By Ron Khormaei, STEELPORT founder and CEO
We are seeing a rebirth of artisan-based industries, giving renewed attention to the traditional basis for American ingenuity. This provides an opportunity in Oregon and other states to leverage an existing supportive ecosystem and customers supporting the trend through their purchases to a new level by supporting “Built Local” brands – a ‘Shop Local’ meets ‘Made in America’ consumer trend.
“Shop Local” is a well-known term usually referring to supporting smaller Main Street businesses, restaurants, and retail establishments. The arguments in favor of shopping local often reference the altruism of directly supporting your neighbor, as well as appealing to the economics of improving the local community you live in. By keeping money within the local economy, you’re helping sustain businesses, communities, and the livelihoods of fellow citizens.
“Made in the USA” products support American industry from cars to clothing, and consumers are drawn to the idea of contributing to supporting the domestic economy, but also play to our desire for safety and confidence in our purchases. Customers can have greater confidence in the quality and safety of these products due to rigorous manufacturing processes, adherence to strict guidelines, and inspections carried out by regulatory bodies. Buying Made-in-America products can thus provide customers with peace of mind and assurance in their purchases. There’s also the popular environmental sustainability argument of American made products reducing the carbon footprint associated with the long-distance transportation of goods.
But if you combin both of these shopping ethos – “Shop Local” and “Made in the USA” – we have a “Built Local” mindset that provides customers with even more benefits than the sum of their parts. “Built Local” has all of the positive effects and impacts of shopping local and Made-in-USA, but the main differentiator with added unique advantages comes down to one thing: relationships.
Built Local products have the potential to deliver unmatched high-quality products thanks to their unique access to leverage relationships with:
- Customers: Locally built brand’s team has a high level of understanding of their customer’s needs, and feels a sense of personal obligation to their friends and neighbors to deliver not only the best but also stand behind every delivery.
- Suppliers: Working with local suppliers is foundational to a built local brand like STEELPORT, making it easier to communicate and deliver the highest quality products possible with a mutual sense of pride from both companies.
- Retailers: Local smaller retailers understand the values and are invested in completing this ecosystem and getting these products in front of interested customers. The built local company like STEELPORT can have meaningful in-person relationships with retailers to educate staff to better serve their customers, and in turn receive valuable feedback from retailers about what would best serve their own customers.
First, let’s talk about the advantage of being close to your customers. While building businesses in Portland, including recently with FINEX Cast Iron Cookware and currently, with STEELPORT Knife Co, I have experienced how small teams take pride in bringing the best new products to the marketplace. To them, customers are not unknown buyers with cash, but they are friends, family, and people known personally. The founders and team members are motivated by being able to share the love of their craft and vision with the rest of the community.
Because local artisans and makers are close to the people they create products for, they can optimize the product more efficiently. Being close to customers allows a local team to truly understand their needs. The team is able to pay close attention to functional, thoughtful details that are easy to miss or overlook if a company is far removed from their customer. Instead of creating cookie-cutter, mass-produced products, local artisans are drawn to create products that are truly heirloom quality, without needing to be dressed up in layers of hollow, insincere advertising. This is rampant in the culinary knife industry, with most companies (even US-based brands) receiving a mass shipment of stock removal blanks from abroad and adding some branded finishing touches for branding, then using a huge marketing budget to position it as high-end – with STEELPORT, our small team is handcrafting each knife here in Portland with a rigorous attention to detail… if our customers aren’t happy, they know where to find us!
Such local companies are uniquely poised to bring innovative ideas instead of merely duplicating an existing concept a million times. When large, global companies produce a high quantity of the same thing with slight variations, consumers no longer can expect understanding, quality, or the personal care that comes with a close-knit local network of artisans and manufacturers.
Next to highlight are the benefits of working with local, American suppliers. By working with partners within the country, companies can better collaborate to solve problems with the best solutions, instead of outsourcing it overseas. This not only optimizes the product, but also ensures that it was built with materials that are safe and also ethically sourced. Yes, it’s often easy to make something overseas at an incredibly low cost. However, local companies are able to better ensure the best materials by working with known, high-quality, US-sourced components.
When the maker is close to suppliers, it can build a genuine relationship with them. Each party knows the business practices of the other. They understand the needs of each company better, and both companies benefit from the arrangement. The result is a customized product that better fulfills the company’s aspirations. It’s not just a product; it’s a solution built with materials and labor practices that are US-made and safe for everyone involved. That’s how you know it’s local!
Another advantage is being able to control and manage shipping between all parties. Transport should not be considered simply a cost but rather a quality tax that impacts each step of the product development cycle. Proximity allows for quick fixes and real improvements in the product. As opposed to cost and time being out of a company’s control when suppliers are far away and products sit on shipping containers for a few months. When companies work with local suppliers, they don’t have to worry about delays due to international strife, weather, or a shipping channel being impassable. Such a relationship quickly leads to a trusting ecosystem and then extends to adjacent local partners.
Relationships power local companies. This carries over to the local retailers as well, which create a pre-made line to the customers that understand the value of such a value chain. Startups that develop their products close to their customers aim to empower the customers themselves. Instead of selling empty promises, local artisans share the details of their development, and invite customers to engage in a conversation about all aspects of the product, including design and implementation. In the case of STEELPORT, for example, their strength has come from building a community among customers, suppliers, and like-minded makers.
Supporting Built Local brands enables scalability and growth, giving the brands you trust the opportunity to bring their mission and quality to a broader audience, which can then set new standards for the global market. Take global brands such as Patagonia, Leatherman, and Columbia, for example. They all started with a local root and have grown into successful international brands without compromising their craftsmanship values. If they had not had the support of their communities, these companies would never have reached the traded sector milestone many artisans hope to achieve.
The scale and structure of offshore manufacturing might be the new norm for many; however, when it comes to face-to-face contact and effective communication, it is still hard to beat local relationships. Often these local investments are significant and require managerial vision to pull off, but in the long run, pay for themselves many times over. In the case of STEELPORT and its Made in the USA Carbon Steel Knives, we have been building a trusting ecosystem of chefs, restaurant owners, retailers, manufacturers of cookware, customers who care about premium quality, and the list goes on.
So, the next time you consider purchasing, consider going with Built Local. With strong relationships at its foundation, Built Local is more than a feel-good slogan. It allows for building long-term brands that remain beacons for future companies and set high standards for customers to expect.