An Outsider's Take On Grovemade

< object at 0x7fd29d17f9d0>


At Grovemade, we pride ourselves on cultivating a positive environment. We think it’s vital to the energy of our company, and the inspiration behind our products, that we come to work each day with a passion for what we’re doing, and a respect and appreciation for the people we’re working with. But we don’t want to assume we’re always getting that right. So, for an unbiased evaluation, we invited our friend Thomas McCracken to our workshop, to talk to a few employees and give us his observations—an outsider’s take on the Grovemade company culture.

* * *

Let me start by saying that Grovemade is a bunch of cool people, making some really unique stuff, using some very uncommon tools and techniques. So when they asked me to spend a day with them, I jumped at the chance. I spoke with nine people over the course of three hours, and I got a lot of interesting stuff. And I realized that, when writing an article on culture, for a group of smart, talented, and articulate people who truly love their jobs, it’s best to just get out of the way and let them tell their own story.

When I first walk into the Grovemade workshop, I’m greeted by an announcement from somewhere near the shipping desk.
"Thomas is here!"

Followed by a few more stray shouts.
"Hi, Thomas!"

I wave ambiguously and yell hello to the room. I can’t help but smile.

I’m here to try and pinpoint what makes this place special. In a city teeming with creativity and opportunity in industrial design, machining, and handmaking, how does this company attract and retain such talented and vibrant people? How do they stay so small, while producing at such a high level? And, most impressively, how do they continue to advance their brand, and maintain their place in the elite of handcrafting merchants? I’m about to learn that it’s not an amazing company yielding a brilliant staff, it’s the opposite.

Not long after I arrive, Ken walks in the front door, bundled against the cold in a stocking cap and scarf. He’s sick—out today with a head cold—but he stops by to check on the team.

The shouting is back.
"Ken’s here!"
"Ken’s here!"
"Hi, Ken!"

Ken stops by his desk, an unassuming station near the center of the room, and I make my first observation: the actual layout of the Grovemade workshop is symbolic of the culture. It’s open, it’s cohesive, everyone works together, and everything is closely connected. It defies the standard for what a company should look like.

Turns out, this is no coincidence.

ASHLEY RUNION, PURCHASING / INVENTORY MANAGER: "It’s really nice that design and production can flow together. Maybe production is doing something and it doesn’t make sense and we need to talk to design about it, we can literally walk across the building and get an answer."

BEN WOOD, ENGINEERING / IMPLEMENTATION: "We’re able to make these very tight loops of design and prototyping; we can go through these cycles really fast. That enables us to do polished products. We can keep making little revisions—even after a product launches we can keep making little improvements."

To fully appreciate this environment, let’s take a step back.

The company’s origin story goes back to Joe Mansfield, one of the co-founders of Grovemade, purchasing a laser-engraving machine in 2007.

MAX BROWN, PHOTOGRAPHER / GRAPHIC DESIGNER: "We went out for drinks one night. He was like, “I’m gonna buy a laser. This is my life now.” A week later we were in his house screwing around with a laser. It was like, “mess with the laser until stuff doesn’t catch on fire.” You know? This is something I really like—we make up a lot of stuff from scratch, and I think it makes our flavor really unique. We didn’t buy the starter package."

Ken and Joe then founded Grovemade in 2009. At first the company was split into two locations—the CNC milling machine in the back of Ken’s cabinetry shop in southeast Portland, and the production facility several miles away, in the inner-eastside warehouse district.

SEAN KELLY, LEAD PRODUCT DESIGNER: "We had this very small space with the CNC and a table that we sanded cases at. We were driving cases over and taking them up the five flights of stairs."

The company moved into their current home in southeast Portland in the summer of 2013 and they immediately embraced the cohesive team environment it created.

EDMUND SANDOVAL, COPYWRITER / EVENTS COORDINATOR / PRODUCTION: "Everything truly is done here. I talk to the designers a lot; I watch the whole design process beginning to end and get to know it intimately. And that lends itself well to writing about these products. That’s really different. It’s a really special thing."

MAX BROWN: "There’s just so much crossover. Being in the same space, always being in the thick of it every day, it definitely makes me feel super connected to the rest of the process."

GALEN LEE, ENGINEERING / IMPLEMENTATION: "We can always walk over—ten steps away—and say, 'Hey, what do you think about this.' We don’t have to drive a couple miles, or run up and down ninety-nine stairs."

(I interrupt—is that an embellishment, or did you actually count? Galen responds with a deadpan gaze.)

"It was literally ninety-nine stairs."

SEAN KELLY: "We’ve just been constantly improving. Every space we’ve moved to has given us giant leaps in how we do business and how we connect with one another and how we learn."

JIM HASSERT, OPERATIONS MANAGER: "This space is in direct alignment with how much more integrated and focused our values and principles are. Physically we’ve come together, and mentally—what we focus on and who we are has come together into a really tight focus and understanding as well."

This is one of the things that really set Grovemade apart—every action is purposeful. They call that the Campaign of Intentionality. Its evident in how they run their shop, how they interact with each other, and how their product line continues to evolve.

JIM HASSERT: "Our campaign of intentionality started with this space, asking, “Why is the broom there? Why is this box here? Why are we making this product?” Through that, the way we think was transformed. … We just replaced all these giant, heavy racks that couldn’t move, with racks that have wheels and can be used in any part of the space. We want our space and our minds to be flexible."

GALEN LEE: "If one of us says, “I think this area can be improved,” we’ll start by asking, “why.” We’ll track it back as far as we can, and if we can find the root of the problem, that allows us to have a better understanding, and make our tweaks accordingly. We don’t do anything haphazardly."

ASHLEY RUNION: "We just work together, like, “these are the things we want to improve on, how are we going to do it?” And sometimes it’s like, “hey I have this idea, I noticed this process we’re doing is not working.” So we’re constantly doing that, always trying to be better in each department. It’s a real team effort."

It is a team effort—but not in the traditional sense. It’s a team effort in that, while everyone has a role, most people here don’t have just one job. A lot of people told me, “I started out doing X, but they needed help in Y one day, so I jumped over there. Now I sort of do both.”

MISBAH AFSHARI: "I started working here in 2014, with hand sanding; it’s now been about four or five months that I’ve been in lasers. We do all different things, every day."

It’s fascinating.

As a company committed to staying small and nimble, they always have to operate at maximum efficiency. If one person is out sick, that might be the entire order fulfillment department. That could be a disaster for most businesses, but not this one.

EDMUND SANDOVAL: "We do a lot of cross training, so everybody can step in and make sure everything gets done. We have production guys that go to lasers; lasers go to production. Today we’re short in customer service, so I’m going help out with them, and we have other production guys who have already gone through customer service. There’s a great amount of trust put in every employee that we’re going to get the work done."

This system not only makes the team better at filling occasional gaps in the production line, it also makes them more effective, as each person better understand the complete system.

KEVIN DO, PRODUCT DESIGNER: "You understand the process, and with that you can close the loop between design, engineering, and production. You have a better understanding of how things run, you understand the price of materials, and you’re not designing things that are impossible. That makes everything more fluid."

ASHLEY RUNION: "Every time we think of a new way to be more efficient, it’s so fulfilling. Because some tasks can seem so daunting and overwhelming, it’s nice to know you have a team behind you."

And, ultimately, it just makes people happier.

BEN WOOD: "My role would definitely be one step removed in a bigger company. I’d never have the experience of going out and running the CNC mills. And that hands-on stuff, I just have to do it to keep invested in what I do."

MISBAH AFSHARI: "In every department, every person is so happy, all the time. They have these smiles on their faces and they love what they do. Including myself."

KEVIN DO: "People get excited when you have ideas. People will drop what they’re doing and we’ll jump in a little design session and talk about it."

MAX BROWN: "My role has really evolved over time; I can’t imagine it being that way many places. I started as the only laser operator. We had a camera sitting around and I had never shot a photo, but I took the camera out for the weekend. I had no idea what I was doing. That was like three or four years ago and photography is now, really, the main thing I do. It comes down to just trusting people, you know?"

At this point, I take a break between interviews. I get up and stretch my legs and inspect a display shelf by the front door. Four employees sit in the lounge and fabricate dialogue for the pigeons outside the window, squabbling over scraps. This moment says a lot about this place. When these guys aren’t talking about form factors and design inspiration, they’re making karate chop noises to flapping pigeon wings. They’re a bunch of people who like each other, which gives them the license to push each other, hold each other accountable, take chances, and take pride in their work. And that shows.

SEAN KELLY: "We have this thing called Noodle Quest. We go out and get noodles together. Because most of us really, really like noodles. When we’re at work, we’re constantly trying to lift each other up and push each other forward and work together as a team. … And then we go on field trips."

KEVIN DO: "Ken uses the analogy of a maze versus a labyrinth. A maze is an obstacle with many dead ends, but only one correct path. With a labyrinth, if you stay focused, you can pivot as many times as you need to get to the solution. That’s how we view things here. That helps you make decisions and not really second-guess yourself. So, we pivot."

ASHLEY RUNION: "Ken and Jim are big on constantly improving. Because when you’re constantly improving yourself, the team is improving as well. It’s nice to have the owner of a company sit you down and take the time to listen and find out how you learn. It’s nice to have that personal level."

I feel like I understand what this place is all about; how they continue to inspire each other, and continue to push the aesthetic and functionality of their products. And if there was ever a doubt about the future, they’re thinking about that too. Always. Thinking.

JIM HASSERT: "We always want to improve, but we also want to know when to stop investing in a product. The really interesting work is that paradox. There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just a matter of finding the sweet spot. That’s where work happens, where those things collide. You can’t move forward without friction.

GALEN LEE: "The one constant is change. Not just change for change’s sake, but a drive to constantly improve everything around us. We’re addressing what’s in front of us, and also addressing the future. As Ken likes to say, 'Without the present there is no future; without the future, there is no present.”

As I’m packing up my things at the end of the day, Galen has fallen asleep in the lounge. Ken calls a few coworkers over, they exchange a laugh and get back to work. I get the feeling I’d have fun hanging out with these people. They’re passionate about doing great work, and they take that very seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously. There’s a camaraderie and a kinship here. It’s what creates the amazing culture that this place exudes, and it’s a big reason their products continue to delight and inspire us.

That’s something you can’t fake, and you can’t manufacture. That’s as real as it gets.

One last chorus of shouts as I hit the front door.

“Thomas is leaving!”
“Bye, Thomas!”
“Thanks, Thomas!”