Micromanufacturing the Niche Product: Portland Razor Co.
“I consider myself a product-centric businessman,” says Scott Miyako, co-founder of Portland Razor Co. “I am first and foremost a maker, a business person second. I always put the product first because I don’t believe in making or selling something unless it is the best.” That combination of business and maker is on the rise, especially in the U.S., and it’s called micromanufacturing.
Entrepreneurial makers are turning to micromanufacturing to start their small businesses. It offers makers the ability to not only feature their own products but also lets them delve deeper into their personal passions and interests, develop their skills, and have the time to share their growing expertise with others.
Micromanufacturing is an ideal solution to the quandary of domestically producing niche, specialized products like PRC’s handmade straight razors. Makers like Miyako don’t want a large factory; they want to create locally, using local goods. According to Dmitry Slepov, cofounder of micromanufacturer Tibbo Technology, writing in TechCrunch, makers “require compact, personal manufacturing facilities tailored to small, flexible production runs. For many makers, micromanufacturing will be the key to their commercial success.”
And for decades, Portland, Oregon, has had a tradition of being a great place to manufacture goods and products.
Makers and Portland
The “Maker Movement” sweeping the nation, if not the world, has created major micromanufacturing outlets in places like San Francisco, Seattle—and Portland. It’s a match made in small business heaven.
Kelley Roy is the founder of one of this city’s hottest makerspace, ADX, in Southeast Portland. In the introduction to her book Portland Made: The Maker of Portland’s Manufacturing Renaissance, Roy says “through the creation of beautiful and thoughtfully produced goods—from food and fashion to housewares and craft brewing—Portland is showcasing the city’s deeply embedded values and playing a lead role in shaping the fast growing manufacturing renaissance.”
The Portland Razor Co. (PRC), launched by Miyako and his wife, Alex Pletcher, in 2014, is a former resident of the ADX space and exemplifies that renaissance. The PRC makes of one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted straight razors and strops, the smooth surface used for razor maintenance.
Getting started in a makerspace has been a boon for PRC, smoothing over a lot of the rough spots for new small businesses. Miyako notes, “We had affordable rent, a community of great people, and didn’t have to worry about annoying things like utility bills.”
Adds Pletcher: “You can learn so much from the people around you. If you are going to set out on your own, having contact with a community resource like a makerspace is really helpful to learn and grow with those around you. It can save you from making costly mistakes if you have other people around to help you with a ‘gut check’.”
Miyako’s daily responsibilities include strategic planning, managing finances and operations, and bladesmithing—making blades from scratch. “Though our plans for the near future include hiring a few additional bladesmiths, I have laid hands on every razor that goes out the door at some point in the process,” says Miyako.
Co-founder Pletcher says her duties include brand management, marketing, producing creative content, and the manufacturing of soft goods, including the strops and razor cases.
Both consider themselves part of Portland’s growing maker community.
“I’ve always been into art, design, making things, and DIY culture,” said Pletcher. “Unlike Scott, my emphasis is in fibers, drawing, and painting. The term ‘maker’ is relatively new to me, but I guess it is what I’ve been doing this whole time.”
Pletcher describes herself an artist, maker, and businesswoman: “All three identities work in reciprocity. Even though ‘business person’ is not my natural state, I create based on the goals of the business. At the same time, our product and image are central to the company, so the business decisions we make stem from making the best product. It goes back and forth, and the maker, the artist, and the business person all support each other.
“I feel [we] very rarely make sacrifices in favor of money or in favor of art because we are meticulous about this balance. I am sure a hard choice will come along at some point, but we will just have to wait and see what that means for us.”
Micromanufacturing traditional straight razors
Getting closer to close shavers was Miyako’s idea.
“Several years ago,” says Miyako, “I was looking for the best tool for shaving. I tried straight shaving in addition to a slew of other shaving tools, and it became clear to me that shaving never should have deviated from the straight razor.”
Having discovered that the straight razor is “designed perfectly for the task of shaving; it feels good, and it generates zero waste,” he found there weren’t many options for actually getting a straight razor. So, “I started to make my own razors and gave them to friends so that they could have the best shaving tool, too.
“Starting the business felt obvious because I believed so strongly in the product from the beginning.”
PRC offers two different strop and nine different blade styles. With color, scales, and blade depth options, that’s a total of 56 different razors and strops in their standard product line. Each razor takes ten steps to make—in short, it’s a time consuming process. Heat treating the steel and finishing the wood scales mean it can take well over a day to make a single razor. Micromanufacturing makes sense.
The PRC shop, tucked away in a corner of Southwest’s Lair Hill close to downtown Portland, is the core of their bustling business. “Having a space that allows good work flow and good energy is priceless,” says Pletcher. “We have only been in this space since May of 2016, but it has allowed us to make huge improvements to our process. And I like [our shop] because it’s quiet and kind of a secret.”
Miyako’s and Pletcher’s work space is divided into six different zones. They call Zone 1 their “dirty manufacturing” area, and it’s where they do all the grinding on the razors. Zone 2 is used for heat treating and a staff entrance. Zone 3 is clean manufacturing: scales assembly, leather working, sewing, and laser cutting. Zone 4 is a small retail space, Zone 5 is packing and shipping, and Zone 6 hosts razor honing/assembly and a photo studio.
“Our shop isn’t something you would catch on the centerfold of a commercial real estate magazine, but it is very functional and works great for us,” said Pletcher.
So does Portland.
Portland’s small business culture
When they were getting ready to start the business, Pletcher and Miyako were living in Los Angeles, and felt “LA was one of those cities where 40 years could go by, and we never would have stopped to think if there were some alternative choice we could have made along way.”
“We started the business in Portland,” Pletcher says, “because the small business culture is very strong here. The people of Portland really find it meaningful to shop and support local and small.”
Miyako and Pletcher’s company is unique in that they approach straight razors as a modern option; they don’t think that straight shaving is reserved for traditionalists. Miyako adds, “I thought that if I went to Portland, buying a straight razor would be something I’d want to do as a visitor. When I found out that no one in Portland was making straight razors, I had to go for it.”
He was right. “We get walk-ins to our shop all the time,” he observes, and they say “‘I figured there had to be someone in Portland who makes straight razors, and I found you!'”
Around the globe, the handmade straight razor business is a relatively small group. Miyako notes there are manufacturers in France and Germany that never stopped making straight razors, despite the rise in popularity of the safety razor. Japan also has a few manufacturers that specialize in kamisori fixed blade razors. There’s only one company in the U.S. that makes straights on a production level, though there are a lot of individual artisans and makers who create custom razors on a small production scale.
Makers at heart
Miyako and Pletcher truly enjoy making something from nothing. “When creating a razor from raw materials, I simply feel happy,” said Miyako. “I believe the act of taking an otherwise useless object and turning it into something that is useful is one of the simple joys that we can have as humans. Deep down inside, we all desire this experience, and I feel lucky to experience this joy every day.”
“I sometimes have to remind myself that Portland Razor Co. is our own creation,” agrees Pletcher. “Every time I take a minute to really think about it, I get this all-encompassing sense of gratitude. It gives me an extra boost to keep on creating.”
“Your habits and rituals do have the power to inform the decisions you make,” said Miyako. “I know we both wake up every day and make the best decisions we can along the way. For us that means caring for the people around us and the environment. If every little habit and decision adds up to being the change you want to see in the world, then I think you are doing something meaningful, and you should feel great about that.”
You can find Portland Razor Co. at 3207 SW 1st Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Hunter Lea (left), Miyako, and Pletcher probably be won’t be wearing their Townsquared shirts, like they are in the picture (above) taken by our Portland community manager, Stephen Green, though.