Small business: Design firm has it Made

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 9:48 PM

The custom sourcing and design agency that’s produced items for Pharrell Williams is also carefully crafting its future.

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Michelle Courtwright, left, and Kristin Hollander are founders of Made, a Minneapolis company that makes custom-branded products.

Photo: Meghan Doll Photography,

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Kristin Hollander and Michelle Courtright, founders of Made, a custom sourcing and product design agency in Minneapolis, had reason to be “Happy” this year as Pharrell Williams and his ubiquitous tune took over the world.

That’s because Made had produced, with Williams’ input, custom-designed pin sets, tote bags and other concert merchandise to support his foundation, From One Hand to Another. The nonprofit offers educational and other services to inner-city youths.

“It was right when he was peaking, so it was like, oh my God, it’s Pharrell, it’s crazy,” Courtright said. “It was all direct quotes from him. ‘Pharrell says we need to do this.’ ”

Made’s other products include wooden blocks depicting the city’s skyline for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a bike handle that holds a six-pack of beer for Whole Foods’ biking customers. Projects yet to launch include a cleaning kit for high-end sneakers for “a large department store” and a leather canteen, complete with a compass, notebook and cork pen to accompany bottles of Papa’s Pilar, an Ernest Hemingway-inspired rum.

Tangible brand extension

“There’s a movement toward brands not just advertising on social media but having tangible things that are an extension of their brand,” Court­right said. “It’s about the consumer being able to touch and feel a brand in a different way.”

Said Hollander: “We try to make brands exist through unique items.”

Courtright, who had worked in marketing and had her own retail store, and Hollander, who had operated an online gift store, joined forces to start Made in 2008. The pair, who didn’t hire their first employee until 2011, today have a staff of 15 and projected revenue of $4.5 million.

“We feel like we have good taste,” Hollander said of the source of Made’s product design prowess. “We’re very particular about the things that we put out in the marketplace.”

They’re using the same discerning eye to shape Made and its future, envisioning a company that’s several times larger and an appealing acquisition target for an advertising agency or agency holding company.

“We’ve set pretty aggressive goals for ourselves, to get up to $20 to $30 million,” Courtright said. “That’s where we see ourselves in 10 years. One day we’d like to sell this and start something else. That’s our exit strategy.”

While collaborations with agencies already account for 70 percent of Made’s business, Hollander and Court­right want to do even more work with agencies and their clients. They’re eager to do more production design for larger retailers and are concentrating on producing custom collections instead of commodity projects.

“We work with a lot of agencies in town as the women behind the curtain, to produce the [product] ideas they have,” Hollander said. “We understand how to work with them.”

Made has increased revenue without growing in head count, Courtright said, and she and Hollander prefer a smaller, more nimble size. “It’s more about the size of the client,” Courtright said. “So we’ve been more strategic about who we’re going after and what that project looks like.”

When Hollander and Courtright started Made, it specialized in corporate gifts for downtown law and accounting firms and other business. But they soon “fell into the promotional industry,” after responding to a federal agency’s request for a branded skateboard.

That led to a crash course in the arcane ways of government procurement and sourcing products, sometimes one piece at a time from domestic and far-flung manufacturers.

Move to custom work

They took advantage of that manufacturing expertise and their design sensibilities to move Made into custom sourcing and product design and away from gifts, aside from creating lines of gifts for retailers, and most promotional products.

Cindy Perez of the Crispin, Porter + Bogusky ad agency in Miami, said in an e-mail that Made “has made the impossible happen, whether it be in Tokyo, Hong Kong or the United States.

“I have worked with them on several last-minute projects where other companies have turned me down, and they have produced the impossible with style and grace,” Perez said.

The expert says: Mike Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, said he found Made’s offering interesting because it builds on the experience consumers have with a brand, fulfilling a desire for product to go with that interaction.

“The brand revenue stream and whatever currency it is that establishes a brand in the mind of a consumer, more and more of it becomes about experience or exclusivity,” Porter said. “So experience and exclusivity become really powerful. Clearly these folks are doing a level of not just uniqueness but the quality is huge. … [They] have high standards.”

Made’s ability to handle last-minute projects also sets them apart, she said.

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com

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