Smart cases for smartphones


1011_SmartAccessories_01Ken Tomita has a mantra he repeats as he moves from the woodworking area to the design floor of his rapidly growing company, Grove: “We build everything here.”

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1011_SmartAccessories_01Ken Tomita has a mantra he repeats as he moves from the woodworking area to the design floor of his rapidly growing company, Grove: “We build everything here.”

Not everything, of course — just everything Grove sells. Grove has been manufacturing in Portland for just over a year, and already the business has grown to 21 young employees buzzing about with great creative freedom at a funky space in the Central Eastside. Tomita and co-founder Joe Mansfield have created jobs at a time when few companies are hiring, and they have done so with no business training, no loans or grants and no outsourced low-wage contract workers building their products in China. 
One key to their early success lies in what they make: smooth, artful bamboo cases for iPhones and iPads. The other key has to do with how they make what they make.

Tomita, a 33-year-old former furniture maker, keeps his office in the ground floor production area, where employees are operating computer-programmed woodworking machines in one room and hand-sanding bamboo in another. The only farmed-out task involves oiling the products by hand: Tomita’s mother does that at home.

Tomita speaks so quietly he is difficult to hear over the din, but everything he says exudes confidence. “This product is impossible to outsource. It can’t be done.”

Up five flights of stairs is Mansfield’s domain, with a view of the Portland skyline and nice, cool air from the 800-pound fan Mansfield had craned onto the roof above. Ceiling speakers pipe in music while workers do their stuff using computers, a laser engraving device and an honest-to-goodness sewing machine.

 


1011_SmartAccessories_02Mansfield, 27, started out designing moleskin notebooks with the goal of bringing a sense of warmth and style to things he calls “cherished objects.” A self-described “Apple geek,” he recognized with his first iPhone that as an object it would be cherished by many. He pitched his idea of a wooden case for smart phones for years before teaming up with his like-minded and equally energetic neighbor, Tomita.

 

They were doing well enough with their businesses (Tomita in furniture, Mansfield in design) to finance Grove themselves. Tomita brought in a high-end woodworking machine and Mansfield contributed the laser machine. They spent eight months designing a case for the iPhone 3 only to get sunk by leaked design changes to the iPhone 4. But they adapted quickly and expanded into iPad cases with good timing. Their Facebook page has 17,000 fans and they’ve received laudatory press from the popular gadget guide gizmodo.com. All of their sales are e-commerce.

They acknowledge that they are at the mercy of Apple each time a new iPhone comes out. “But we’re small enough that we can adapt quickly,” says Tomita.

They plan to keep it that way. “We really enjoy the size we’re at right now,” says Mansfield. “This is basically the dream for us.”

Ben Jacklet




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