Small hats win big bucks

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

PistilDesignHat

HOOD RIVER  Sometimes honesty pays. Midway through his public-funding pitch to a committee of angel investors, Peter Hixson described his company as “a three-man baseball team,” then shrugged and said, “I have no experience with taking a company from $1 million to $5 million.” A few hours later, the Gorge Angel Investors Network presented a check for $100,000 to Hixson for on-the-job training. Hixson’s Pistil Design, a fast-growing hat and fashion-accessory company, took the top prize in an entrepreneurial competition at the first of what organizers hope will be many Gorge Angel Conferences.

Hixson looked exuberant and more than slightly surprised as he and partners Tood Douglas and Forrest Jones sprang up to accept the award. “We didn’t expect to win, but we did,” beamed Hixson. Added Jones: “It was basically a cry for help — and it worked!” Their business has doubled its sales over four years and earned its way onto the shelves at REI and ski resort gift shops, but it needed a six-figure boost to push through to the next level. Pistil beat out 13 Gorge companies ranging from a network of multilingual preschools called Bambinos to an investment fund named Clean Tech Start-Ups Inc.

The well-attended event at the Hood River Inn was modeled on the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network’s successful string of biz-pitch competitions in downtown Portland, minus the “elevator pitch” theme because of Hood River’s lack of elevators.

It was an odd time to be celebrating the power of capitalism, sandwiched between several of the largest bank collapses in U.S. history. Few if any local startups will be receiving small-business loans as credit markets seize up, making the growing role of the angel investor more important than ever.

Hixson says the original plan was to invest the new cash in marketing and expanding product line, but the option has crossed his mind of just putting it into reserves. “Maybe we should just use this money as operating capital to ride out the storm. When others fail for lack of cash we will still be around.”                         

BEN JACKLET


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