Meet a unique, young community in Portland, OR that's making waves in the entrepreneurial world.
For a closer look at the ADX Annex, check out the photo story here.
Inside a colorfully muraled warehouse in Southeast Portland, Bar Smith holds a tape measure against a propped-up piece of plywood that will soon become the parts of a desk chair. To his left, Jason and Adam Gorske chat as they stock and organize storage racks of multicolored puffy paint, copper wiring, and spools of twine.
A large wall of industrial shelves divides their two work stations and holds, among various tools, a half-eaten sandwich, a mug of kombucha, and a pair of earmuffs with glued-on Eeyore ears.
This is part of the Annex, an extension of a community makerspace and workshop known as Art Design Portland (ADX). Along with six other small business owners, Bar, Jason, and Adam share the warehouse space, which is divided into cubicle-like spaces.
What’s unique about the Annex isn’t just the reggae music playing in the corner, the mascot-esque figurines perched on workbenches, or the Eeyore earmuffs. It’s home to five business owners – Smith and the Gorske brothers included – who are all in their 20s and early 30s. They’re working hard to develop their companies, build a community, and defy the negative stereotypes of the “lazy, apathetic, and entitled” millennial.
They’re also part of a new generation – one that, according to BNP Paribas’ 2017 Global Entrepreneurs Report, is experiencing financial success in the business world. Entrepreneurs under the age of 35, dubbed “Millennipreneurs” by the report, currently make up 44% of the world’s most successful wealth creators.
With an average net worth of $14.7 million, according to the report, young entrepreneurs born after 1980 have exceeded their parents’ generation by more than a million dollars. And while the typical age for the “Boomerpreneur” generation – those born after WWII – when starting a business was 37, the younger population is launching businesses in their mid-20s.
They’re also starting more businesses. According to BNP Paribas’ second edition of the report, released last year, young entrepreneurs have launched almost twice as many start-ups as boomers have. Why? It’s easier to start a business now more than ever, says Head of Key Client Group at BNP Paribas Rémi Frank. New technologies and a global acceptance are among the reasons that “you can be the CEO of a big company or own your own company at a young age,” he says.
And for those like the Annex residents, it’s their best and sometimes only option.
“A lot of us are starting our own stuff out of necessity,” Smith says. “I was talking to someone who was saying that Portland has this incredible food truck culture. And they were saying that it didn’t happen because everyone was like, ‘We really want food trucks.’ Everyone wanted to start a restaurant but didn’t want to take out a bank loan. That was kind of the only way to do it.”
His business partner, Hannah Teagle, agrees. “It’s not a thing where everyone who gets out of college can get a job,” she says. “And that was way more true for our parents. There were fewer people going to college, and there were more jobs. Now, you get out of college, and it’s hella competitive for jobs. It’s a societal shift from that system.”
Instead of taking out pricey bank loans that would eventually need to be paid off with interest (on top of any lingering student loans,) entrepreneurs have discovered other, more creative ways to finance their businesses. More on that later.
Last October, Smith and Teagle started Maslow CNC, an open-source company that makes ready-to-assemble kits of computer-controlled cutting machines known as CNC routers. (CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control.) Users simply hook up the assembled machine to a piece of plywood or other flat material and can cut out any design they want, from a coat rack to a kayak – all for under $500.
“Affordable CNC routers have been a hobby project of mine for a long time,” Smith says. Back in college at University of California-Santa Cruz, he developed a smaller, simpler version of a standard upright CNC mill, which is typically very large, expensive, and designed to carve small metal cubes into 3D shapes. His creation was a desktop version of the mill that carved wood.
The Maslow is a variation of Smith’s original concept. It uses essentially the same technology but is a much bigger machine that’s designed to cut 4x8-ft sheet materials.
Smith teamed up with Teagle, an old friend and roommate in Santa Cruz, to take on the project.
“I knew I needed someone else to work on it with,” he says. “Hannah is a cool person, and I enjoy spending time with her. I think she has a different perspective than I do, which is really good. She just seemed like the right person.”
So he asked, and she said, “Let me go to Burning Man and figure it out.”
A week of sun and sand (and a few facilitating psychedelics) helped solidify Hannah’s decision. She would do it.
Upon relocating to Portland after an initial stint in Port Townsend, Wash., the pair began working out of their home basement. They had heard about ADX from several people but, other than taking a tour of its facilities, didn’t expect it to be their business’ new home.
Art Design Portland is a 12,000 square-foot workshop, incubator, educational facility, and fabrication shop. Since its start in 2011, it’s grown into a hub for Portland’s maker culture and allows for tools, skills, and knowledge to be shared by its members.
The makerspace celebrated its fifth birthday with the grand opening of the Annex. As part of the $1,000/month Pro Membership, Annex residents have full access to the main shop, as well as discounts on classes, promotional marketing, and extra perks like free coffee, kombucha, and beer in ADX’s full kitchen.
“We’re unique,” says Matt Preston, ADX communications and marketing manager. “Varied in interests, skill level, age, and gender. We have everybody from somebody straight out of college to people who have been doing [a craft] their whole life. And we’ve got everyone in the middle. Everybody in here is so creative, even people who think they’re not.”
And from creative minds stem creative collaborations which, according to Preston, are frequent in the ADX community. “You’ll see some really cool incarnations of creativity in the space,” he says.
Nathan Dinihanian, Annex neighbor to the right of Maslow CNC, shares this sentiment. Like his colleagues, he’s new to the world of entrepreneurship and was immediately drawn to the collaborative nature of the ADX community.
“Art and creativity are things that people just do, like spiders make webs,” he says. “Bettering one another through shared experiences and techniques has become pretty important to me.”
Nathan is a furniture maker. Originally from Portland, he left in 2014 for New York City and San Francisco. He and his wife moved back last summer, and he started Dinihanian Furniture, a custom design business that promotes sustainability and the use of natural materials.
Starting a business has been both volatile and exciting for Nathan. “There’s a lot of weight in the first few months,” he says. “I’m feeling all those wonderful waves of nausea and anxiety. Feeling super overwhelmed and then feeling great.”
One of his latest collaborative projects with the Maslow team is a four-piece bedframe with built-in metal clips that hook together for easy assembly. Dinihanian created the designs for each piece and sent them to Smith and Teagle, who cut out templates. Dinihanian then traced the templates onto pieces of walnut and carved out the final frame.
They hope that this bedframe will be just one of many future joint projects. An advantage to running your own business is having the freedom to collaborate and work under a flexible business plan, which Dinihanian says he’s still figuring out.
“I’ve never been the best at penciling out exactly what my business is or who my clients are,” he says. “I prefer, in life in general, intuitively moving through it, sensing what’s working and what’s not working as opposed to trying one thing.”
This openness to fluidity and uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of modern entrepreneurship. Rémi Frank adds that, along with the relative ease of creating a business in today’s world, younger people are more open to failure, which may actually further success. At the time when boomers were starting businesses, he says, failure meant a halt in one’s career. Today, however, it’s easy to fail and keep going.
A tool that new entrepreneurs are using to help ease any reservations of failure is crowdfunding. Platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo provide them the opportunity to not only get the money they need, but to gauge how much demand there is for their product. And with funding coming solely from community contributions, ventures can be funded with virtually no risk.
Smith and Teagle successfully launched Maslow CNC on Kickstarter last October. They raised over $314,000 in their month-long campaign, far exceeding their goal of $50,000. They started productions in November and are still working to fulfill all the orders that were placed during the campaign.
With their website, Twitter, and Facebook page, they’re also utilizing another “risk-free” entrepreneurial tool: social media. Usability, worldwide popularity, and the ability to create virtual communities through shared content make social media a no-brainer for new businesses trying to get off the ground.
Marcus Harvey, founder and owner of clothing line Portland Gear, is a prime example of social media success. Back in 2014, the 20-something launched his company on Instagram, which allows users to post photos and network via hashtags. He created a page simply named “Portland” – @Portland, in the Instagram world – and started posting photos of the city onto it.
The night before Black Friday that year, Harvey put up Portland Gear’s website and posted two photos on the Instagram page. He made $5,000 in sales the next day.
Now, the @Portland Instagram page has 280,000 followers from all over the world.
"Social media is the way of the present, and it's the way of the future," Harvey says. "You have to stay relevant. You have to be constantly re-creating, because people are seeing hundreds and hundreds of photos every day."
Jason and Adam Gorske, left-side Annex neighbors to Maslow CNC, are hoping for similar social media success. The brothers co-own DIY Bar, Portland’s first craft-and-sip bar, which opened in March. Visitors can use the bar’s provided tools to make any of the crafts listed on the “menu,” including leather cozies, dog collars, necklaces, and home décor – all while sipping local craft beer and wine poured in-house.
With their catchy tagline: “A place for crafty (and not so crafty) people,” the Gorskes hope to teach people how to craft.
“We want to share with people that feeling you get from finishing a project – the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction with what you’ve done,” Adam says.
“It’s not necessarily an original idea,” Jason adds. “But we’re giving it our twist.”
The brothers hope that social media will help attract attention to their business and garner interest. Even before their business opened to the public, they had been active on social media for a while.
The DIY Bar team moved into the Annex a little over a month after acquiring their retail storefront in North Portland and just as the Maslow team was moving in. Dinihanian followed shortly afterward. Together, the five of them are making a name for “millennipreneurs.”
"I feel like our parents kind of did [what we're doing,] but they didn't do the business side of it," Smith says. "They had the whole counterculture thing, but then it didn't really go anywhere, because it wasn't sustainable. They did their thing, and at some point, they gave up and got real jobs. It'll be interesting to see how [this] plays out. Will our generation do the same thing or find a new way to do things?"