Portland has a reputation for innovation. Leading that charge are entrepreneurial people from a variety of industries. We spoke with seven. Interviews edited for clarity and length.
The clothier: Emma McIlroy, Wildfang
Several years ago, Belfast native Emma McIlory and Julia Parsley saw an opportunity: creating clothes for women that don't fit the typical mold of what women's clothing looks like. The two women, then Nike employees, founded Wildfang – a "lifestyle brand for badass women," McIlroy calls it – in 2013. Wildfang has since become a fast-rising star in Portland's emerging apparel/fashion industry, with 20 employees, $4 million in outside investment, two stores and a global online presence. McIlroy shared her company's story in a busy warehouse/office behind the company's original store on Southeast Grand Avenue.
What is Wildfang?
You know, there’s a lot of brands we loved, but they were male-dominated brands. There was no community for her, exclusively for her, built for her. So we built this website and we launched it in March ’13. And 22,000 girls signed up in the first 30 days out of nowhere.
The reason I call this a lifestyle brand is what we do best is create an emotional connection with consumers and create content they love and inspires them.
We love it when you come and spend time with us. If you don’t have the financials to buy at that point in time, that’s fine, come and enjoy a beer with us, you know? We’re just as happy if you come and carve our wall for an hour and have a beer with us as if you come in and buy loads of product.
Why did you found this business here?
Well, Julia (my co-founder) and myself met in Portland (at Nike).
I have lived in Portland for eight years. I worked at Nike’s London team and then they moved me to the headquarters here. It was pretty amazing. I had never been to America before.
When I first got here I didn’t realize they’d put me in Beaverton, so I thought Beaverton was Portland and I was super confused. I kept trying to cross roads and they were, like, nine lanes deep and I didn’t understand how people did it. And then in Portland I kept turning the wrong way on a one way.
But the people are very similar. I’m Irish, from Belfast. It’s a very similar place. Not just the climate, but the people are good people and I think that reminds me a lot of home.
I think there’s a lot of DNA of the city in our brand. It’s strong, it’s liberal, it’s cheeky, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s unique, alternative, it’s independent. I think if it’d been born in another city it’d look different.
What’s the apparel industry like here?
It’s definitely fast-growing. Obviously the outdoor space gets a lot of attention but there are a ton of other interests.
It’s still a really difficult place to build an apparel brand because of production. There’s no production here, versus LA or New York where that production seems pretty set.
Are you growing?
Revenues have more than doubled year on year for the last three years. And we will continue to do that. And employees – we started with two, and now we have 20.
When you add physical retail, you need to staff up. Currently I’m also looking for a COO/CFO. So we are growing at the leadership positions and the entry level positions.
(Expanding to other places) is definitely on our roadmap, so we’ll see how quickly we can deliver on it based on resources. Portland online would only be our fifth biggest market. So clearly there’s an opportunity to have a store in other markets.
We’ve brought in about $4 million in investment. That’s all money that comes almost exclusively from outside Portland.
What is it like finding employees here?
Portland is very strong in the creative field because of people like Nike and Adidas. And it’s very strong in the tech fields. So those are two places I think it’s really-well resourced and really nimble.
I think we’re really weak in other areas. Like there’s no e-commerce market in Portland. Merchants, people who’ve bought products at a large scale. If you think of some of the big people in that space, none of them are in Portland.
Bringing people into the city takes a hell of a lot of time and money – to get someone to change their lives to move here. Our two biggest hires most recently were both recruited down from Seattle, and that’s expensive.
People, production and money – those are the three biggies for growing a brand like ours here.
Who are you looking for?
There are certain kinds of people who want to work in a startup. One group is the kind of ‘been-there, done-that’ in corporate, and they want a fresh, energizing challenge. That group you don’t have to incentivize much – because they’re doing it for self-motivating reasons. But there’s very few of them.
Then you have the young, hungry population. That’s really difficult because I’m competing against Nike. Yes, what I’m selling them is so much more exciting: it’s opportunity, it’s learning, it’s empowerment, it’s responsibility. But that’s a lot to grasp at 23.
I compete against Nike, or Keen, or Adidas, or Wieden + Kennedy. That’s who I lose my best young talent to.
What kinds of things do you worry about?
It’s not a big deal if you get a parking ticket when you work for Nike. It is a big deal when you’re my customer service manager and you get a $90 parking ticket.
That can extend in every way, like lowering taxes or affordable housing just for startups. For that young hungry audience I desperately need, they might not get as much self-fulfillment at Nike, but they get a better wage, health benefits, a just more reliable way of life.
We have a Monday morning weekend where we talk about what we’re proud and grateful for. And one of our employees spent so long trying to find a house and she found one, and she talked about that. That’s what it meant to her to find a house that she could actually afford to live in at the salary we can pay her.
If there’s some sort of qualification for ‘You’re doing something really special, working long hours and not for a ton of money, here’s some of the perks you get.’ Because we know these startups create a lot of jobs, bring a lot of money to the area and if they exit they return a lot of money. Like there’s two blocks of apartments going up at the corner at Burnside. If one of those was for people who only worked at startups and make less than 50 grand, my whole staff would apply.
I’ve had people move to Montavilla recently, I’ve had people move to Kenton. They’re definitely on the outskirts on the city. Nobody’s living at 21st and Johnson in Northwest. None of my staff are there.
It’s really hard to do what the people in this room are doing. There are some companies that have raised $40 or 50 million and that’s not us. Four million dollars to run the business we’re running is tough, but we’re really proud of how many jobs we’ve created.
Interview by Craig Beebe.
The curer: Lisa Coussens, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute
When Lisa Coussens came to Portland in 2012, she was already a big name in cancer research. In 20 years at the University of California, San Francisco, her lab had helped make major breakthroughs in how doctors understand and treat what she calls the "basic nuts and bolts" of cancer biology.
Coussens was recruited by Brian Druker, the director of Oregon Health and Science University's Knight Cancer Institute, to help build the country's preeminent cancer research laboratory, thanks in part to a $500 million challenge grant from Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. Coussens is now the institute's associate director of basic research and the chair of OHSU's Cell, Developmantal and Cancer Biology Department. She works to recruit and retain top researchers from around the world to join the center's efforts to find better treatments for cancer.
What's your vision for OHSU's cancer research work? What's its broader impact?
The program that I proposed we build within the cancer center at OHSU is more of a tissue program that supports a whole new era of cancer medicine in the clinic. So it’s not just another cancer program. We now have perhaps the world’s largest critical mass of researchers thinking about tumors from this point of view. And how that will impact the hospital and cancer medicine is it – it’s a new way of thinking about how to target a bad disease.
I wear two hats here. One is a chair of an academic department. In that department I have hired 10 new faculty. With each of the faculty comes a lab. And most of their labs, if they’re junior people, they will have a lab of maybe seven to ten people. If they’re senior they would probably have a lab, like mine, that is 15 to 20 (people). And then there are opportunities within those labs for undergraduates in the region. And we’ve put in place an undergraduate internship program that pulls in undergraduates from all the local universities to come in over the summer and learn if life in a lab is something they want to pursue.
I’m also the associate director of basic science, where I oversee the basic science portfolio in biology. And in that regard I partner with the clinical chairs of the clinical programs and the other associate directors and there we’ve hired probably on the order of 20 to 25 new heads of labs and principal investigators and then they’re building out their labs.
And most of these people are 25-plus (years old), so they typically have spouses, most of them have kids. So it’s a very big footprint to build a new program for the region.
Is it easy to get people to come to Portland?
So it hasn’t been hard at all is the truth. I’ve gotten, by and large, all of the candidates that I went after. I’ve brought in a lot of people from the east coast, a lot of folks from Europe.
The candidates that I wasn’t able to recruit, across the board, those were where the spouse was in a specialty industry and we just couldn’t accommodate it.
Portland is absolutely on an upwards trajectory and we have further to go so that we can provide more diversity and opportunities for spouses. That’s been the problem. Most of the folks that were the issues were either in very specialty areas of the bio-tech sector and we just haven’t – that area is not fully developed yet up here.
What kinds of things do you hear your employees that you are bringing from elsewhere saying about Portland, about coming here?
Food’s great. Wine’s great. They love it. I don’t think I have had anyone complain about, 'Oh my god, I live in Portland.' People are really pleasantly surprised by Portland.
The thing that I think confronts most people is that the folks that live up here are remarkably friendly and welcoming. Certainly took me by surprise coming out of the Bay Area.
Do you have people that work for you that grew up here or are you mostly bringing people from outside?
For the senior faculty positions, those have been almost across the board people from outside. This kind of science is new to the region. But we’re absolutely investing in the pipeline. Partnering with PSU, OSU and reaching out to community college networks so that they know where they have folks that have the interest – there’s the opportunity for them to dig in and really see if this is for them, because life in a lab or life in a hospital is not for everybody. And, you know, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean that this is the right thing for you to do. It’s a different kind of passion and it requires intelligence at a lot of different levels, not just one kind of intelligence.
Are you continuing to grow?
Our immediate goals are 75 new investigators. So if each one of them only has eight to ten people in their lab, you can do the math. And they have spouses and kids that are going to be in school and (pay for) babysitters and coffee... That’s a ton of new blood into the region. Big impact.
But then, also, the kinds of technology sectors that we’re going to have to nurture to support that level of healthcare-related research. Build it and they will come, I think, is really what we’re anticipating.
What are the barriers to achieving that vision of growth?
In a region like this I don’t think that there are a lot of barriers. You know, people want to live in a nice environment – you can’t get much nicer than Portland. People want to live someplace where housing is affordable – let’s hope we can keep it affordable. By and large, across the board, these are people that are conscious of their communities, they like green energy systems, they like public transportation. These are all very important issues for our audience that we’re targeting.
What things do you think the public sector should prioritize to help?
Public education, housing and public transportation. When people come in, they're starting families or have young children and they have very clear desires. They don’t want to have to drive two hours to drop their kids off someplace. They want to stay here. They want quality education.
Interview by Craig Beebe.
At 17, D'Wayne Edwards was a high school student in Inglewood, California, being told repeatedly that his dream of being a shoe designer was unrealistic. Then he won a nationwide design competition for Reebok, and things changed. Two years later he landed his first design job, becoming one of only a few African American footwear designers in the country. In more than 20 years in the business since then, he's designed more than 500 unique shoes with $1 billion in sales, including the best-selling boot in Nike history and the Air Jordan XX1 and XX2, making him just one of seven people who've designed an Air Jordan sneaker.
In 2011, he left his dream job as design director for the Air Jordan brand to found the country's first footwear design academy, Pensole. With several hundred students graduated, the tuition-free academy on Southwest Fifth Avenue has recently begun partnering with companies that recognize the value of the graduates Pensole creates.
What were your first impressions of Portland when you moved here to take a job at Nike in 2000?
Everybody’s really nice. It’s the complete opposite of California. It was truly kind of the opposite of the way I was brought up. The people here are just really genuinely nice. And, you know, there’s a lot of greenery here. You know, I wasn’t used to seeing green grass. And pine trees – we got palm trees. Brown grass. And concrete, pretty much.
At the time, it was definitely my dream job. And a year later I was asked to join the Jordan brand, which, to me was really more of a pinnacle than Nike, but you know, I just always envisioned Jordan more as the unattainable option. So I wouldn’t necessarily say (Jordan) was a dream job, because I didn’t know it was possible.
What led you to leave Nike to found Pensole in 2011?
It wasn’t like I woke up and said, 'I’m tired of this place, I’m leaving.'
It was honestly from my childhood and aspirations of wanting to become a footwear designer, and realizing there were no schools that actually taught it. I was able to get into the industry at a really young age and kind of bypass college and get on the job. So all of my education came by doing.
I had kids that were aspiring footwear designers that would post up sketches and ideas or figure out my email address and email me. And I always responded, because I was that kid at one point.
It just got to a point where I really felt compelled to reach out and give back. And it was primarily because I wished someone did it for me.
And the more I got into it, the more I started working with colleges and universities and realizing that the kids that were graduating were not hirable from the perspective of being prepared to work in a corporate environment.
Why do this kind of academy in Portland?
First of all, quite honestly, I didn’t want to go back to California. I fell in love with Portland. So that was the first part.
The second part was, 'Why not?' This is the epicenter of talent. You have Nike. And you know Nike’s the big dog in the industry. But there's Adidas, and several other smaller footwear companies here. I knew a lot of kids want to get to this side of the country.
The way that the footwear industry is broken up, it’s really divided, by coast, where everything pretty much west coast is kind of performance and lifestyle. East coast is all fashion and lifestyle. The kids that I would want for this academy would be more interested in the performance/lifestyle side.
This is the epicenter. As a whole, the US footwear industry is somewhere a little bit south of 70 billion (dollars) and almost half of it’s done in Oregon. The other, say, 60 percent is done in four other states, being California, New York, Massachusetts and Michigan. So five states kind of control the majority of the US footwear industry, with Oregon being the largest one.
It’s because of Nike being here, and then you have Adidas, the second largest one.
Then you have smaller offshoots. And then you have companies that have headquarters in other states that create satellite offices here because, more than likely, they’ve stolen some of Nike’s designers or Adidas' designers, and they don’t want to move. So they’re forced to open up offices here in Oregon.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this business here?
I would say the biggest disadvantage is it’s a small media market. If you had a business that was heavily dependent on your visibility and growth, you would struggle. It would be nice if more people knew about what we do, not for the sake of knowing about it, but just to reach those kids that were interested in it.
Beyond that, everything else is more of a plus. The majority of people come, fall in love with Portland, and don’t want to leave. Most of my students have relocated to Portland, some with jobs and some without, for the opportunity to put themselves in the best position to get a job.
There’s a lot of great things happening here that a lot of the country just doesn’t know. This is by far one of the most creative cities in America. Yet, Portlandia gets all the attention.
So it’s like that’s one of our main communications outside of Oregon: Portlandia. Even though it’s very 'true' – it’s not a true representation of what happens here.
So that’s my main beef: when I’m out in other cities or countries and telling them about the great things that’s happening in Portland and they’re like, 'What? Really? I didn’t know that these companies were there or that this industry was there.' They just don’t know.
How do you operate?
I have four employees. One is one of my former students. She’s a designer. She helps us craft all of our literature and information and work on projects as well, independently. And then myself. And then our materials director, she’s downstairs. I have my PR guy. And then I run the business.
Extremely lean. It’s not healthy lean. We need more employees, because we have outgrown our capacity. And we’re at that stage of trying to figure out how to get more employees. Well, first, get more revenue, which will allow us to get more employees.
For the first four years, I was self-funded. And then this year is the first year that we’re really kind of leveraging our corporate relationships where all of the programming that we have this year is all paid for by corporations.
The students don't pay any tuition.
Because I didn’t go to college in a traditional way, I had a chance to study and understand the way college works and it’s backwards. Because it’s not really designed to groom people to prepare them for a job. But they’re dependent on the revenue for tuition, so the emphasis is less on what they’re being taught and what they’re going to use. 'Let’s get a bunch of people in so they pay tuition and pay all these expenses,' and it’s almost like the curriculum is forgotten about.
I wanted to kind of change that cycle. If I could’ve afforded to go to college, I would have. But I didn’t want that to be a barrier.
We realized that the beneficiary for the people who are being educated are the companies that will hire the students, so they should be invested in their future employees before they become employees. So we’re leveraging the corporations to actually pay for their education.
What is the education like?
What we do is we put you in a much better position to get a job. Because you’re working directly with the companies as you learn. Where these are – our sessions are pretty much three and four week job interviews.
Our structure is a professional development curriculum. We teach the way you will work. There’s nothing theoretical about what we do, it’s all factually based. It’s very similar to the way corporations function and work. The way they work in teams, as well as the programs that they use. The materials that they use: We have all the same materials, if not better materials.
We also engage the employer in our education process as well, where their hiring manager and recruiters and employees come down and interview and talk with the students.
We’re really bridging that gap between education and corporate that’s been a massive disconnect that I noticed when I was out there. Where the employer expects a magical person to show up at their door with all the skills and qualifications they’re looking for without improving the chances of that happening. And the school expects to teach the kid a certain amount of information that puts him in the position for a job without actually talking to the company to find out what they want from that future employee. And then the kid is even at fault as well, on some levels, because they just show up at school and pay tuition because they feel like they have to be in school. But they don’t know why they’re in school or what their purpose is or what they’re going to do.
So you have this broken system that operates in these three different parallel paths that it’s a massive collision if nothing happens.
A lot of your students come from elsewhere – do any come from the Portland area?
Yes, they do. It's pretty rare though. There's a couple reasons. I’m in the talent business. And the education system around design is fairly new to the state of Oregon.
You have a lack of educational resources here around design in the state. So if there is a kid that’s very talented, they’re leaving. They’re going to another school.
The companies here would love to hire from Portland or their home state, but all things being equal they're going to go with the best talent.
Do you have any sort of efforts to try to recruit students from the Portland area?
Yes. I have a program that I’m crafting right now specifically for Portland high school students. I want to create a program where you can have a kid that’s in Oregon that’s a high school kid and they can take off fifth and sixth period and come here and learn how to make shoes.
What’s happening with a lot of schools, mostly in bad areas, electives are going away. A lot of the first ones are art. Unfortunately all of the ones that require creativity are the first ones to go. And it goes away because only a small percentage of the population functions in a creative space. So it becomes like, 'Oh well, not enough people do that, so let’s get rid of that.' And when you do that, you’re taking away the one element of freedom that that kid has to be a free thinker and be creative.
I think adults discount footwear as something that kids are interested in. It is about a $68 billion dollar industry. I think people forget that there are engineers, there are accountants, there are marketing majors, there are psychologists, scientists, you know -- there’s a lot of interesting jobs. And the education system is bad at opening up the doors and making it possible.
If you had an elected official come in ask what they could to do help the industry grow, help your academy grow, what would you say to them?
It would be great if education was funded based on success with the students. Because something has to change. Something has to change to hold more people accountable. Both sides.
I don’t thrive based off of more, I thrive based on better. And that’s where I think the difference is. Companies come to me because of talent. They know that we can deliver the talent. Because if I wasn’t delivering the talent, then they wouldn’t come.
I think the state should own the fact that this is the footwear state. And celebrate it. And create opportunities and programs for people to come and start their own footwear companies. There’s a huge fascination with technology firms and companies here. Tech is cool, but this is a product state. Tech is sexy and interesting and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you ignore who’s paying all the bills, they might leave.
Interview by Craig Beebe.
The farmer: Geoff Latham, Nicky USA
Geoff Latham founded his meat supply company, Nicky USA, in 1990, seeking to provide local restaurants with rabbit and quail sourced from local farms. Twenty-five years later, the list of offerings, as well as the staff, is expanded. Now Nicky USA, with its main operations on Portland’s historic Produce Row and its own farm near Aurora in Marion County, is one of the region’s main players in the popular farm-to-table movement.
The success of Latham’s business, and others like it, is tied with the success of the region’s thriving food scene as well as with the success of newer, sustainable farms and ranches here and around the state. As the region continues to grow, Latham sees opportunities as well as challenges ahead.
Why did you choose to live in this region?
I grew up in Sherwood and I went to college at Oregon State. I got a job in Idaho selling potatoes. That didn’t work out so I decided to come home and start my own company 25 years ago. I knew I wanted to move back to Portland. I like the culture here. I like having the ability to go to eastern Oregon, to the coast, to the valley – it’s all here – and I like having four seasons.
What did Nicky Farms start out doing? What has it evolved into?
Nicky USA is the corporation that I founded in January 1990. I was working at night as a waiter out in Durham, and I was still trying to export at the time, but the emphasis on survival kicked in and so I started selling rabbits. I went a couple years, didn’t pay myself anything. I just knew I wanted to work for myself, and I knew I was born to sell food off the land.
Then what happened was back in the early ‘90s, we had the turning point of Portland’s food scene. It was 1994, exactly, when five great chefs who were all big allies of mine said, 'Hey, you need to do more than just sell rabbits around town, you’ve got to be finding other stuff, and do it like they do in New York. Come tell people about your rabbit and tell people about the quail that you brought to market.'
Over the last 20 years we’ve added virtually any type of protein that you could find in the region like bison, water buffalo or elk. We founded Nicky Farms about six years ago. That’s the next phase of this business. Nicky Farms is our brand. It’s the products that we either have raised for us or that we process in our processing plant. We work with about three dozen small family farms here in Oregon that are raising great products that end up being processed and marketed by us.
So what is the state of your industry?
My industry’s going very well. What’s happening for me is that I think that the age of my customer, chefs and kitchen managers, has also gone from somebody, when I first started that might have been 40 to 50, is now 30 to 40, probably, somebody that is more of our target market of somebody that’s going to be open to trying new products, expanding their menu. I mean, we don’t have just a dozen or two, we’ve got dozens of really talented people in kitchens here in Portland now – it’s a growing customer base and it’s growing pretty rapidly.
How many employees do you have? Are you hiring more?
We have about 49 people right now. We’ve been averaging between 50 and 55 between Portland and Seattle. We have four people in Seattle right now and then we have a dayshift and a swing shift here. We have job postings for both cities right now going, just trying to find the right applicants.
We have customer service, we have sales people, we have marketing department, we have an IT department now, we’ve got accounts receivable and accounts payable and purchasing. And then we’ve got a production facility here, so that means a production manager, production assistant, we’ve got sanitation people, we’ve got meat-cutters and baggers, we have inventory specialists, drivers, warehouse managers. It’s the whole gamut.
Can you find the employees you need?
It’s hit or miss. There are some government programs that we’ve never looked into before but we’re going to start utilizing, to help train a person to go from entry-level to somebody that’s fluent in data capture and inventory management. This is a new thing for our company this year, going all-digital, and a huge investment.
It is a family business, still, but my wife and I are in the process of delegating more to staff. We can’t keep it all in our heads anymore. So we’ve recently hired an HR person that’s coming in. We’re looking at doing a lot of neat things for employee retention, because it is an issue that is really important to us, to retain the people that we’ve trained.
As we grow, because we are going to keep growing. We are looking at things like 401(k) plans for the first time ever. We’re looking at disability insurance because of an issue that came up this year with an employee that got sick. We’re increasing our paid vacation package that we’re giving people, and I hope to be the first to meet the $15 minimum wage requirement. We’re trying a lot of things to stay a leader in our industry, and to attract people to our company to help us grow it.
What are the barriers to doing business here? What public investments or policies would help your business in the future?
In the area where we’re located is getting so dense, for me to stay, there has to be a decision about parking made, otherwise businesses like mine aren’t going to be able to survive. It’s a critical area for the city, an area that’s going to be the focus of development for the next 10 to 20 years. Right now I pay $2,000 a year for parking permits for my employees, but this coming year, they won’t be valid across the street from my business. Luckily, thanks to the amount of bike (routes) in Southeast Portland, about 15 of my employees can bike to work, but something still has to be done about the development and the effect that’s having on parking in the area right now.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
The hotelier: Jessie Burke, The Society Hotel
The building at the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and Davis Street had sat vacant for decades when Jessie Burke, Jonathan Cohen, Gabe Genauer and Matt Siegel decided to pursue a vision not too far from its original function as a sailors' lodging house. In November, after a $5 million, 2-year renovation, the partners opened the Society Hotel, a "low-cost, high style" hotel with 12 suites, 24 shared-bath private rooms and a 24-bed bunkroom. Sitting in the Chinatown hotel's light-filled lobby and coffee shop, Burke – who also owns Posies Cafe in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood – explained how the partners combined a hunch, a $678,000 Portland Development Commission loan and a lot of hard work to join Portland's booming hospitality industry. And she highlighted a few surprises of doing business, too.
How did you start the business?
My husband and I are one partner and two of our friends are the other two. The three of them are contractors and I have a storefront business. None of us knew hospitality, but we were like, 'Why not? Why not try it?'
No buildings had sold in this neighborhood for 12 years, so there were no comparisons. I know a lot of hotels are opening now, but when we bought this in 2013 they weren't opening here. Nobody was going to pull the trigger. We bought it, and within six months everything went into contract.
During the 90-day due diligence period we did a market study, and that told us that until 2018 there would be a shortage of hotel rooms. So that's why Airbnb is killing it: There just aren't enough hotels to house all the visitors.
For us, we're not worried about taking risks because we all already have businesses and that's a big risk already. It was a familiar risk to us. We saw there was going to be a shortage of hotel rooms and we saw that this was the last uncharted territory of the city.
Why did you think this was a good place to open a hotel?
We've all traveled extensively. We know what people are looking for that are traveling. They want it to be affordable, they want it to be close to the things they want to visit. Transit is really helpful. When I had to fill out the Facebook page and they asked, 'What bus lines are you near?' I was like, 'All of them. All the bus lines.'
Some of these factors we knew were critical were already here.
How has it been going?
Our conservative projections were that these were the winter months so we expected that we’d be at 40 percent occupancy for these first few months. We've been at 60 percent occupancy on weekdays and we've reached 90, 100 percent occupancy on the weekends. So, pretty great.
What kinds of guests have you been seeing?
If you look at the cities people are coming from, it's San Francisco and Seattle. But we're getting a lot of international visitors. We did an ad on Facebook and the top clicks were from China, Israel, Spain. The United States was fourth.
We're also getting people who are moving to Portland and can't find a place to live yet. A bed in the bunkroom is $35 a night. So they're crashing here until they can find a place to live. It’s not what we expected. But almost every guest I've met that's staying in the bunk room that's not in their 20s is waiting for housing. One lost her house on the east coast, got a job here, and is waiting to save up enough or find a place she can afford.
What is your staff structure like?
We have roughly 20 employees between the cafe, housekeeping and desk. And we have three managers.
We have six housekeeping staff. Two came from the women's shelter down the street. Two came from a job-placement nonprofit and two sought us out. It's hard work. We want them to be happy to be here and we want to compensate them at above average rates. It's a hard balance to have people have a job that people sometimes see as grunt work, so we want to make up for it other areas.
We try to keep a pretty flat system. The only hierarchy is that there's a manager. We made it clear that no one else is above anyone else. Everyone is critical.
When I'm hiring, I want to see how people are. I want to see that they have a personality that is easy to get along with, that they're intuitive with other people's facial expressions. It really doesn't matter to me that anyone has experience. You need to have this willingness to have customer service be your top priority. You want everyone's reputation to be good, including your own.
You opened Posies Cafe 7 years ago in Kenton. How did you decide to take that leap to open your first business?
I came here with my husband in 2003. We lived in Southeast for one year and then we bought a house in Kenton.
Opening Posies was a series of converging interests. My family grew up really poor. My dad developed a nerve disease when I was six, so he couldn’t work. My mom had to go back to work. But she didn’t have much relevant experience.
We lived in my aunt’s basement. My parents lived there for 30 years. [After I finished college,] my mom went back to school to become a pastry chef. She got a job at a French hotel and she had loved it but had a new head chef she was butting heads with all the time. And I said, 'I think you should move here.'
Our neighborhood needed something, I wanted something that was nice for kids and my mom needed to get out of her situation. And it was an urban renewal area, which meant I could get a PDC loan to help open the shop. So all of those things converged.
It’s been more challenging than I expected, but I like business. It’s interesting. They say don’t worry about financial mistakes because it’s like tuition for business school. You can’t learn in business school what you need in business. I think that’s true.
When I opened my doors I thought that would be the most challenging thing, but it was pretty easy. Then you get through your working capital and you’re kind eking along, then I realize it’s not opening, it’s staying open that’s the hard part. Whatever it is you’re doing, it’s being able to continue doing that well that’s the challenge.
What makes this a good place to do business?
As a city overall, it’s easy to access information. Everything is online here, which is very nice. There are agencies like the Portland Development Commission that want to see economic development and so they try and foster it. Those types of things are helpful. And I kind of feel like if you have a good enough idea the city will rally behind you.
What makes it harder to do business?
One of the most frustrating things for us was the restrictions on some of the funds.
For instance, I qualify as a minority woman small business [at Posies], not because I’m a woman, but because I’m part Chinese – I get it, proving to have hired minority businesses is important. The part that is hard is that a lot of woman- and minority-owned businesses don’t know there is a certification process. So we worked with a ton of these businesses but none of them count because they didn’t know to get certified, or it would have held up our project for a couple of months to shuffle them through the process.
We have a lot of competing masters, like Fire and Life Safety [permits] versus Historic [permits]. We possibly lose out on some incentives because we have a competing master. Historic was like, 'Why don’t you have transom windows above the doors?' Because Fire and Life Safety wouldn’t let us have transom windows from 1910!
On a second issue, we have a very large homeless population. I am working with the Mayor’s office on a lot of issues and honestly I think a lot of them are being addressed.
I say you need something that’s enforceable. The police are compassionate, which is good. They say, ‘You can’t sleep here.’ Then they meet them on the next block. So, what if there were somewhere people were allowed to sleep? What if each city park had a number of enclosed spots in an enclosed area where you could sleep? And given the housing affordability crisis in the city right now, how can we adjust our standards to make building new public or private housing easier?
I guess the theme I’m coming back to is having so many competing masters – nobody talks to each other to think about how that’s making it impossible to do the thing you want to do.
That kind of stuff drives business people crazy. You’re taking all the risk. Even if you’re taking public money, it’s a loan. You still have to pay it back. And you jump through hoops with organizations that clearly don’t talk to each other.
Everyone thinks business owners make gazillions of dollars but, no, what happens is that you don’t pay yourself anything and eventually your business starts making it. No one has any money for 10 years.
Do you think those problems can be addressed?
I don’t think it’s unique to Portland. I think it’s everywhere. It would be great, if we can be so cutting-edge with all this information accessible, if we could take it to the next level all these things would be so much easier. I think Portland is super innovative and you have so many young, eager, smart people here that you could do it. It’s not impossible to pull this off.
A lot of the issues we’re talking about: It’s perfecting the system. I come from Washington, DC, where things are very different politically and it’s tense all the time, but Portland is very, very different. When we moved here in DC I was like I don’t even know how to get someone to take graffiti off the wall, but here I know how to even call the Mayor’s office. It’s very accessible and easy to be part of a solution, be part of a change. We’re just refining it.
The planter: Rick Turoczy, Portland Incubator Experiment
Rick Turoczy is one half of Portland Incubator Experiment, or PIE, a relatively new type of business which, each year, chooses six promising tech startups from around the region. Awarding them capital investment, training, mentorship and other resources, PIE guides these budding companies through the early to mid-stages of refining their product or service.
It’s all in the hopes that what often starts out as one person with a good idea and a laptop can end up as the region’s next tech giant. Turoczy has a front-row seat to the development of the Portland region’s rapidly growing startup industry, which he sees mirroring many of the region’s values, like collaboration, attention to craft and sustainability.
How did you arrive in the region?
I moved here about 20 years ago, after going to college at Whitman in Walla Walla, Washington. I would spend a lot of time in Portland to play sports during school and was always enamored with it. I ended up just moving here, not knowing exactly what I was going to do and just kind of fell into the startup world. It’s been a very odd, serendipitous journey.
What is PIE?
PIE is an ongoing experiment. It began as a collaborative co-working space where a bunch of startups can share office space and perhaps collaborate with one another, but really just be a hub for startup activity, talking about, “How do we take our learnings and empower other people to do interesting things?”
Portland has some cultural qualities that make what PIE does a lot easier. The startup scene as a whole here has a very collegial, collaborative atmosphere. People tend to partner and assist before they compete. There’s also an attention to craft and building something of quality, and we find that resonating in the tech world as well. It’s not, ‘How do I build something and get rich quick?’ It’s, ‘How do I build something that will stand the test of time?’
Can you find the startups you’re looking for?
Yeah, for the most part. That’s the nice thing about working in the Portland region: people are generally pretty open about what they’re working on, and you can always find interesting companies. I think where the trend is going is that we’re now identified as a city with a lot of high-end engineering resources. So we’re now seeing a lot more regional office activity from other startups or established
At PIE, we generally get about 400 written applications to join the accelerator, and we have six slots to fill. So, that first application pass really whittles the list down to about 150. Then we argue internally about who we want to interview from that list. Our first selection criterion is the team, then we look at the product. If both of those are the good, then we look at what we call the 'serendipity factor'. Would it be interesting to have these six companies sitting in the same room at the same time? Do we have alumni or mentors that would be able to help this company grow? Are they working on something that is especially important to Portland and the region?
Are there any barriers to doing business here?
I’d say there are two big difficulties in the startup world, but they aren’t unique to Portland. One is finding the right talent. Do you have the people with the right background or the right motivation? And the other is finding the capital that you need to build that company.
We’re starting to see positive signs, but it’s still not to the point where we’ve created the type of wealth that creates a robust capital ecosystem. We have a really solid foundation of early-stage investors – what we would call ‘angels’ – who generally invest a small amount of capital to get things started. But once startups start asking for bigger and bigger checks, that’s a gap in this region. So, companies usually packed up and moved elsewhere.
What we’ve seen that’s changed positively, in the last three of four years, is that these startups are still looking elsewhere to get that capital, but they’re no longer being required to leave the Portland region to get that investment. So before, an investor might have said I’m happy to write you a check if you relocate to the Bay Area. Now, we’re starting to see much the opposite. They’ll go down to the Bay Area, the investor will say, 'It’s too expensive down here, I don’t want you spending my money in the Bay Area, so stay in Portland and build the company where your dollar goes further, and where your people would enjoy living.' So that’s a good development, but it’s just a stopgap for us here, because when the company becomes successful, the capital goes right back out of town.
What we want to figure out is how to start making more significant investments locally so that it stays in the region or the state. There’s no easy way to do that, and it’s just something we’re going to have to figure out and build it from scratch.
What sort of public investments or policies could help your business in the future?
Well, our current project, Storyboard, was funded in part by the state, by Business Oregon through their Oregon Inc. project. It’s been a really nice experience, and very much a two-way street. They’re learning as much from what we’re trying to accomplish as we’re learning from them what public entities need as far as outputs for the money their investing, how does fiscal responsibility influence civic funds in ways that are different than private funds, as well as how do you bring everyone to the table so that you get the most efficient use of that capital.
Another one that I think has been successful is Portland Seed Fund which looks at putting municipal capital to work to spur job creation, job growth, and job retention. So, we’re seeing a lot of that kind of public-private activity, and it’s still a learning process – no one’s found a perfect process yet. But I’ve been incredibly impressed with how the state and the city are going about things. They’re not being risky with their investments, but they are being innovative and are a model to other states and cities.
I always say the Portland region is big enough to be statistically relevant, but not so big that you can’t try new things.
Interview by Justin Sherrill.
The recruiter: Dann Black, Future State Consulting
A 100-year-old blacksmith shop might seem like an unlikely place for a technology recruiting company. But that's exactly where Dann Black and Harrison Bishop decided to set up shop for Future State Consulting, a talent recruitment firm that's one of the fastest-growing companies in the region. From Tigard's Main Street, they've connected scores of candidates with tech jobs around the region, including some of the state's largest companies. Black and Bishop built the business on the idea of a more personal touch than many other talent recruiters use.
How did you start Future State Consulting?
I was doing similar work at a larger public firm and wanted to do something with a more local feel and approach. The recruiting industry had been moving to a model where you had account managers and sales people of pitching the talent, but all of that talent was being sourced online with a call center type model.
If it’s just a resume that’s pulled off the internet and a quick five-minute phone call, I don’t have the confidence in the potential candidate. By the time we’re presenting individuals to our clients, we know and feel confident, because we have taken the time to meet each potential candidate in person and know they are the right match: 'Interview this person right away, I think you’re gonna’ love ‘em.'
So this is going into our fourth year. It was just two of us. Now we have 36 employees. I think we’ll be in the top 20 fastest growing companies in this state for the Portland Business Journal.
What is Portland like for the talent recruitment industry?
People want to have the perfect job, they want to have the perfect career path and it has to pay right, be the right technologies, the right culture, and the right location.
We’ll find someone whose dream is to work at XYZ type of company. They’ll live downtown and they won’t want to commute to Beaverton, Tigard or Hillsboro and vice-versa. I think Portland, much more than other cities, location is huge for people.
I grew up in Seattle. I had the opportunity three times to move back, in an executive-type capacity. (Employers said,) 'Oh, you’re from Seattle! Let’s move you back there!'
I went up for kind of an executive job for a short-term stint and even though all my family’s up there, I missed Portland. Seattle’s just – the traffic’s too bad, there’s no light rail, it’s just too big. Where I am now, I feel like I’m an Oregonian now. I’ve been down here for 25 years.
What are Portland's advantages and disadvantages compared to other places?
The fact that we are smaller – I mean we’re less than half Seattle based on the business and the employers. And I think that also we attract sometimes a more premier engineer. People move here from New York, people move from all over the place because they want that lifestyle. They want the fresh water, they want mountains, the beach, everything that Portland has. And so, I think the talent’s moving here because they want to live here.
We had a guy, he and his wife moved from Florida. And they said, 'We’re going to move to Portland. It’s progressive, it’s such a great city, I visited once ten years ago, we’re rolling the dice and moving here.' Without even any job prospects yet. They’re moving here.
Some of those bigger employers (like) Google, Salesforce, they’re just basically located here because of the talent. But it’s creating more of the demand and it’s kind of a crazy cycle.
I think that the disadvantage, potentially, is the university system. I saw a speech where someone from Intel was talking about it 20 years ago. Portland State needs to do more, we need to do more at Oregon State. I guess that's the only drawback from a tech perspective. But Portland State is getting to be, in its own right, well respected. Where it used to be that a college grad for computer science pretty much had to go to an internship, there’s so much demand now that there’s a premium and people are graduating from the Portland State program with a computer science degree and having two, three, four offers.
So why did you choose Main Street in Tigard for your business?
A lot of it is that I live here close by. But all the competitors, everybody in this space, always chooses Class-A office space in a big building somewhere. But from the day I started I knew I was going to be on Main Street, Tigard. I was just like: 'We will be on Main Street.'
So we started off above the brew pub, and then the opportunity kind of presented itself: a little building was for sale and it was a 100-year-old blacksmith shop and I was like, 'This is gonna be perfect.' Nobody in my business – I even have close friends that were almost laughing like, 'What? What are you doing?'
And now it’s turned into the biggest advantage.
At the last Halloween Trick or Treat we did for the kids in downtown Tigard – we closed the streets down, we did Trick or Treat – we had some world-class engineers bring their kids by, and say, 'Hey, I’d like to talk to you guys.' And it creates that personal touch, it’s just different.
What public investments do you think can help your business grow?
It seems that there’s pressure for cities to – no one wants to build roads. It’s like the bad word. You know, 'Do the light rail.' And, you know, I love that we were the first in light rail.
But when you drive around Portland now versus 10 years ago, it's a huge difference. We only do meetings – we try to do them from 9 to 2, then we’ve got to be done.
And I don’t know, but that would be one thing that I would say could inhibit (our growth).
What are your thoughts about the future of your company?
You know, in the end, we’ve got a long ways to go, but I’m most happy about the culture that we’ve got. You know – when we call and talk to somebody, if we’re happy with where we’re working, that’s going to transition into that conversation and it just helps a more positive vibe. So I’m excited about the culture we’ve created and I just hope we keep growing like this.
Interview by Craig Beebe.