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Killing it Softly

StartupPDX Challenge firms in the first flush of traction


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - COVER: Kelly McCollum of Yellow Scope explains to Portland State student Darriel Ingram how her and her business partner Marcie Colledge came up with the idea of science kits just for girls.Four months into the Startup PDX Challenge, what are the six winning companies doing with their free office space and $15,000 in taxpayers money?

The Portland Development Commission runs the annual contest to nurture promising startups. It whittled the field down to 19 semi finalists and announced six winners last September.

They are working hard, for sure, trying to make the most of their one year of grace to turn ideas into good and services and turn the heads of investors. The Tribune caught up with them at a recent open house.

1. Society Nine

Portland, schmortland. “I’m going to be in Los Angeles for about two-and-a-half months,” says Lynn Le by phone. She’s CEO of Society Nine, a training gear and apparel brand for “badass” women who are into combat sports. Le has been working remotely in friends’ startup offices and checking on her factory in North Hollywood, California, where samples could soon become production items. If this baby’s going to get born, she has to go where the manufacturing is.

Photo Credit: COURTESY: SOCIETY NINE - LEFT: Lynn Le of Society Nine is headed to Los Angeles to oversee the production of her training gear and apparel for women who are into combat sports.Her first offering will be boxing gloves and MMA gloves, a rash guard compression top, a jacket, jogger pants and a men’s hoodie created just for the Kickstarter campaign.

“It’s important to show that we can manage crossover appeal. We have our core athlete, which is the female fighter, then the women who aspire to be the core athlete.”

The big goal is to be ready for the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas in July, where her core market will be.

The Ash Street accelerator has been good for its camaraderie and peer mentorship.

“They are people I can rely on, we can be transparent and vulnerable. It’s nice to have a safe place, it feels like a therapy office sometimes. We trust each other and you don’t feel like you’re stupid if you don’t know something.”

She’s sanguine about tough talk. “The language around startups is really damaging, it’s all ‘We’re killing it!’ No one’s talking about not being able to pay their mortgage or feed their family, or maxing out their credit cards. That’s the really dark side.”

But success might breed success.

“I think Yellow Scope hitting their goal is awesome, I’m super proud of them.” Society Nine’s Kickstarter is shorter (30 not 60 days) and has a higher target ($50,000 not $25,000.)

She liked the #Likeagirl ads around the Superbowl, and tweeted back: “Tell#badasswomen to fight#likeagirl. We dare you.”

“The #likeagirl hashtag, that emotional statement is resonating, it’s going to be an exciting year.”

Taking a badass approach to business, Le, who is fiercely independent, makes one thing clear.

“We’re going to be held back if we don’t hit our Kickstarter goal. We have to have product, and we have to demonstrate we can execute and get some distribution deals. We can then use that traction and raise actual financing.”

Next step: Society Nine Kickstarter all the way: bit.ly/s9kickstarter

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tyrone Poole of NoAppFee is ready to deliver his product in the Portland rental market now and take it to Texas this summer.2. Yellow Scope

Things are about to blow up for Yellow Scope — in a good way. The firm makes science kits for girls that are not too pink and girly. It has had some success already. The Kickstarter was fully funded at $25,000 and achieved its stretch goal of $7,000. Five hundred kits have been pre-sold, which allows them to buy the beakers, thermometers and chemicals to assemble 500 kits. They will all be available to the public this March.

This bootstrapping — growth through sales — will fund their $44 physics kit and $20 chemistry set extension.

The founders Marcie Colledge and Kelly McCollum have rented a 250-square-foot warehouse space in the Lloyd District so the supplies don’t swamp the founders’ living rooms.

They are building momentum using their network, which starts with Portland-based parents. A conversation on the sidelines at their daughters’ soccer game led to their first hire, part-time social media and marketing expert Amy Compton (“Like straight outta,” she says.)

Compton got them spending $5 a day on targeted Facebook ads, which has driven a lot of traffic to the Kickstarter. “We upped it to $20 a day by the end,” she says, marveling at the small budget.

She took the job because, amongst a welter of Portland startups, the PDC endorsement legitimizes the company.

They have each harnessed husband power: founders Colledge and McCollum have signed their spouses up to deliver kits in Portland at a certain pledge level, and Compton learned her trade “by osmosis” from her hubby who has a social media marketing company.

They’ve been hitting up hip stores for shelf space, such as Screaming Sky (on Alberta Street), Finnegans, and SpielWerks, and were pleased to get shoutouts from big brands such as Dinosaur Farm and the viral hit GoldiBlox.

Next step: shipping in March

3. Design + Culture Lab

Joy Alise Davis, here in Portland, and her partner Renae Reynolds in New York run a research-based urban social lab addressing issues of cultural, racial and ethnic inequality within the built environment (designculturelab.com). Davis has hired some interns from the well-regarded Community Development program at Portland State University. The Lab’s section of the office is festooned with notes and visual planning aids.

Their work is somewhere between city planning and architecture.

“Portland’s going to be urban very soon,” she says, referring to the high rise towers she sees being built, with more in the works. Much of the work is making relationships with architects, developers and planners, to consult with them on incorporating minority perspectives into their work. They have worked with the community development firm Cogan, Owens Greene, helping them “add the lens of multiculturalism.”

They are turning an old phone booth into a storytelling booth, conducting interviews for the POC (People Of Color) Survival Guide to Public Space, about how to navigate and feel safe in public space.

It’s not all a bed of roses for Davis, but she’s handling it. Northwest Portland, where she moved in May 2014 is not exactly laissez faire Brooklyn. “I’ve been called the N word two or three times. It’s scary. For many people of color both in Portland and beyond, simply walking down the street can be a very frightening experience. This project seeks to build new understanding of how race and space inform each other.”

Next step: Gathering more stories.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Whats next? Five of the six startups in the PDCs incubator are still active after four months.4. RAFT Syrups

In other good news, RAFT Syrups won two Good Food awards for being tasty and sourced responsibly. RAFT won in the spirits category for a lemon ginger and a hibiscus lavender syrup. Their syrups are also coming to New Seasons in March and to Pine State Biscuits’ cocktail program.

RAFT are still brewing at the Three Little Figs jam kitchen near the airport, but are looking for a bigger production space.

“We had great sales and got a lot of new accounts and feedback in the holiday season,” says co-founder Roslynn Tellvik. “There were events all the time and lot of orders to ship.”

More people are using the syrups for baking than she expected.

“Someone told me the syrups make him feel like he’s a really good bartender even though he knows he isn’t, and that’s kind of why we started the company.”

They do their own product photography for the RAFT website, which is a key sales channel with a strong blog.

“We don’t know what we’re doing so it takes hours every week. We’re thinking of collaborating with someone else. It may be time.” Tellvik and her business partner, Sook Goh shoot on an iPhone. They use photo editing app VSCO, because they liked it on Instagram. Next up, RAFT will be selling a $100 system for making carbonated water at home.

“It looks terribly technical but it’s not,” adding the parts that can be bought from a home brew store.

PDC has been generous in helping them put out press releases, another area in which they were about to Google ‘How to write a press release.’”

Tellvik gives the incubator an A+ so far.

“It’s been the difference between meeting a huge amount of holiday orders and not, and being able to find people in such and such a company. Word of mouth in Portland has been important, this town is amazing. The first four months of the challenge the space has been instrumental.”

Next step: Fizzy water, a bigger kitchen and New Seasons.

5. NoAppFee

Tyrone Poole already acts the part of the young entrepreneur. He talks fast, he refers constantly to the future, and he ends the interview by racing off to the next action item. Poole’s NoAppFee (noappfee.com) provides a digital way for people to apply for apartments, without either tenant or management company having to go through reams of paperwork. Setting up Portland has been a sort of beta test for expanding into Houston, Texas. Oregon has just 500,000 rentals, whereas there are single property management companies in Texas that manage more than that.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tique Boxs Paige Hendrix chats during an open house for PDCs Startup PDX Challenge.Poole is hardly in the sparse end of the Ash street space, usually beating the streets, selling their platform into management companies one by one. The lawn signs and window decals are boxed up and ready to go, and his partner in Houston is waiting for Poole to join him this summer.

The space has been a godsend though, for its peer-to-peer mentoring and support.

Next step:Portland rollout in March.

6. Tique Box

Tique Box is no more. The monthly gift box of samples from Portland boutiques is shipping its last box in February.

Founders Inger McDowell and Paige Hendrix will pursue new interests. Hendrix said in a statement: “After a great run together, we have decided to take our creative visions and the lessons we have learned to pursue different paths.”

The two entrepreneurs expect to individually re-negotiate the terms of the Startup PDX Challenge agreement to reflect their next steps and are considering new ventures that may continue to take advantage of the Challenge resources.

Next step:Who knows?