“As silly as it sounds, a lot of times we think of ourselves as an event/community brand that sells apparel. We always try and throw free events, make people feel welcome, and be at as many events around the city as possible. ”
At ConveyThis, we’re obsessed with helping eCommerce companies grow. We do this in a couple of different ways. First, we help businesses reach international markets with our website translation tool for popular platforms like WordPress, Shopify and BigCommerce (to name only a few examples).
Secondly, we work hard to educate eCommerce store owners on a wide range of topics relating to running a successful eCommerce company. From time to time, we interview leaders in the eCommerce growth space for our blog, about their experiences scaling their online stores.
Today, ConveyThis had the opportunity to chat with Eli Abramovitz, the second in charge at Portland Gear and the Head of Operations. Eli and founder Marcus Harvey started out as a team of two. Today, they’ve grown into a core time of 6, with an additional 8 retail employees and they now have 3 stores through the portland area.
However, it all started online with a newly purchased instagram account and a little eCommerce shop. Let’s jump in and learn about the Portland Gear journey.
Thank you for joining us today. To help us kick the interview off, can you tell us a bit more about how Portland Gear was born?
Of course! It all started when Marcus Harvey (owner) bought the @portland instagram handle from a dad in Portland, Maine in early 2014. He was just posting pictures of his daughter and Marcus saw potential for the page. At the time that was pretty crazy because this was before influencers or companies really started utilizing the app (weird to think about I know). In 6 months, he quickly grew the page to 60k followers and saw how great the love for the city was. While Portland does have the Blazers, Timbers, and Thorns, we don’t have other teams or logos that are as synonymous with the city as does LA, NY, or SF. Portland needed a logo that represented the city. Having a background in apparel and design, Marcus saw a huge opportunity. Our iconic “P” logo with the state of Oregon inside of it was born and on Black Friday of 2014, we launched our classic “P” Tee and Rise Tee on the @portland page. We posted one picture saying, “Show your Portland pride with @portlandgear” and we did $5,000 in sales that day. From that point on we realized we had something good.
It shows through your branding that you have a real love of sports and outdoors. Was this your image out of the gates, or did this brand image evolve over time?
We were inspired by the old school/vintage athletic aesthetic. Partly because it was what we liked and wanted to wear, partly because it was all we were able to design. While Marcus is a designer, and we do have designers on the team, they don’t consider themselves artists, so crazy graphics were never a part of the rotation. As far as the outdoors goes, we live in Oregon. It’s a part of every Oregonian’s DNA. We didn’t have a choice to not have that be part of the inspiration. The reason for running the shop though is the community. Hands down.
How has the brand evolved over time? Have you ever pivoted in terms of direction or were you clear on that direction from day one?
It’s really been a clear direction from the start. For people to show their Portland pride and to wear their connection to the city. Whether they are from here, used to live here, want to live here or are visiting. It’s easy for Portland to steal people’s hearts and we want you to be able to walk away wearing a piece of that. While we knew this, we never really realized the sort of community that would be created. As silly as it sounds a lot of times we think of ourselves as an event/community brand that sells apparel. We always try and throw free events, make people feel welcome, and be at as many events around the city as possible. We’ve created some awesome relationships with people at these events and community engagements by talking to people who come in & hearing their stories all while sharing the same pride for our city. The apparel is an extension of all of that and it is amazing to see.
I’d like to talk about your growth process. What was the single most important thing that was responsible for the initial traction and success of your brand?
Undeniably the @portland page. The timing of everything was huge. Instagram was in its early days before brands and influencers capitalized on the app. Being able to promote the brand to hundreds of thousands of people who loved the city of Portland before all the algorithms and saturation. I honestly think that if this came at any other time, even by a year or two, we wouldn’t be as successful as we have been.
Have you ever had the experience where you’ve stepped back and seen your success and thought “hey we made it”?
For about a year and a half, we solely sold our merchandise online and out of our iconic bus. We were able to purchase a 1973 VW Westfalia van as a tribute to Phil Knight (our hero) who started Nike the same way. We would go to street fairs and pop up shops all around town in that thing. People would always ask where our store was and we decided that after a certain point, we needed to open up a brick and mortar store. In March of 2016, we finally opened one of right next to Providence Park (where the Timbers and Thorns play) and we had a line down the block waiting for us to open. That was a pretty special moment.
What were some hurdles you experienced after gaining your initial traction? How did you overcome your early obstacles?
We have been very fortunate to have not run into any large hurdles. Sure, there have been things here and there. We have always tried to be open and honest with ourselves and customers, owned up to any mistakes and be as transparent as possible in all situations and that has always worked out in our favor.
How have you approached your brand’s growth strategy? How has your strategy evolved over time? Has it been a very formal process or have you rolled with the punches as they’ve come in?
We have always done things based on gut feelings. We obviously sit down and talk seriously about ideas and hash through them but very seldom do we have a physical strategy that is written down. We do things when they feel right or we have reached our bandwidth. We launched the brand on the @portland page and found success pretty early on. We only sold online until people started asking where they could find us in person to touch and feel the clothes. So, Marcus and I started doing pop ups or street fairs whenever we could. We weren’t ready for a store yet. Then people asked where they could find us on a consistent basis so we opened up our brick and mortar store. Marcus and I worked the store every single day for 6 months until we couldn’t do it anymore and we hired our first full time designer, Mack. We would then split time between the store and office. Then we only added a fourth employee when it was absolutely integral to grow the brand. We all wear multiple hats to ensure things get done and no one is above working the store, taking out the trash… With that being said, I really don’t think we would have changed a thing. It’s how we all learned how to work hard and understand the brand more. Sitting in the store every day, you are able to get a great perspective on what people like, dislike and hear their suggestions. We just turned 5 and are now realizing that we’re a brand and a company that is much larger than just us, let’s start putting some of these things down on paper and come up with long term plans to grow and scale.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the customer service strategies you use both online and offline? How does your approach differ in-store vs. online?
We realized pretty early on that going above and beyond in that category would help build our customer base. Just being genuine and authentic when someone first comes up and experiences the brand, making that personal connection with them is where it starts. Telling them about the Portland Gear story, helping them through the purchasing process, being genuinely interested in the person. We used to say when the customer walks away we want to know where they are from, what they are interested in, and what they are up to for the rest of the day. Creating lifelong customers right off the bat and then having them tell their friends through word of mouth is so valuable to us (AND cost effective). What’s great too is that this is never forced. It is just in our DNA and we make sure that it is the same way for any employees we hire. Then as far as online goes its making sure we get the package out fast and correctly and if there ever is any issue we fix it immediately. In short, just making sure the customer experience is enjoyable and fun and always going above and beyond. I don’t think by any means you need all detailed plans in place, but having core values and an outline is absolutely necessary. Being willing to adjust as time goes along as seeing what works best is key and is what makes small business so fun. We’re pretty optimistic and confident people so we will make the most of any situation and make it the better than we had even planned initially.
Which online marketing channel has worked the best for you?
Instagram. Once again, it has been our life blood. Also going to pop ups. As I mentioned earlier, we try and be at as many events as possible which gives us a great opportunity to tell our story over and over again. While it many not the most efficient, it is also the most genuine way we have found to create customers and fans of the brand.
Which online growth channels have proven to be the least effective for your brand?
Honestly, a lot of traditional marketing tools have not been as successful as we have wanted. We have tried hiring outside help for social media marketing, ad targeting, PR firms but have never found a high ROI on these. We found that sticking to promoting ourselves on Instagram along with making those in person connections with customers is where we see the most success.
As you’ve mentioned, Instagram has been of paramount importance to your brand’s success. How did you go about building up your IG following? Do you strategically create content with a purpose in mind? If so, what’s the thinking behind your strategies?
As previously mentioned, the @portland page was really integral in all of this. Promoting @portlandgear through that page then cross promoting @portland on the @portlandgear page has made the two pages really complementary to one another. Posting twice a day on @portland and once a day on @portlandgear helps keep followers engaged without us posting new. You can expect something new every day from both pages. We try to drop products every 1-2 weeks, and plan small photoshoots for them. Then we try to have 4 large seasonal drops throughout the year where we put a lot of time and effort into those. We also realize that people don’t want to just see apparel so we try and throw in some personal stuff. We’re fun and silly people and like to post stuff about us. One, because that’s just what we want to post, and two it helps create a connection with our followers when they can put a face to something and it makes us feel more real. It’s pretty cool having people coming into the store feeling like they already somewhat know us – it helps create a solid relationship.
It’s clear that Portland Gear isn’t in business just to sell. You do a ton of community outreach and fun side projects with other local businesses. One example is your program called “Brand Camp”, which is a summer internship for high school and college kids to learn business. You’ve also teamed up with a local brewery to create a new beer – and you’re asking your followers to vote and help name it. All very cool stuff. Was the creation of, or participation in events like this a conscious marketing decision? In what ways have you seen it affect your business?
Community is almost more important to us than the actual product itself. Allowing others to be a part of this journey with us means everything. Brand Camp was initially born from students asking if they could intern with us. We didn’t have the workload for a full time intern so we would have kids come in for a day to shadow us. As great as that was, it wasn’t feasible to do with the numerous requests. We thought “how can we give back to multiple kids at once”? So, we set aside a week in the summer to teach them everything we know! It is now going to be on its fourth year this year with 2 different camps, a week each, with the University of Oregon as our main sponsor for the program.
As far as the beer goes, if we can create a beer that is supposed to represent Portland- of course we are going to have the people help make it! We also do volunteering days and invite the community to come join us, host free social events, and have put on things like the “Passport Challenge” which is a city wide scavenger hunt. This community has helped us become the brand we are so the more we can get everyone involved, the better. People want to feel a part of something and we’re lucky that we have the platform to give people do that.
These are all really interesting ideas. However, is creating a program like Brand Camp feasible for other small e-Com business owners? If so, how should they approach it?
Sure! We did it! There was a market for it and people were more or less asking for it, so we made it a reality. Create it and put your own twist on it. I would say it is almost easier as a small business to do something like that. Being a small team, it is so incredible to say, “Hey I have an idea for this”, and then we talk through the idea as a group and then just implement it. There is no red tape to go through. It may sound cheesy but honestly being authentic, genuine and understanding your customer and community is SO key. So for us, it was creating Brand Camp. For your own business, figure out what resonates with your community.
Throughout the journey, have you ever suffered any many setbacks or thought you might not make it?
We have been very fortunate to have never run into that problem and we have never considered throwing in the towel. We are very lucky to come in to work every day and create apparel for a community that we love. Portland is a growing and ever evolving place and hope to grow with it for many years to come.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with ConveyThis today Eli. We really appreciate it. Many of our e-Com blog readers are currently in the process of scaling their eCommerce stores, so insights like the ones you’ve provided above, can help them get from where they are to where they want to be. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about PortlandGear you can follow them on Instagram or check out their website here.