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.