Creating Culture and Finding What Matters

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I want people to stick up for themselves and make their life what they want it to be. If we have a team of people that truly want to be here, they’re going to do amazing things.

__Ken Tomita

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s with this that we begin our interview with Ken Tomita, the founder and man at the helm for Grovemade the past eight years. After beginning the company with friend and e-commerce maven, Joe Mansfield, the two quickly set about designing a single product that put Grovemade design on the map: the bamboo iPhone case. Since then the company has taken shape as an icon of Portland’s maker community, staunchly innovative, and has retained through the seasons of trends a deep commitment to their in-house culture of hard work and open hands.

Ken walked us through the Grovemade office one blustery afternoon in Southeast Portland sharing values and details about each aspect of the operation, from R&D, design, packaging, to an unusually tidy woodshop complete with two CNC machines, one of which he affectionately referred to as “Rusty.” Rusty was there at the beginning of Grovemade, the machine Ken took out a loan to purchase when they began making their initial iPhone designs.

Ken: We started out making iPhone cases, but we never wanted to be an iPhone case only company. We wanted to make products that could stand alone, not things that were attached to someone else’s design, so over the years we’ve started to expand. It was really controversial when we decided to move in a different direction because we made the best cases and absolutely would have continued to be profitable. But instead I decided to take what we had made and invest it into making new things. It was pretty risky, because half of what you try usually fails, right? We just tried a bunch of things, but what’s remaining is what stuck. Now we make tools for the creative professional, and a series of lifestyle products.  We’ve chosen to pivot so many times in the last eight years, and made some moves that were very unpopular. We basically had to alienate a certain group of customers in order to survive as a business.

Much of that pivoting has been a direct result of developing a unique set of values that now make up Grovemade’s DNA. What separates Grovemade design?

One thing that really separates us is that we actually make our products. We’re able to push the limits of manufacturing because we’re doing it ourselves. We’re highly experimental, which means we actually suffer if we design something that’s really hard to make. But we only make things that we believe we can do better than what’s out there. We don’t think of ourselves as a maker or craft company, but we’re pushing design through fabricating the products ourselves. We use the best method for the job, which happens to often be manually. Another one of our slogans is “Made the Hard Way,” which just means whatever it takes to make it the best way, we’ll do it. Sometimes it’s super high-tech, and sometimes it’s getting our hands dirty.

Tell us about your background and how you decided to start Grovemade.

I grew up here, just outside of Portland in the country, being outside all the time like any country kid. I went to college at University of Oregon as


an East Asian studies major, and then grad school for Architecture at RISD. I worked really hard to get in but when I got there I didn’t like it. The first semester was great, though. I feel like it turned me from a normal person into a creative. But the rest of it was super conceptual, and I just wanted to make things. The next semester I took an industrial design course in furniture building and realized, oh this is it. So I talked to one of my professors and he actually convinced me to quit school. He told me to call up his friend, Gerard Menakowa, in Santa Barbara. So when I was getting ready to leave I called him. By the end of that phone call I was moving to Santa Barbara to work for this guy.

Gerard was a furniture maker and bamboo artist. [Working with him] basically changed my life. I always thought that you had to go to school and get a job, and there you go you have your life. I was always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job I liked, because I had hated every single job I’d ever had up until that point. Then I met Gerard. He didn’t have a job, he was self-employed, and there was no line between his work and his life. Meeting him made me realize that I could do that with my life, too, and made me kind of demand that my life would become that way, that it would meaningful, period, all the time.


That was pivotal for me. My way I wanted my life to look totally changed. It became focused on asking what do I want to do? I spent two years working with Gerard and then moved back here. Everything was focused around what I wanted to do, and money was secondary. I could get away with that, too, because I could live with my mom and I was living very conservatively. I was really lucky to have met him and have that support, for what eventually turned into Grovemade. I always emphasize the learning first, and letting the other stuff take care of itself.

Grovemade has a very defined internal culture. How did that develop?

The fascinating thing about culture is that there’s no right one. Like friendships. People should be who they are, and a company should be sure of who it is. If it matches, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay. It’s easy to talk about now, but it took a long time for me to figure that out. I’m always trying to distill what it is that we do, and I came up with “find what matters,” because I want everyone to find what matters to them, even our customers. If it’s not the things we make that’s okay, but I think it’s important to find what matters to them. Life is too short to be a passive observer. It’s controversial, but I go out of my way to make sure that people are doing the work because they want to be doing it and want to be a part of this.

But our values have developed over a long time. We keep them up on the wall here in the studio to remind us. I’ve stolen this phrase from Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose.” I really believe that everyone should do what they want to do, and do it to the best of their ability. That’s sort of the conceptual part, but the concrete way that we do that is by encouraging people to openly talk about what they do, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with what they do here. One of my favorite things is when people tell me a year, three months, a month ahead of

time that they have these other goals and I get to help them get there. We really embrace that. Like anytime someone quits, there is a thunderous applause. It’s a little unusual, but it means that no one here has to pretend to care about things that they don’t.

Why is that a value to you?

That’s the way I like to live and I want to be around people that are feeling the same way. We can be straight with each other. I don’t want people to just put their heads down and struggle through life. I want people to stick up for themselves and make their life what they want it to be. That’s the highest level value. If we get a bunch of people that truly want to be here, they’re going to do amazing things. Once you have the values in place, put the team first, be open, embrace the truth, be professional.

We drive really hard because we want to make great work, but if you’re here during the week, you’ll see that it’s pretty relaxed. It’s the paradox of my personality. For example, we’re super strict on an 8:00am start. If you can’t make it here on time you’re literally going to get fired. To me, getting here on time isn’t about doing it for your boss, it’s about doing it for your teammates, to show them that you’re committed to each other.

How do you choose who’s on your team?

It took a long time to figure that out as a company. It was really painful until we did because at first we were just hiring friends, people we liked to hang out with. Now we hire people that fit with the way we want to be as a brand instead of people that are all just like us. We’ve found, too, people who don’t like change will be really stressed out here. We can’t have people that want to burrow in, who are stubborn and don’t want to improve, who won’t let others in to help them improve.


How do you enable people to do their best work?

With our design team, I think it’s with trust and freedom. There was local ad agency guy here recently and he was asking our design team what they like about working here and they all said that they love how hand’s off it is. They get to create freely. I like to give feedback, but mostly I just leave people alone and get out of the way. You just have to have the right people in those places, people who are deserving of that trust. People who do well here don’t have to be told what to do. They’re the kind of people who could be good entrepreneurs themselves. We’re just so open that we want people to use Grovemade as a stepping stone to do what they want to do.

I really believe the company has this path, and everyone in it has their own path, and it’s actually only going to intersect for a short amount of time. We try to do as much as we can while it lasts. Even the guy that I started Grovemade with has gone on, and someday I will, too. I don’t know when that will be, because I’m still having a lot of fun, but this isn’t it for the rest of my life.

What’s in store for the future of Grovemade?

It’s a recent thing but I’m thinking more about leaving this legacy with Grovemade. Last year I took two weeks off to drive across the country and go visit some of our customers. I hadn’t taken a week off, consecutively in

eight years. Even taking time off to invest in figuring things out is kind of counterintuitive. Usually people just want to put their heads down and work even harder. I’m really fortunate that I can take that space. I could just eat burritos all the time and get by on my salary, no problem. But talking to all of those people made me kind of separate myself from the business and realize someday it’s not going to match anymore, my life and the business. I have to shepherd it in a way that’s best for the company, not just for me. Up until now Grovemade has been more of an extension of me, of what I want to do as a one person maker. But I want to make a business that’s healthy without me here.