From time to time, Medicine Show will profile a business or organization we think is doing interesting things in the community. This is the first.
Full disclosure: I have never built a thing. I thought about making a bench once, a nice spot to sit and put on your shoes. I did not. Last year I had an idea for a stylish height-adjustable desktop — a less ugly variation of the Varidesk. I didn’t build that either. I don’t even like jigsaw puzzles.
Which is why I’m always impressed when I see true artisans at work. It’s tough enough building a business. Tougher still when that business is about building quality things. Yourself. With your hands.
That’s where Portland Made comes in. It’s hard to pin down with the usual nouns — a collective, a kind of incubator, a retailer, a maker community.
So we’ll let them do it: ‘Bound by the belief that we are stronger together, we offer a series of events and resources designed to help you grow your network, build your business, and sell your goods.’
Jim Hassert (whom you might know from Grovemade) recently bought Portland Made with his wife and co-owner, Sarah Toor. And like its maker members, he has a vision for how they can create something essential, something thoughtful, something better. And if it gets messy, well, that’s part of the process, too.
I sat down with Jim to find out what makes Portland Made work.
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Michael Foreman: I think you said your first gig in Portland was in manufacturing. Has that always been a passion of yours? What got you interested in this space?
Jim Hassert: My first gig in Portland was actually working at Jefferson High School through Americorp in 2001. I was a tutor and mentor with the I Have a Dream Foundation … a cool nonprofit. Trying to get kids to college basically, that maybe wouldn’t get there without some extra help.
I was looking for what to do next, and that’s when I found Resource Revival. That was my first maker business — products made from recycled bike parts. What’s now called upcycling. For example, we collected 30-lb boxes of greasy chains from bike shops all over the country … cleaned them up, and then we’d make something new out of it. Like a picture frame or a bottle opener.
MF: Was this something you’d always been interested in?
JH: I was attracted to Resource Revival because it was a natural extension of something I was already doing, which was collecting trash off the side of the road and making art from it. I’d collect bumpers and TVs … I brought a toilet home to my parents’ house once to make something out of it. My mom wouldn’t let it in the house.
But I’ve always been into collecting used things and making something new. And once I got to Resource Revival, I realized that a small business in itself is kind of this giant art project.
It’s also more measurable. With a P&L you can actually quantify, in some ways, how you’re doing. Which is satisfying coming out of education. They try to quantify in education, but you can’t. You’re just giving emotion that you hope will come back in some way, but it’s usually way off in the future … In small business, if you have a good idea, you can reap the results the next day or the same day — immediate feedback and immediate payoff. Because you made something faster, or made it better, or made something new that no one had thought of before, and now someone’s willing to pay you for it.
MF: It’s interesting that you said that — small business as an art project — because I was just talking to one of our web design partners about this. He made the comment that everything is design. Even the really technical stuff, the code, is design at some level … and that extends to structuring a small business or business processes. There’s an art to it.
JH: I think it’s all about design, defined as: What’s the intention? The intended purpose for this thing. To me the process of running a small business is taking away everything that doesn’t have a stated, intended purpose that aligns with what you’re trying to do. Which is a lot like sculpture or art or editing or writing …
MF: When you first began volunteering at Portland Made, what was the most surprising thing to you? Anything that upturned your expectations?
JH: The reason I started volunteering at Portland Made was to start having conversations with more makers and business owners. But certainly I saw that most folks who were just starting out were experiencing some kind of struggle. It goes back to my education experience and how I like teaching, helping …
A lot of people get into these businesses and have that kind of design mind, but haven’t really thought about the business aspect. So being able to share systems or ways of doing things, is why I got involved.
I guess the main thing I was surprised at … my perception of Portland Made was … and maybe this comes across a little negative … but my perception from outside was that it was a really well-oiled machine, and my surprise was that it wasn’t. And as an operations person, someone who’s really sensitive toward organization and follow-through and focus, I was initially kind of discouraged.
MF: Is that what started the conversation around you buying in?
JH: Yeah … it checked so many boxes for me. I’m not really someone who starts businesses from scratch. I like to take something where I see potential, that isn’t living up to that potential yet, and that’s what I’m attracted to. That’s where I can deliver the most value … It’s less about bringing an idea no one’s ever seen before, and more about, here’s this thing that has potential and if executed better, could really make a difference.
Because it was dealing with makers, which is where I’d spent so much time and energy, I saw how it could be a vehicle to deliver what I was interested in, in the first place — having a lot of conversations with a lot of different people.
So I started talking to Kelley Roy, the founder, last November.
Portland Made is shaping a community of makers, but also professionals who support them. Through its Preferred Advisor Network (PAN), vendors consult with members on legal needs, operations, marketing, fulfillment and more. So as the community grows, it’s evolving its own ecosystem.
The needs vary — members produce candles, ceramics, books, prints, wine, spirits, shoes, furniture, skincare products, amps and salsa — but the challenges are universal.
MF: Portland Made isn’t really an ‘incubator’ in the way most people think about it, I guess. What would you call this model? How would you describe what Portland Made does?
JH: Portland Made, throughout its history, has tried to be a lot of different things. And a lot of those things are already being done by other organizations pretty well. So when I came on the scene, I wanted to focus on a couple of things and do those really well, things that weren’t already being done in and around the community.
I’ve boiled it down to three things: Help makers in Portland expand their networks, grow their businesses, and sell their goods. On a monthly basis, we’ll present anywhere between five and eight events that are each designed to do one of those things. You’ll either meet other makers doing similar stuff … or learn something new about how to better run your business … or you show up and sell something.
A lot of times we’ll team up with other organizations to co-market, co-produce, co-present.
MF: You have a new program that supports this. How’s that worked out?
JH: Yes … PAN … our Preferred Advisor Network. The idea behind PAN … which was in the works before I came around, and we kept it because it had some good momentum … is to take every facet of your business — whether it’s operations or fulfillment or HR or branding and design — and Portland Made vets a consultant or expert that represents each one of those facets.
It’s a jumping off point for members. We can point you to a person we’ve worked with before and say, ‘It may not be the perfect fit for your business, but they know the pain points of makers, and they’ll get where you’re coming from.’
We have around 10 preferred advisors so far. We’re also working on a new website, which I hope will become the big value that we provide to our members. We’ll actually be driving traffic to your website. It’s tangible. When you’re someone who’s bootstrapping, you see that those metrics are easy to measure, versus more intangible knowledge.
MF: Yes … like how does a two- or three-person business measure brand awareness? You don’t have resources to do what big brands do — focus groups, wide-ranging surveys, etc. Traffic to your site is a clear, simple starting point.
JH: Right … Even brand awareness on Instagram isn’t traffic to your website, necessarily.
So I’m excited. We’re going to reposition the front-end to be almost an e-commerce site. It will showcase products and brands … So anyone who wants to buy local, support local goods and local makers, they can go to portlandmade.com and have fun exploring the brands and products that are made here.
We’ll also have a member login area … When you log in as a member, on the back-end, we’ll present vendors or service providers for members. So the same basic functionality, a sort of e-commerce layout, and you can go to a vendor’s ‘product’ page, get their contact information, and all of that.
We’d love to have it up by the beginning of the year — January 1, 2018.
MF: So jumping back to makers’ pain points … The range of products your members create is pretty impressive. Where do their needs and challenges overlap? And what are the unique challenges in supporting that variety of businesses?
JH: It’s a bit challenging when you get into the fine details, but they’re all businesses. And every business has inventory … they all have customers they need to acquire … they all have customer issues they need to deal with … products they need to produce and ship. So when you break it down to the basic parts, those challenges all look pretty much the same.
There are obviously differences. A food and beverage company has to think about a certain kind of licensing and distribution … there’s B2B versus B2C … brick-and-mortar versus online. But when you model what’s happening, the workflow, it looks really similar.
People tend to fall into two camps: They need sales and marketing help, or they need operations help.
MF: Does Portland Made rely on outside investment, or is all revenue via membership fees and product sales?
JH: Right now, my wife Sarah and I own it, and we don’t really pay ourselves yet. But we can see the endgame where it becomes a sustainable, profitable business … and again, that’s one of the challenges that attracted me to it. It will probably never be the kind of thing that’s raking in cash, honestly. Like our members, we want a cool lifestyle business that aligns with our values, that’s doing good in our community, and that pays us for our work eventually. That’s pretty much success defined for us.
There are a lot of exciting things happening at Portland Made, there just aren’t enough hours in the day right now. But it’ll happen. It takes time.
Like its one-time sister company, ADX, Portland Made champions creativity and collaboration. And gives members a sense of ownership and purpose that’s often missing from our working lives.
It’s that uniquely Portland attitude — create something surprising and new from hard work, persistence, a few rough sketches, and whatever raw materials happen to be at hand.
MF: So let’s go big … Portland’s always had this kind of maker culture. But some big-brained types — historians and economists — think we’re nearing the end of the corporate age and / or full employment, thanks to automation and lack of investment … Where does Portland Made fit into that? Is this a model that could fill the gaps?
JH: I think so … A lot of our members, their businesses started around 2008, which isn’t a coincidence. It’s when they got laid off from their full-time jobs. They finally decided, ‘Well, I have nothing to lose … Might as well jump off and start that thing I’ve been thinking about.’
So as that happens more and more, it’s not really a choice anymore. It’s not really a jump anymore. You’ve just sort of been pushed off the cliff.
The people who started these businesses, too, aren’t the kind who are gonna sit around and collect unemployment and twiddle their thumbs. They’re productive, creative, energetic people that want to be doing something — putting that energy to use on whatever their vision or dream is.
I think it’s sort of the natural progression of things. It is a little bit of a return to the cottage industries.
One thing that’s unique to the maker scene especially … it’s not a like startup, where you have this idea, and you’re trying to get all these backers and people to fund it — hockey-stick growth and then exit. It’s more of a lifestyle they’re trying to build. So you have this vision and these values, and you just want to create something other people will value enough to support your lifestyle.
MF: What are your long-term goals for Portland Made? Is there an area you haven’t fully explored that you think, ‘Maybe we should try this?’
JH: I’m always looking at other business opportunities, but I think Portland Made will always stay focused on makers and manufacturing.
Long-term we’re focused on growing the membership, which would also attract more vendors or brands that want to be a part of it. Right now we have about 80 members, and we should be closer to 300 or 400 members. Brands that are getting more established, alongside brands with just one product … But I think 300 is a very attainable goal. We’re talking two or three years out, realistically.
As soon as you have an engaged base of makers, the next part is easy. Do people want to pay to be in front of them, to sell their services? Yeah, they do.
MF: Outside of PAN, do you have plans to collaborate, or, say, sponsor events to bring makers in contact with more established local brands?
JH: Yes … After the website, more members, more vendors … then maybe some sponsorships or co-marketing with bigger brands. Someone like Benchmade or Leatherman, who’s making things locally, but isn’t quite the Portland Made member profile.
Ultimately being able to approach brands like that and say, ‘Hey, this is a win-win’ … whereas now it looks like more of a charity. Grovemade’s already there, and Portland Made needs to get to a similar place, that coolness or attractive factor.
In the first tier, everything hinges on having a larger and more engaged member base, and being able to monetize that. The next level, the place that I’m most excited about, is consulting and coaching. I’m already offering that to members personally … I get in the trenches and figure out what’s really happening with your business, and how I can help you right now.
MF: Sounds like we’re in the same business …
JH: Yeah, totally. And at the next next level … say we have 300 or 400 members, and maybe 10% are getting some kind of consulting or coaching — quarterly, monthly, or more frequently — then maybe next Portland Made is actually running certain parts of your business.
You’re a maker — you got into this because you want to design or produce a product. But you don’t really care about digital marketing … or you don’t care about calling a bunch of wholesale accounts to drum up business. Many of our members need help but can’t afford or don’t need a full-time or even part-time person. They might need just 5 hours a week to do social media or 10 hours for sales. Portland Made could help by doing that work for members
The final step would be … I’d love it if Portland Made were in the position to become an investor, and really help businesses get to that next level. Either through a financial contribution, or just leveraging our experience and know-how.
MF: So where do you see the brand now, and how do you want it to evolve? How do you want people to see Portland Made?
JH: I think a lot of people in the US, and internationally as well, look to Portland for this type of thing. And I think Portland Made should be at the helm of that. Being in that position means you need to have premier branding and premier status. I would want the look and feel to be the best at representing that in the world.
MF: Today Portland, tomorrow the world …
JH: Yeah … Brands should feel excited to be on portlandmade.com, and know that it will elevate the perception of their brand.
MF: What channels have proven the most effective in reaching your audience — makers, vendors and brands? Why do you think?
JH: Portland Made does have some clout in terms of search. The first time I found it, I was just looking for stuff made in Portland. If you’re interested, we pop up … that’s the power of the brand that I think we could get more out of.
And we’re partnered with other organizations. Mercy Corps Northwest … OEN … We’ll share each other’s events on our sites, things like that. We’re doing something with Lean Portland in December … We worked with Build Oregon during Built Up Fest, which is essentially a makers’ fest. Just being smart in teaming up with folks for stuff that’s already happening around the city, to be represented in some way, shape or form.
And then events — either events we’re presenting or teaming up with someone else. Those are where we’re making inroads now.
MF: OK, big finish ... What advice would you give someone who’s looking to start their own business? Maybe something they won’t hear from an industry association or the chamber of commerce.
JH: The most practical thing, I’d say, is always include your time as part of your costs. Maybe I’m not even doing that now, but I’m definitely aware of it. A lot of times people forget to include their time when setting their pricing or fee structure or whatever.
Imagine you’re subcontracting it, paying someone else to do it, and you have to get that money from somewhere. Well that someone is you. That has to be part of your product or service fee.
MF: Right … It’s easy to imagine you’ll get yours later, somehow, once things take off. But that doesn’t work very long. No real profitability, nothing to reinvest. I hear some people like to eat daily … Pay yourself.
JH: And a more abstract, ‘in-the-clouds’ suggestion would be: Make sure whatever you’re building is something you can be proud of. Something that aligns with your personal values, and is an extension of yourself. If in order to make your idea viable in the marketplace, you have to compromise core values … I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but understand that’s what you’re doing. Who knows? For you, maybe it’s the right move.
Learn more at portlandmade.com.
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All photos © 2017 Portland Made