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Fording the rapids of Oregon entrepreneurship

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Peter Newport laughs. “I do chaos.”

In addition to the many roles he plays—from budding Gold Hill, Oregon, mayor to president of Sawyer Paddles and Oars—Chief Pot-Stirrer is also in Newport’s personal mix.

Newport is the former chief executive of Breedlove Guitar Company, a renowned custom instrument maker based out of Bend, Oregon. After selling the company in 2010, Newport moved to southern Oregon and bought Sawyer Paddles and Oars.

And it’s that fast-paced, 100-percent, year-over-year growth path that he helped generate at Breedlove that Newport wants to repeat with the similarly renowned custom paddle maker in Talent, Oregon.

But in the three years he’s been at Sawyer, the growth trajectory is slower than what Newport thrived on with Breedlove.

“We are growing Sawyer slower than we grew with Breedlove,” Newport said. “I’m engineered for 100 percent growth. I don’t have a whole lot of patience and it’s painfully slow. We’ll start ramping up our growth in the coming years.”

Nothing a little chaos can’t stir up

Tracking down the man known as “Crazy Pete” isn’t easy, especially in the middle of shifting manufacturing operations to Grants Pass, Oregon. in a partnership with custom furniture company Roguewood.

In fact, it seems wherever sawdust is flying and gorgeous wood products are crafted in Oregon, Newport can be found.

“He should be here later today,” Roguewood CEO Elizabeth Bauer says on a Monday afternoon. “Pete is just awesome. He’s a superstar.”

The next day at the Sawyer shop in Talent, Newport is again missing in action.

“He started real early this morning and I don’t expect him back anytime soon,” co-owner Zac Kauffman, says. “Things are a bit crazy around here right now.”

The company is making significant advancements, including the strategic partnership with Roguewood. It’s a partnership that has the two companies combining equipment and employees in the same facility — a temporarily chaotic move that will likely create an even higher level of product quality and consistency.
“Our peak seasons are opposite. It’s going to be beautiful. It will allow us to keep a steady workforce year round. We’re hoping if we cross-train on furniture and paddles and oars we can switch for whatever orders we need to get out the door,” Newport says.

Man in the middle

"Crazy Pete" Newport

“Crazy Pete” Newport

Any significant change will find Newport directly in the thick of it.

“Wherever the bottleneck is, that’s where I like to be,” Newport says a few days later, when he finally slows enough to talk.

In short, he wants more chaos because — for a die-hard kayaker turned entrepreneur who is now in the business of making fantastic paddles and oars – turbulence is not only expected but welcomed.
“I was taught how to communicate that type of chaos,” Newport says. “It leads to a fair amount of time in meetings but everybody’s on the same page.”

Finding a Niche. And another. And another.

Like many entrepreneurs, Newport spent a fair amount of time finding his own direction. His central Oregon upbringing weathered into him a love for the state, love for the extreme outdoor sports the region is known for, and love of music and love of adventure. All of these facets, in one way or another, have shaped Newport’s life trajectory.

The defining moment? When he took a kayaking class, “on a dare.”

“It totally changed my life,” Newport says, “The Bend and the Oregon boating scene is pretty advanced and I had a lot of great paddlers around me and fell head over heels into kayaking and that’s pretty much all I wanted to do.”

Newport navigated through Oregon colleges, including Southern Oregon University, University of Portland, and Portland State. By 1995, he wanted to try out for the 1996 Olympics in kayaking.

“It was a longshot,” he admits, “but I ended up breaking a bunch of ribs before I could even try out. But during that time I realized… wow, pretty much everything I was trying to do got shut off within a couple of weeks. I got kinda depressed.”

He followed his wife back to school—this time for an actual education—landing at Oregon State University.

“I was so sick of school and not knowing what I wanted to do,” he says. “But, when I went to OSU I ended up finishing pretty much near the top of my class in business.”

That led to a stint with Pepsi. Newport was working for the beverage company in marketing when Bend-area business leader Jim Schell sought him out. Schell, an entrepreneur and co-author of Small Business for Dummies (who still says on his Linkedin profile that “my favorite thing to do is to connect the dots,”) enticed Newport to consider working with a Bend- area company.

“He called me up and said, ‘Crazy Pete, have I got a perfect project for you.’” Newport recalls.
Soon Newport was the general manager of Breedlove Guitar, with a plan to earn more of the company each year moving forward.

“It was nightmare for three years,” Newport said. “Then we finally figured out how to grow it profitably.”

He also began slowly buying out investors. He became the chief executive and over the course of 11 years bought out most of the partners what he calls a “a great formula for budding entrepreneurs.”
Those wonderful, chaotic, 100-percent growth years soon followed and Breedlove Guitar Company became known as an industry leader. The company’s 500,000 annual sales hit $10 million and Newport sold it.
The experience helped craft Newport’s personal vision, combining his love for Oregon, its signature products and all the state has to offer in terms of lifestyle, recreation and environment.

“I really like niches where we can execute being number 1 or number 2 in quality, so we can dominate it,” Newport says.

The question that had once depressed Newport now enthralled him. What’s next? He wondered.

Method to the “madness”

Crazy Pete isn’t all that crazy when you get right down to it.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, he’s learned to combine his passions with past experiences to build success. But Newport kept the nickname given to him decades earlier while working at Pepsi.

“One day they called me the ‘Crazy Pete ‘and it just stuck. I thought it was kinda funny because I wasn’t really that crazy. But then I saw a definition for crazy as simply being open to another point of view,” says the perpetual pot stirrer. “It also gives me a lot of license.”

whitewaterJust as riding whitewater in a kayak, Newport keeps a fixed gaze on how best to navigate. He credits a book he read that said to be truly happy as an entrepreneur one must “design your dream customer,” Newport recalls.

“That was probably the most significant hit over the head I’ve had in forty years. I read that line and that changed everything. I was so excited to get a white board out and trying to fill it out,” he says.
That effort funneling down to a list of businesses where he could work with his dream customer. The list was short. One name long in fact. Sawyer Paddles and Oars in Talent.

“I used to work at Sawyer,” he said. “I wondered if they were still kicking.”

He sent an email to the company’s owner, Bruce Bergstrom. When he didn’t hear back immediately, he called. When he got an answering machine, he started driving to southern Oregon. On the way he called again and then again until at last Bergstrom picked up.

“I said, ’Hey, teach me how to run the company and I’ll help you retire.’ And it was kinda silent for a while then he said, ‘we’re gonna need some beer.’”

They met that day in May 2011 and penciled out a plan.

“Then we made it happen,” Newport says.

Playing in unison

The similarities between Breedlove Guitars and Sawyer Paddles and Oars are hard to miss, starting with the names: both remain branded by the vision of their respective owners who lived in Oregon and saw the opportunity to stunning craftsmanship into niche products of exceptional quality.

Both needed a healthy amount of Crazy Pete’s chaos to truly scale into a leader in their respective niche market.

“I love the initial quality,” he says of Sawyer but could equally be speaking of Breedlove. “We have dramatically improved the consistency and global excellence.”

To scale these niche manufacturing businesses takes more than pot stirring. Newport again is relying on his past experiences. At Breedlove the guitars were known for its innovative graduated top and bridge truss construction. At Sawyer the company has made innovations around some of their paddles that improves their competitive edge, Newport says. The company intersected with the rapid growing Stand Up Paddleboard markets through innovation becoming the first to create a tapered oval carbon fiber shaft. The tapering cuts the weight by 30 percent, Newport says, while the oval shaping makes it less fatiguing.

“The oval allows you to relax your grip so you don’t have to work so hard to aim it where you want it to go,” he says. “It’s probably the best racing paddle in the country right now.”

Shane Perrin, founder of SUP St. Louis, backs up Newport’s claim.

Perrin says he is considering changing his entire fleet over to the Storm Stand Up Paddle, which he describes as “ultra-tough.”

Equally important is a crucial factor often associated with Sawyer.

“Made in the USA,” Perrin says. “Says it all right there. I love that they are made there in Oregon.”
According to Sarah Layton, CEO of the Corporate Strategy Institute, Inc. , quality is spurring the comeback of American manufacturing.

“We conducted an informal survey of manufacturing CEOs, and the general consensus is that manufacturing will make a comeback in the US. The reason is partly because of perceived poor quality coming out of other countries, mostly China,” she forecasted.

Perrin is proof of that trend.

sawyer-oars“It’s been sad to watch companies that originated making their products here and then source through China so they can make more money,” Perrin says. “Almost always that product’s quality declines.”
Among the other moves Newport made to launch Sawyer’s growth curve was connecting directly to those like Perrin. To do that, he aggressively recruited Kauffman whose connection to the company goes back 30 years as an outfitter and guide trainer. Newport enticed Kauffman with the opportunity of ownership through sweat equity, a typically entrepreneurial move that has worked out as well as he could have imagined.

Like Perrin, Todd Freitag, owner of Grassy Knob Guide and Outfitters in Bandon, Oregon, knew Kauffman for several years. Sawyer sponsored Freitag’s steelhead tournament and Freitag serves as a regional ambassador. He speaks with intimate knowledge of his favorite product a square v-lamb top oar.

“It’s an absolute beautiful piece of wood,” Freitag says. “When I first saw them I couldn’t believe them. It’s almost like a piece of art. When you run those oars down the river you always attract attention.”
Freitag is quick to point his fellow river rats to Sawyer.

“There’s a lot of other great products in other states to, but let’s try to employ those craftsman who are local first. There’s tons of stuff in Oregon,” Freitag says.

New rivers to run

So the age old question of what to do with his life has become increasingly clear amid the chaos, Newport says. He wants to run a $100 million company in Oregon and has a typical turbulent way to meet his goal. It starts with becoming the mayor of Gold Hill, a town of 1,200 residents that sits on less than a square mile of land in Jackson County.

“I’m a die-hard Oregonian,” he says. “I think Gold Hill will be the coolest town in the world. Ten years from now it will be known as the best place in the world… it already has the best white water on the Rogue.”

The wannabe mayor is quick to list Gold Hill’s vision and virtues, from recreational marriages, a new parks plan, a 5,000-seat amphitheater that he hopes will rival the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.
“That’s where Sawyer as a brand belongs and it will become a $10 million company. Then all we need to do it cherry-pick ten other $10 million companies. As the mayor I’ll have reached my goal.”

Turbulent? Chaotic? Crazy? You bet. Doable? No doubt about it for Crazy Pete Newport. He’s seen it clearly and even drawn the whole thing up, a necessary first step for any entrepreneur with a dream, he insists.

“Anytime I start a project I take a poster board and draw a picture of the company in the future. I put it right next to my desk so anyone can see it,” he says. When we make a decision we ask, ‘does that get us closer to that picture or further away?’ It so easy to see when you have an image of what you’re going to become.”

For more information, visit http://www.paddlesandoars.com, follow Sawyer on Twitter, like Sawyer on Facebook, or follow Sawyer on Instagram.

Nau and again, time and again

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For a sneak peak of Nau’s Fall ‘15 line, your best bet is the main conference room adjacent to the outdoor apparel company’s small lobby. That wall to your right? It’s actually a sliding door, heavy and rough with squeaking overhead wheels that harken back to the Northeast Portland building’s warehouse history—and, fair warning, might give you away.

But the old wooden door also unveils a glimpse of the future: Rolling racks filled with jackets, shells, sweaters and pants, peppered with selections from next fall’s collection that face toward the middle of the room and a long slab of an empty conference table.

Jamie Bainbridge grabs her favorite piece from among the designs that won’t hit stores until next year. Nau’s product design and materials development lead reaches toward a cluster of jackets and fans a black, cape-style coat with an insulated—but not-too-puffy—fill over her arm. “In women’s, we’ve been really bold,” she says. “But it’s the same notion we’ve used since Day 1.”

Recycled polyester? Check. Durable water repellant? Yep. Fashionably cut and logo-free? You bet.

That much hasn’t changed for Nau. Along with their corporate giving—2% of every sale to charity partners like Ecotrust and Mercy Corps—Nau’s seamless blend of outdoor performance, urban fashion and sustainable everything has been the thread that’s run through ups, downs, way downs and every season in between. From grand ambition to giant setbacks to gradual growth. From big-time backing to bankruptcy to being born again (and again). From wanting to change the face of business to just trying to stay afloat.

And today? General manager Mark Galbraith says Nau is that much closer to where they started.

Back to basics

“The original iteration of Nau, at its core, was very much from [Nau founder and Marmot co-founder] Eric Reynolds,” says Galbraith, who along with Bainbridge was an original Nau employee. “He wanted to use business to have a discussion about how to make the planet a better place to be.”

Early stages of Nau designMore than just talk, Nau walked that walk—right from birth—on philanthropy, product quality, supply chain, and global citizenship. The company’s original name, “UTW” for “Unfuck The World” was a not-so-subtle hint at the Nau’s aspirations. They hoped to not only redesign the outdoor apparel business, but change all business. They used phrases like “shifting paradigms” and turned the typical retail experience on its head by allowing customers to reduce the carbon footprint (and price) of their purchase by having their shirt, skirt or scarf shipped to their door instead of the store. They helped pioneer materials and kept a critical eye on toxicity levels—not just for the people who’d wear their products, but the people who’d made them. They designed clothes to be worn (and last) for multiple seasons, leaning on more timeless styles and durable materials that shunned specialty and begged for multi-use. Nau seemingly had every angle covered, and weren’t afraid to point that out—an attitude Galbraith says came from the right place but didn’t always strike the right tone.

“Underlying it was, yeah, the world and business is somewhat fucked up and we can fix it,” Galbraith says. “It felt a little preachy and a little finger-waggy to some people. And I don’t blame them.”

But that’s changed. Or, rather, evolved a bit.

Finding a balance

Nau is no longer “the punk, know-it-all college kid who just graduated and thinks, ‘God, business is stupid and my dad’s dumb, and this what I need to do to fix everything,’” Galbraith says with his best exaggerated-angst eye-roll.

A Nau jacket and bagWhile admitting such an attitude is an important ingredient many new ventures must share, after seven years and tens of millions in funding, Galbraith says a more mature approach has brought Nau closer than ever to reaching its lofty goals. In the same way they strive to balance sustainability and performance with aesthetic, Nau is tempering the youthful zeal behind the business-can-change-the-world bit with earnest work inside the apparel industry that put everyone’s environmental practices front and center.

“One of the most interesting aspects of sustainability is the odd collaborations between bedfellows you wouldn’t think would be interested,” Bainbridge says. And she should know: Part of her official capacity at Nau is working with the Outdoor Industry Association, a 25-year-old trade group that represents 4,000 members and $686 billion in sales. Inspired to help preserve the playground where their products are best enjoyed, Bainbridge worked with OIA to create an open-source tool that provides a relative metric for how sustainable apparel or footwear products are.

Creating a nontoxic environment

The 15-year Nike vet (material research and advanced product design) who’d previously worked at Patagonia (a time in which she met other Nau originals, including Galbraith, who worked at Polartec at the time) said the six-year effort included weekly input from 75 companies and a hearty dose of checking competitive urges at the door. And now that the tool is up and running as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, Bainbridge, and the OIA sustainability working group she chairs are taking on challenges previously left on the cutting room floor.

“We’ve never been able to figure out how to address chemicals and toxicities,” she says. “Three years trying to wrangle with chemists and figure out how we help companies that aren’t filled with chemists understand where their impacts are and how to address those.

“The other big effort is transparency; so if you say that’s recycled polyester, can you prove it from inception to final product?”

Attention to detail has become the defining factor of Nau's productsNau can. In part, because the most tangible representation of their brand is and always will be the clothes themselves, Galbraith says. You can line up your messaging, create a persona and talk all you want, but much like a first date, when customer meets product for the first time and the words or experience suddenly ring hollow, someone feels duped. In a culture where new versions of smartphones are introduced (and sold to a gleeful market) before the previous version’s battery stops holding a charge, apparel is (unsurprisingly) driven by trendy, seasonal wear, and consumers don’t carry an expectation for lasting quality and long-term use.

“For us, the actual product, the craft, the materials it’s made out of, how it fits, how it wears, what it’s like—it’s probably as tactile and real as anything you do,” Galbraith says. “There are three things in your life: A relationship with somebody else, the food that you actually taste and smell and put in your body every day, and clothing you put on right next to your skin and actually live in—there’s probably very few things that are that intimate, and that tactile, that real to what you experience every day.

“And when you’re making clothing it either works or it doesn’t. Having that integrity and focus is what’s always been the at the core of what we do.”

Finding like-minded business people

Which is certainly an approach that appealed to Black Yak, a South Korean outdoor powerhouse that sought out and purchased Nau in October 2013. The 40-year-old mountaineering supplier with a Himalayan-conquering heritage injected new life—and capital—into a company that had been plodding along on the back of Horny Toad, a Santa Barbara, California-based active wear company that resurrected Nau with Galbraith, Bainbridge and three other original employees in 2008 amid economic turmoil, and whose Lizard Lounge helped keep Nau in front of consumers since.

Galbraith calls Black Yak “the Patagonia of Korea” and lauds the degree of both support and autonomy they give Nau as a wholly owned subsidiary. The folks in Seoul mostly stay out of design and brand discussions. Instead, they provide the stout financial and strategic infrastructure necessary to outfit Nau for a climb toward its original ambitions.

“They’re in it for the long haul. And operationally, they’re extremely tight,” says Bainbridge. “They run 300 retail stores in Korea of only their own product, and they can probably tell you, hourly, what sales they’re doing and how they’ve shifted product on the floor. It’s tight—and that’s been really welcome: The cowboy days of the original company, where we had this insane burn rate [are gone].”

Black Yak’s diligent approach was foreshadowed by its acquisition of Nau, a process Galbraith said stretched over nine months and included countless discussions, a surprise trade show visit, sitting in on sales meetings, a peek at the new lines, and time in the office with core management team asking—and receiving—a lot of good, hard questions. After so much promise led to turmoil then to slow, deliberate building, the Nau team wanted to ensure the sale would set them up for a leap forward Horny Toad couldn’t provide, just as the Black Yak team wanted to ensure Nau was serious about its approach to business.

“When we asked Jun [Suk Kang, the president of Nau] the biggest part of why it went down, and what he was interested in,” Galbraith remembers, “’he said, ‘I want this to be the most sustainable company in the world, in the broadest sense.’

“[Black Yak’s] own business practices are much more centered on the responsibility of what a culture has to each other. They’ve very much taken a humanitarian, cultural approach to really saying we’re a family and this is how we really look at business and our relationships. There’s a high degree of integrity, honor and a concern for people and geographies.”

Not to mention great gear. When studying business in the States, Kang—the son of Black Yak founder and CEO Tae Sun Kang—visited the original Nau store in Chicago and brought several jackets back home with him to Korea. Fast-forward five years, and Jun Suk Kang is now splitting his time with Nau while helping the mother ship Black Yak take a crack at the European market—a global reach that means he lives in South Korea, but travels to Portland for about a week per month, “and probably a week a month somewhere else,” Galbraith says in a tone that suggests experience with the joys international travel. “That’s the way it works.”

Nau women's jacketAnd it all appears to be working. It’s a week before a new web site is launched, and 20 new sales reps covering previously unchartered territory descend on Nau headquarters for presentations on the Fall ’15 line. Everyone on the floor is busy. They’ll be beta testing the site over the next seven days, trying out every click and drag a customer might possibly do to veer off-course. Bainbridge says the all-hands-on-deck approach is necessary, daunting, and exciting. But not new: To necessitate the kind of growth they hoped for with the resources they had, Nau re-thought verticals and reconsidered who should cover what at every step.

Nau’s women’s designer, for instance, is also its color czar. Anything to do with color is on her, so she works with textile mills to color fabrics, lays out artwork for stripes, patterns and prints, speaks to China one day and Japan the next, then goes back fitting to garments or building the catalogue after.

“Nobody can be above doing something,” Bainbridge says. “I do stuff I did 25 years ago. That’s just the way you gotta do it. Until you’re big enough that doesn’t happen, but then it starts to get boring.

“When I worked for Nike, I had a guy in the Hong Kong office and I’d tell him to go over to the mill. I had a guy in China and India, someone on the ground to do the work for me. There’s nobody here to do the work but yourself.”

Both the risks and level of work are obvious. But for Nau, the rewards are, too. Bainbridge says at a larger company, the amount of effort and repetition it takes to get countless people rallied around an idea and moving forward is immense. A tagline or a campaign doesn’t just happen overnight. Nau can move more quickly.

“The strange thing about working here,” she says with a wry smile, “is you make forward progress every day.”

Proof in the progress

The year since the Black Yak acquisition has proven it. Nau has added a creative director, a real wholesale sales department, e-commerce director, and a Web team. They’ve built a new trade show booth to solidify their wholesale presence, overhauled their enterprise inventory software and launched a new web site to better reach an audience whose expectations of what an online experience should be are ever-evolving.

“Most of those things you do once or twice in a business, and it’s a big pain in the neck,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a year of foundation building.”

And it’s happening in Oregon, where Galbraith says Nau draws from a pool of talent, but also a way of thinking that—like Portland’s winter rain—permeates the people. The Rose City may not compete for title of worldwide fashion capital with the likes of Paris, Milan, New York, or Tokyo, but its point of view on sustainability and collaborative creative community willing to offer resources and ideas, are second to none. You can characterize it all the way down to cable TV comedy, but the ethos of Portland—Oregon’s intersection of tech, design, and progressive thinking—makes it a place where curiosity and conceptual thinking are equally acclaimed.

“It’s a place where people are looking for stuff that has meaning and substance and is a little bit different than what’s anywhere else,” Galbraith says. “I love that.”

For more information, visit http://www.nau.com, follow Nau on Twitter, like Nau on Facebook, or follow Nau on Instagram.

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Navigating a confluence of technology and sustainability

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Charles Steinback still remembers the day a San Diego fishermen read him the forty-five minute riot act.

It was over breakfast. And the conversation was a heavy one: Regulators were mapping the fishing grounds off the coast of California. And while the end-goal was to carve out habitat protections that would make areas off-limits to fishing, it fell to Steinback to assure they did the least amount of damage to fishing towns.

At the time, Steinback was relatively new to Ecotrust, the Portland-based nonprofit focused on ecosystem and civic resiliency. Fresh-faced and fresh out of college, he had hoped his efforts would be welcomed. Instead, what he got was a proverbial finger in his face. And a nearly hour-long lecture about the meaning of community—from a man who questioned whether Steinbeck even knew what the word meant.

“I took that to heart. It was years ago, but I remember literally walking away from that conversation, going back to my hotel room, and sitting there for three hours writing a ten-page email to Pete about community and what it is, and here’s what it means to me, and here’s why I want to work with you, and why I need you to work with me.”

The email earned the critic’s respect and buy-in. It was a moment that showcased what Steinback would bring to the business of ocean conservation: deep roots in a fishing community, a collaborative approach, and a strong belief that information-sharing can make ocean management—often a divisive, heart-wrenching business—better than it otherwise is.

Combining disparate disciplines

Flash forward, and Steinback is now managing director and cofounder at Point 97. (Pronounced Point Nine Seven, a nod to the percent of the earth’s water in the ocean). The for-profit company, launched as an Ecotrust subsidiary in August 2013, is Steinback’s next career iteration of fresh-faced optimism. It still has him doggedly focused on bettering ocean management.

In its rebirth as a startup, however, Point 97 has taken the former ocean planning division at Ecotrust and made it into something more likely found in the Silicon Valley.

It’s a three-way marriage, if you will, among techies, data geeks, and conservationists.

Stacy Fogel, marketing director at Point 97, puts it this way: “We create technology solutions for ocean management, because these tools enable these communities that depend on the ocean to take care of it.”

Finding the right person

Steinback was the obvious choice to take the reins. “Charles is a smart guy. He’s a really good listener. He’s low-key. But he understands the big picture,” said Ed Backus, Ecotrust’s former vice president of fisheries. When people in fishing towns work with him, they don’t feel like they’re being pushed to acquire something they don’t need. They feel like they’re learning the things they need to pay attention to.

Charles Steinback

Charles Steinback, cofounder and managing director, Point 97

In that way, Steinback hasn’t come so far from his roots. Raised in Astoria, he isn’t from a fishing family. In fact, both of his parents are teachers. But he grew up in an era of mill closures and constrained fishing, and was eyes-wide on the fact that most of his friends’ fathers were unemployed during his middle school years. For him, that competing pressures on natural resources could make a whole town ache wasn’t something he ever had to learn. He knew it. And when he brought that perspective to ocean conservation, he brought something the movement had often lacked.

Though he was in tune enough with his own constitution to know he wasn’t a fisherman, wasn’t going to be a lumberjack, he said always knew he wanted to lend a hand to communities like Astoria. He arrived on the doorstep of Ecotrust in 2001 having just earned a degree at UMass Amherst.

“I literally just walked in, handed them my résumé and said I would do anything,” said Steinback.

Ecotrust embodies something uniquely Oregonian

Why Oregon? The simple answer is Ecotrust, a leader in sustainable fisheries management, which has provided the vision and resources to support Point97.

At a time when much of the regulatory environment—and nonprofits with ocean missions, really—were focused on the idea of “overfishing” as the root of all evil (90s and 00s, mostly), Ecotrust was really successful at plugging into fishermen as a resource and getting at deeper truths about our oceans. Yeah, we’ve overfished. But there are fewer fish for other reasons. Migratory changes related to ocean acidification and rising temperatures have also produced the troubles we see. And Ecotrust was among the first to approach fishermen and fishing communities in an inclusive and collaborative manner to solve problems around these issues.

When states first began to look at carving out ocean areas for marine conservation and renewable energy, for example, Ecotrust was deploying guys like Steinback to figure out how to keep those new rules from just gutting fishing towns and family fishing operations. And Ecotrust was also among the first to recognize that some systems designed to prevent overfishing, however environmentally sustainable, are so capitalistic that they have the effect of locking a lot of people out, including whole cultures, while funneling money to people who don’t actually fish.

Ecotrust’s approach is sadly far from typical. There are a great many nonprofits and a whole lot of government regulators too, who until recently viewed fishermen as pests to be gotten rid of, and those fishermen are such a small constituency that they were easily rolled. Now, as conservationists come around to the idea that fishermen have deep knowledge about our oceans, and, oops, wait a minute, we actually also need these people to eat, Ecotrust is way ahead of the game.

Ed Backus, Ecotrust's former vice president of fisheries

Ed Backus, former vice president of Ecotrust fisheries

Now, if other groups want to get any meaningful conservation work done – work that isn’t just knee-jerk simplistic and actually includes preservation of fishing culture and communities – they need a Point 97. What that brand is selling, more than anything, is trust. It was hard earned and carefully built through years of closely listening to real people affected by change. That would not have happened without the respect and expertise guys like Steinback and Backus, both of whom really know fishing towns and fishing people, offered fishing people. They learned that in Oregon. You can think of Backus as the godfather of this stuff, and of Steinback his successor, nonprofit or none. And now Point 97 has the secret sauce: they truly believe that American culture is better off if we preserve the culture of fishing people, even if we’ve got problems to solve, and fishermen know they are allies.

Mapping the future

Over more than a decade, he has helped Oregonians map the territorial sea, carving out space for energy development. He’s assisted fishermen like Pete from San Diego in protecting their communities when marine protections came about. But it was his hand in designing an online planning application as part of that California-effort that ended up branding him someone who could use technology to facilitate conservation. That his planning tools paired community needs with habitat protections, and helped achieve more nuanced goals than push pins on a map, got attention. The money seemed to follow.

Now at the helm of Point 97, he says what’s flowed from the company’s launch fifteen months ago is a “lot of interesting growing pains.”

“Growing up in a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily prepare you for running a company,” said Steinback. In that way, he went from a structure that was always chasing money, and stretching its own capabilities, to learning that what works in business is the opposite of that: a model with a tight focus and careful, managed stewardship of limited products.

“We’re full of good ideas. But good ideas that people pay for? And that can support a business? That’s what you have to figure out,” he said.

Point 97 on the job

Though he’s struggled to find examples of for-profit companies that sprung successfully from nonprofit parents, and combat similar issues, he says he’s getting good guidance from the Portland startup community, where its not at all odd to pair funding and development goals with social impact missions. In that sense, being in Portland is giving Point 97 the support it needs to grow from within a model that might make it an outlier elsewhere. And that assistance is unlocking potential.

“I can go meet with a CEO of another startup that’s maybe four or five years along,” for advice and mentorship not available in the conservation community, he said. “I don’t think I would be experiencing those things if we were still operating from within the ENGO.”

Next on the menu?

Software and data portals. Tools for data collection, analysis, and synthesis. And a healthy dose of people-products like civic engagement and advisory services.

The outcome is that Point 97 has turned rugged, no-nonsense fishermen of Oregon’s Dungeness Crab into iPad-toting data junkies, now testing, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the viability of real-time harvest reports on crab. It’s a platform that also aims to offer the fishermen business tools. Other projects have been deployed in the Mid Atlantic, where surfers are mapping recreational use of the ocean as wind turbines stake out space, and in the Solomon Islands, where a new mobile app is tracking fish as they head to market.

Whether mapping boater activity in the Northeast, or building a monster database to underpin planning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the thirteen employees at Point 97, six of them developers, are busy. They were already a revenue positive division before becoming a company. Now, they’re looking for growth.

“When you’re out there providing tools to help people make decisions, to do that on a global scale, you’ve got to get to scale,” said Backus.

That’s why Ecotrust turned its ocean division loose as a for-profit. It was an effort designed to address the fact that, to really have impact on ocean issues, those impacts had to be wide-ranging.

“It carves out a section of space where people have different performance standards, the pace is different, there’s more decision-making power given to the CEO, and things can happen in a much more rapid-fire pace, and that’s what’s needed,” he said.

Continuing to refine

For Steinbeck, his Sisyphean contest still lays ahead. Likely, 2015 will see Point 97 continuing to refine its focus. Though he’s aware the company is doing too much—something he called an “old habit” from the nonprofit days—Steinback said its test is how to tweak a for-profit model in a way that still resonates with longtime partners while attracting customers for the company.

The solution will come from the entire team, one he describes as a group that wins together, loses together, and sometimes wants to rip each others hair out, but always comes back the next day committed to solutions and moving forward.

Steinback says they are realizing that the company may have to limit its direct work in communities in the future. Though working with people is a practice that, in the past, allowed the ocean planning division to gather ideas, solve problems, and measure direct results at Ecotrust, Steinback says its also a practice that’s been expensive and time consuming for Point 97, and is unlikely to scatter the company’s social impact as intended.

“There’s this tension or struggle between working in communities with people and trying to make a profitable company. That’s our biggest challenge. It’s trying to figure out what that transaction will look like,” he said.

When they answer that question, Point 97’s team will be bringing the most successful of the tools they’ve built in their backyard to the world.

“We’ve just barely tapped into that,” Steinback says. And when he talks about really plugging into that success, the characteristic zeal turns on. It’s easy to hear that fresh-faced kid from Astoria.

And it’s easy to understand why he’s still got work to do.

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