Looking beyond ‘functional fixedness’ to create an impactful organization

The “Yeah, maybe” approach to building community

Four years ago, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a publication focused on telling stories about Oregon-based companies. The publication was predicated on the idea that too much of the business news was driven by stories of local technology startups companies and, worse yet, that the word “startup” was becoming synonymous with tech. This was a concern. Because we vehemently believed that Oregon’s competitive advantage was consumer products, where we boast a long legacy of product makers and companies.

Oregon is home to some of the leading companies in outdoor gear, footwear, cheese, beer, wine, potato salad, chips, plant based foods, tea, wool blankets, knives, and coffee to name just a few.

That simple storytelling idea engaged 318 people who believed in the concept so much that they contributed money to make it a reality.

A lot has changed for Built Oregon since then.

As the application deadline for the inaugural Built Consumer Product Accelerator passed last Friday night, I was drawn to watch Wildfang founder, Emma McIlroy’s TEDxPortland talk again. It’s a talk focused on the optimistic mindset that crazy ideas just might work. That instead of saying “No,” we’re better off saying “Yeah, maybe.”

You see, over the past 4 years on a total budget of around $100K, the Built crew has never — ever — stopped having that “Yeah, maybe” attitude to make Oregon the hub of consumer product innovation and entrepreneurship.

Can storytelling help drive awareness and economic development? Yeah, maybe.

Can we make Oregon the Silicon Valley of Consumer Products? Yeah, maybe.

Can Oregon create a SXSW type event that is focused on the entire consumer product ecosystem? Yeah, maybe.

Can we break down the silos that exist between consumer product industry verticals and focus on our shared challenges and opportunities? Yeah, maybe.

Can we succeed by focusing more on the founders and less on the zero-sum game, economic-development approach that seems to put industries, regional players, and organizations at odds with each other? Yeah, maybe.

Can we work collaboratively with organizations like the Portland Mercado and NAYA PDX to help break down some of the barriers around connecting entrepreneurs of color of product companies to retail opportunities? Yeah, maybe.

Is there a way to move beyond the standard rural-urban divide conversation that seems to dominate approaches to founder engagement and move towards one that focuses on what makes their products unique in order to leverage regional assets? Yeah, maybe.

Can we set aside the time to build relationships in order to create a more connected, helpful, altruistic, and sustainable statewide consumer product ecosystem? Yeah, maybe.

Making any true impact around Oregon’s consumer product ecosystem will require state help and assistance. Yeah, maybe.

It’s going to be really hard to organize and connect the statewide network of experienced consumer product people around a mentor focused approach. Yeah, maybe.

Launching an accelerator for a broad mix of consumer product companies is going to be hard. Yeah, maybe.

At every step of the Built journey, we were living Emma’s approach to life and business, an approach that focuses on the possibilities instead of the barriers. We just didn’t know what that approach was until we saw her TEDx talk.

So here we are four years later with 80 stories written, 30 podcasts recorded, thousands of meetings held, two Built festivals completed, the Bridges program piloted, and we find ourselves here at the launch the nation’s first not for profit consumer product accelerator program.

Will the next Built evolution be hard to successfully pull off? Yeah, maybe.

But we are definitely more excited than cautious because:

  • Nearly 100 experienced consumer product people have graciously signed up to mentor this next generation of Oregon brands
  • The combined revenues of the statewide companies that submitted applications to the accelerator is currently $15–17M
  • Additional retailers are reaching out to participate in the Bridges program
  • We see not only an opportunity, but really a need to focus our efforts around building strong EBITDA in companies as opposed to the constant pitching for equity
  • We have seen small and positive movement around creating short-term capital options for consumer product companies and aligned the ladders of debt financing
  • The accelerator and related projects have created opportunities for established and legacy brands to meaningfully engage into the ecosystem, especially from mentor perspective

This has definitely been a journey for all of us at Built Oregon, and it’s one that still has many challenges especially around fundraising to make the organization sustainable.

But far too often, organizations tasked with helping, investing in and supporting companies fail to have the same “Yeah, maybe” attitude that practically every founder has to have when launching a new venture. We’ve been denied funding by those organizations. Rejected for grants focused on similar efforts. And all but ignored by the state. In many ways, we’ve failed. And will do so again. And again. And again. But we learn and move on.

Because instead of stopping, Built Oregon is just getting started. Because we knew that this effort, if done right, would not be a quick fix or easy solution. And we keep believing that maybe, just maybe, we can play a small part in impacting the future of all Oregonians.