Built Oregon, which owns Little Boxes, started as a storytelling venture by co-founders Mitch Daugherty (left) and Terry St. Marie. Their initial idea was to tell the stories of Oregon entrepreneurs via podcast and articles. A successful crowdfunding campaign and a few stories later, they realized they’d unearthed a goldmine of local consumer-product entrepreneurs. Mitch and Terry brainstormed about how to elevate and help these small, local businesses, and the current iteration of Built Oregon took shape.
Now, after four years of operating as a nonprofit, Built Oregon has shone the spotlight on many of Oregon’s small consumer-product businesses (think: chocolate, kombucha, beer, coffee, hot sauce, jewelry and more) by offering an accelerator program and an annual festival. Another key promotional event is Little Boxes, a three-day, post-Thanksgiving shopping scavenger hunt where shoppers collect codes by visiting and purchasing from participating (small, of course) retailers. Then they enter the codes in the Little Boxes app for a chance to win prizes.
We spoke with Mitch Daugherty about why shopping local really matters and how he and the board of Built Oregon take an entrepreneurial approach to running their nonprofit: They learn what their target market wants and needs and then provide it.
Hi Mitch! Tell us about your not-for-profit organization, Built Oregon.
Built Oregon focuses on supporting, connecting and accelerating Oregon’s consumer-product companies. We do this through community events, providing access to resources and mentors, creating retail channel opportunities and by launching the nation’s first nonprofit consumer-product accelerator in 2019.
How did you start this organization?
About four years ago, we used Kickstarter to help us launch Built Oregon as a storytelling platform to talk about companies across Oregon. We raised enough money to launch the organization and secure the funding needed to write 80 stories, host 30 podcasts and develop 15 events. As we evolved, the focus became more about consumer products. In 2017 we recruited board members who could help us determine how this new organization could create impact in Oregon. We spent the past two years meeting and listening to the community and launching the Built Up Festival, a celebration of Oregon-made products.
Participants at this year’s Built Up Festival in Portland
One of your biggest events, Little Boxes, is coming up. Tell us about it and why it attracts shoppers to small businesses.
Little Boxes is a community-focused shopping and discovery event that happens the weekend after Thanksgiving. The event is supported by an app that promotes and celebrates shopping small and local. The app gamifies the shopping experience -- every visit and every purchase from participating retailers earns the user chances to win prizes.
Portland is a community that truly supports shopping local. There are a multitude of neighborhoods lined with local retailers and shops. Throughout the year, people support these businesses and, around the holiday season — when the huge retail push happens — it’s more important than ever to bring awareness about shopping locally. From huge sales and discounts to free shipping and the latest gadgets, big retailers dominate the PR/media cycle during the holidays.
We see the Little Boxes digital engagement as a way to promote shopping local in a way that makes people pause and think about how they will spend their dollars. It creates a shared experience with thousands of other community members who are also playing the game. Instead of waiting in a massive -- and, likely, grumpy -- crowd at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, you can grab a locally brewed coffee and visit with friends in your neighborhood, all while getting the chance to win prizes.
Built Oregon supports the work of other entrepreneurs and makers. Why did you feel your community needed such an organization?
There were a few reasons we founded Built Oregon, and those reasons have evolved the organization to what it is today.
The initial reason was to build awareness of consumer-product companies, entrepreneurship and innovation across the state. At the time we launched, much of the media and consumer focus was on technology companies. After meeting and listening to many founders and support organizations, we realized that Oregon has a definite competitive advantage when it comes to consumer products. The advantage is based on an incredible legacy and is something we should support and amplify.
The consumer-product industry provides entrepreneurial opportunities to a broad base of founders and offers many points of access into the business economy. Unlike the discrete skill set required to form a technology company, practically anyone can begin a food or product company -- from residents of rural towns to underrepresented communities in urban areas. We see our role as being a network providing connections to help these companies move forward.
How do we do that? For one example, we have a program called “Bridges” that connects entrepreneurs of color to retail opportunities.
You say in your Manifesto that you approach this nonprofit work from the point of view of an entrepreneur. What does look like in your operations?
Although most of us on the board come from entrepreneurial backgrounds and have served on a variety of boards and organizations, we knew we didn’t have all the answers. That’s why we have spent four years listening to and helping the consumer-product ecosystem. It was, and continues to be, critically important that the founders of these companies let us know what is needed in the ecosystem.
In other words, you approach your small businesses like an entrepreneur would -- learning what the customers want in order to serve them best.
They intimately know the challenges and opportunities ahead because they are grinding away every day. Our events, programs and future plans will always be based on what the founders tell us is needed most. Approaching it from this point of view helps to ensure we are doing something that will actually make a difference.
Why is it important to shop local and support community business?
There is a well known multiplier effect when shopping local. On average, 48% of each purchase at local independent businesses is recirculated locally. That means your dollar continues to get spent in the very neighborhoods where you are shopping during Little Boxes. In addition, events like Little Boxes create awareness around businesses and, hopefully, lead to more year-round support.
What would you say to budding entrepreneurs just starting out or who are simply contemplating self-employment?
Entrepreneurship is a struggle that is rewarding and debilitating at the same time. Be willing to ask for help and create a support network of peers to help you through the challenges. Look for a few key mentors who can help you navigate what you may not know. Launching a company can be so rewarding in the end, but the struggle early on is real. I think budding entrepreneurs need to realize how truly hard it is to start a company since media tends to glamorize the success and hide the mental toll.
Now it’s your turn
QB Community members, why is shopping local important to you?
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I've worked in print, broadcast and digital media for 20 years and managed to start a couple small businesses along the way. I love collaborating with and supporting creative folks who have great ideas. As Content Creator for the QB Community team, I’m excited to help other small-business owners be the best they can be!