A cat litter box. Fresh roasted coffee. Booze from Oregon City. Greater Portland Inc., the region's economic development organization, has announced some of the winners of grants and free training designed to aid area startups to grow into international exporters.
The products which may one day carry the brand of Portland to far-off places include Trail Distilling of Oregon City, Nossa Familia coffee of the Pearl District and Grand PooBox of southwest Portland.
Each business has a desire to expand internationally but lack the knowhow, and they fit under GPI's rubric of "inclusivity."
The initiative, launched in November 2017, aims to help small businesses, including those led by women, minority and veteran entrepreneurs expand into the global marketplace.
The Growing Small Businesses Globally initiative is part of the Greater Portland 2020 framework, a five-year action plan to align business, education and civic leaders around regional economic priorities. Small business owners in the Greater Portland region will gain access to counseling, advising and trainings.
Entrepreneurs often talk about incremental breakthroughs. They don't invent a new market, they improve a product. They "build a better mousetrap," as the saying goes.
Courtney Karsted is an interior designer with a dream: she believes she has designed the better cat litter box.
When she worked from home in Chicago, Karsted kept her cat's litter box in the closet in her spare bedroom-cum-office. She was forever clearing up litter that the cat tracked across her carpet. So, she designed the Grand Poo Box. It uses a half of the litter most boxes do. It is all gathered at the end away from the opening. The cat has to walk in an out over a perforated ramp, which removes most of the litter from its paws.
"It's a design concept from my own experience. I wanted a tidy litter box environment, while looking cool." She worked with an industrial designer to give it a rounded cube look that is very Apple. The average self-cleaning litter box costs around $200. Hers is $85.
Karsted moved to Portland three years ago and works as a product manager and designer on large commercial remodels for Cushman and Wakefield, from $2 million up to $12 million currently. Clients include Autodesk and NW Natural.
She calls the Grand Poo Box her "other full-time job," and can't wait for it to launch and become her only job.
Manufacturing and its discontents
She has two challenges, however.
One, it hasn't launched yet. It's behind schedule, because the steel molds are being made abroad to save $100,000. The supplier was delayed by three months, missing the holiday shopping season. The actual injection molding and other manufacturing will be done in the U.S. by Anfinsen Plastic Molding.
"We expect the product to hit the market at the end of January. We ran into a few delays. As a budding
business lady, I've learned a lot about the manufacturing process," she says with a sigh.
"It was a disappointment, but I've had a ball every step of the way." Indeed, she was on Steve Harvey's Funderdome, a rollicking alternative to Shark Tank, and won the second prize, $25,000.
Karsted is also pretty gung ho about her banker, Portland's Albina Community Bank.
"I went to 12 banks for a loan, and Albina was last on my list. I was seriously going to close up shop if they said no, but they were supportive and fully funded my business. I wanted $100,000 but they lent me $110,000," because they suspected there might be unforeseen hitches.
Since then, she has been taking preorders on her website, which is written in the voice of her own cat, who is called Rex. It's a cute trick that seems to be working. She has sold more than 100 so far.
The second challenge is exports. Karsted was surprised how international the inquiries are.
"I get emails every day and 50 percent of them are from Australia and Europe, especially since I was on TV. I am constantly telling them to stay tuned, but I need to be savvy about exports. It's a huge market."
Hence her application — and acceptance by — Greater Portland Inc.'s Growing Small Businesses Globally Initiative.
Karsted was a member of Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, through which she discovered the Oregon Small Business Development Center.
"I thought, 'I need to know everything possible about getting product to the international world.' I applied and went to a seminar on ecommerce. So now ecommerce, I am already there. It's now just getting product to market."
Can GPI's network move needle?
Export partners include the Oregon Small Business Development Center, U.S. Commercial Service, U.S. Small Business Administration, Global Trade Center and Business Oregon.
The chosen companies will receive free training, mentoring and travel funds to generate export opportunities in Greater Portland's key international markets. These could be anywhere from the usual Portland-friendly places such as Japan and Canada, to new markets in Australasia, Europe and Africa.
GPI is often thought of as a group that extolls the virtues of Portland to companies in other states, and it led the effort to lure Amazon's HQ2 here.
"This is one more variable," Lloyd Purdy, vice president of regional competitiveness for GPI told the Business Tribune. "Business recruitment is a solid tactic. We have competitive advantages and some of those advantages can help our existing companies." Since 95 percent of the world's consumers live outside U.S., Purdy says, "Someone producing a consumer good should be thinking of that 95 percent. It's a little extra work, and sometimes requires more deliberation. That's what GSBG is doing: pairing some export-focused training with some scholarship money to cover the cost of the training."
Companies could be done training by as soon as March. Purdy says he expects the first successes to be visible in 2018.
The money can be used to cover travel costs, for market research missions and trips to trade fairs.
"Originally, we thought we would take them somewhere we're going, and then we realized they knew where to go. Through training they would learn where their product fits. It's up to them where to take their first export experience."
He says GPI has lined up its partners, who are already providing training, into a curriculum aimed at new Portland exporters.
Some courses can be as little as two hours with a financial advisor. Others are more like the rigorous 30 hours with the Small Business Development Center.
One third of the training is on technical details such as shipping, tariffs and export-import controls.
One third is on financing and how to get paid. And one third is on cultural differences: "How do you make your first export experience in the right tone," says Purdy. "Dealing with different laws, a foreign language...sometimes it's better to just export to Canada. That's often a great first export experience."
The U.S. Commercial Service, a federal agency, has an export-focused program. The Growing Small Businesses Globally initiative will pair up entrepreneurs with businesses that are already in that system, for mentoring.
"Some exporters will need a distributor in a specific country, some will need a buyer, some will be dealing with multiple countries."
Of the 14 entrepreneurs who applied by the deadline of Dec. 15, 2017, GPI has selected nine for the scholarship program.
Most of the companies have a consumer product they want to export, rather than a service. Half were consumables, such as food. Coffee and a kombucha kit were also on the list. Purdy says Portland products are often a hit in countries that value craftsmanship.
Two thirds of the applications were from women, minorities or veterans.
"That's one part of our focus — to build an inclusive economy."
He says the term inclusive differs from the popular buzzword "diverse" or "diversity" in that it has a wider reach and can include majority groups.
"That's what we're most excited about: continuing to build an inclusive economy, and help women, minority and veteran entrepreneurs build their exports. No one else in our region is putting the puzzle together the way we are: linking minorities and exporting."
He says the program will build on the Portland area's strengths, which are innovation and healthy trade ties, especially to Asian countries.
"Maybe it's an idea whose time is right, where everyone can benefit, not leaving anyone out?"
Back at the Grand PooBox, it's full steam ahead. As one who dreamed of running her own business for years, Karsted says, "For me, this is do or die."
She will use her travel funds to go attend SuperZoo in Las Vegas in July, and probably another global pet expo in Orlando in March.
"A Belgian pet store owner wants my product. And I heard from a distributor in Amsterdam. I am hearing from people."
She needs help with the strict regulations of the European Union, for example around protecting consumer information.
"It's not just mailing lists. But how do they enforce it when we're not part of the European Union? That's going to be very valuable for me."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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