May was a mad month for Oregon’s maker* community.
On May 11th, the White House hosted a National Makers’ Roundtable to talk about what it takes to transform makers into start-ups. Oregon was represented at the Roundtable by a half-dozen makers and advocates, including our guests, Kelley Roy and Josh Lifton.
Roy is the founder and director of ADX Portland, a collective fabrication space in southeast Portland that offers everything from classes to custom manufacturing.
Lifton, a former Puppet Labs exec, has founded a start-up called Crowd Supply. It offers an online platform and back-end services to help makers raise money and visibility for their projects — everything from open-source hardware to help you hack your phone to home goods.
Right after the White House makers’ roundtable, both Kelley and Josh spent time attending maker fairs in New York and San Francisco, respectively. We talked to them about what was exhibited and the issues at play for makers at every stage. (Conversation was edited for space)
April Baer: You two both attended maker fairs and conferences right after the D.C. Roundtable. Is there anything that distinguishes what Portland makers are showing compared with products from places like LA, Chicago, or Montreal?
Kelley Roy: I hear a lot from makers in Portland that they really pull from the natural environment. A lot of the products people gravitate toward play into that. [At WantedDesign in Brooklyn] the theme we were using was a northwest campfire scene — we had a little sample of Jacobson’s salt, Olympic Provisions Salami, some knives from Oaks Bottom Forge, the Schuttenworks iPhone dock, and the Portland Press coffee cozy - really playing on that aesthetic.
AB: I suppose it’s an acceptable risk that others throughout the U.S. might come to see us as a people who cook all their venison over an open fire.
Josh Lifton: I’m OK with that. The sooner we can turn “Portlandia” into a newsreel, rather than satire, the better, right?
JL: I was just down in the Bay Area. The people creating products there almost always tend to go for a very big route. They need to get a million units made or a hundred-thousand units made. Only certain factories can handle that. They don’t even know if the market wants their product yet. In Portland — and in Oregon in general — we have this really vibrant ecosystem of manufacturers that have been loosely affiliated, all within a nice dense corridor. Within five miles of where we’re sitting right now [Crowd Supply HQ on SE 11th in Portland] I can get a high-quality prototype of almost anything made.
AB: The Obama administration invited you two and others to the Makers Roundtable with the stated intent of finding out what small industry needs to thrive. What do you see as the challenge of getting off the ground?
JL: On Crowd Supply, it really runs the gamut. Some are makers who’ve decided to try to get customers and generate revenue. Some of them, [the motivation is] really just ‘This thing has to exist because I believe in it so strongly, and I just want other people to have it.’
KR: The challenges of real estate and employment are the two things I hear makers talk about all the time. We don’t have a skilled labor force to do the production work at the levels that we need. And we need affordable industrial space.
AB: A couple days before you were invited to DC, President Obama came to Portland to pitch the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What were your reservations about the contrast between those two events?
KR: It’s the disconnect between Obama making all these statement about supporting makers, on-shoring and re-shoring of manufacturing jobs, and a trade policy that is not doing that, that’s actually shifting more jobs overseas. I wish he’d had [the event] at Chris King, a local manufacturer who makes 90% of his product in America, and 40% of his product is exported.
AB: You chose not to attend?
KR: Yeah, everybody in Portland, all the politicians love the maker movement. It’s like this cute little thing that doesn’t have any substance to it. Actually there is a lot of substance here.
AB: Does global trade policy have to be an either-or proposition for makers? There have to be some who rely on foreign suppliers or foreign markets.
JL: Yeah. I think the question for me, with the TPP, is, ‘Who is it for?’ Who does it really benefit?’ If you look at who’s making the decisions, it’s very clearly, multi-national corporations. It’s not these companies that may become the next large companies.
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*One quick word of explanation: when we say “makers,” we mean any number of small-scale manufacturers, mostly creating stuff in their living rooms, garages, and shops. Many of them have a tech focus. Some go on to form full-blown businesses. As with a lot of the DIY-creative work we talk about on the show, cash flow for makers varies. Some are well-funded and crowd-sourced. Others, not so much.