As part of The Project Room’s theme of Beginnings, several enterprising makers in Seattle sat down recently with TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand and Off Paper Editor Jenifer Ward to talk about the beginnings of their respective ventures. The event was called The Start-Up.
Hsu-Ken Ooi is Co-founder of Decide, a company that helps consumers track electronics prices. Sarah Novotnyfounded Blue Gecko, a remote database administration company, and is Chief Information Officer for Meteor Entertainment, a startup in transmedia publication. Artist Sarah Bergmann started a project called Pollinator Pathway, a mile long garden project that crosses a third of the city of Seattle. Zephyr Paquette recently opened Skelly and the Bean, a 100% community supported restaurant. Susie Evans is co-founder of Office Nomads, a coworking space on Capitol Hill. Tim Detweiler is the Executive Director of the Museum of Northwest Art, and previously directed the James and Janie Washington Foundation. This is an edited transcription of that conversation.
The initial seed
JESS: One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this theme “Beginnings” was this fascination I have with how the early, initial seed of an idea gets started, and how it may actually be a very different process for a lot of people. Where does that seed start for each of you? Is it actually a memorable moment when you got an idea? Is there actually a moment in a major project you’ve done—probably what you’ve introduced yourself with today—in which you’ve really thought this is an idea you’re going to go with, and it was a Moment. You’re nodding, Sarah N. Would you like to start?
SARAH N: My response is that I tend to respond to things. So I don’t think of these things as fully formed ideas springing out of my head, Athena-like. It’s more that I see a problem space and I want to fix something and make it better for potential customers or people in general. I tend to get these ideas in responses, as opposed to thinking, “wow, what am I going to make today?” So I tend to find something that I think is already broken and I want to help fix it.
JESS: So it’s coming from a place of trying to solve a problem.
SARAH N: It is, and that’s very much my background, which is much more engineering science and problem focus, which is responsive, as opposed to generative. And I distinguish between those because, to me, pure science is generative, but engineering is more responsive.
HSU-KEN: So I can share the story of how our company got our idea. I started the company with my brother and two of his friends and we spent the first 18 months with no pay, brother’s basement, all that kind of stuff. Our process for coming up with ideas was a lot of trial and error, essentially. Our first project, we spent a lot of time trying to think if people would be very motivated by this. And that was just assumptions built on assumptions built on assumptions, right? And that went nowhere. Because you didn’t build out the initial assumptions, and then you built on top of that. So our first project, we spent nine months building this thing, and it came out and no one cared.
So for our next project, we decided to build one project every week. We limit ourselves to one week. We come up with the idea and then build it. You want to pare down the amount of investment we put into it, because it needs to be the minimum product that is to solve some very specific problem. If you try to solve too many problems, the customer gets confused.
So we did that for a while, and that’s where decide.com is right now, which is similar to faircast.com, which was a company that was bought by Microsoft, and they predict airline prices. Like, if you want to fly from Seattle to San Francisco, you should wait because next week fares will go down.
So the way that the idea started was that one of my cofounders—his girlfriend—kept going back to the same Nordstrom product page. Every day she’d go to the same dress page, and so one day he goes, “Why do you keep going to that page?” And she said, “Well I’m waiting for the price to go down.” “Well ok, that’s an easy thing for me to build.” And so in a weekend—he hadn’t even told any of us—he built this thing where you could give it a URL and it would go back to that page and check the price, tell you when the price changes. And when the price changes, it’ll email it to you. So you didn’t have to do that.
It’s a really easy thing, any developer can write that. So we put that out to a few friends and they started adding stuff. And every day we have to go and collect this price, so one day we decided, “Ok, we have all these prices, whey don’t we graph them. How does this dress price change from day to day and time to time and all that kind of stuff?”
So what we noticed is that there’s a lot more volatility. So for Amazon, for example, their prices change a lot more often than Walmart. They’re much more sophisticated. Amazon changes their prices depending on the day of the week, the time of the day, and all this kind of stuff. Essentially because they’ve gotten so sophisticated at knowing when people buy stuff—like when people get off work, they typically go look at this, and early in the morning, all that kind of stuff.
So essentially, we looked at that and noticed there was a lot more volatility and people were getting taken advantage of a bit more, and so we asked ourselves if there was something we could do to help these people.
So farecast.com was a company started by a UW professor who we had actually taken classes from, so we kind of went to him with our data and said, “Hey, take a look at this, what do you think?” And that led us down this whole path of trying to predict those prices. Ideas for us are a lot of trial and error. They start off as small, simple things and you see where they lead. We just found it was too hard to predict, if we started with big ideas right off the bat, and we found that it’s easier to start with small ideas and see where they go.
JESS: And it still came from solving a problem. Will you speak to that, Sarah B?
SARAH B: I can try. I don’t really totally know what motivates me, other than that I got interested in something and the more I looked at it, the more I realized there was a bigger story behind that. To backtrack on that, I was initially interested in honeybees and then they were collapsing with colony collapse disorder and I wanted to do something in response to that and I wanted to do something bigger than my own backyard. And so I started thinking about what I could do within the city context, and wanted to do something of a large enough scale that it could be meaningful. The more I looked at the problem, I realized it wasn’t a problem of honeybees, and that supporting native pollinators was actually way more interesting and useful to supporting the honeybee issue. Because the honeybee is not from the United States, it’s really a part of the Big Ag system. So for me, the more I was reading about it, the more it seemed only natural to do something in response to it. So I guess it, too, solves a problem, but it’s more a problem that I kind of invented. It is certainly a problem that needs help, but the project that I’m working on is not actually trying to solve that problem: I have no illusions that what I am doing is solving the world pollination crisis. It’s more an educational—for me—investigation into what this problem actually is.
SARAH N: But could you frame your problem as people not knowing about this problem and so you want to raise awareness?
SARAH B: Sure, but I’m more interested in finding out and sharing that information. I guess that’s raising awareness. But it’s pretty self-motivated for me. I think because of my training as an artist.
SARAH N: Which leads to a conversation we were having beforehand, which is that artists don’t do this to meet a market need. Whereas business people often do this to meet a market need.
ZEPHYR: I think I’m doing both of those. It’s part of the focus of what I’m doing, actually. Because mine came from, well—banks don’t like restaurants, banks don’t like me. So that was a problem space. So how do I get enough money to open a restaurant, because that’s a lot of money. And then once you’re going, then I’m looking at the needs of how food issues are becoming such a big thing and I want my customers and clientele to be treated normally and not differently because their bodies react to what the world is doing to them. So part of our design is—no, our service model is—that you know what this person is like when they come in. Members have a swipe card that holds all the information that they want to put on it.
As soon as they come in, their card is there and it’s like, “Oh hey so and so is in. They’re GF (gluten-free), they’re vegan, they can’t have sulfites.” And I go, “Oh ok, no problem we’re just going to make them something, that’s no problem.”
It’s dealing with the service end of things and then having the business side because they can come into my place and be treated like a regular person. But then on an artistic end of things, I still want to be able to make real good food. And so far that’s happening.
Serving the community, serving the self
SUSIE: I feel like there’s an interesting balance there between doing things to improve the lives of others and then things that are a little more self-serving. It’s a pretty common dual theme I see all the time. And it’s the same with Office Nomads.
I definitely have a moment that I remember, walking to my old job and thinking, “People would be happier and a lot less bitchy if they could just walk to work every day. More people would be happier if they didn’t have to get in their car every day, and I would like that to happen more, so how can I start building a neighborhood-based workspace so that people who can choose to work from anywhere could, instead of driving somewhere or sitting at home commenting on blogs all day, go in and have a chat—“
So I think that it was wanting to serve this need, recognizing that there is a need or a space that is intentional and dynamic in a way that is important for wanting to get work done. But for me I also wanted a better workspace. I wanted to commute by walk to work, I wanted to meet interesting people, cool people every day. I had a self-serving need. I wanted to make that space for me, but also make it for them. Does that make sense?
SARAH N: It makes perfect sense. It’s one of the things that founding a company did for me. I went in with a list of goals that I wanted, to improve my goals in this way and this way and this way. And so I got these things for me… it’s sort of your point about the banks. I didn’t have the resumé to let me in to learn those skills or play with the people that had those skills, and so I was going to do it myself.
TIM: I come at it from a slightly different place, because I’ve worked at all these museums, so I’m the guy who tries to make stuff happen in the museum—so it’s not always my idea. But when I took the job at the James and Janie Washington Foundation, it was just the artist’s idea ten, twenty years before. He brought a bunch of people from the community together to put it together and then they couldn’t figure out what to do. And so they brought me in as the first and only full time employee, as the director, and we didn’t have any money for anyone else, so it was basically just me and this house full of stuff. And this house, just over the in Central District, is just filled to the roof in every room, and his studio was the same way. And it was completely dysfunctional, there was nothing that could be done there.
I’m a fairly practical person, so I got started just getting University of Washington students in and volunteers and having them go through it carefully. But I knew that there was no way we could finish this huge archive and collections project and then start it, because we only had this little bit of money in the bank. I mean, it was a lot for one person to save their whole life looking towards this project, but there wasn’t much direction.
So by going through the collection, by going through these archives, I started getting to know this person, because I had never met him before. And he’s phenomenal, his story is remarkable. He’s very involved in civil rights in the Central District, in the Northwest, lived this remarkable life. His father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, he moved up here from the South. And all this great information started to build this big, big story, and the most important thing was to clear out enough space as soon as possible to get artists involved.
Because one of the vague ideas was to have an artist-in-residence space. So we brought the artist in as soon as we could, and we brought him in way before we should have, just because it seemed like the only way to get things started. I felt like as soon as the artist got in and got involved, things would change. And it literally was like a weird key into this door; the energy level went from mausoleum to living, breathing organism. It’s a place made for artists. He had created this space, built a studio over 45 years, and it just needed an artist in there to bring it to life. And as soon as that happened, everything went in a positive direction.
I was just the person trying to make it work. I thought of myself as a mechanic. I’d worked in all those big museums over the years—Museum of Flight, Washington State History Museum. Larger institutions that had budgets and money and people and staff. I’d always wanted to work for a smaller institution, where the things I had learned could kind of bring things in, but I was not prepared for this particular scale. But I worked very hard and many people worked very hard, and it took on a life of its own.
Is this a calling?
JENIFER: You know, one of the interesting things is that none of you talked about it in lofty terms like this, but you’ve all described your process in terms that are the definition of “calling.” There’s a theologian named Frederick Buechner who talks about calling as where your passion—your gift—meets the world’s need. Or the market’s need in this case, depending on what it is. So even though you didn’t go there, would you say that you’ve felt “called” in some way to do whatever it is you’re doing?
ZEPHYR: Oh yeah, absolutely. People ask me, “How did you do this, and how long has this taken you and when did you start?” And I say, “Well let me see. I was writing menus for my brother when I was 8 years old and then making him breakfast. Then I worked in pizza joints and then I did the stuff, and just growing and growing and growing… “ I’ve been doing this… 20 years? 40 years? 2 years? And then some kid gave me $10 and told me I should start a restaurant.
(all exclaim: “Ten bucks?”)
ZEPHYR: Yeah, my best friend gave me $10 two years ago, and he was 7 years old. When I got home, I found it in my bag and my sweetheart said, “Yeah, Pasqual said he had something for your restaurant.” So I called his dad and said, “I think your son gave me ten bucks.” And he said, “Yeah, we were just talking about it and he said he thinks you should open a restaurant.” And I said, “Well I can give it back.” And he said, “I don’t think you can.”
SARAH N: I think instead you have to open a restaurant.
ZEPHYR: He said, “You need to open a restaurant. He thinks you should, a lot of people think you should. So… Why don’t you use that.” And I still have that same $10 in that savings account, and it’s the first money that I put in and I named the place after him. And that’s how it started for this kid. And that’s two months salary for him at that point.
What does that look like to everyone else? And how can I get everyone else to come up with what would two months’ salary be? And that’s how we developed the whole membership status that opened the place.
When Plan A becomes Plan Z
JESS: So one of the things that some of you have talked about a little bit is something that I think is more common than people realize. Which is that when you’re looking at the finished version of something, you’re looking at plan B or plan C or plan Z. And this is something I see in the visual arts. If you see a completed piece in a museum, you may not know that wasn’t the artist’s first version or first intention. So that’s a question I wanted to ask all of you. Is that an important part of your process—having the experience of starting at Plan A and having it end up somewhere else? Or have you ever executed Plan A and it’s been right on the money how you imagined it?
ZEPHYR: Oh, this went way off. This was not how I thought it was going to be, but it turned into exactly what I wanted.
JESS: So maybe better?
ZEPHYR: Oh yeah, way better. And it’s still doing stuff. It’s still growing in the way it’s supposed to, but not how everything was drawn up to begin with. Even in the color schemes and stuff. It’s different. But it’s perfect.
HSU-KEN: So first we spent two years essentially building stuff that didn’t work. So I don’t know which plan this is. But I think that in startup culture people say that you want to fail fast. Whenever people ask me about starting stuff, I tell them to just start. And they always say they don’t have a good idea, but I tell them to just start, because whatever idea you start with is not going to be the idea you end up with, and you just need to get into the process and start working through things.
ZEPHYR: And momentum happens.
SARAH N: And this is like Steven King’s comment about writing: the first thing that writers really need to do is write. If you haven’t started, if you haven’t coded, if you haven’t found customers, if you haven’t done development to move forward what you’re trying to do, you’re not going to find out the places to fail or the challenges in it.
I think we went through—at Blue Gecko—four business models in the first twelve months. The pricing was changing, what we were doing was changing, whether or not it was going to be just work on other people’s hardware or were we going to do things for people on our own hardware, and all these things changed constantly. And honestly, over the twelve years we’ve been running this place, it continues to evolve. Even as we have a nice, solid core product, we’re finding other things like: oh, a customer want us to do this. Well, does this fit with our model? Do we want to do this or not want to? So it’s constantly evolving.
HSU-KEN: Actually, “business model” isn’t something we talked about when we started this project because it’s almost a waste of time—if no one uses this thing, it doesn’t matter what your business model is. So we started worrying about business model after people started using it.
SARAH N: See, my business was a service model, because I needed to understand what we were getting back, because we weren’t building IP (Intellectual Property).
When is the beginning over?
JESS: So my husband Mike had a question he wanted me to pose to the group. He wanted to know: when does the beginning end? When are you no longer in the beginning? Zephyr you’re talking about how it’s growing and it’s evolving and you’re always learning, so is there a defined “I am no longer at the start of this thing”?
ZEPHYR: I’m still counting days. I lost a dear chef at a restaurant in Ballard and I was talking to a therapist and she said it was like having a kid that’s not yours that is all of a sudden gone, and you have to go through some sort of grieving. It’s all pregnancy. It’s maternal and related, the incubator series even. All the kids. They’re all kids to me, and I’m still counting days. Right after it’s born, you’re counting months, they’re never a year and a half and it’s always eighteen months. You’re always counting what the days are, and I’m considering what the next project is going to be, because I have a timeline on that for when it’s going to be available. So I’m starting to think of the beginning of that, but I’m not done with the beginning of this.
JESS: So it’s like overlapping beginnings.
SUSIE: I realized I was not in the beginning phase anymore when I could talk about what I was doing. I mean when I could explain it without sounding like a total jackass or going on for twenty minutes.
SARAH N: When you opened Office Nomads, you were building a space that didn’t exist. So the concept of coworking didn’t exist. So once coworking became a term, it was no longer a beginning because you no longer had to explain what coworking meant.
SUSIE: It was a lot of education. Even now I can say “Do you know what coworking is?” but that doesn’t block my ability to get people to understand.
SARAH N: I’m of two minds on this. When the language changes, you are no longer at the beginning. So much like you guys with coworking, I had my first five years at Blue Gecko explaining what remote DBA (Remote Database Administration) was and how it could possibly happen. And we were challenged again and again with people saying, “There’s no way you could do that for us.” And we would say, “No, we really can.” And after about five years we said “We do remote DBA,” and they said, “OK, great.” It had became monetized, and now it’s about price. Less a startup at this point.
But my second opinion is that if it’s yours, it’s always the beginning, because you’re always tuning it, you’re always changing it. You’re always trying to make it better, it’s always an evolution. So if it’s yours, it’s always the beginning.
I cut my teeth at Amazon[.com] in 1997. And one of the things that Jeff Bezos said every day at Amazon was that it’s day one, it’s day one, it’s still day one. And that went on for years. I don’t know if they still say that today.
But I know that by the time I left, three and a half years into my tenure there, five years into the company, he was still saying it’s day one. And as people were leaving, one of the alumni groups that formed around it registered the domain name “day two.” Which was pretty fun because we got really tired of “It’s still day one.” We wanted to say, “Dude, your name is everywhere, you don’t have to do it quite that way anymore.” But that’s in part why he’s so successful.
HSU-KEN: I think the overlapping beginnings is something that’s really resonated with me. I remember when we started working on projects and I thought, “Ok, this is kind of new beginnings,” and then I quit my job and that was a new beginning, and then we got our first round of funding and that was a new beginning, and then we got an office and I went to work everyday and that was new. And people join in the journey at various points and they say, “Ok, this is new, we’re just starting stuff,” and I say, “Well, I’ve been doing this—“
ZEPHYR: It gets almost to a disappointing point. Like, goddamit it, when do I get to have my first of something that’s actually a big deal? Like opening day is this—we actually had two opening days, and then a grand opening—
SARAH B: You’re spreading that beginning out.
JESS: So Sarah B:, what are some benchmarks for you in this project, because you said—seven years?—you’ve been working on this?
SARAH B: Four. Phew! Seven would be too many.
JESS: So have there been benchmarks for you along the way?
SARAH B: Yeah. It’s funny. I’m having a bit of a hard time responding to these questions, because what I’m doing is fairly different than what everyone else is doing in a way. Because it’s not a business, it’s not a company. And I think I’ve had more benchmarks than I can count. I had no experience whatsoever in doing any of the things that I’ve been doing. I wasn’t a gardener. I wasn’t an urban planner. I knew nothing about pollinators. And yet I imagined something that would include as many people as possible that would educate me along the way.
So I really wanted to work with scientists, I really wanted to work with botanists, I wanted to work with graphic designers. So I’ve been able to work with all those people in a way, which has been delightful, but each time I do it’s a new benchmark. I have no idea what I’m doing, and then they educate me and I can change my project.
For instance right now I’m working with some University of Washington etymologists, and they’re going to start monitoring my project. And they’re also going to be educating me about what to plant in these projects. And they were congratulating me on starting before I knew what I was doing. But inherently the whole project is going to shift to accommodate the life cycle of these insects. And it’s complicated, because sometimes they use one plant for something, and another plant for something else. If they’re not both there, they won’t come. And that’s something I didn’t know when I started. And so that’s huge for me—that’s four years in, I’m finally learning enough to work with at this stage that I can potentially start planning that in with the garden designer. So there are things like that, and then working with the homeowners and getting them on board is a whole other benchmark.
JESS: Can you say what that part of it is?
SARAH B: They don’t care about this project at all, really. So it’s kind of funny… I mean, sure some of them do. Some of them are utterly delighted. So I basically go and I talk each homeowner in to taking a planting strip instead of grass. And there are various stages with that. They’re either very indifferent or very excited and they want to garden it until the cows come home, or they leave it and then we have to get our volunteers to take care of it… So that’s what that is. Is that what you meant?
JESS: Yeah, just so everyone knew what the context was.
SARAH B: I guess I could have explained more…
JESS: I think we’re all sort of learning as we go here.
SARAH N: I think it’s interesting that you say that the etymologists were offering you congratulations for starting something before you knew what you were doing.
SARAH B: Right.
Must-haves for starting something and maintaining momentum
SARAH N: I think if anyone realized what it took to start something like this, they’d never do it. They’d never start, they’d be too afraid. So not knowing, I think, is really inherent—
SARAH B: It’s been SO helpful.
SARAH N: My utter ignorance on all sorts of things “business” actually helped me believe that I could do this thing. If I had any idea about the complexities of B&O (Business and Occupation) taxes, I’d have never wanted to start. But I think that ignorance and that drive are two things that you kind of need. You have to be able to accept that you’re blind in some spaces, and sometimes even know that they’re there, but be able to work around them or be able to accept help or take other people in order to bring on the expertise you don’t have.
SARAH B: I don’t think I would have been doing this project. I’ve worked with such amazing people. It just wouldn’t have been possible without that. And I’d like to say that enthusiasm goes a long way. I’m at least highly enthusiastic about what I’m doing.
JESS: That leads into one of my questions: what are the key elements that keep you going, from deciding that you’re going to go with this idea to actually producing it, working on it, reaching the launch, or whatever your benchmark or goal is? There’s this huge growth and development process that happens and we have lots of opportunities to quit. Things that I’ve heard: ignorance, drive, enthusiasm… What are the other things that are really critical?
ZEPHYR: Super support from the community.
SARAH N: Collaboration in every vector, whether it’s community or your own personal home, an environment of support, whether it’s team members or cofounders, knowing and being able to find the cohort that can support you in this potential boondoggle, and being able then to draw support from them—I know a lot of entrepreneurs who will find themselves wrapped up and they don’t know this thing and that’s why I say you have to be able to accept help.
To compete or not to compete…
JENIFER: Is there something unique to startup culture that leads to the fact that that not one of you has said anything like the word “competition”? The drive to compete?
SARAH B: There’s not a lot of competition in what I do.
ZEPHYR: I’m trying to start a place that doesn’t have to deal with competition. One of the things that’s unique about my restaurant is that it’s a community supported restaurant, but it’s also a community restaurant, so I invite other chefs in on the nights that I am closed to have the place for an evening.
HSU-KEN: I think for us, competition is not a strong enough motivation for all the stuff that we’re having to deal with. For us, motivation comes in two forms. For one, we do it for the team and the cofounders. These are the guys on your team, and they stuck around and stuff, so you do it for them. It’s very hard to start companies by yourselves, and there are times you have a really bad day and have to pick each other up. And the second part is, when you’re building a product, competition is the wrong thing to focus on. You need to focus on the users, what you’re bringing to them, and let those guys do it however they think is the best way to do it. I think focusing on the competition is not a strong enough motivator to get you through the tough stuff.
SUSIE: I agree. I also think that going back to motivations, on whatever it is that gets you through, there’s an interesting balance between being really open about everything, being open to new ideas and creativity and open to input. And we were talking about the myriad of ideas that get thrown at you when you’re starting—you know what you should do, you know what you could do, have you ever thought about… There’s a balance between being open to all those ideas and being stubborn, on the other hand, and really sticking to what you are and what your goals are and what your values are, and I think that’s a constant juggle that those two elements side by side are absolutely critical to being able to push through no matter what.
TIM: With the James Washington Foundation, I really had my head down in the world for like two years with students coming in, and it was all inside the building. And as soon as we brought an artist in and had the change of opening the space to the community—and that was the city and the neighborhood and the art community and the African American community. And that made all the difference. Inviting the community in. And I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it because it was a crazy, crazy mess and it was totally insane, but having people getting in there early when we really weren’t ready, weren’t ready at all. You’d never open a business like that, it would just be insane.
Every artist that came through, they were living in the space and working in it for a month at a time. And then their communities would come in, and so one after another, the artists brought their friends and their collectors, and then to make it as friendly as possible. Because museums, arts organizations, can be very unfriendly—people can feel intimidated to walk into a museum, and we talk about it all the time. But this was a house. It was somebody’s house, somebody’s story. It was a part of the neighborhood and it went back to the 40’s. And just to get that story out.
And one of my favorite things was these summer openings, where artists would just show what they were working on. It didn’t have to be finished, it didn’t have to be anything, but they brought their friends and we brought art people and it just kept on growing. And we brought in the friend of one of the artists to spin records on the lawn. And Mr. Washington had these incredible 1940’s jazz and big band and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and he was so careful to clean everything—so it was different than most museums were where you can’t touch things, but we really felt that things had to be used, had to be felt and used again. Not just be put in a case. So that was a nice symbol of the whole thing working, when we could use the stuff that Mr. and Mrs. Washington left behind. Because a record on a wall doesn’t mean anything. If it’s not playing, it doesn’t live. So that became a symbol for the place and that’s what motivated me to take it one more year.
Start before you’re ready.
SARAH N: It’s interesting bringing up bringing in the public before you’re ready, because I think that’s something that’s becoming more common. I heard someone describe where we are now as a “post perfect society” where we tweet about how we wrecked our car on the way to work. You wouldn’t tell your peers or someone you were trying to impress that, but you’re tweeting about it. So we’re seeing more and more companies putting out products with “Beta” on it. “Hey, here’s something we’ve been working on, play with it. Let us know what you think.” And communities are becoming more comfortable with being a more active and integrated part of improving a product or a community or whatever a company puts in front of them.
ZEPHYR: We entirely did that. It was an open door policy for the entire building of it. Members would come in and I could point at every table and chair and board, every nail and chip of paint and tell you who did it. And people would become members and then they’d also come in for work parties and help build the place.
SUSIE: People support what they helped to create. That’s how it has to work. If you feel like you’ve been a part of something, you’re going to support it for a long time. We had pretty much the opposite experience to you opening that space that was so cluttered. We were 5,000 feet of dead, empty office territory. But we each had other jobs at the time, so we would take turns watching the space, and it was often just one of us in the space for hours at a time and it was just empty and terrifying and we were afraid to go the bathroom in case someone walked in at just that time.
TIM: My Board was not very happy about that. If I could have closed the place down for five years and totally, in the typical museum way, got it all taken care of and put away and labeled and catalogued—but there was no way to even do it. So in a way I was motivated by the circumstances. And I was terrified of that, actually. People would come in and they would be afraid for me. They would be like, “Why would anyone take this job?” But every so often someone would come and say, “Oh I can see…” And I clung to those because they could see the vision and the importance of it.
SARAH N: You mention your Board not being happy about it. Can I draw a very stereotypical conclusion that they were much older?
TIM: They were. And they were great, and one of the other things about that particular place, which is not always true, certainly not with museums that were founded 150 years ago. They were all picked by James Washington Jr., so the founder had picked them. So they were kind of terrified that they would make the wrong move, and I would have to go in and say we have to make a move. A move. We have to start small.
It was also called the James and Janie Washington Foundation. And “Foundation” sounded big, with columns and stuff. This was like a little house in the Central District. This is not a Foundation—this is a grass roots movement. It’s nothing right now. It’s an old house with stuff in it. But if we get people in and start getting people involved—and I think we could have even started that earlier, should have. But when it started happening, I could see how it was starting to become a success. Mostly because of the efforts and interests of other people.
And I started to feel like Mr. Washington’s nephew. I was literally going through his stuff. When we finally made it to the washing room, I didn’t even know there was a dryer there. His underwear and socks were still there from the last time. Anyways, that’s kind of where we started. And it never really looked like much, even when I left five and a half years later. If you came in at the end of it, you’d think this place is really messy and really unorganized. And you really should have seen it five years ago. And it’s because people started coming in early that people really knew how far we had come, how much progress we had made.
HSU-KEN: You were just talking about wishing you had started earlier. I think that every project I ever started on, I wish I had put it out earlier. Because you could work on a project for like three more months, but getting it out there and working on it three months after you get it out there—you just get so much more value out of it.
The founder of LinkedIn, Reed Hoffman, said something that always stuck with me. “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version you put out, you waited too long.” You should just get over your embarrassment. You’re just going to get so much better so much quicker.
TIM: Well that’s not the way my parents and that era and whole generation thought. When you opened a restaurant, for example, you had to have everything figured out.
ZEPHYR: Oh yeah, you get judged on everything. Every little thing. I hope that I see it more than everyone else, but they’re sitting at the tables yelping already.
JESS: Do you think that’s a generational thing?
TIM: I think it’s a new thing. People now write books and put chapters out on the web as they’re going? That’s insane! No one would have ever done that. Ever. And it does make the work better because you get back more comments and interest and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that breeds.
JENIFER: But it’s hugely anxiety producing. In the academy for example, in higher education, this open forum, open source, open access publishing by chapter, everyone to critique, not going through publishers, not going through traditional vetting processes… It’s a game changer and everyone knows it.
SARAH N: There’s a book I’m reading right now called Status Anxiety, which actually says, the thesis is pretty much since we were no longer ordained by God to be nobility or serfs, we’ve been screwed and it’s been all about anxiety since then. Because you can be better, you can grow into something, you can build something, you can write it, you could be that famous author, so why aren’t you? Pretty much when you’re a serf and what you’ve got to do is work, you didn’t have to worry about whether or not you could ever become nobility, because you just couldn’t.
JENIFER: It’s not only that you could be better, but that you’re exhorted to be better by Yelp, with constant feedback all the time.
SARAH N: But that’s what’s the most interesting, both positive and negative, about the constant feedback of the web. And the modern age being so much faster and so much more communicative. Because you can have collaboration where you might not have wanted any, and you can have commentary and published commentary on things you didn’t really think someone should talk about yet. And so it makes it a much more transparent building of any organization or company or concept at this point, I think.
SUSIE: But it is more casual. That seems to be the theme there. It doesn’t have to be white linen cloths and just the right everything when you get started. I think that when it comes down to it—and I heard this piece on NPR a little while ago that was talking about the trend in the restaurant industry for more casual dining environments where food is clearly the focus—making the food look fancy is not the focus, the food just being really high quality is the focus. That doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit and tie when you walk in, but it does mean you can have a wonderful dining experience going through all these different places. And that’s a trend you notice in terms of products and things like coworking. Our experience, too, is that people aren’t looking for perfection, they’re just looking for the quality of the product or experience to be really high, but without the fanfare behind it.
SARAH B: I think you could look at the answer here being they’ve never been quite as perfect as they thought they were or wanted them to be. So even with the 1950’s whitewash on everything, we’re now saying no—that doesn’t have to be that way, or we don’t even have to delude ourselves that it IS that way. Instead it’s “Here’s where we are, let’s see if we can make it better.”
JENIFER: It’s the whole Wizard of Oz thing. The curtain’s been pulled back. There’s no point in pretending—
TIM: Well museums are really struggling with this. I hear it in the background conversation all the time. When you walk into a museum exhibit, even if they’re pulling the ladders and all the paint into the elevator as they’re speaking out in front, when you walk in, it looks done. When I would tell friends—you know, I grew up with farmers and mechanics, and a museum job was pretty far off. And they would ask, “What do you do at the museum? Are you a security guard? Are you the person who takes tickets?” Because they had no idea that there was anything even happening there. So during one of our exhibits I took a timelapse video. And it felt a little self indulgent, but I wanted people to see all the activity. You could see people running around. Well, we weren’t running, but it looked like we were running—setting up ladders and doing the lighting and setting up stuff. And people were amazed at how much work goes into it. Because when you go it, it looks done, it looks like it could have been finished 100 years ago by elves or whatever.
JENIFER: Did everyone see the SuttonBeresCuller show at Cornish? What they did was sort of brilliant. The exhibit was work in progress, so every day it was different. They’re building something and people come in and one day it looks like this and the other day it looks like this, and they only had the materials they had, so at the end they were dismantling it and tacking it back onto the front. And people did not know what to do. They would come in and say, “Well, I came for the closing show, but it’s gone.” And it was like, “Riiiiiiight, it’s in progress.” And they would say, “Well this is a gallery, isn’t it?”
TIM: Yeah, that does not fit into the ideas that people have of a gallery.
Pride of ownership
SUSIE: It’s interesting in terms of how you break down what you’re building. Jacob (Office Nomads co-founder Jacob Sayles) and I are always talking about these little watershed moments, these lightbulb moments where you realize that you created something and that you’re then responsible for it. Walking up the stairs into our space, we noticed a dirty Band-Aid and your experience of that normally is to go, “Ew, gross, someone should pick that up.” But in this case you pause and realize, “Oh, wait. That’s me. Actually I have to pick that up.” You’re used to that in your own apartment, your own home, your own little world, but when your own little world changes and it creates a space, then I think you can draw that conclusion when you’re walking through your website, though your product site… And when I look at other businesses, I think I notice the little things that they’ve put a lot of work into, the things that another person just out consuming might not notice. It’s been an interesting change in perception.
JESS: So it’s the sense of ownership.
SUSIE: Or responsibility. I definitely notice things. I love walking by Hot Mama’s Pizza in the morning and watching them get ready. It’s my favorite thing to just say hi to them in the morning, and they say hi to me and I notice all the little things they do. Because I see them doing it every morning. It’s a different way of looking at this whole experience that I would have never had. Before I would have just walked by and thought, “Oh, they’re not open yet.”
Startups in the Northwest: humility as liability?
JESS: So Tim, you and I had talked a little but about this Northwest history of makers and people, so I wanted to get your opinion on that again today with the Northwest spirit of being entrepreneurial and starting things. And you had expressed an opinion about how much we really know about certain founders and starters, and whether or not we might be a particularly modest community—
TIM: OK, well I’m on this soapbox, because I’m the director of the Museum of Northwest Art, so a lot of times I’m talking about how we’re not recognizing our own artists. Jimi Hendrix has a crappy bronze statue on Broadway. And that’s it. We don’t own our own artists, our own people—
Zephyr: Jimi Hendrix Park. It’s coming up.
TIM: Well, thank God. But it’s still coming up, and that’s the problem. I know some of the people who are involved with this. And I’m like, “Please do this. Please have a giant broken guitar as the entrance to the park, because we need something. There needs to be some recognition.” Our artists, it’s especially true, even going back to Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, the artists who we feel are our big four, are because of one article in 1954 in Life Magazine. We’re still dwelling on that, because it was outside recognition. But all those artists basically laughed and were pissed off and ended up living somewhere else because they didn’t feel like they were getting any support. And we have a lot of support for young artists in Seattle. It’s easier to talk to museum directors and gallery people compared to bigger cities, but once you get to a certain point, it just cuts off, and I’ve seen so many artists have to leave because there’s just no support beyond a certain point. And there are big collectors that are buying stuff, but they’re going to New York. Not that you can’t buy stuff from other places, but…
I’m from the East Coast, I’m from Pennsylvania. And there, if you had one half-assed patriot that grew up in this house in your small town, then that was the best thing in the world! There would be a sign, there would be a museum. And here, I’d love to work with a sociologist or a psychologist and try to figure out what is the matter with our Northwest psyche so I can try to fix it. We should all go to counseling. We should appreciate the people that we have here. Because there are spectacular people. And I know too many artists who have gone away to New York or back to LA or Boston or whatever and then they become huge. And that’s a brain drain. That’s a creative drain we just haven’t taken advantage of. Or haven’t appreciated.
SARAH N: We have a similar problem in the technology startup community. We are considered—so there’s Silicon Valley, there’s Silicon Alley, there’s Silicon Forest—which is Portland. And we’re the far end of the Virgin America flight from the valley. We don’t have an identifiable culture. There’s a bunch of people in the community working on that, but it is assumed that if you get funded, you move your company to the Valley. We are not respected as our own community of startup-ers here. So it’s an interesting problem and I’m curious about your identifying it as having to do with the modesty or acculturation of this area.
JENIFER: I spent 12 years in Minnesota before I came here, and now I’m going to make a gross generalization, but I think it’s in part about the immigrant communities and the native communities that were in both those places, that were Scandinavian, which are sort of culturally reticent kind of folks. And then you bump those up against native cultures who are also self-effacing. You come up with a weird combination of people who…
SARAH N: Government by consensus and apologetic success.
SARAH B: I have to agree with you on that; I’m both a native and Dutch.
But I do want to speak to the art community. I’ve started a couple of things. I started a gallery a couple of years ago in response to the fact that I wasn’t getting enough work. I wanted to be able to work in galleries but there were only about three galleries in town that I wanted to work for and I volunteered for them because I just couldn’t get the work. And I ended up starting my own gallery because I didn’t know what else to do.
And I feel like that is what I have done over and over again in Seattle. And I’ve lived a fair amount—I lived in San Francisco and New York, where I found it much easier to do projects.
SUSIE: Going back to one thing we talked about earlier with how no one has mentioned competition, I think it’s an interesting topic to blend with what we’re talking about now, with this sort of Northwest humility and big emphasis on collaboration, which is definitely a huge part of what we’re about at Office Nomads. I remember I just watched that Pearl Jam 20—their documentary? They have this brief moment where they’re talking about when they were just starting up and all the grunge bands were playing with each other and switching band members, and a friend of theirs had come in from New York and was like, “You talk to them? You actually help each other? This is crazy.” So it was very much the New York scene is “We rip each other’s posters down and pee on them.” And it was this little moment for me that this isn’t just something that’s happening now, it’s something that’s been happening for a long time and there’s this desire to work together and collaborate and I don’t know if this is something that is Northwest.
SUSIE: I’m fascinated with how this butts up against the fact that we can’t take enough credit—
ZEPHYR: Yeah, is it part of our self-effacement to say that we’re going to collaborate?
JESS: Tim, I wanted to ask you about Bill Boeing because you put together an exhibit at the Museum of Flight.
TIM Yeah, I used to be a curator—well, I put exhibits together, not really a curator. I did the work of a curator without the pay. So I was given this project which seemed interesting—I’m not really an airplane person, it’s more about people for me—to look at the early Boeing story, and not look at it as a company, but as who were the people. So I figured I’d open a few books and I would start reading and after three or four months would have it all worked out. Well, there aren’t any books. There’s not a single book. And Bill Boeing was very, very private. They didn’t roll out the planes in the beginning with any big fanfare. It was just his business. When the newspaper reporters would ask about it, he would just say, “This is just my thing, my hobby.” But they did have huge plans. They made up this whole company on paper in 1960 and started fulfilling it.
Just talking a little bit about those early days, everyone was building airplanes, but the thing that really made or broke an airline company in those days was whether the founder had made it and test flown it had died in a giant fiery crash. He did fly his own planes, but he brought in really talented people right away. Roy McMakin and I were talking about the difference between art and commerce—Starbucks and things like that—and his point was that artists who get too big get dismissed in some ways. And you can only have a few of them in this community, like one of each. But industry, that’s really where you start to get recognition, entrepreneurial spirit and things like that.
But our artists? Like Chuck Close, he grew up in Everett, he went to University of Washington, he left here late in his life. And nobody knows this, which is bizarre. And he brought Alden Mason with him to New York City to show his work, and it was one of the biggest things to ever happen to Alden Mason. And he talks about that time as such an important time, but we don’t claim that. We don’t claim that. It’s ridiculous.
Everyone’s like, oh…. That’s so sad.
ZEPHYR: It’s funny. I’m trying to maintain humility when I’m so proud of what I’ve built. But I really want someone national to come and talk to me. I want everybody to know that this is a possible thing, that I created a different model. So I think it is important to get that out there. But I’m also trying to be like, “It’s ok, I did a cool thing.”
TIM: Well, if you can do both, that’s the best. Because you have that humility to have that collaboration to have people come in early on and all that stuff, but then you’re proud of what you all did together.
ZEPHYR: In the chef community, no one wants to get their feathers ruffled, everyone wants to be the greatest, we’re all just trying to see how far we can piss in the kitchen. But we’re all just learning and doing the same basic stuff.
SARAH N: It’s one thing to say I want this thing to be recognized because it’s a good thing—
ZEPHYR: Yeah I’m not looking for myself to be praised. I want to showcase the people that I’ve brought in, showcase the product that I’ve created. And hey, you know, my name looks good in the papers, so that’s cool, too.
HSU-KEN: I have maybe a different take on it. I grew up in the Northwest. I grew up in Portland and came up here to go to school, and I have a cousin who has his own startup down in San Francisco. And he and I always talk about what it’s like here and what it’s like there and stuff. And you guys are talking about recognition. For a long time we talked about having the company down there, but it’s not so much for the recognition part, the thing that’s odd to me is that here, when socially people ask you what you do and you say you work at a startup, it’s like they don’t meet a lot of people like that so they don’t know…
But when I go down there and we’re hanging out with [my cousin’s] friends, and they’re all “Oh, what do you do? Oh that’s cool, that guy started this company and that guy started this company.” And that’s just normal, and there’s something about that that I like. And I feel like more stuff happens down there just because everyone knows someone who has done it, so it doesn’t seem like this insurmountable thing. Like I’ve never met anyone who started a company, how do you even do that?
And I think for him there’s a lot of companies in Silicon Valley that are really successful—sell for a lot of money, change the world, all that sort of stuff. And I think a lot of times those companies come out of San Francisco because they’re only one or two degrees of separation away from that guy at Google or something like that, someone who just did something big. So you don’t feel that far away from that, and you feel like you can go for bigger stuff.
SARAH N: It feels possible.
HSU-KEN: it feels possible. His buddy—he texted me the other day and said that when YouTube was started, they wanted him to be one of the original investors in it. And he turned it down, didn’t want to go in for all that stuff. But for him, those were just guys in his social group. They did this amazing thing. That could have been him, that was so close to him. And that motivates him. He stays later at night because he feels he’s so close.
Whereas here in Seattle, you don’t hear about it as much, even though we have some of those guys. I mean, the largest software company in the planet is here. We’ve got Amazon, we’ve got things like that. But for whatever reason, you just don’t feel like… You don’t feel like Bill Gates is in my sphere. I’m not that close to that. But having the proximity to some of that success or ambition makes it seem more attainable.
SARAH N: :It always causes more anxiety because you’re not achieving it.
HSU-KEN: But I think that’s a key personality thing—with some people it causes them stress, but then the really good entrepreneurs, it motivates them.
Finding one’s tribe
SUSIE: That’s been one of the coolest parts about coworking, it’s that you’re just around people who are doing neat things all the time. And whether it’s their thing or another thing that someone else is working on. That’s one thing I really love about it—it feels like a mini version of what you experience in Silicon Valley. It’s like, “Oh wow, I had no idea—“
HSU-KEN: I’m not the only guy that doing that.
SUSIE: “You do deep sea explorations. How did I not know that?”
Back to the Big Question
JESS: Is there anyone not sitting at the table that wants to ask a question? I want to make sure there’s an opportunity for that. And while you’re all thinking, I want to remind you of our theme, which is why do we make things. I’d love to hear if anyone wants to directly respond to that question.
HSU-KEN: I think that for the making things part, for me personally, it’s less about the product. For me it was—the reason we started the company was because people spend so much time at their jobs. And this is where we started, we were all working at companies, we were spending ten hours a day at our jobs, which is more time than we were spending with our families and all that kind of stuff. So it’s like, “Gosh, we better damn well like what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with.”
And for us, we worked for these companies and we didn’t agree with how they did business or the people we worked for or all this kind of stuff. So it just seemed to us that the only way to make it the way we wanted it to be was to start our own company. Which was naïve, you don’t do that kind of stuff and whatnot… But that was primarily the reason.
For us. we wanted to be able to build something that was useful, just so we could have this company where people liked coming to work and did cool stuff and the company ran in the way we felt it should.
The reason we make stuff is more about we want to make this company that people want to work at and less about the thing the company makes. And I think the good side effect is that if you have a really great company—behind most great products there’s a really great company, where people really like going to work there. So I think if you focus on the people that work for you and they’re really happy and doing great work, then the product really benefits from that.
TIM: I was just going to say I really miss making things, because I came up through the museum. I mean I literally started as a security guard and worked my way up through the exhibits department, then made exhibits, the whole project manager and kind of worked my way up. Like the newsboy in the news room in a big company.
But it used to be like every day putting an exhibit together, you’re painting walls, you’re building mounts for artifacts, you’re handling stuff, moving stuff around. And now it’s a weird thing when you go from that thing you really do love to the administrative position, where you’re trying to make things happen. So you’re putting everything in place so those things can get done and there’s still great joy in that.
I’m an artist, too, and I love to make my own art, but at the Foundation I was making a place where other people could make that art. And there’s a great satisfaction in that, but you have to let some of that other making stuff—well for me, in my particular situation—go, and just focus on the good things that are coming out of you doing your job. And there’s no time for me to make anything anymore.
So we make maybe one piece of artwork now a year that goes to an auction, like Pratt Fine Arts Center or Pilchuck or whatever, and that’s a little satisfying, but… That’s a weird thing where you get to that point where stuff that you loved about your startup becomes other people’s work and you’re just telling them, “This is how we’re going to structure that.” And you have to grow to love that, too, but it’s hard sometimes.
JESS: There’s been a lot of talk about community interaction and collaborating and that sort of thing. And in my work here at The Project Room, I’ve surveyed a lot of people about why do we make things, and an answer I’ve gotten more than once is because people want to find their community. People are looking to find where their people are, and making things is how they get there.
SARAH N: Well the tools you use to make something help choose the cohort as well. So for me, startups are an obvious fit, because when I actually started at Amazon years back, I left grad school to join them. And the idea, and what solidified it for me, was books and computers—really what more do I need? So you have a super smart cohort of people who are really excited about doing something with these tools. And so you’re building a community that has a common basis, and I think that is for me, at least, why I make things. Making the thing is secondary to the making, and the making is about finding the community.
ZEPHYR: This is probably a little corny, but I think I’m not trying to make a thing, I’m trying to make a difference. I’m trying to put out a different model and a different product. I mean, there are a lot of great restaurants around the city, but this one was built completely differently. I don’t think I did one thing normal.
JESS: But there was something driving you to do that.
ZEPHYR: There was definitely something, yeah. This culmination from everything that’s been in my life and every single space that I’ve been in so far. Yeah. Just trying to build something that’s different and in a different way. Because the original model doesn’t work for everyone.
HSU-KEN: I think first the community part for us—there are like 30 people at the company now, which is just mind-blowing to me. We kind of created our own community. You hire like-minded people and you set up this culture, so we kind of created our own community. So in terms of finding my community, it’s been the best way for me to meet people. I think with startups you’ll find a lot that you do a lot of things outside the startup because you spend so much time together. Like we all went and played basketball…
SARAH B: I land in the same camp. I basically invented something I was thinking about in order to be able to do it. I had to clarify the problem and then find all the ways to make it physical in the world. But I would say that personally, as an artist, my motivation is really just trying to understand my world. That really is the fundamental for me. That gets me started.
For me, the reason I started the pollinator pathway was thinking about systems, was thinking about farming systems, thinking about the rise of cities and 50% of the human population is now living in urban areas. And thinking about that just in terms of a land pattern issue or occurrence was really interesting to me, and I wanted to do something that would allow me to think about that or understand the ways we’ve taken over the planet. And do something very small in response to that, but that could pivot around that question or consideration.
And there’ve been very few opportunities in my life where I get to think about these bigger systems, and so I had to invent something that allows me to think about that every day. And it’s not much more than that, other than that I get to make something out of that. You know, I can’t do that in a job. So I basically invented a job for myself where I could think about that.
JESS: As did everybody at the table!
SARAH B: Right, as I’m not able to make money out of it. I don’t have that outside motivation. I mean, I am grant funded, so it also provides funding. It’s not without money. But I am really interested in hearing all of you guys, because there’s this success built into what you’re doing. You can either fail or succeed, and I don’t have that. I really just invent or don’t invent. I mean, I could call myself successful when I finally finish this project with all 60 gardens in place, sure. I don’t actually intend to do that. I intend to drop this project before this. I don’t want to keep doing this. I want an organization to take over and take care of it. I really just wanted to create the idea and that’s enough for me, so that’s my end point. But it’s really interesting to hear all of you, because there’s a future in what you’re doing that’s not in mine.
SARAH N: Well, I think it’s not uncommon for startup founders to have the future plan wherein they have the magical exit that they sell it to someone or they don’t have to complete or don’t even intend to. I mean, many founders intend to maintain an organization and potentially grow it, but there has been a reward model set up that flipping a company to a bigger company is a better success, or is a Silicon Valley driven definition of success at the very least.
So that’s something I’ve been struggling with for twelve years of running Blue Gecko—I actually got pretty tired of it after a while. And I stopped working there day to day a year, year and a half ago. And now we’re debating, do we continue to keep it, do we sell it, do we do something different? So. There’s this big question of do you want to? The people who start things don’t tend to want to maintain them.
JESS: Well, I think it’s about time to wrap up. Thanks everybody so much, this is very informative and inspiring and I’m just delighted you’re all here. This has been really, really wonderful. Thank you, everybody, thank you, thank you.
SARAH N: Your table is a rectangle. It’s not a round.
This event took place in The Project Room on October 3, 2011. To read more about it, click here.