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Indie design company Nemo at 20 is still punching above its weight, working with the man but never for the man.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nemo Design co-founder and CEO Trevor Graves in the gallery section of the company's 20,000 square-foot headquarters. The walls were designed for showing off design work and were built by skateboarders, Graves's friends from the 1990s.

Nemo Design has grown from shooting photos for skate shoes and snowboards to launching luxury boat brands and multi resort ski passes. The company still occupies the warehouse space on Belmont opposite Colonel Summers Park that it used to rent in 1999 for $2,000 a month, and now owns. Cofounder and CEO Trevor Graves started out at way too: with an associate's degree in Advertising Design and Production, he didn't come out a prestigious design firm, MBA program or corporation. The dividing walls in the 20,000 square foot building, which used to be a golf apparel factory, were built by skateboard and BMX buddies because they were good at building ramps. Nemo got its break with Nike 6.0, helping big sportswear sell to rebellious kids. It has since diversified to national brands such as Aviara and Ikon, and has 40 full time employees. But Graves sees changes happening — the commodification of design as design tools get cheaper and good design more prevalent, and the hollowing out of the market. Having mastered Gens X and Y, Nemo is moving on to Z. we sat down with Graves and asked him what works for him, and what doesn't.

Business Tribune: What was it like here in 1999?

Trevor Graves: The building had been vacant for three years. It had been a supplement warehouse, and before that a factory for Gore-Tex golf clothing, Forester. Junki Yoshida bought it and sent production to Asia. So, we rented this 20,000 square-foot building for 10 people. That's a smart idea! But I had the vision of building a creative community, with offices let out to fashion, music, photographers, videographers, snowboard brands — and freelance writers working with us so we could scale quickly. We shared conference rooms, a server and internet. By subletting space we were cash flowing $200 a month instead of paying $2,000 a month.

We're more of a farmer's approach to knowing a cow needs an acre of ground to make milk, I think creatives are the same, they need a certain amount of elbow space to feel not so confined and that they will stick around. The headroom, when it's raining all winter, it feels open.

BT: So, it worked?

TG: We've had fundraisers, here, weddings, kick offs for brands, even — sad to say — memorials.

As the city starts to grow, our friends get pinched out. We want them to be able to afford this. We designed it because we want you here. We're famous for our Halloween parties, 1,000 people in here dressed to the hilt. The design community, they own Halloween, and we own Halloween. We do a haunted house, then a dance floor at the back. This hallway is my gallery. When I have a biz dev opportunity and I bring a client through and say here's the kind of work we do at Nemo. It's easier to walk and talk about the work we do.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Graves in one of the war rooms where his team shows cleints how the ideas are stacking up. In 20 years, Nemo has gone from shooting snowboard and other action sports to launching luxury brands.

BT: You do more than just visuals now?

TG: We also do brand building. MasterCraft is an anchor client for Nemo based out of Knoxville, Tennessee and they make wakeboard boats that nobody needs at $150k a pop. They made an attempt to buy Chris-Craft, that fell through and so they said 'Let's make our own luxury brand.' We said cool, and our job was to do it from zero to hero. We came up with the name, the logoway, the colorways and the industrial design, working with the nautical engineers. We start with research, here's your customer. What they are looking for? What do they buy? The colors they'd like…take all those insights and work with their team to engineer the boat. So we're launching the AV32, made by Aviara in the MasterCraft factory in Knoxville.

BT: How have you lasted 20 years in Portland?

TG: As Detroit makes great cars, Portland makes great shoes. There's probably 100 shoe companies here in Portland. As a result of all those shoe companies being in a commodity industry, there's been the grow and expansion of agencies and creative services. So, nationwide, I think Portland is one of the creative hotspots. There's eight or nine Fortune five hundred companies up in Seattle, but a lot of those companies will still come down to Portland to get the creative work done. What's great with the technology now is it's democratically flattened the landscape. Wieden + Kennedy is a much bigger agency than Nemo but if you look at us on Nemo we look kind of the same. We do Nike, they do Nike, it's vastly different in the real world but for the end consumer it's pretty flat. The open floor plan is used by everyone now, like WeWork. Creative people like to socialize, they're like 'Hey look at this YouTube video, O that's funny, that' where they get the value out of coming to work, they just like seeing each other. You need an acre for each cow, these guys need a certain amount of space to play. Putting all the mindsets together makes it work, and clients pay us to get all those creatives to perform on time, on budget. That's the magic.

COURTESY: NEMO DESIGN  - Recent Nemo Design work includes designing and launchign the luxury boat brand Avaria.

BT: For Tillamook County Smoker you have an authentic guy in an old truck. For 10 Barrell Brewing someone opening a beer bottle on the spokes of a spinning bike wheel, in a shower of sparks.

TG: We invent or start brands or reinvent brands. The beer guy was a bike athlete. We shot it shot it a bunch of times until it looked right.

BT: With Instagram video you have four seconds to tell a story. Do you like that restraint?

TG: I do. Good creative comes out of what you're allowed to do, and it forces you to think better. IG is a just a huge channel. A lot of our clients have good success on Instagram. The new retail thing they're doing, starting with some fashion brands, it's going to be gnarly. It's going to be like Amazon. It's pretty powerful, more work for us!

BT: If someone says here's a product, say, an aluminum propelling pencil, and they want a video on Instagram, can you do that here in this building?

TG: Yes, but where we would start is why? And does you customer want that? Everything is based on what the end customer needs and sees. This guy buying the pen, what's his whole story about? What does the consumer want, what does he value? And then go here's the messaging, we think red resonates with that guy, the kind of taglines would work, then do the production schedule, let's do a video, let's deal with this athlete, let's get this influencer to start seeing this product on their social feeds….

BT: Why might you choose, hypothetically, for the aluminum propelling pencil?

TG: Let's say Jeff Kovel of Skylab Architecture is the influencer: I would leave it up to him, because he understands the audience. Let's say he had 300,000 followers, we'd call him a magazine with 300,000 engaged users every day. He's a newspaper. That's how we look at these influencers. He could say 'These (propelling pencil) guys are paying me!' or he could have a button at the bottom saying 'BUY NOW'.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Graves is concerned about the commodification of design. As the tools have become cheaper, newly launched design firms take on work for low prices before burning out after a couple of years as the exigencies of running a business take their toll. On the other hand, media like Instagram have opened a direct link from the content producer to the purchasing consumer that even Nike stars like Michael Jordan would envy.

BT: Do you ask people for their own input?

TG: You have to. It'd be dumb to say we know more about your audience than you. We're building campaigns in conjunction with the audience, like, 'We've got this new pencil coming out, I'll have it to you on the 5th. Can you have something out because we're going to a trade show on the 20th? And they'll creatively think of something….

BT: How do you have influence beyond the industry?

TG: If I want to get something done, I'm part of the Entrepreneurs Organization, EO, Portland chapter. And in that group, there's someone from every facet of Business in Portland I can call. I went 'How do I buy the building?' Paul Williams shared his resources, how to go through the banking and permitting, and it was like child's play. It's a lonely job, you can't talk to your employees. For my business, the commodification of design is an issue. We started in 1999 there was about six boutique agencies, that were affordable. We got Nike and Adidas moved here and Under Armor, and that means opportunity, causing other agencies to pop up. But the barrier of being an agency is so low, we're seeing 'Hey I'm a creative director I did a famous campaign at Wieden, I'm going to jump out and start my own agency.' In the book 'EMyth: Business Coaching' by Michael Gerber it talks about technicians. They start their own business and suddenly they have to deal with business issues like rent, real estate marketing and sales. They come in and they're good for a year or two then they go away. The young ones come in work around the clock for $2 an hour, because they're technicians and they're good designers and just want to do the work. And the client gets used to that. And when I come in and go this is what it really costs to do this work, they don't want to hear. Photography, it used to be film and you had a skill. Now it's digital and everybody does it, everyone with a phone is a photographer and they're on Instagram. And the going rates are plummeting. That's the commodification of design, that's what's happening in the city of Portland. Young people come in and what the old guys has forgotten, they haven't even learned yet. Any time there's an innovation there's a disruption, and digital photography's just a good example.

COURTESY: NEMO DESIGN  - Recent work by Nemo Design includes launchign a multi-resort ski pass called IKON. Grave started out as a snowbaord photographer, even getting beaten up by a skiier when boarders were persona non grata at many resorts.

BT: It's a support group?

TG: It's a lonely job, you can't talk to your employees. The only person who can help you is someone in the same boat. And everyone in that group is doing a million plus in revenues. What I find is interesting is all the businesses, 80 percent of their problems are the same. You've got HR issues and real estate issues…You can work with each other and find solutions. One issue around labor is that salaries continue to group, but the big issues is rents. With Google and the tech companies moving up from the Bay Area it's causing rents to be really expensive for people who just have a normal business.

BT: You worked with Mike Trout of baseball's L.A. Angels.

TG: Yes. We shoot baseball players at spring training and have body doubles in Portland without the shoes, hats, bodies, and you just take the head. If the shirt is blank you put in the graphic for the store. We try to shoot neutrals on location with the athlete, because we know there's going to be a lot of changes downstream, and be ready, because once the season starts it's hard to get time from someone as big as Mike Trout. He's an awesome person, a great guy to work with. There's a lot of things we've learned with Nike about how to get stuff out to market. That's why most of our brands aren't in Portland. 'Oh you do Nike work? We want some of that.' And so they come to us here in Portland because we know how to do it. The race is on."

BT: The fish eye perspective drawings by Adam Haynes were done for Nike 6.0?

TG: Nike 6.0 launched our career. In 2004 we were approached to integrate the action sports kid into the Nike culture. Gen Xers were anti corporate, they hated Nike, Nike was very aware of that and they needed a strategy for how to get that kid to buy Nike product. We were integral from at the beginning, with four people inside Nike to work on the 6.0 concept, to where it was eight years of work and 8,000 projects. One project would be an energy event at the Beijing Olympics based around BMX. We did photoshoots, special athlete kits, website work, campaign work…. We were up against Wieden + Kennedy because they were the agency of record for Nike, but in this instance we had way more expertise in this audience. They believed in us."

BT: How do you go from skate and snowboard to being a serious businessman?

TG: Well we're not the only ones, look at the hippies back in the day. They're the ones that built Silicon Valley, they were never going to be the man. I think a skateboarder was that era's version of, 'I don't want to be the man.' And today it's probably a kid who's into E-sports. What it gives you growing up in that group is this leather to be able to take on the hardships of business. We were this tribe of snowboarders, we all stick together. Aaron Draplin's one of them. Heart Coffee, Wille Yli-Luoma is a pro snowboarder; See See Motorcycles, Thor Drank, he's a snowboarder, James Brand knives, he's a snowboarder, and we all know each other, look out for each other and feed each other. Coming out of snowboarding, I wasn't allowed on a hill, I got beat up twice because I was on a snowboard, by some buy that looked like a dentist. Early 80s, 90s it wasn't allowed on some ski resorts. It was a special thing In 1998 if I saw you and you had a snowboard, we were buddies. You were sleeping on my couch.

The guys who built the walls were good at building ramps. They went from being a BMX rat to now owning a construction company for framing. Spike Jonze, my business partner Mark Luman gave him his first job, as a photographer at Freestyle magazine, Spike was 16 or 17 and he grew up to be...Spike Jonze! And he has been accepted into the mainstream as a very respected creative director Willie Luoma has been a phenom. And Draplin has made a whole movement for himself with his field recordings and is energy for talking about what design should be. James Brand was an industrial designer for Burton, came out to Nike and now he's started his own business. Thor was in the movie Jackass, he did a stunt on a minibike (50 cc motorbike), a satire of Tony Hawk, and he built us some desks, and I commissioned his first motorcycle for See See Motorcycle, and now he's got that bike show and two or three locations. And he's a snowboard rat through and through. That common thig we all have is you look at the mountain and it's not dangerous, it's fun, and you take that into your grown-up life. I can take this risk, it's fine.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Graves and his team have grown from ten to 40 over 20 years in their warehouse space. His theory is that just as a cow needs an acre to make milk, so creative people need a certain amount of elbow room to work and then come together.

BT: Is there an upside to the democratization of design tools? Better products?

TG: Yes, the world gets the pleasure of having good design and they take it for granted. They don't even notice. The barrier to entry is low: laptop and Wi-Fi and you're good to go. What we're seeing at the top end, I see Wieden getting smaller and smaller in Portland, from 800 and now I hear 250. That's shops like Nemo being able to take some of their business. We're part of their problem, and then the kid starting the coffee shop is part of my problem.

BT: What's that certain thing you see when you look at someone's portfolio that makes you go No or Yes!

TG: It's a visual field so it's hard to verbalize, but I see good design, rule of thirds, all the classic things that have been part of design forever. And then what's their original spin? And it's finally meeting somebody, and having that personal DNA where I personally can't wait to interact with you every day. We have this French guy Frenchy here. He aspires to be a heshen, guys with trucks, motorcycles, a mullet and jeans. He just wants to be the worst kind of stereotypical American. But he has that good design where I'm like 'Hey man I can't wait to get you on the team.' And that's what our clients are paying us to do. Sort through them. I put out for a designer on social I get 1,000 resumes. I reply to everyone but I only pull out five to meet. It keeps me juiced up because the young designers are wide open, nothing's broke yet. Designers get burned out about having to do the same thing over and over and over again.

BT: Is there really a design community here?

TG: Yes, there's the AIA, there's the Portland Ad Federation works hard to connect us, and there's conversations every day at happy hours every day, and there's operation directors know each other, because staffing goes back and forth. 'Hey this guy from your shop, would you work with him again?'

BT: What about Generation Z?

TG: We call them Zoomers here. They're more like the silent generation now, who came back from World War II. They realized they had it good and were respectful. Millennials are trying to deal with the mess that's been made by the Baby Boomers. Zoomers are just downstream from that. They're so, so smart, because for entertainment they've got Google. They've got everything their fingertips. They're much nicer then the Gen Xers. But it all evens out the same.

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Nemo Design

Founded: 1999 by Jeff Bartel, Trevor Graves and Chris Hotz.

FTE: 40

Address: 1875 S.E. Belmont St, Portland.

Phone: 503-872-9631

Web: https://nemodesign.com/

IG:@nemodesign @trevorgraves

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Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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