us, every employee in this place has to walk with us—if they don’t understand that intention, then Duncan and I aren’t doing our jobs. But if we can set that intention, there’s a pretty strong current going in the right direction.”

Fishpeople has an ongoing relationship with the suppliers for every ingredient in its packages, the majority of which come from the Pacific Northwest. They’ve even included batch numbers on every package that consumers can input online to see the source and producer for everything in that specific serving, from the fish and vegetables to herbs and spices.

That regional supply chain provides transparency, and also solves the issues and expense of refrigeration and spoilage that plague the seafood business.

“There’s value-based reasons for why we try to create things in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest that are deeply important to us,” says Baratoff, “But those are also just byproducts of building a good business.”

For more information, visit http://fishpeopleseafood.com/, follow Fishpeople on Twitter, like Fishpeople on Facebook, or follow Fishpeople on Instagram.

Fueled by local connections

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Fueling a vehicle with natural gas is not currently convenient or cost effective. But Onboard Dynamics is hoping to change all of that. And that could be a billion-dollar idea that changes the future of transportation fuel.

“The idea is natural gas compression onboard vehicles,” said Rita Hansen, CEO of Bend-based Onboard Dynamics, Inc.

“We are only four months into really launching the company, working through our milestones, doing the technology development, and making sure that we come up with a commercially viable product in 18 months.”

The spark

Chris Hagen, an assistant professor at Oregon State University-Cascades and the chief technical officer of Onboard Dynamics, has developed a natural-gas refueling system for vehicles. An internal combustion engine is modified so one of the cylinders is dual purpose: It can power the vehicle and also compress natural gas coming from a low-pressure supply line at a home or business and send it to the fuel tank to be stored for later use.

Hagen, who previously lived in Colorado, developed his idea as a response to a funding announcement from the U.S. Department of Energy/Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E was looking for technology that would move the needle on transportation fuel, reducing the dependency on gasoline and diesel. He submitted his idea and received $700,000 in funding, which ultimately grew to $1 million, to build a proof of concept to show natural gas compression onboard a vehicle could work.

About a month later, OSU-Cascades hired Hagen.

Finding a natural fit

Natural gas, a clean-burning alternative fuel made predominantly from methane, has a number of advantages as a transportation fuel including its domestic availability, widespread distribution infrastructure and low cost, the U.S. Department of Energy’s website states.

Only about one-tenth of one percent of natural gas is used for transportation fuel, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy. Roughly 150,000 vehicles are powered by natural gas in the United States and there are just over 800 public natural gas refueling stations.

The issue was not Hagen’s technology. It was the ability to commercialize that technology.

“Hagen was hitting the ball out of the park on the technology side, but he needed help commercializing it,” Hansen said. “ARPA-E does not want to fund science projects. They actually want to see if there’s a way to get it into the marketplace.”

Because Hagen was new to Bend, Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone suggested Hagen reach out to Economic Development for Central Oregon for help. Jim Coonan, the EDCO venture catalyst manager at the time, gave Hagen a list of names from his stable of experts in energy and engineering and Hagen started making calls.

Hansen and Jeff Witwer met with Hagen to help bring his concept to life.

“Our number one goal in the beginning was to help Chris get back on track in the commercialization effort,” she said. “At the time we weren’t thinking about starting a company.”

Gaining momentum

In June 2013, Hansen, Witwer and Hagen gathered with a number of experts in the industry to hold a business strategy planning session. Using the lean startup model, they brainstormed to determine the right business model, who the target market would be, how to launch the technology, and what resources they would need.

Onboard DynamicsIt was after that meeting Hansen and Witwer fully realized the potential of Hagen’s idea. In August they formed a team, named the company Onboard Dynamics, and applied to the Bend Venture Conference – which is now one of the largest angel-investment conferences in the Pacific Northwest.

The ARPA-E program director met with the team the day before Thanksgiving 2013, outlining a path to more potential funding to help take Onboard Dynamics to the next level.

“I thought he was talking like hundreds of thousands of dollars and he was talking millions of dollars,” she said.

Pouring fuel in the tank

At that point, Hansen said Onboard Dynamics realized it had potential access to significant funds through the ARPA-E program to really launch the company based on the success of Hagen’s work. The funds would allow Onboard Dynamics to create a commercially viable product.

“What they realized is that we were still not fundable. We couldn’t go out and raise traditional capital because there were still so many risks. All we had was a proof of concept,” she said. “We weren’t looking for seed money, we were looking for significant funds for continued technology development. Traditional capital funding sources are conservative and don’t typically fund at that stage.”

Over the next five months, Onboard Dynamics/OSU worked on the next generation of the technology and the presentation pitch for the additional funding from ARPA-E. And on April 8, the company received a phone call from ARPA-E announcing Onboard Dynamics had been selected for a new award of $3.6 million total.

ARPA-E agreed to put in 80 percent, $2.88 million, but Onboard Dynamics had to come up with the other 20 percent of the award.

“At this point … I knew I needed to go out and find $720,000,” she said. “And that’s where Oregon comes in.”

Weathering the storm

Hansen said she had been discouraged every day by rejections because the company wasn’t developed enough. But she knew in order to fully launch Onboard Dynamics and its technology, she needed more capital.

“We’d already been pitching and had gotten no’s, no’s, no’s from other private sources,” she said. “I don’t know how many rejections I’ve gotten … too many to count.”

RefuelingHansen kept going with $3.6 million on the line. She reached out to Oregon BEST, which has a gap funding program up to $150,000, and Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), which has a $250,000 gap funding program.

“I was being very selfish, thinking I could go after both of those; and I did,” she said. “It was the first time that they actually came together at the exact same time to invest in a company.”

But Hansen had to go through a few hoops to be able to accept both investments. The rules, established by the Oregon Innovation Council, prevented ONAMI and Oregon BEST from collaborating on their funding. Hansen called up Senator Betsy Johnson. Senator Johnson listened to Hansen’s story and the obstacles Onboard Dynamics was facing and revised the way the rules were written in 48 hours so Onboard could receive funds from both organizations.

“If these two programs didn’t exist I would have never been able to execute on the ARPA-E award,” Hansen said.

Continuing the journey

In the history of ARPA-E, she said this is the second largest award given to the state of Oregon.

“I needed to feel like Oregon wanted this. It would have been easy to walk away,” she said. “I guess I was driven by a sense of accomplishment and having this legacy to say we got this $3.6 million dollar award for the state of Oregon, in Central Oregon no less.”

Hansen said her formula to success has been her tenacity, her ability to pivot, and her network of support throughout the state.

“I always use mountaineering analogies because I’m a climber. You don’t lose sight of the summit, but you may have to change your route when you come up against an obstacle,” she said. “You may have to figure out other ways to get around or overcome those obstacles, but [you can’t] lose sight of what the end goal is and you [have to] stay clear about that and stay focused.”

Tapping every resource

Hansen said her summit was to execute on the ARPA-E award, but she couldn’t have reached that summit without team work.

“I’m a 50-something-year-old entrepreneur, but I still needed help. You have to not be afraid to ask for help and leverage your network and leverage your rolodex,” she said. “Obviously I am very, very proud to have made this happen, but there’s no way I could say I did this alone. I have to credit our entire team for complementing my weaknesses.”

Onboard Dynamics is projected to become a $25 million company in five years, Hansen said. But there are still challenges the startup company is facing.

On the roadLike most startups, Onboard Dynamics is still fundraising and will continue to be as the company progresses. But a bigger hurdle is the company’s loss of its vice president of engineering, Witwer. Due to health reasons he is no longer able to be a full-time member of the team.

“I’m trying to recruit somebody to be his replacement, which is a huge challenge,” she said. “Jeff was in this boat with us for the last 18 months. I talked to this person every day, multiple times a day, and to now not have that person in the boat is a little scary.”

Over the next few years Onboard Dynamics anticipates being able to double its workforce. To date, there are 14 paid employees, contractors, postdoctoral scholars and students working on the Onboard project.

Consistent improvement

Part of Hansen’s goal is to help develop an energy cluster in Central Oregon with Onboard Dynamics serving as one of the anchor companies.

“We have a whole energy engineering department that’s teaching students to do this work,” she said, referring to a program at OSU-Cascades, of which Hagen is an integral part. “Right now [students] have to leave the area after they graduate to go find jobs. That’s not what we want. We want to create an industry here.”

As the region develops its energy engineering industry, she said it will attract more funding and other companies. This will in turn fuel the sector’s growth and place Bend, as well as Oregon, on the map.

“We already have this reputation with the [U.S. Department of Energy] for getting stuff done; coming up with innovation and new ideas and actually seeing them through,” she said. “I was at the right place at the right time for this opportunity. It is a success story. The story is not done yet, but this whole community came together to make this happen.”

For more information, visit http://www.onboarddynamics.com/.

Returning to Oregon roots

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As you step into Wild Carrot Herbals, you are met with the smell of lavender being crushed in the basement, the gentle whir of machines in the manufacturing room, the steady sound of product being slipped into cardboard shipping sleeves, the colorful sites of the retail space, and the soft welcoming voice of Jody Berry. The combination of stimuli instantly helps ease the tensions of the day away.

Berry has been creating Wild Carrot Herbals since the year 2000. Started out as a passion project years ago, just outside of Olympia, Washington, the effort has matured over the years into what is now a thriving herbal manufacturing and retail business in Enterprise, Oregon. It is here that she and her family opened the Wild Carrot Herbals retail shop almost two years ago.

“Our goal is to create honest, nutrient-rich, joyful products that are reasonably priced for the entire family. Our products are brought to you by people,” said Berry. “We are family owned and operated in this beautiful and wild place in northeast Oregon, where we manufacture everything ourselves. Our products are all made in very small batches – measured, mixed, hand poured and labeled the old fashioned way: with love, care and cleanliness.”

In addition to the care she puts into each and every product she creates, Berry also insists on using glass bottles instead of plastic, and the shipping peanuts she uses are made from sorghum, are GMO and gluten free and completely dissolve in water. Even the packing tape, adorned with the Wild Carrot and Baby Carrot logos, is printed Kraft paper, not plastic, and is completely recyclable.

A deeper connection

Like all entrepreneurs, Berry’s story is just as much about her past as it is about her future. Berry grew up in Gladstone, a fifth generation Oregonian. As a young adult she attended Evergreen State College, where she lived alone and off the grid in the woods just outside of Olympia. While most of her friends were living on campus or in the city, Berry was living a life of solitude and simplicity. For five years she lived without running water, electricity, or a phone. During this time she built a yurt and a sauna. Life was simple and she soon realized how strong of a connection she had with the earth and the plants that grew from it.

Eventually life dictated some changes and she entered the corporate world as a copier salesperson where she soon learned a thing or two about herself.

“I won every incentive trip to Hawaii they offered. It was hard, but I was very competitive.” She spent seven years selling copiers. “It taught me how to sell, and I learned how to print a label,” she said smiling, surrounded by products with a variety of labels she created for them.

Berry and her husband Michael had met at Evergreen while studying organic farming, and married nine years later. Both had been organic and biodynamic farmers and have incorporated these practices into the Wild Carrot products they now produce in rural northeast Oregon.

Back to the farm

“When I told my parents I wanted to be a farmer again they were not surprised. They told me that that is all I have ever wanted to be,” said Berry. “I didn’t even realize how true that was. I had never given it up because it just wouldn’t let me go.”

She and Michael settled in Rickreall, Oregon where they built a 30’ x 96’ greenhouse. Michael grew organic salad greens while Berry concentrated on creating salves and lotions in her newly constructed 700 sq. ft. yurt.

“We had 60 chickens, 22 turkeys, three dogs and five employees and we eventually outgrew the space,” said Berry. “We realized we didn’t have to stay in Rickreall. Rickreall had been good to us, but we could go anywhere. We knew we wanted to stay in Oregon, so we began looking. We looked at Paisley, Lakeview and Williams. I had been a river guide on the Grande Ronde River 30 years ago, so we decided to check out northeast Oregon and that is when we found this space. It is just perfect for us.”

Finding a home

It really does look as if the space, known as the Enterpriser and built in 1924, was made especially for Wild Carrot Herbals.

Wild CarrotThe manufacturing room is tidy and clean, with plenty of space to move around in while working with infused oils, mixing salves, or filling lotion bottles. Shelves in the shipping room are stacked with boxes of fresh product primed and ready to be sent to any one of the 300 health food stores in the northwest and California that now carry Wild Carrot Herbals, as well as their baby line of products known as Baby Carrot. The retail space is warm and inviting, a great showcase to display the 100 different products they now create.

“This is the first time we have tried retail,” said Berry. “The retail store is way more than we ever thought it could be. We have learned that this community is so supportive. There are so many people in northeast Oregon that make things. It is a very creative community.”

Seemingly at one with the plants, Berry appreciates all they have to offer and has spent countless hours learning about their every nuance. The earth where they grow, the rain that waters them, the sunlight that encourages growth and vitality, and the coolness of a moonlit night are all a part of each stem, flower and leaf. As she crushes lavender in the palm of her hand, she no doubt gives thanks for all that went into the creation of the rich scent that drifts about her.

Wild Carrot Herbals has 100 different products made for women, children, pregnant moms, and men, along with 50 different infused oils, a variety of salves, lotions, body butters, lip balms, facial toners, cleansers and creams. Each and every recipe is created by Jody Berry herself.

As Wild Carrot Herbals grows in popularity, Berry says they are cautious with their growth. Last summer they began working with a distributor in Hong Kong which supplies 110 stores.

“This has great potential,” said Berry. “We already ship all over the world and our e-commerce website has been awesome. It is a good way to communicate with our customers. We are looking at managed, steady growth. We don’t intend to be a national company and really evaluate each new store that we take on. Our focus is quality, not quantity. It appears that the retail store will continue to blossom and we will put more energy into that adventure. We hope to hire a few key people to assist us in the day to day. Maybe then we will have a first family vacation in over eight years!” With six employees already, Berry said she likes to keep a positive work environment. “We pay our employees well, treat them well and we try to be flexible with their work schedules.”

The complexity of simplicity

With so many different avenues to keep track of between production, shipping, e-commerce, customer service, retail management and life in general, something had to go, at least for now.

Hand cream“We thought once we moved to Enterprise that we would continue farming, but we are really enjoying the simplicity,” she said. “We couldn’t afford farmland here, and we were also overwhelmed by doing all aspects of the product production. We still grow plants, like calendula, but on a smaller scale. We didn’t expect all the folks that came forward that wanted to grow for us. They mostly live down the valley a bit more where it is a bit warmer and easier to grow things. It is pretty ideal really – we still get to have the relationship with the plants and know where they come from and know the farming and harvesting practices. We also get to share in the abundance.”

“We are highly influenced by our bioregion and have gotten to know the plants that are native here, while enjoying the beauty of this place,” said Berry. “There are nettles in our Peace cream, and St. John’s Wort in our hand lotion, yarrow in our chest rub, and rose petals in our eye cream. They make for a great excuse to get outside and keep the balance. Some of our Oregon products are the Pacific Northwest cedar, rose & arnica massage oil, Oregon lavender lotion, Oregon mint lip balm, wild rose eye cream, Douglas fir lip balm, and rose body butter, to name a few. We use images from Oregon like the John Day and Wallowa mountains on our labels too. I hesitated slightly when formulating products with Oregon in the name, thinking that they would not be marketable in Washington or California, but over the years I have been told by our customers that Oregon has a reputation of being different, of being a place of wild beauty and wild spaces. People are inherently drawn to that.”

Growing challenges

Some of the biggest challenges Wild Carrot Herbals faces is keeping up with production, but luckily for Berry, her husband thrives on that kind of challenge.

“Michael is our systems guy. He helped build a brew pub in Pennsylvania and he has worked on Earth Ships in Arizona.” said Berry. “He has taken us to a whole new level because of the production machinery he has found. We now make product five days a week. We make hundreds of gallons of botanically infused oils, where we source organic ingredients whenever possible.”

Berry’s future looks promising to say the least.

“There is that expression,” said Berry, ‘do what you love, love what you do’. I think success is dependent on passion and I am quite passionate about making non-toxic skin care and working with herbs. I am also passionate about people and fostering my relationships with them. From one customer who walks through our door, to a buyer for a chain of 10 stores, I am always grateful. After all this time, I still love my job. I love the plants, making a difference, the connection I have to the people that I really love. We aren’t just making something, we are making a difference, and I am forever in awe of the plants.”

For more information, visit http://www.wildcarrotherbals.com/, follow Wild Carrot Herbals on Twitter, or like Wild Carrot Herbals on Facebook.

Learning through fun and games

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There’s no shortage of things one could say about Jeff Tunnell, founder, creative director and managing partner of Spotkin, a Eugene-based startup focused on educational game development. He is a successful entrepreneur, founder of tech-based startups, electronic game pioneer and an educational game visionary whose goal now is nothing less than to “change the world.”

But perhaps few things say as much about Tunnell as this: Those who know him don’t doubt he can accomplish exactly what he says.

“I know a lot of serial entrepreneurs with high batting averages, but none like Jeff Tunnell,” says Brett Seyler, founder of Americana Game Studio, based in San Francisco. “To have achieved this in the insanely dynamic and challenging field of video games is still more astounding. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s ever done it.”

After three decades in the electronic gaming industry, Tunnell launched Spotkin in 2011. The goal, according to Tunnell, is ambitious, to say the least.

“We are four or five guys in an office who think we can change the world,” he says, “and we are absolutely going to do it.”

Old School success

Tunnell is one of the few people who can make such ambitious claims and remain credible, largely because of a proven track record of success that dates back to the groundbreaking games of the 1980s.

“There’s a book that was published a few years ago called Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good by a Silicon Valley journalist covering startups,” Seyler says. “The title of this … is a kind of general sentiment I hear repeated in conversations down here. In Jeff’s case, it’s something like ‘Three Times, You’re Michael Jordan.’”

Tunnell founded and attained successful exits for Dynamix, GarageGames, and Pushbutton Labs.

“He has an incredible amount of energy, drive, and vision,” says Tunnell’s first business partner, Damon Slye, who teamed with Tunnell in Eugene in the 1980s to launch Dynamix. “In the early days we always felt we were the underdogs trying to catch up to some of the larger studios.”

It didn’t take long for the pair to learn they could not only compete but lead the way. Slye recalls a time when a Dynamix flight simulator went head-to-head with a major gaming company.

“We were concerned their product would crush ours in the market,” Slye says. “Despite the competition, Red Baron became a huge success both financially and critically. That’s when I realized we were now market leaders.”

Sierra On-Line bought out Dynamix in 1989. Tunnell stayed on for the next ten years and helped release a string of notable success like Trophy Bass and Pinball, he says.

The Incredible Machine

In 1993 Dynamix released one of the better educational games ever produced, according to various game websites and reviewers, called The Incredible Machine.

The Incredible Machine“By accident we made one of the most educational games of all time,” Tunnell says.

The game used similar visuals and audio to virtuosos of that era like Donkey Kong, but it was educationally focused. Tunnell and team based the game on simple notions of physics with logic that could be proven and replicated. Its appeal also tapped into the intrinsic interest many have in solving puzzles with logic.

The magazine Computer Gaming World called The Incredible Machine “one of the most innovative and deceptively addicting products to pass this way in quite a while … a well-oiled imagination machine with a very broad appeal.”

Its appeal stood the test of time. A recent YouTube review channel called “Lazy Game Reviews” likened The Incredible Machine to the famous game Tetris, calling it “timeless. They just got it right the first time.”

Democratizing tech

Eventually Tunnell and some engineers from Sierra broke away and founded their own company called Garage Games, which had its own unique educational component. The company built games that helped others make games.

Garage Games“Our whole mission was to democratize technology,” Tunnell says. “We built up a huge community. I was trying to stand up for the Indies and telling them what I think they can do.”

Seyler, who was studying at the University of Oregon before starting to work at Garage Games, says the company’s “frugal, yet still hyper-competitive culture, combined with world-class engineering talent, gave the company ample runway to tackle very difficult problems in game development and support a community of hundreds of thousands attempting to make games in their own right.”

He credits Tunnell with creating the culture that allowed others like himself to thrive, including hiring a twenty-something intern, Seyler’s college friend Josh Williams, as the eventual CEO. Williams had already experienced entrepreneurial success, but Seyler credits Tunnell’s mentorship and faith for helping Williams thrive and, as a result, helping them all become incredibly successful.

“I don’t know very many people Jeff’s age who would have handed over the reins of his company to a kid in his mid-20s who just happened to be incredibly hard working and brilliant,” Seyler says.

Making the greatest hit greater

After the successful sale, Tunnell launched Push Button Labs, which became another successful startup, eventually being bought out by Disney.

Orc from Mighty KnightsNext came Spotkin with its ambitious goals and its focus where Tunnell began: educational games like The Incredible Machine.

“It was the game I worked on that I liked the most,” Tunnell says.

Contraption Maker, the first product on the technology platform that Spotkin has built over the past three years, is also the “spiritual successor” to The Incredible Machine, according to Tunnell.

Spotkin’s games, Tunnell says, are first and foremost good games. They aren’t built by researchers and educators but by people who know how to make entertaining games. He admits he can’t yet pinpoint exactly why a game can make such an impact on child. He just knows it does, just as it did with The Incredible Machine.

“What if we build a thousand games likes that? I honestly think what we are working on…” he pauses to collect his thought, “it’s basically… it’s huge.”

An open playbook

Despite the lofty ambition Tunnell is forever pragmatic, having seen every twist in this rapidly evolving market. Indie programmers, like indie movie makers and singers and other artists of various ilk are in fashion these days. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. In fact, it’s harder because the competition is far broader.

“So many people want to be involved in this,” Tunnell says, “But this is a really, really hard business.”

Contraption MakerSeemingly always combining education with business, Tunnell blogs about his successes and failures with equal openness. He has posted several changes they’ve made at Spotkin as well as missteps so that others can learn from his mistakes. One example is Spotkin’s shift from making mobile apps to software development for the personal computer.

“There are a million and a half games in the app stores,” he says. “It’s just too hard to get noticed. So we decided to come back to PC and prove our product works.”

He blogged about these changes, carefully chronically his struggles, including a detailed description of his failed plan to take a game called QuickShooter and dominate the app store market. His blunt assessment of their struggles make for compelling business reading.

Eugene’s stature

In large part because of the influence of Tunnell and Slye and others who worked with them over the years, Eugene has emerged as a pocket of excellence for game makers, a virtual remote location of the Silicon Valley if you will.

Tunnell, Slye, Seyler, Garage Games’ CEO Williams and others connected to the businesses were Oregon residents. When they became successful many simply didn’t want to leave. Soon they were attracting hundreds of others with similar interests to the city.

“There are 200 to 300 professional game developers in Eugene now,” Slye says. “It’s the largest game development community between Seattle and San Francisco. Eugene is more affordable than the Silicon Valley, and is a better place to raise a family. People who are here are here to stay.”

One downside is the lack of funding in Oregon compared to the wealth in the Silicon Valley, which leaves many of the startups looking out of state for capital, Slye, who is president of another startup MadOtter Games, says.

“I’d like to see this change,” he says, adding that there are numerous opportunities with great products and potential for investors. “We’re looking for some now.”

Educational games can thrive

Tunnell says two factors ensure Spotkin will succeed. First, educational games have incredible power when done properly. Second, because they aren’t often done properly, the opportunity to succeed in this billion-dollar industry remains untapped. Monetizing the investment remains a crucial part of Tunnell’s plan at Spotkin.

A bigger problem is the educational system in general, Tunnell says.

“We spend trillions a year in education, and name someone who thinks it is working?”

Spotkin has developed a technology platform that makes what Tunnell calls “smart games for kids.” The opportunity is “huge,” Tunnell says more than once. Rapid advances in technology like new software, apps and mobile devices all open possibility for new educational games. All of which circles back to Tunnell’s simple, yet lofty plan to forever shape the educational gaming market and how we approach education in this country.

“We don’t need to make billions of dollars, we don’t need to be the types of guys who I think are strangling education these days. We don’t have to be greedy. We can change things and still make a good living. A small number of people can change the world and change the way things are happening. We can do it.”

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

Swimming in business, sustainably

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As the daughter of an Oregon fisherman, Laura Anderson spent enough time on boats to learn and respect those who make their living at sea. She also learned such a life wasn’t for her. But a few years traveling the globe—first in the Peace Corps and then working as bookkeeper in Vietnam—conspired to reconnect her future ambitions with her salty past. She eventually returned to Newport, Oregon to earn her living from the riches of the Pacific Ocean, much like her father did.

“Dungeness crab, king salmon, fish prized around the globe and it’s all right here in Newport,” Anderson, 44, says. “Some of the most valuable natural capital of the world – in both quality and quantity – is right here outside our doors.”

Good catch, bad pay

Anderson never shirked from a challenge of succeeding in two industries—restaurants and fishing—that are like the aftermath of great battles, littered with carcasses of those seeking success.

BoatsFormer business partner Al Pazar says when Anderson approached him about a fish market/restaurant across from the marina that would pay for the catch directly, she caught him on the right day. He had just come in with a pristine load of salmon only to find the price paid to him less than half of what a catch like that should warrant.

“I was pissed,” he says. “I just worked really hard and took care of them and got nothing for them.”

He said yes on the spot. Anderson originally was going to work for Pazar. But her dad convinced her to ask to be a 50/50 partner in respect to her unique experience, education and role in operations. Local Ocean Seafoods was born.

“That was definitely the best advice I’ve ever been given in my life ever,” Anderson says. “That was game changing. I would never had the gumption to ask to be a partner.”

An effective supply chain

Pazar helped recruit other fishermen to provide the stock. For fishermen like Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, the match was ideal. As he grew older he no longer wanted to spend weeks at sea, he says.

“I was looking for something I could fish for a few hours,” he says. “I thought they’d never take all the fish I could catch. Well, I ate my words.”

Another vital piece fell into place when local fish buyer Amber Morris came aboard as the designated “fish goddess.” Her local knowledge and exacting standards helped build the company’s reputation, says Anderson. Thompson agrees, crediting Morris as a vital tie between Local Ocean and the fishermen on the docks.

“She knows who to get and where the best fish are,” Thompson says. “They make sure that I can still sell my fish. It’s a give and take.”

Making sustainable and local profitable

Instead of braving rough sea, Anderson braved a battered economy to forge a thriving seafood restaurant and fish market that has become the state’s standard bearer for locally caught seafood and sustainable fishing practices. Local Ocean is built on Anderson’s own deep roots and the state’s longstanding fishing economy.

“I’m a believer in what she’s done and the model they have there,” says Thompson.

Laura Anderson of Local Ocean SeafoodsHe’s not alone. Pazar credits Anderson’s resolve for the company’s success.

“The reason why Laura was a perfect partner is that she has no fear,” Pazar says. “With that kind of confidence you can’t fail.”

The company combined Anderson’s various interests and experiences with Pazar’s connections to the fishing community. Pazar, a fisherman by trade, is also a successful entrepreneur. The partnership was one of shared philosophy and a strong sense of place.

“That’s kind of the allure of the place,” Pazar says. “It’s a nice blend. You look at the fish while you are waiting for the table. You can take fish home and you can look out and see the boats that caught it. You can roll down the windows on a nice day and feel like a part of the bay front.”

A seafood experience

Anderson agrees, saying the entire experience from sustainable catch, fair wages to fishermen, to sound business practices that benefit the local economy all add up to the unique success of Local Ocean.

Seafood“The vision really has not changed in the ten years we’ve been in business. We give them the best seafood experience they’ve ever had in their life. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear our exact mission statement come out of people’s mouths,” she says.

Though the original idea was a fish market with small deli attached, it quickly reversed into a restaurant with a fish market attached. Interest in sustainable catch helped the company thrive.

“I had no idea when we started this how successful it would be. We’ve exceeded those projections of 10 years ago 20 times over by now,” Anderson says. “They say in business things don’t work out how you plan, and in this case that’s a good thing.”

Pazar says the business still stands for his philosophy that ensures the highest quality. He calls it a “vertical integration” that in effect tells the story of a given fish that’s sold and eaten.

“If you have chain of custody from the minute it’s caught until it’s on a guy’s plate, you are solely responsible for that quality,” Pazar says.

The fisherman have bought into the story as well, he says.

“People are very proud to have their name on a tag on the fish in the case. It’s a big deal. People take pictures of it and it speaks to value, quality and sustainability.”

Ready to scale?

Anderson bought out Pazar a few years back, which Pazar says went reasonably well for a profitable business both felt so passionate about.

“We had an exit strategy built in. We’re both reasonable people. It went well. It was tough letting it go, but I’m still very attached to things I built and that promote my philosophy of seafood and marketing. I know it’s in good hands. It’s a pretty good gig,” he says.

So good that the question is often asked: is this lightning in a bottle or is it ready to scale? It’s a question Anderson herself can’t answer, at least not yet.

“There are no shortages of requests for us to replicate this,” she says. “My gut sense is we have this serendipitous thing here. Local Ocean Portland, for example, may not have the same feel, that kind of terroir that makes this work so well.”

Fishing economy done right

Anyone connected to Local Ocean is connected to the local economy and the greater issues of sustainability. As fishing is threatened around the globe, they say Oregon has set an example for fishing done right.

Boat“What Oregon does better than anybody else is to try to have sustainable fisheries,” Thompson says. “I think it’s up to 95 percent of the fish in the state of Oregon is certified sustainable. That’s a big accomplishment.”

Anderson is as much a part of the advocacy for sustainability as she is a business owner (“I like to think I’m a voice of reason, not an activist,” she says). Her platform adds to consumer knowledge. She is so integrated into the entire ecosystem she never considered cutting corners, she said.

“For me its inherent in who I am, and it comes no doubt from my legacy of fishing with my family. I feel this almost over-arching protectionism toward the industry,” Anderson says.

Part of improving that distribution chain, Thompson says, is changing laws, improving the supply chain and continuing education of fishing practices. All of it has to work together for both sustainability and profitability.

“There’s a big challenge in the state of Oregon,” Thompson says.

So much so that in coming years, Anderson would like to be involved in the ongoing issue of improving delivery of the riches of the Pacific Ocean to inland markets.

“My next step is making that link between valley and coast. Distribution hubs and microprocessing,” Anderson says. “There’s a big disconnect in distribution for the small guy. That’s where I see myself. Is it related to Local Ocean? Yes. But is it the heart of our business? No.”

It seems a safe bet that one way or another Local Ocean and Laura Anderson will be involved in the challenge.

For more information, visit http://www.localocean.net/, follow Local Ocean on Twitter, or like Local Ocean on Facebook.

The heart of Dutch Bros. success

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When you are selling love there is no limit to what you can expect to accomplish. Selling amazing coffee doesn’t hurt, either.

But perhaps it’s that love that explains the optimism and enthusiasm of Dutch Bros. co-founder Travis Boersma.

“We are uniquely different,” Boersma says. “The mindset of our service is ‘quality.’ And the product is ‘love.’ Love is the product. I don’t know any other company that love is their product.”

He’s got a point, and yet speaking to a guy who built a coffee cart into a $150 million dollar coffee empire, one quickly realizes he is anything but esoteric. He’s serious and enthusiastic—and more importantly, successful. The man sells love and has made millions doing it. Can’t argue with that.

Coffee talk… or not

I expected to talk to Boersma about coffee. Lots and lots of coffee sold in hundreds of franchises throughout seven states all from a hub in little known Grants Pass, Oregon. Still, I can’t help but drill down just a bit on this love thing.

Boersma is happy to provide specifics.

Travis Boersma“What is love, right?” he says. “To me it’s really just demonstrating your heart for the cause. That’s what our people achieve in so many different ways.”

The product of love, he says, is given when a dog bone is ready for the pooch that’s a regular customer just like the human driving the car. Or when the haggard mom who is always running a bit late drives to the window and the Not So Hot Chocolate is already being made for the kids in the backseat.

“It may just be a quick pit-stop, and the customers are in a hurry,” Boersma says. “But it’s a magical experience that can be a positive aspect of their entire day.”

That’s love, Boersma says, and few things make him so happy as to see the mission exemplified by his employees.

Dutch Bros. Creative Director Dan Buck says this focus is far more than just a slogan. It is the measuring stick for everything an employee does.

“Our philosophy, at its core, is just love our customers. And you are empowered to do whatever you have to do to do that,” he says.

Buck says he sees it play out every day, especially when employees try to “play a role” they think the company expects.

“People have a B.S. meter,” Buck says. “We work tirelessly to coach our people up or move them out. We try to truly love each other. We repeat that over and over again. Talk about it, practice it, coach it, train it, preach it, and teach it. We mean it when we say it.”

Few things thrill Boersma more than when he sees that effort filter through his company.

“One of our new managers had a meeting with his crew and said ‘Two things are most important to me: Love on the customers and love each other as a crew,’” Boersma recalls. “That’s all that needs to be said. That was the message. Everything else then falls into place with the recipes and prices and black and white realities we are conditioned to in the business world.”

Born of caffeine

At 21 years old, Boersma was just kicking around the idea of a career about the same time a grunge band from Seattle launched a whole new genre of music. Boersma didn’t know it, but his Nirvana came in the form of cataclysmic change in the local economy that had sustained his family for three generations.

Roasting“Back in the day, before we got into coffee, my family was third-generation dairy farmers,” he says. “My brother and I were in a place that we had to adapt to a change. That meant selling the cows and doing something different. What seemed devastating at the time was a blessing. The objective is to find the seedling of the equivalent advantage and realize it’s an opportunity.”

The opportunity was that coffee cart. The brothers wanted to be near the main shopping center but ended up downtown. It worked. And the original store that came out of it remains in business to this day.

Boersma credits those early years with his brother Dane, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2009, and his parents with building the foundation for Dutch Bros.

“Mom and Dad demonstrated love regularly,” he says.

His brother, who Boersma still refers to as “the wise man,” mentored him through the business expansion, leading by example.

“He was my brother and business partner and he was my best friend,” Boersma says of Dane. “He exemplified it. He didn’t just preach it. He walked it.”

Growing the love

Together they set a course for expansion that would honor first Dutch Bros.—affectionately called DB by everyone in the company including the founder—core product of love. They are far more than talking points but a real culture, Boersma insists, for himself, the franchise owners, the corporate staff and the barista’s themselves.

Bags of beans“Culture is never-ending journey and a focus of never arriving,” he says. “The customer experience is everything. The employees and people involved in every area of the business are responsible for providing that experience. The coffee is the product they come for, but they come back for the people—the interactions and the feeling. Generally it’s a day-in and day-out experience.”

But for Buck and others in DB, the culture starts with Boersma.

“Whatever you see with Trav is whatever you get,” Buck says. “He happens to be one of my favorite people because he tells you what it is and tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t spin it.”

Observing and borrowing

Boersma points out that he and his brother didn’t reinvent the wheel of a company culture with an emphasis on the customer experience. He adopted models of success that preceded them, including In-N-Out Burger and Les Schwab Tires, among others.

When Les Schwab died in 2007, former Oregon business owner and retired management consultant Joe Sherlock wrote a blog post that captured this unique approach to business.

“How did this remarkable success happen? Les Schwab formulated an ironclad policy that ‘the customer rules’ and built a culture within every employee and every store which embraced this philosophy… The company actually does what every company ought to do,” Sherlock wrote.

Boersma had already long applied those same lessons to DB, much like he adopted In-N-Out’s culture of quality and service.

Business Week writer Stacy Perman wrote a book about the burger franchise’s success, including treating employees generously, keeping the menu simple and focusing on customer experience, all things central to DB operations.

The DB mission

As Perman wrote, In-N-Out burger’s unique focus on controlled expansion has protected the company’s brand and ensured that quality has not suffered. Expand slowly on your own terms with your own goals, she writes, which might as well be the playbook used by Boersma and the Dutch Bros. team.

Dutch Bros lidsBoersma is well aware that the coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest has started to take on across the country. Drive-thru coffee stands are not yet as ubiquitous as they are locally. Yet he refuses to lose the company culture.

“We probably could have sold 1,000 to 2,000 franchises and made a gazillion dollars that would have rode a wave that is typical today in America, but it likely would have crashed.”

It all goes back to mission, he says more than once. Each franchise is a part of the company’s long-term “compelling future” and also part of the same “compelling future” for the owner, the employees and the local community. All have to fit together or the mission is compromised.

“Ten years from now I see a healthy growth rate that is sustainable with our company that’s providing young people a chance to live their dream, inside of DB or outside of DB,” Boersma says.

This explains why the company only sells franchises to employees and protects the territories of its franchise owners. Buck says the company sold initial franchises to non-employees and the impact on culture was profound and immediate. They quickly adapted a policy of selling only to employees. Buck says every day from points all across the country offers to buy franchises come in.

“We just say, ‘with all due respect, no’” Buck says. “We are just not going to do that. We would just be another coffee company. Our culture is our top priority.”

“Fear has no seat at the table”

Having met most of the ambitions he and his brother first laid out back in the 1990s, Boersma does not lack for current challenges nor see significant changes up ahead. The business works, it fulfills his ambitions and his personal mission statement, which has a lot to do with those principals of integrity and character. Asked about threats to his business, he changes the word to change.

“Fear doesn’t get a vote at our table,” he says. “The objective is to adapt to change and be wired into what’s going on in the world, because the world is changing even faster than before. So we have to adapt to change. If you don’t adapt to change then that’s when you can get blindsided.”

Just as the changing world forced him off the dairy farm and into the business of selling love, he is ready for those challenges that will inevitably arise.

“Life happens,” he says.

While some would say he’s “made it,” it’s a flawed concept as far as he’s concerned.

“The most important thing that I don’t think a lot of people realize is a lot of people think if I can get to this point I’ll have it made,” he says. “We see it all around us. They get to that spot and that’s when they become complacent and that’s when they start to descend. They fall into this fallacy of ‘I made it and now I’m going to live this life on Easy Street.’ Easy Street is a lie. The reality is its constant never-ending improvement and we’re going to grow until we depart.”

That’s why the mission continues. He refers to it often and even at one point recites it verbatim without being prompted. It flows from his thoughts as a normal part of the day. “I Travis Boersma…” he begins. As it concludes it says as much about where Boersma has been as where he fully intends on continuing to go. “… defy the odds to be a force for God and a force for good. I hope to meet the man that I am someday when I die, not the man I could’ve been.”

I still didn’t get to talk about the coffee.

For more information, visit http://www.dutchbros.com/, follow Dutch Bros on Twitter, or like Dutch Bros on Facebook.

Finding a new way through recycling

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Alando Simpson takes one look at my shoes and decides to keep the tour short.

“I don’t want you to step on any nails,” he says.

His boots sink into increasingly softening ground as we circle the small house at the center of two acres in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood. The house—or, more precisely, its basement—is home to City of Roses Disposal & Recycling, a waste hauler-turned-recycling-facility founded by Alando’s father, Al.

Alando stands next to one of the pieces of heavy equipment lined up against the wall of the house.

“The grinder,” he says, reaching into a small pile of spare parts and filling his hand with a softball-sized metal tooth that will soon be chewing wooden building debris into 3-4 inch chips prime for paper mills. At one point in its rumbling, diesel-fueled life, somebody scrawled “The Beast” in black marker on the side of the grinder’s front panel—a name Alando says fits a machine that can slice and dice its way through 150 cubic yards of wood per hour. During construction season they haul two 48′ trailers per day, which is equivalent to 300 yards of wood.

“That’s a lot of good wood,” Alando says, as places his hands back in the pockets of his brightly colored Columbia jacket.

City of Roses truckThe Beast sits quiet today, but the rest of City of Roses’ recycling facility is abuzz. A half-dozen men dressed head-to-steel-toe in reflective gear pick away at a pile of drywall pulled from a site near Lloyd Center. Under a barn-sized structure flanked by piles of different colored plastics, films, metals, wires, and cardboard, the men sort debris while negotiating the movements of ever-beeping heavy machinery. To their left and right, expanding collages of industrial, commercial, and residential waste is being salvaged and stockpiled by City of Roses and its growing recycling division, CORE.

It’s a cold January morning. Our breath hangs in the air, as does a patch of fog at the other side of the lot.

“If we can’t find value, it’s going to be a cost,” Alando says. “So we try to recycle as much as we possibly can.”

Turns out, “waste not” is more than a good business practice for the Simpsons, it’s a way of life.

A consuming hobby

We walk past the vehicle scale that’s a staple of most recycling facilities and Alando stops next to a truck parked at the front of the house. It’s a lot like the rig Al drove to drop off his oldest son at Southwest Portland’s Lincoln High, he says, a bit beat up with rusty scars that stood out amid BMWs and Lexuses, but just as functional.

City of Roses dumpsterTo call Al “frugal” is an understatement, Alando says, describing his dad as notorious for rarely ever spending money—and almost never buying anything brand new.

“Unless its underwear or socks, he’s always going to buy used,” said Alando.

Enjoy the fruits of his labor? Al rarely had a moment, especially after he started City of Roses in 1996—while working full time as a truck driver for the City of Portland’s maintenance bureau.

“It was supposed to be a hobby,” Al said. “I used to go drinking beers with the buddies every night. That shit got old, y’know? I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I had to figure out something else to do. I knew I could drive a truck, and I needed something I could do after work and on the weekends.

“Garbage—they’re open seven days a week.”

A recurring work ethic

Al was born and raised in the Humboldt neighborhood of North Portland. His father, Oscar, worked on the railroad.

“He worked all of the time,” said Al.

Besides his weekday gig, Oscar took a second job managing the apartment complex where the family lived. He collected rent, mopped floors, and kept the toilets running on weekends and after hours.

“I remember he used to ask me to help him mop the floors and I always wanted to go play basketball or football on the weekends,” Al remembers. “Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It makes me feel bad now, that I didn’t.”

“The times he’d say,” Al pauses, switching to the lower octave even older men reserve for imitating their fathers, ‘Go on, boy.’”

Oscar died in 1976 when Al was 20. But his work ethic lived on in Al.

Al realized that, while Oscar worked hard—and he, himself, worked hard—it had always been for someone else. A fact he continued to consider as City of Roses grew in the early 2000s, and he began feeling spread too thin. Family members urged Al to retire from the city and focus on his own business.

He said he couldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“His standard line was that he wouldn’t retire from the city unless we had our own facility,” says Alando, 31, who joined the family business in 2004 and graduated from Portland State University in 2007. Once on the inside, Alando quickly saw why his father—and a hauler like City of Roses—would want its own recycling center to process the goods: Picking up and carrying waste from homes and businesses to recycling centers and landfills was only so profitable, particularly with waste fees, overhead, repairs, and taxes inching up as the business grew.

The idea of a facility had legs, but it was just an idea. Al and Alando weren’t sure where to start.

The light bulb moment

Al started with a single truck. One that had been sitting in front of his house for three months before he landed his first job.

Climbing into the truckHe poured all his free time into City of Roses, which grew steadily. Eventually, the phone was ringing too much. Al wasn’t exactly enjoying his “hobby” anymore. Family and friends helped for stretches here and there, but the seven-day workweeks mounted, and those closest to Al grew increasingly worried he’d work himself to death.

Taking over the family business can be a tough sell as it is, but when that business is trash? Alando wasn’t exactly feeling it, especially in his early 20s.

“My life was too easy,” he said. “I was doing a lot of fun stuff because a friend of mine was in the NBA, and my life was too easy. My dad was working his butt off.”

That didn’t sit well with Alando.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I can hang out in this environment,” he said. “To essentially rely on the revenue of friends to determine success—that doesn’t make a man in my eyes.’”

Alando started at City of Roses working admin roles, where he often dealt with contractors. Their most consistent complaint centered on low recycling rates for their projects, particularly if they were striving to achieve LEED certification. Alando felt their pain, but as a hauler taking debris from site to dump, there was little City of Roses could do.

“That’s when the bulb went off,” Alando said.

City of Roses would open the facility Al always talked about, but it would specialize in helping contractors attain higher, more accurate recycling rates than the competition—often multi-billion-dollar, multinational waste companies who aren’t about to overhaul their proven operations model.

“Recycling is not why they’re in business,” Alando says. “The margins on landfilling are higher because there’s no labor. They’re going to recycle what they can, because it’s the status quo thing to do, but in reality they’re just trying to move stuff as fast as they can.”

One person’s trash…

Alando soaked up everything he could about LEED and wrote a business model targeted toward a niche, but growing market of contractors seeking higher recovery rates and the certification that went along with it.

The banks passed, but after receiving assistance from the Portland Development Commission and State of Oregon, traversing Metro and DEQ regulations, and paying system development charges, City of Roses had what it needed to break ground on its own facility in 2011. They spent a financially shaky 2012 under construction (“There were times we didn’t pay ourselves,” Alando says) and were officially permitted to “tip” (AKA dump) waste on April 1, 2013.

Quickly securing an 18-month job at Intel enabled City of Roses to build cash flow and acquire equipment (used, of course) like trailers, fifth wheels, tractors, boxes, excavators, and forklifts. And less than five months after the facility opened, Al retired from the city. But he’s by no means stopped working.

“I’ll come out here on a Sunday, and he’ll be here doing something,” Alando says. “He can’t stop. It’s almost a gift and a curse.”

“It’s gift because you see the work ethic, and you understand what it takes. But the curse is when you’re trying to implement different procedures and processes and tasks.”

Alando smiles.

“The numbers get skewed because he does things outside of what’s supposed to be recorded data,” Alando says. “I’m just trying to get him to understand that he’s going to be more of an asset to the company if he provides wisdom, instead of his actual hands-on work.”

I ask Alando how Al takes that constructive criticism.

“He’s not hearing it,” Alando laughs. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

Building up by tearing down

Al and Alando’s desks sit within a few yards of each other in the basement office, a space whose wood floor carries the basketball lines from the gym it was salvaged from. Al’s desk looks too organized to be heavily used—its neat stacks of papers and business cards a sure sign the older Simpson does most of his work out on in the field.

“Shit, I work harder now than I did when I worked for the city,” Al laughs, toothpick out the left side of his mouth, a bright-yellow construction vest across his chest. “That was a gravy job. This is work.”

Alando and AlOne look at Alando’s cavernous office area shows the workaholic tendencies didn’t fall far from the family tree. In addition to being vice president of City of Roses and CORE, the father of two chairs the Oregon Sports Authority Advisory Council, helps run the FAST (Fitness And Sustenance Training) camp, sits on the state transportation board, and is treasurer for the National Association of Minority Contractors.

What’s more, Alando CrossFits on weekday mornings at 5:30 and plays hoops on Saturdays.

His calendar mirrors the walls of his workspace, which is covered with posters, notes, and maps of Portland. A large, hand-written list tacked above his desk stands out.

It reads: “THINGS WE NEED FOR GROWTH”

Beneath, there are practical purchases (“more drop boxes” and “newer equipment”) and larger projects (“new wood process” and “obtain a franchise”). But when it comes right down to it, the area Alando thinks will best build up City of Roses is, ironically, tearing things down.

“We’re looking at deconstruction and demolition,” Alando says, noting the highly regulated and often politically franchised waste industry can present more barriers than growth opportunities, especially when his competition is multinational corporations. “I don’t really have the ability to take their market share. So for me, it’s ‘how do I create new markets or concepts within the industry?’”

With a deconstruction division, City of Roses would add taking apart buildings (while carefully maintaining anything that has value to it) to its hauling and recycling repertoire. They’d pick a structure clean of salvageable 2×4, 4×6, or 2×6 pieces of wood and either resell them or grind them into material for fabricated and engineered wood.

“A lot of demolition companies will haul their own debris, but none of them have their own recycling facilities—so at the end of the day, they’ll at some point pay for waste,” Alando says.

“We can recycle whatever waste we have. Salvage, reuse, recycle, discard—especially in a sustainably conscious region like Oregon, it gives us a lot of upside for providing alternative value. There’s a different cultural sentiment here. To me, Oregon is just one word that’s an extension of the term ‘organic.’ It’s the original root way of how people should be.”

For more information, visit http://www.cityofrosesdisposal.com/.