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A hive of creative ideas: The Portland Bee Balm and Cascadia Candles story

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The origins of Portland Bee Balm and Cascadia Candles came out of necessity – Brad Swift’s wife Anika ran out of lip balm.

That simple need started him down an entrepreneurial journey that has led to the creation of a successful consumer brand that has traction in retail outlets throughout the United States and Japan. But as with many founders, there is a constant pull to keep evolving and pushing to do something new and unique.

The building of a consumer product brand

As hobbyist beekeepers, the Swifts had accumulated plenty of beeswax. Brad started to make lip balm for Anika and their friends. While the simplicity of plain beeswax offered many of the benefits people want from a lip balm, Brad experimented with a plethora of different recipes until he finally hit on what would become the Portland Bee Balm product line.

Using the resources and skills he had on hand, Brad set out to get his product to market. but as anyone who has launched a new consumer product can attest – gaining initial market traction is a slog.

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The bee balm displays

But rather than be too daunted to move, they took the creative approach to get the bee balm on the shelves, all while Brad was still working full time at an elementary school.

“An artist friend and I spent an evening drawing up a label that included the city skyline, Mt. Hood and a giant honey bee. We had this shrunk down and printed on kraft brown stickers. Once the brand was designed, I got creative with display case building. Using a bundle of cedar shingles and hours of work in the basement of the shared house we lived in, I would build many different designs and offer them to stores for free. I would also offer to take measurements and custom build a display for any space in their store. People were very generous with their time and knowledge. They were the experts in this area and I would say, “You know your store best and I am good woodworker. I’ll build you anything you want to fit any location in your store for free; do you have any ideas?”

This personal outreach and engagement provided the initial market traction for Portland Bee Balm, but the true value was discovered through the conversations he had with store owners and buyers, as the display experiments and conversations with them would prove invaluable as Brad learned how the world of retail operated.

“My market research was mostly conversations with store owners and body care buyers. I tried not to do too much talking, I asked a ton of questions about how the industry works, how their department worked, what sold well, why did they think it sold well, what was the most valuable real estate in the store, and on and on. I would listen for as long as they were willing to talk – eventually they would have to get back to work. A little honesty went a long way – I told them I was new at this and had no idea what I was doing. Any advice they could give me would be greatly appreciated.”

But even with such an outward approach, there was the lack of confidence and knowledge so often felt by first time founders.

“I was rightly afraid that I was coming across as someone who had no idea what they were doing. I felt like people were doing me a huge favor every time they bought my product. It took me a long time to gain the confidence that I was providing something of significant value and they needed me as much as I needed them.”

In addition to the sense of fear of the unknown, there were production issues that created their own challenges and opportunities for knowledge gathering.

“We also had many production issues; a label that didn’t stay on the tubes and displays that did not function correctly.  Luckily I was able to encounter and solve these problems while Portland Bee Balm was still very small because when you are forced to recall all your product because your labels are coming off, it’s nice to only be in three stores. “

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Raw beeswax – each one of these weighs hundreds of pounds.

Brad started to hone in on an initial sales strategy as these early issues were ironed out. He’d would get on Google Maps and walk the street view guy down Alberta, Hawthorne, Mississippi, NW 21st avenue, and NW 23rd avenue. From the look of the storefront, he’d decide who might consider selling Portland Bee Balm and then drop them a cold call with the very soft ask of “Can I stop by and give them some free samples of the lip balm I make?”. As with anything new, it was pretty intimidating the first few times, but like anything it got easier and he got better.

As the number of stores started to grow, the product sourcing started to become a focus of the business. Brad started out using the beeswax from his own hives, but quickly surpassed what he could harvest from those sources. But as a beekeeper himself and the fact that the word ‘Bee’ was right on the label, it was important to have an authentic connection.

“To start with, most balms don’t want to use much beeswax because it’s such an expensive ingredient. But I wanted the recipe to have as much beeswax as possible and to this day, every tube of balm is over one third beeswax.”

In addition to the amount of beeswax in each tube of balm, there also was the fact that their tag line when they started was ‘supporting local bees and their keepers.’ By placing bees first in the tag line, it was a clever way to put the focus on them. A focus that Brad knew had to be more than just keeping his own hives and buying wax from other local beekeepers, because if that was the extent of that belief, it would feel more like marketing as opposed to the truth.

But the truth won out, and started a program they hope to grow as the company does.

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Brad beekeeping

“We started giving away hives each spring. We partnered with Bee Thinking to buy the hives, then we get beekeeping equipment and a package of honeybees with a queen. We give these hives away to people in the community that want to be beekeepers, but can’t afford the significant startup cost. We gave away 4 hives this last spring, our most ever. We don’t do a great job of publicizing and getting press about the giveaways, but it makes us feel good and we know we are not BS’ing anyone when we tell them we support local bees and their keepers. “

Scaling up production and retailers

As the number of retailers grew, there was a conscious effort to not jump up too many rungs on the ladder too soon.

The independent gift shops prepared Brad for the Co-Ops, and the Co-Ops prepared him for New Seasons. He realized there was so much to learn; from lingo, jargon and acronyms to expectations regarding terms, legal, insurance and labeling requirements.

“If you jump too far, it will show and they will probably not want to work with you as it will be clear to them that you are out of your depth and holding your hand through everything will be a huge time sink. The co-ops and New Seasons were great, they helped me through a lot of things, but it had to be clear that I had a base level of knowledge and experience before they brought me onto their shelves.”

But more than just getting on the shelves, Portland Bee Balm became one of the top sellers in  the health and beauty category within the stores it was featured. Safe to say Brad and Anika were very surprised.

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Custom retail display

“I just had my head down and was focused on getting a little bit better with each iteration of displays or labels or production processes. When I looked up we had something that was working pretty well and people were responding to.”

The heads down approach to building a product proved to be the right model for growth, but in terms of personal growth, reaching out to the Portland area entrepreneur and maker world for feedback, support, and advice was critical, and that community was helpful in a myriad of ways.

The community provided a consistent push to keep evolving, evaluating, iterating, exploring and taking risks, which has helped keep Brad moving forward onto the next challenge – challenges that include more than just product refinement and scaling.

“The emotional support has been helpful as well. I’m a solo founder so there is no one at Portland Bee Balm with whom I can share large scale hopes and fears. A group of other founders can fill that role, as there are so many similarities across companies and industries.

The community’s most valuable contribution has been the expansion of perceived possibility. Everything looks impossible until you see someone else do it – like breaking the 4 minute mile. I did not come from a world where people started, owned, bought and sold companies. Successful company founders were generous with their time and advice. I was able to see that there was almost infinite room for growth and increased positive impact. Bringing these large aspirational goals into the realm of possibility has been the greatest gift from this community.”

The development of Cascadia Candles

As Portland bee Balm continued to grow, there was the constant noise around expanding the product line, and the never ending product ideas from outside voices. But much of Brad’s success with Portland bee Balm can be attributed to the ability to resist taking on too much advice, and concentrating on trying to continually improve on what they do best.

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Cascadia Candles packaging

Creative energies, however, do need an outlet. With the need to tweak the design and product slowing down, Brad got restless, and the restless mind led to the latest product line.

“Candles are an obvious choice; we are surrounded by towers of beeswax in this office, as it’s a main ingredient in our balms. However I could never find myself inspired to make beeswax pillars, tapers, votives or tealights – there are already many great companies doing this very well.“

The restless creative energy continued to burn within Brad and at some point he began to think that maybe the shape of the candle could convey the identity of the brand. He thought about releasing a Portland Bee Balm candle, which led to ideas like a raindrop, a tall boy beer can and Big Pink. And while those ideas would have no doubt created some noise and traction on shelves, his mind eventually settled on a more iconic representation of the brand and the Pacific NW.

“Eventually I thought about Mount Tabor and it’s reservoirs. I thought the reservoirs could be in blue wax and it would look striking. As I started thinking about creating a 3D model of Mount Tabor, it became clear that Mount Hood would be a much more recognizable choice. Once I started going down that route I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of modeling and printing 3D geographic features. I felt this new company would be limited if it was under Portland Bee Balm and it needed to be its own entity – Cascadia Candles.”

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Mt. Hood candle

Once the direction was set, Brad set out to do what he does best: do simple things really well.

He dived into learning about every aspect of candle making, including elements most people take for granted when lighting candles and navigating the intricacies of 3D modeling and printing. What seemed like a simple idea quickly became something that consumed his creative energy and led him to not just simply create a candle, but actually learn how to make a unique product.

“You have no idea how many different wick materials exist out there; each with their own burn properties, and how many different sizes they all come in. We tested wicks for days and days. For the candles themselves there are a lot of steps and each one is an opportunity to make mistakes. The topographical data gets transformed into a surface – that surfaces get transformed into a 3D digital model – that 3D model gets edited and sent to the 3D printer. Once the model in printed and exists in the real world, it has be carefully prepared and then cast in silicone. You have no idea how many different types of silicone exist out there! The silicone mold is then removed, and prepared to receive the beeswax. Don’t forget to adjust for the pour temperature and shrinkage of the beeswax as it cools. How do you get the wick in there? These were all great problems and I was able to come up with creative solutions that I am proud of. There will be way more problems to tackle going forward; they never end, but this is what makes the work interesting.”

With the candle design dialed in and production ready to begin, Brad is turning to Kickstarter for support of the project, instead of reaching out to the network of retailers he has built up through Portland Bee Balm.

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Mt. St. Helens candle

Kickstarter offered the best platform to not only share this new product with a large and diverse audience, but it also allows him to gauge if there is truly enough interest in the concept to take the next steps.

Backers generously agree to wait months for their rewards. This will allow us to build out our production capacity to be roughly in line with demand. These candles also feel much more at home on the internet than lip balm. People are online looking for a new, unique gift or object that speaks to them.”

And if the candles do speak to a large customer base, Brad knows that will come with new challenges and opportunities for both brands.

“I think the biggest challenges will involve people. Making sure everyone is communicating, on the same page and feeling supported is happening right now in our 4 person Portland Bee Balm team. If things grow very quickly and we need to add more than a few people I think the biggest challenge will be to maintain the culture we have created. It’s a flat hierarchy with open books and no secrets. Everyone knows everything that is going on with the company and we are all in it together.”

Being transparent and open are the core values that Brad has built Portland Bee Balm on, and will continue to do so as Cascadia Candles comes into the brand fold.

And what would he say if he could go back and give his former self some advice?

“Quit your job sooner, it’s going to work out. Try to relax. Don’t compare yourself to other people that founded a better, faster, cooler, sexier, bigger company. Your instincts are good, Brad’s Bomb Balm would have been a dumb name.”

For more information, visit the Cascadia Candles Kickstarter page and visit Portland Bee Balm at www.portlandbeebalm.com and follow them on facebook,  instagram and twitter

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Grayling Jewelry designs a sparkling merger of business and community

Grayling Built Oregon Grayling copyright Nicholas Peter Wilson

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

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

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

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

Big scary leap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portland helps make (and grow) the maker

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

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

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Katy Kippen (photo by Jeremy Kirby)

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

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

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

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

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

Reed LaPlant Studio grows from the root up

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For a man who makes his living from wood, it’s no coincidence his business vision comes from his roots. Raised in Wisconsin with a deep love of nature and a respect for American-made products, custom furniture maker and designer Reed LaPlant routinely carries those early lessons and experiences into his business.

Even the business itself, Reed LaPlant Studio, emerged like a new shoot from LaPlant’s early work as an architect – his first foray into a business that combined both design and build. But before it was ever a plan for business, LaPlant’s values of sustainability and artistic interests served a practical purpose.

“As a very poor college kid, I rarely had the money to purchase materials for any projects for the neglected, roach-infested house I rented,” he says. “I made a bookcase from scrap lumber and some old windows I found in an abandoned movie theater in town. The windows had been brought as trash by someone not wanting to go all the way to the town dump.”

He didn’t know then that someday he’d make his living making furniture that, while decidedly more upscale, uses the concepts of sustainability of his youth. LaPlant, 46, says Reed LaPlant Studio uses only U.S.-grown and made materials and minimizes consumption and waste.

“This is not a marketing effort. It’s simply what we’ve been doing since the inception of our business,” LaPlant says. “I think my rural, blue collar, Wisconsin roots have always informed my choices. We also always used what was either found, dismantled, or cultivated on our property. My cousin and I built an A-frame fort cobbled from stashed plywood scraps, firewood, and used nails.”

LaPlant was a manufacturing “locavore” before such a term existed.

“I do feel very strongly about it, and this is my small, quiet way of trying to do something about it,” he says.

Both sides of design and build

Reed LaPlant Studio in Northeast Portland makes custom furniture in a unique way. Much like an architect’s process of designing a custom house for a client, LaPlant emphasizes his consultations with the client to develop furniture that expresses their tastes and best fills their space.image5
“Having been in architecture for so long, I really like to design for the space, and with a clear picture of the client’s aesthetic sense and lifestyle.”

LaPlant has seamlessly merged both his talents and interest in design and building throughout his diverse career.

“I made my first piece of furniture when I was about 15, under the guidance of the same industrial arts instructor that told me, ‘Kid, you need to be an architect.’ So I’ve probably always strongly associated the two.”

While starting out as an architect, LaPlant built his first pieces of furniture. Now, with a growing business largely focused on manufacturing, he still takes on the occasional architectural job, he says. The two remain intertwined just as they were when he started out.

“And, as many know, architects generally make very little money,” he says. “So I made my first piece of ‘sellable’ furniture out of construction site cast-off’s I accumulated during my design/build years.”

The evolution of a craftsman

Reed LaPlant Studio first opened in Atlanta as a spin-off from LaPlant’s first company, Blue Shoe, which he co-owned with a partner. Blue Shoe combined LaPlant’s design skills with furniture making. The furniture emerged as the strongest plank of the diverse business, he says. Eventually, he set out on his own and opened the studio.

As the Great Recession smothered the country’s economy, LaPlant had already set in motion a move to Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children. It turned out to be fortuitous timing.

“We relocated to Portland right when the economy tanked, so I had to rebuild my local identity anyway,” he says. “I can’t say I necessarily felt it, because I would have experienced it anyway. When you relocate across the country like that it is to be expected. It wasn’t too bad.”
The business grew through its normal fits and starts, with commissions widely fluctuating.

“I’d have four orders one month and 22 the next,” he says.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 8.43.10 PMThe ups and downs of commission-based work remains a mystery, he says, though overall the business continues to grow. Seasonal factors come into play, people don’t spend much around tax time, and dining room tables sell better in the fall. But by and large he is content to ride the ebb and flow.

His best month came just as the grip of the recession eased, bringing in “a record-crushing 52 orders” that February.

“It’s like people had been holding on to their money for so long, they just finally let go and it came on like a tidal wave,” he says.

Until recently, LaPlant operated the business himself and would hire craftsman as needed. But as the company grew, he decided to focus his energies where he is best suited: making furniture. He hired an operations manager and a marketing manager so he can be making products “about 90 percent of the time”.

A piece can be made in as few as 15 hours,  but most require between 25 and 45 hours.

“I have spent as many as 200 or more hours on a single piece, but that’s pretty rare,” he says.

Like all artists, he has his favorites, a Pullman credenza and a Boochever bench.

“Each of these designs arrived in one of those rare moments when calm collides with notion, and pencil and paper happen to be in hand”.

Customer process

LaPlant noted his first step with a customer is to “invite myself over,” just as he has long done with architectural clients to get to know their tastes, the spaces they want to fill, and how his work can be compliment their lifestyle and style.

“I try to glean a sense of the potential client’s likes and dislikes, and of their personality,” he says.

With business increasingly coming via the website from non-local customers, LaPlant continues this personal touch through electronic connections.

“That’s a bit of a bummer for me, but the rest of the process is the same.”image10

Because of his growing portfolio, customers will often pick a piece directly from the website, which will still be made by hand and personalized as needed. The process typically takes between eight and 12 weeks. He is surprised that many customers prefer to choose a piece that’s already been made rather than have something personally designed, but believes it affirms the quality of the work.

“Although I love designing new pieces,” he says, “I have come to a point where I appreciate and find great pleasure in work of diminished brain strain and stress levels — work that comes with making pieces with which I am deeply familiar.”

And the greatest satisfaction? When the furniture fills the home of a satisfied customer.

“A client in New York sent an e-mail in which she quoted her husband’s immediate response to their new table,” he says. “He took the lord’s name in vain and dropped the f-bomb in the midst of dubbing the table ‘art.’ My joy and laughter hovered for a long time with that one. I still laugh and smile when I think about it.”

The rise of craft and maker movement

LaPlant is well aware that his long, hard business evolution has brought him into the middle of a dramatic business change. With the rise of the DIY (do-it-yourself) projects and increased demand for artisan craftsmanship, both competition and attention have grown dramatically in just the past couple of years.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.12.56 PM

The Maker Movement, as it is called, has attracted any number of new budding entrepreneurial craftsmen.

“With so many people able to freely share ideas and spread inspiration across the web, makers are forming communities of their own, and more people around the world are becoming influenced to be makers,” wrote Brit Moran, founder of Brit+Co.

“I firmly believe there is this incredible creative energy that comes with this ‘maker movement,’ he says, “and there are a lot of makers interested in collaboration. And it’s great.”

The online craft selling company Etsy now has more than one million artisan sellers that generate nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue. The potential market for the maker movement and the expansive level of competition are evident.

For LaPlant, it’s emblematic of the pros and cons of any business.

“People are much more broadly aware, if not of the direct economic impact, of the presence and viability of purchasing or commissioning locally. And that’s great,” he says, “However, from the perspective of a father of two and an owner of a business in a notoriously difficult field, the new-coming competition is a little unnerving…that’s the struggle of every business.”

In the end, LaPlant knows he will stay true to his roots, his unique blend of both design and build, and a lifelong commitment to sustainability and to continued artistic work that affords him both a business and an expression of his talent. If LaPlant is anything, it’s rooted.

“I am a devout believer in the notion that everyone deserves, in every way, a crack at earning a living doing what they love,” he says. “I do it, and I wish this experience upon everyone who wants it.”

 For more information, visit Reed LaPlant Studio, follow then on twitter and instagram, or like them on facebookScreen Shot 2015-05-25 at 8.44.10 PM

A “really cool” mission drives Bob’s Red Mill

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After a full career in the auto business and launching an unlikely milling business in Redding, California, Bob Moore hit upon his true calling in Oregon — and in so doing made hundreds of millions of dollars after his 60th birthday — by selling flour and grains.

“I’m a good salesman,” says the man whose picture adorns Bob’s Red Mill products shipped to virtually every continent on earth.

But he doesn’t pull his punches when talking about the Bob’s Red Mill product he wishes you didn’t buy.

“Do you sell white flour?” he is asked over lunch among his customers at the Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Store and Restaurant.

“I do. I can’t get around it,” Moore says with a sigh. “We’ve made a high quality, higher protein white flour. It’s better. It’s unbleached and organic. But I still don’t think people should eat it. They should eat whole grains.”

The namesake of Bob’s Red Mill started this business venture with a simple passion to eat better and live longer — while helping others do likewise. He had no expectations that his small mill with a handful of employees would become a global company with more than a hundred million dollars in annual revenue against zero debt.

When you start a business nearing retirement age you really don’t think quite so grandiose, he says. He pauses at the memory to consider all the turns his life took.

“It’s pretty cool. I’m very lucky.”

Catch phrase

You can’t spend ten minutes with Moore and not hear words like “amazing” and “cool.” He brims with optimism and enthusiasm for everything around him. If Bob Moore, 86, has a catch phrase it’s oddly the colloquialism of a teenage Valley Girl.

“It’s really cool,” he says about everything from his new 1.2 million-dollar manufacturing machine to playing side-by-side pianos in the Red Mill store every Friday with his Sidekick, Institutional Memory, Keeper of the Schedule, and Executive Secretary Nancy Garner.

P1030056He says it so much that those around him say it too.

“It’s really cool,” Garner said about the plant’s technology during a tour earlier in the day.

Moore’s corner office is equal parts working office and museum. Piles of papers, proposals and the common detritus of a busy CEO co-mingle with knickknacks and memorabilia from his diverse life and interests in an eclectic mix of paperwork, memories, and passions that aides in the telling of his story. As Moore recalls the sixty-year business career that brought him to this point of wealth and acclaim, he routinely relies on visual points of reference on the walls, the shelves, the tables and his desk to aid in the telling.

He points to an old library book with the plastic cover and “property of” sticker still affixed. The book, John Goffe’s Mill by George Woodbury, remains a treasured artifact.

“That was the key to this whole thing right now. Honestly,” he says.

But his orderly mind doesn’t want to get ahead of itself. Bob circles back in his memory, further back before the mills, when cars were his thing. He struggled as a gas station owner early in his life, then worked as a manager for auto centers in the Sacramento area. He started reading other books, he says. He walks over to another part of the office where he has a small library of 1950s and 1960s health food books, including Let’s Get Well by Adale Davis.

“These people seemed to grasp the impact of devaluing food,” Moore said. Davis’ book, he says, motivated him to change his life entirely.

It was the 1960s, a full half-century before terms like “foodie” or “localvore” became commonplace. All of Sacramento had two health food stores, Moore recalls. But Moore’s wife Charlee “started cooking with that stuff, the whole grains, and gee, it was good.”

Moore quit smoking and became a closet health-food nut, a passion that grew as he moved his family to the then rural community of Redding, California. Health food options were “pretty slim pickins’” he said.

The first mill

JC Penney in Redding recruited Moore to run its auto center. Moore interviewed while Charlee scoured the area with the couple’s children. They met back up with mutual good news.

“I said, ‘I got the job.’ She said, ‘I got a house.’ It was just like God was speaking to us. It was pretty amazing,” Moore recalled.

While working for JC Penney, Moore read John Goffe’s Mill and was hooked.

“It was really cool,” he said, of the story of an archeologist who took over the family mill.

“He didn’t know a thing about it,” Moore says. “He didn’t know anything about selling, but I was good at selling, and then he didn’t know a thing about milling either. How much success he had, I don’t know. But he had a lot of fun.”

Moore decided to send letters all over the country in search of a mill. He sent 16 letters to various mill owners.

“I got a letter back from just one of them” he says, his hand slapping the table with excitement. “He just inspired me. He and his brother had a mill in Muncie, Indiana… his name was…”

His calls into the adjourning office for Garner asking the name of his “inspiration.” A man who has inspired hundreds around his plant has no shortage of inspirations himself.

“Dewey Sheets,” Garner says. Moore enthusiastically agrees.

Inspired by Sheets, Moore bought milling equipment from around the country, at a time when mills were not only out of fashion, but closing down.

Moore points to another photo, a picture of 2,000 square foot Quonset hut. Inviting two sons to join him in the business as equal partners, they launched Moore’s first mill.500_102293015513_6902_n

“We all worked other jobs,” he said. “I worked two more years at Penny’s. It’s crazy how it worked out. It was really cool.”

An old advertisement from the early days hangs on a cluttered wall, offering 3-lbs of 7-grain cereal for $1.49 and other “high-fiber foods” like Colorado Popcorn and Brown Rice.

That business continues under the ownership of Moore’s children to this day, in part as a vendor for Bob’s Red Mill.

“I’m very pleased with the boys,” he says.

A calling

In 1976 he and Charlee decided to retire and go to seminary together. They moved to Portland to study Greek and Hebrew at what was then the Western Evangelical Seminary.

One day while walking home he saw an abandoned mill, re-igniting his passion for milling.

“I just love this business,” he says, pointing to a photo of the first Red Mill before it was painted red.

Soon he bought it. Soon after that some of his fellow seminary students were helping him run it.

It felt more like a calling than a job. For the man who retired to study Biblical languages, his calling was forged from the pressure of millstones grinding grains into healthy foods. He had to choose between studying scriptures or selling flour. He left school and returned to business full time. Bob’s Red Mill began.

“Everything was an inspiration,” he said. “It was so different. But ever since we started this thing we were successful.”

500_102293035513_7706_nThe business went well with its wood floored retail store and Moore still milling grain. An early photo of the first employees hangs on another part of his cluttered office. Two of those pictured still occupy offices in the plant, having grown along with the company.

That commitment to people met a stern test a few years later in 1988 when Moore’s thriving mill burnt to the ground after an arsonist set it ablaze. He could have cashed the insurance check and walked away, and even return to his Biblical studies if he desired.

He thought about it, he admits, but only briefly. The mission for both his customers and his employees and his passion for healthy food ended all thought of retirement. Bob’s Red Mill moved to a larger location just a few miles away—though the business was leveled, Moore was able to salvage the three stone mills from the fire—and the business exploded on the national, and now global, marketplace.

The first page

Moore said when he started Bob’s Red Mill he wanted to do one thing he hadn’t done in past businesses. He wanted to apply Biblical standards like The Golden Rule, The Apostle Paul’s teaching on money, or most importantly, the “first page of the Bible” that talks about the Earth’s abundance of seed and herb, all of which God deemed “good.”

“I began to take it seriously,” he says.

He describes how the industrialized food economy changed the basic nature of seed, and altered the grain by removing the bran, for example. He remains inspired by returning people to the food that God called “good” on the first page of the Bible.

“Of all the things I could do, that is something,” he said. “Being on the first page of the Bible is cool. That’s the business I am in… I’m cooking on some different kind of burners here. I’m producing whole grain food for a different kind of reason than I did when I was in Redding. It was more than a way to make a living.”

It was, and remains, a mission.10550047_10154376414815514_3129476389115831218_o

Grinding it out

Perhaps the earnest nature of Moore’s mission inspires his hands-on approach to the business. This is no figurehead. He shoves his hands into the bags of flour as they are filled, inspecting quality. He asks questions of employees with the intensity of a prosecutor, but greets them with equal enthusiasm.

Whatever can be done under Moore’s supervision, the better, it seems, from the in-house test kitchen where Moore samples gluten-free cookies, to the print shop that churns out labels in diverse languages like Farsi and Hindi, to the gluten-free testing lab where lab technician Ron Crippen tests every gluten-free product that comes into Bob’s Red Mill.

Moore stresses the company used to send samples to a lab for testing. It wasn’t fast enough or as reliable as he wanted, so he set up the lab, along with a sealed off processing plant separate from all the other products.DSC02991 (1)

Moore said they only take products from those who only do gluten-free.

“It’s not going to work if they do a glutenous product. It’s just impossible” he said.

Crippin tests roughly 200 samples a day.

“It doesn’t take much—one little dust grain—to make it spike,” he said.

If it needs to be done on a regular basis, Moore wants it done in his plant under his watchful eye. Even at 86 that hasn’t changed. His casual demeanor is nudged out of the way temporarily when questioning an employee about a sink for the kitchen that hasn’t yet been installed. No detail is too small for Moore’s intense interest and inspection.

This attention to detail explains why Meghan Keely now works at Bob’s Red Mill as the designated Safe Quality Food Practitioner, who ensures all standards across the globe are met and exceeded.

P1030066“It’s us saying no, we’re not going to maintain the status quo,” Moore said of recently creating the position Keely now holds, “but we’re going to go above and beyond.”

An entire room is designated for company uniforms which have the company logo of Bob on the left chest and the employees name on the right.

“I came from gas stations. I like uniforms,” Moore said. “I wanted the place to look nice.”

These details, the excellence, the focus is what has made the business thrive and profit, but the mission to promote healthy living—that old first page of the Bible that God called good–is never far from Moore’s mind.

“Bob has a passion about healthy foods for the whole world. That has led to prioritizing the education and outreach,” says Lori Sobelson, director of corporate outreach.

“We want to change the world,” Moore says simply, still very much a businessman and a missionary for healthy living.

“It’s pretty cool,” he says again.

Indeed.

To be continued…

For more on Bob’s Red Mill, visit www.bobsredmill.com, like them on facebook, and follow them on instagram, Pinterest , or twitter.  

Finding a market at the market

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Portland’s artisan ice cream craze all started, really, with love for a local farmers market.

In 2004, Lisa Herlinger was working at Milo’s City Cafe on Northeast Broadway in Portland when she started doing a farmers market booth with the Portland Chefs Collaborative.

“This is so awesome,” she thought. “I love being on the site of the farmers market.”

Herlinger loved it so much, in fact, that she began racking her brain for a way to participate on a more regular basis. The problem was that she’d gone to culinary school and had no intention of becoming a farmer.

“I thought, okay, what can I do?” Herlinger said. “What can I do to sell something at the farmers market? Because I love it and I’m not going to be a farmer.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.00.38 PMAnd then an idea struck, inspired by childhood memories: ice cream sandwiches. But not just any ice cream sandwiches—artisan ice cream and cookies made by hand from locally-sourced ingredients. A look around the market revealed no ice cream, so Herlinger applied as a vendor and got in.

Milo’s had taught Herlinger how to make stovetop ice cream, and now they allowed her to use their commercially licensed kitchen in the evenings to start her business. In the beginning, Herlinger did everything herself, from picking up ingredients at dairies and coffee roasters and farms to crafting her ice cream base and baking cookies to selling at the market.

“I was working literally crazy, crazy hours,” Herlinger confessed. “And I’d make like 75 sandwiches a week and sell them at the market.”

But all that work paid off: The ice cream sandwiches were a hit, and Ruby Jewel was born.

As the summer wound down, fans of Herlinger’s creations wanted to know how they could get their hands on their favorite treats during the market’s off-season. In the midst of doing research on the state of artisan ice cream sandwiches in the commercial market — result: there weren’t any to speak of — Herlinger entered and won the Food Innovation Center’s first Food Fight, netting herself $2,500 worth of services from FIC including use of their kitchen, access to their packaging lab, and advice from food experts.

From there, Ruby Jewel was able to launch into grocery stores such as New Seasons Markets and Whole Foods Markets in Oregon and Washington (with Herlinger acting as both ice cream maker and salesperson). The following years had Herlinger hiring her first employees—including sister Becky and production gal Alice—setting up a dedicated production facility, and opening an ice cream shop on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. In 2014, Ruby Jewel has two scoop shops and can be found in grocery stores in Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

Over ten years into it, they’re about to outgrow their current production space. Herlinger has also just hired her first salaried employee, an operations manager.

“I spread myself way too thin,” Herlinger admits. “But with these new additions, I can focus my energy on product development and sales. We’re definitely at the next stage of growth.”

Growth, indeed. From local farmers market to international grocery chain, Ruby Jewel is a story of passion, creative thinking, and collaboration — oh, and ice cream. Let’s not forget the ice cream.

For more information, visit http://www.rubyjewel.com, follow Ruby Jewel on Twitter, like Ruby Jewel on Facebook, or follow Ruby Jewel 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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