Designing A Startup Bend Style

Startup Stock 2

 STORY BY LIS THOMAS
Photos courtesy of DubsLabs, Gobi Gear and Axiology

When you hear the word ‘startup’ what’s the first thing you think of? A cramped office of tech-driven, product obsessed super-geniuses? Or, do you think of a group of millennials, who have couches instead of desks for work, and enjoy kegs of kombucha or beer on tap for those Friday meetings that just go a little too long? If you live in Central Oregon, specifically in Bend, it is likely you know of a startup like this.

We have such a welcoming and generative culture of startups in Bend that there is an entire organization — Startup Bend — dedicated to supporting and providing resources to these fledgling businesses and their entrepreneurial founders. On the Startup Bend website, there are 84 registered startups (which is likely representative of about two thirds the actual startup footprint in the area), and it’s easy to see why.

Bend offers the perfect mix of successful companies that originated as startups — think Hydroflask, Humm Kombucha and Ruffwear — to offer inspiration to the entrepreneurial minded. Not to mention the benefit of such an appealing lifestyle promise, that countless talented entrepreneurs and successful business professionals are attracted to when living here. Put that all together and you have the perfect startup saturated business environment.

So, what does it take to launch, run and succeed in the quickly evolving and growing startup marketplace in Bend, Oregon? I sat down with three very different, but equally interesting startup founders to find out how they fashion their thinking around success and what drives them.

DubsLabs

Q: What inspired you to start DubsLabs?
A: When I was in college studying day and night, I would try lying down with earbuds in my ears to listen to music while falling asleep. As soon as I rolled onto my side, the earbuds dug painfully into my ears. This is when I realized what a business opportunity lied in better fitting headphones, and that one day I should create sleep headphones to solve this problem. A year and a half later, I graduated and got a job designing propulsion systems for nuclear submarines. I thought this was going to be my dream job, but soon after I realized that what I really wanted was to bring my own product ideas to life. That’s when I remembered the sleep headphone idea, and another year and half later, I finally launched Bedphones.

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Founder Eric Dubs

Q: Can you share a few challenges you encountered in your first year and how you rose above them?
A: The biggest challenge I encountered while launching Bedphones was figuring out how to have the product manufactured. I spent countless hours researching factories in Asia and eventually found one that was willing to give me a low minimum order quantity (MOQ) so that I could afford to place a purchase order. Before we went into final production, I bought a one-way ticket to China and went to meet with the factory executives in person to finalize the details.
The second biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to fund the initial purchase order of 2,000 Bedphones. When I was working as an engineer and realized I wanted to start my own business, I started saving up like crazy because I knew I didn’t want to take any outside investment. When the factory gave me the invoice for my first purchase order, I essentially wired them my entire life-savings to make it happen. It was a true leap of faith.

Q: How do you stay motivated?
A: DubsLabs has had a lot of ups and downs over the years (as do many startups), especially as we’ve worked through manufacturing challenges. I stay motivated by knowing that we’re creating products that truly help people get a better night’s sleep. Very soon we will be releasing our newest product — Versafit wireless sport headphones — with the goal of helping athletes get a better, safer workout. Helping individuals get great sleep and a great workout is really rewarding! I have employees and contractors who have worked hard to help make the business what it is today, and so we motivate each other to keep DubsLabs moving forward. It takes a team for sure.

Q: How do you stay organized?
A: It may seem bland, but I absolutely love standard operating procedures (SOPs) to help make sure that everyone knows what tasks to perform and how to perform them. We also use Asana Project Management for all DubsLabs projects so that we can stay on track and can give assignments with due dates.

Q: What was the most surprising success you experienced early on?
A: I launched the first generation Bedphones and the accompanying app in the summer of 2011. A couple days later, I sent an email to Engadget introducing the product. Engadget ran a story the next day, and the story spread like wildfire to other tech and non-tech related websites. Bedphones received so much publicity and orders that I had to hire four of my childhood friends to pack and ship hundreds of Bedphones from my parent’s basement. I made back my life savings in the first six days, post launch.
Another surprising success was when Bedphones were featured on the Dr. Oz Show. It was so crazy seeing a product that I had created out of thin air being shown off to millions of viewers around the country. That was one of the happiest days of my life.

Q: What tips would you give an entrepreneur looking to start a business?
A: If you are creating physical products, think long and hard about where you want to have your products made. Finding a factory in Asia might be cost-efficient, but know that manufacturing is a long and arduous process that is exponentially more difficult when communicated across many time zones.
Perseverance is key. You are going to have hardships and will likely want to quit at some point along the way. If you truly believe in your product, do at least one thing every day that keeps you moving forward.
For product companies, don’t make your business 100 percent reliant on a certain factory, person, sales channel, law, etc. For example, if you only sell your products on Amazon, and then one day Amazon changes their terms of service, your business could disappear overnight. Another example could be a cannabis-related business going under due to changes in the laws that affect them.

Q: Being an entrepreneur can be stressful, how do you de-stress?
A: My girlfriend and I moved to Bend three years ago for the mountain biking and accessibility to nature. Being able to go for a mountain bike ride around rivers, lakes and waterfalls on a daily basis is incredibly therapeutic — it makes the stress of the day disappear.   www.dubslabs.com

Gobi Gear

Q: What inspired you to start Gobi Gear?
A: I was planning a three-month backpacking trip through Asia with my husband and I just knew that I didn’t want to waste time rummaging around in my backpack — especially in Nepal where we’d be trekking through some of the most magical terrain on Earth. I looked into packing cubes and stuff sacks, but they didn’t really solve the issue. I remember thinking that I would still need to remember what was in each bag. So I thought, “What if I could have five stuff sacks but all in one place, always together?” and that is how we started with the idea of Gobi Gear’s signature product, the SegSac — a divided stuff sack that literally gives you five in one.

Chez
Founder Chez Brungraber

Q: Can you share two challenges you encountered in your first year and how you rose above them?
A: Only two? Just kidding. The first big challenge was finding a manufacturer who could understand what I needed and who could make our product for a good price. This was in the early days of Alibaba.com, which is where I ended up finding my first factory. I was very methodical in how I approached the situation and had several factories make me samples, plus give me price quotes. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I kept pushing forward until I had a product I liked.
The second challenge was getting the word out about this new product I had just produced and imported. I had no budget for advertising, so I turned to social media and blogger reviews. I started small with my own twitter account and offered to send free samples to bloggers with 3,000-10,000 monthly readers. It was great, better than I even understood at the time, to be able to leverage this thing called social media, which was pretty much free, and start gaining customers. It was a cool experience.

Q: How do you stay motivated?
A: I go outside and I walk. I just walk. I zone out. I listen to the birds, the wind in the trees, I observe the sunlight and/or the clouds. It is my form of meditation, but it also reminds me of how great being outdoors is, and why I want to contribute to people making the most of their time outside, by being organized instead of being in backpack chaos.

Q: How do you stay organized?
A: I have a lot of automations running for me. That helps. I don’t need to remember to send an order confirmation to a customer, or a follow up ten days later, or ask for a review, because it is all automated. This allows me to stay focused on one-time tasks, which appear on my calendar. It is very easy this way for me to know what I should be working on at any given time.

Q: When did you know that Gobi Gear was turning into a real business?
A: When it started growing without me doing much. You of course can always be doing more, and each day it seems we find more and more things to tweak, install and do, but, for a while, there were sales that I felt just rolled in the door, even though I was not actively advertising. This is when it became real. We hired some employees and found ourselves able to outsource things like photography and graphic design — something we had not been able to afford before.

Q: What was the most surprising success you experienced early on?
A: How many bloggers and even big publications (like BuzzFeed and the Chicago Tribute) featured our products. The publicity was really great, but surprising that this little company was getting some big media attention.

Q: What tips would you give an entrepreneur looking to start a business?
A: Before making a product, try to talk to people (future customers) and understand their pain-points, and how your product could alleviate that pain. You might have a great idea, but your customers might have even better ideas. By communicating with them early, you ensure you are making a product people actually want.
Do it cheap for as long as you can. You don’t need a fancy branding agency. You don’t need a marketing firm. You don’t even need paid ads. You can build your business via referral campaigns, word of mouth, blogger/press coverage and even crowdfunding. So many entrepreneurs go big and go bust, but by keeping the bills small you can ensure growth that is sustainable.
If you can get people on a subscription, that is a great revenue stream and builds a solid business. If not, just know your products and/or services will need to keep being innovated, either new colors, sizes, models or new products — you’ll need new innovation to keep people talking and coming back for more.

Q: Being an entrepreneur can be stressful, how do you de-stress?
A: I travel a lot. Seeing other people’s lives, especially those less fortunate, is a great way to put it all into perspective. You realize your problems just aren’t that bad. I find peace in this, it allows me to keep going even when things get frustrating. I also get massages regularly, play sports and spend time in the hot tub.
www.gobigear.com 

Axiology

Q: What inspired you to start Axiology?
A: When I first discovered the widespread practice of animal testing in the cosmetics industry, I was horrified at the thought of innocent animals being abused for our vanity. I committed to only supporting brands that were vegan, cruelty free and natural. However, my search results fell short. I didn’t find companies that spoke to me as a 25 year-old living in New York City and felt the formulations and performance of vegan and natural cosmetics weren’t good enough. It was then I began making lipstick in my kitchen.

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Founder Ericka Rodriguez

Q: Can you share a few challenges you encountered in your first year and how you rose above them?
A: We have created all formulations and lipstick colors in our own shop. I don’t have a degree in cosmetic chemistry, so we learned how to make everything through trial and error. One problem we faced early on was cracks showing up on the lipstick bullets. It took months to figure out what the problem was. I tested and retested our formulation over and over again and kept tweaking things, taking out ingredients and replacing them with others. After months of stress, I discovered that the problem was actually our lipstick mold all along. It was so bizarre.
Another challenge was when I needed to hire my first employee. At the time, I was still working out of my house. My boyfriend was working from home too, so we were sharing an office space in

our spare bedroom. When I hired my first Axiology employee there were three of us in a 75 square foot space. This was a challenge in patience and cooperation.
Q: How do you stay motivated?
A: There is a bigger goal for us outside of being a cosmetics company. We are focused on animal welfare and give back to organizations that take care of animals. For example, our cosmetics are palm-oil free. If you don’t know about the devastation palm oil is causing to our environment, I urge you to look this up. Palm oil plantations are also causing extinction in orangutans (amongst other species).   We give money to save the orangutans. For us, saving animals keeps us motivated.

Q: How do you stay organized?
A: I write lists — lots of lists.

Q: What was the most surprising success you experienced early on?

A: We are in our third year of business currently, and at the beginning of this year we were picked up by Sephora and that is huge for us.
Q: What three tips would you give an entrepreneur looking to start a business?
A: First, it’s going to get stressful, frustrating and challenging. Know this and commit to it. Second, find time for yourself, don’t make your life all about work. And third, find your people. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs and create a network.

Q: Being an entrepreneur can be stressful, how do you de-stress?
A: Running, biking, playing with dogs and fostering lots of kittens.
www.axiologybeauty.com

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