There aren’t a lot of counties in Oregon with unemployment rates lower than the national average, but there are three of them in the Columbia River Gorge. Even as the state's economy has stagnated, the awesome rise of the robot plane pioneer Insitu as an aerospace powerhouse and other positive developments have done wonders for communities on both sides of the river, especially in the vicinity of Hood River.
I took a drive out to tiny Bingen, Washington just across the bridge from Hood River the other day, and it was nothing like it was in the not-so-distant past. No more cheap fried chicken at the convenience store as you pass through; we’re talking gluten free crust on the pizza, locally brewed beers for four and a half bucks apiece, and specialty products like goat’s milk hand lotion and local honey for sale by the register.
The venue was the Solstice Wood Fire Cafe, just next door to Insitu, and the event was a Pub Talk sponsored by the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network’s Gorge chapter. Simply hosting such an event was a breakthrough for Bingen. Klickitat County economic development director Mike Canon had this to say: “If you’d mentioned that we’d get a pub talk on this side of the river a year ago, you’d have been hanging out in too many pubs yourself.”
But there they were, investors and entrepreneurs and economic development evangelists, crammed into a small room to listen.
Three Gorge-based entrepreneurs spoke: Ken Levy of 4-Tell, Richard Halpern of EcoApprentice and James Martin of Copa Di Vino.
Former Digimarc employee Levy launched 4-Tell, his fourth startup, 16 months ago with the goal of helping companies that sell products online increase sales through recommendations. He and his team have closed $250,000 in seed capital, but it hasn’t been easy. By his count he’s had 68 meetings with 51 private investors, in addition to high-pressure public pitch contests before investment groups.
But he’s made progress in a tough economy, and he credits his success to speed, determination and practicality. He went from concept to business plan in six weeks and began generating revenue shortly thereafter. In this economy, he says, “It’s almost impossible to get money until you have a product and sales.”
He’s also had the wisdom to stick with professional investors who understand risk rather than friends and family who expect quick and easy returns. In addition, he received a nice “soft circle” boost from a local investor well known in the community. That investor, Vesta CEO Doug Fieldhouse, allowed Levy to use his name to raise money and committed to investing so long as Levy met requirements. The soft support paid off, but the road ahead remains hard.
Halpern, whose business plan involves crowd-sourcing among college students to help businesses turn environmental challenges into opportunities, is much earlier along in the game. In fact, he made the unusual choice of telling attendees that he was not ready for their money. Mostly he wanted advice.
Still, his idea could have serious potential with some refinement. Asked how he planned to make money, Halpern explained, “It’s a freebie until it becomes a product worth paying for, and when it becomes a product worth paying for it will be worth a lot.”
Martin, the founder and CEO of Copa di Vino, comes from from a seven-generation The Dalles family, and he weighed in on the other end of the confidence spectrum. He has launched his wine-by-the-glass product in 20 states, and the 21st, California, could be huge. He believes he has solved a long-standing problem for the wine industry with a patented packaging technology that bottles wine in glasses instead of bottles. As the first company to move into the “ready to drink” individual servings market for good wine, Martin hopes to disrupt the market until the big wine producers cannot ignore his product, then convince the big boys to partner with him.
“We want to bottle for the industry,” Martin told the crowd, noting that he already has established a partnership with Kendall-Jackson. “We’re trying to raise a million and a half dollars over the next six months.”
He didn’t get a million and a half that night in Bingen, but he did receive a lot of encouragement for his enterprise, which could bring many jobs to The Dalles if things go as planned.
After the event, Martin told me that raising money in this economy has been a frustrating endeavor. But he’s confident he’ll succeed over time.
If he does, there will be one more reason to bet on the long-term economic future of the Gorge.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business.