Sourcing project materials goes 21st century
Nicole Schmidt remembers the day she came up with the seed of an idea that grew into the Portland-based company Krowdsourced.
At the time, the interior designer had switched over to the sales side of the industry and was working for a countertop manufacturer. She was updating samples in the crowded materials library of a local architectural firm when she tripped, setting off a chain of events that included a spilled box of stone samples, a couple of expletives and a sudden realization.
Almost every design firm in the building industry has a materials library, where architects and interior designers turn to find samples of products from carpet to wallpaper to exterior metal accents to show clients when designing projects. But Schmidt knew that keeping those libraries organized and updated has been a struggle, especially as firms have been faced with a nonstop flow of work in a booming economy.
"I was just like, this is crazy. There has got to be a better way for us, as an industry, to specify materials," Schmidt said. "Construction is 5% of (the country's gross domestic product), and the fact there was really nowhere you could go online to look for commercial construction materials kind of blew my mind."
The result of her search for a better alternative is the year-old Krowdsourced, which is changing how manufacturers connect with architects and interior designers when it comes to finding the right products and materials for projects.
The success of the company, which consists of an online platform supported by a physical location, has also moved Schmidt into a new phase of her professional life.
"I call myself an accidental entrepreneur," she said.
A helping hand
Schmidt originally envisioned Krowdsourced as an online site where architects and designers could search through samples from manufacturers who specialized in products and materials for commercial projects. She taught herself to code and began building the platform, tapping friends and colleagues in the industry for a beta test group as she went along.
"I would run features and ideas by (them). 'What functionality do you need? Do you need this? Do you need that?"
Those conversations led, for example, to the addition of a feature that Schmidt says makes Krowdsourced stand out from a handful of online competitors. When users submit orders for samples, their requests go directly to a local representative for each of the manufacturers on the list, creating a direct line of communication.
"That's what's really unique about our platform," Schmidt said. "We've opened up that communication. We've simplified it so that they don't have to have that Excel spreadsheet and track who all these people are. They can do it through our platform and know it will end up in the inbox of the right person."
Even as Schmidt refined the online platform, though, she wasn't sure what she had was a viable business model. Then a friend, who was part of her beta test group, suggested she think about adding a brick-and-mortar library in a downtown Portland office building to the platform. Schmidt began asking her colleagues in the design industry if they would be interested in the combination.
"I just asked around, 'Is this something you would need, something you would pay for?' They said, 'Oh my god, yes, yes, yes.'" Schmidt said. "That's been the reaction of the industry since (we opened in April 2018), too. Everyone is saying, 'This is amazing. We've been waiting for this.'"
The space, on the seventh floor of the Pittock Building on Washington Street, between Southwest 10th and Park Avenues, was the location of the design studio of Linda Czopek, a long-time leader in the local interior design scene, who was preparing to retire.
Schmidt talked with Czopek, and the two women eventually arranged with the building's management to have Schmidt move into the space through a turnkey arrangement.
Czopek also helped Schmidt and her team get settled in the space. She gave all of her office furniture and electronics to Schmidt and provided the name of her bookkeeper. She helped sort fabrics and stock the library. She even helped spread word about the business venture to architectural firms in Portland.
"As much as she could, (Linda) fully supported the turnover and the creation of Krowdsourced," Schmidt said. "It's … a phenomenal story of this woman who had run a business for 30-something years just really connecting to that next generation of design leaders and women entrepreneurs."
For Czopek, providing support for Schmidt and her business made it easier to transition out of the space. The working relationship with the Krowdsource team also has made it possible for Czopek to be able to work on a handful of large projects that have come her way even in retirement without having to return to the effort in a full-time capacity.
"It made me feel good about stepping back," Czopek said. "It's gratifying to watch what I think is the future of the field and watch Nicole make it happen."
The online platform and the physical materials library in downtown Portland work hand in hand.
The online library offers 30,000 individual products. Schmidt says she's lost count of the number of physical samples in the office library, but she says there are probably "hundreds of thousands."
As in any library, rows of free-standing shelves fill part of the space. However, instead of books, they feature blocks of wood, glass, metal and other materials. Squares of nubby carpet sit in one of the boxes on shelving along one wall. Squares of furniture finishes rest in another. Swatches of wallpaper — including one that features gray owls on a pink background — are spread across a countertop near the front door.
While traditional materials libraries have required manufacturers to pay for space to showcase samples of their products, Schmidt took a different approach. Manufacturers can provide as many samples as they like without any costs. Instead, Schmidt's business makes its money from the fees that architectural and interior design firms pay for annual memberships.
While members can access the online platform around the clock, the official operating hours of the brick-and-mortar library are from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, for their annual fee, members are given a keycode that allows them to access the physical library — and its contents — during off hours.
Members also get to participate in the curation process, providing input about what manufacturers and suppliers as well as product samples they would like to see included in the library. The approach has allowed Schmidt and her staff to showcase local, small manufacturers and makers that might not normally be included in the average materials library.
"There are great wall covering vendors here in the Portland area; there are great tile makers and different people we can support," Schmidt said. "That's something that's really hard for architects and designers to find on their own, but it's so valuable when they can know about them."
Helping track down those unique products and coming up with creative solutions are things that Schmidt's team excels at.
In addition to Andy Rosic as the company's chief technology officer and Kristen Gilchrist, who handles sales, Schmidt's in-house team includes Ali Raymond and Ren DeCherney. While the business cards of Raymond and DeCherney identify them as product experts, they prefer to describe themselves as "Marian the librarians," but with a high-tech twist.
The two women are experts at keeping track of the latest trends in commercial building products and materials, scouring online design resources and social media sites like Instagram. The approach allows them to help designers and architects solve even the most perplexing design problems.
Among the requests that stand out in their minds were a call for a wood product that didn't look like wood and a request to track down a wall product that looked like quartz while also being translucent enough to transmit light.
"We found (both of) them," Raymond said.
"We're like traffic directors. People come to us and we can tell them where to go to find what they need," DeCherney added. "We want people to be able to do more design and less of the admin stuff."
Schmidt agrees with that assessment of the biggest benefit that Krowdsourced offers its members.
"We can help you solve your material problems much faster than you can on your own because this is the only piece of the project we do all day, every day," she said. "I can't help you with your watershed issues. I can't help you with zoning problems. But this, we can solve your material issues very fast."
Since starting a little more than one year ago, Krowdsourced has built its membership to more than 50 firms. Most are located in Oregon, but some are in Idaho and Washington. The company also hosted a trade show. Now it's time to take things to the next level, according to Schmidt.
She used her own money to get the business to this point, but is now looking at bringing some financing from investors into the mix. She and her team are working to expand the online platform to a national level and open a physical library in Seattle, all by the end of the year.
Schmidt also continuing to work on that balance between her background as a designer and her new role as an entrepreneur.
"Design is just a way of thinking — it's about solving problems," Schmidt said. "The new problem I'm solving is the entrepreneurship (angle), figuring out how to grow this and help our customers figure out how to solve their problems."
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