Made in Uptown

Small firm in the Rainbow building finds national demand for creative products

Credit: Michelle Bruch

You’ll find custom products all over town designed by Made, a 15-person firm working out of the Rainbow building at Lake & Hennepin. They made pink undies for The Saloon during Pride, Nice Ride snap bracelets, view-masters of museum artwork for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and glassware for The Lowry’s annual party in honor of artist Scott Seekins (the party was Made’s idea).

Much of Made’s recent work is generated by national clients, however, such as Whole Foods’ bike carriers that hold a six-pack of beer.

“We think it’s a trend, because you see these little tiny boutique agencies like us that are doing national-scope work,” said co-founder Michelle Courtright. “I think it’s because [people in] the Midwest are very true to ourselves, we have good work ethic, we have a good base, we get what we do, and we’re not fancy or overpriced or anything.”

Made recently created sunglasses that fold to the size of a single lens for musician Pharrell Williams. (They asked for an introduction after reading that Pharrell loves working with women-owned businesses.) The sunglasses and other gear are part of Pharrell’s tour merchandise and serve as swag for his youth-based nonprofit.

Since Made’s launch in 2008, co-founders Courtright and Kristin Hollander have dramatically grown the business while supporting each other through three pregnancies. When asked how many children they have, they answered in unison: “five total.”

Hollander and Courtright started in corporate gifting, working primarily for attorneys based Downtown.

“We thought, ‘Let’s do something fun for them because they don’t do anything fun,'” Hollander said.

Some of their first national clients included the Pentagon and FBI, where they bid to make “boring” things like mugs and coasters, but also learned how to source multistep projects like snowboards complete with artwork and decals.

Made continues to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development. They anticipate a call from USAID whenever they see a major hurricane or refugee exodus hit the news. The company brands hygiene kits as aid from the American people. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that recipients of American disaster relief develop a more favorable opinion of the United States. The effect is limited in countries hostile to the U.S., however, and the branding is intentionally dropped from kits sent to some countries.

Most of Made’s work focuses on fun stuff, especially new products. For example, Made invented products to help make the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ gift store a destination. One of them is a block set of the Minneapolis skyline. They entered the blocks made by PJ’s TOYBOX in the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity’s product design awards, though the product was up against heavy hitters like Apple and didn’t win.

“Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones did not make it either,” Courtright said.

She said many of their ideas stem from the phrase: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Wouldn’t it be cool if Delta Airlines offered kits to keep kids busy on a plane? Wouldn’t it be cool if Angie’s Popcorn had branded dental floss? Hollander said staff text her at 10 p.m. to spout new ideas.

When Account Director Andrea Iten walked into the office on a recent Tuesday, she announced “We just came up with something that you’re going to love.” After less than two minutes of enthusiastic off-the-record brainstorming, the founders had embraced the idea and spun it into a second pitch for another client.

“Go sell it. Done,” Hollander said.

“It’s almost about what doesn’t exist in the market — that’s where we get our ideas from,” said Courtright.

Perhaps it helps that the staff at Made have an entrepreneurial streak. Every single employee either runs a business on the side or previously started a business (such as a restaurant or custom window shade design shop).

Made also keeps a director of sustainability on staff.

“People pull us in because we know product composition,” Hollander said.

Their firm consulted for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on BPA exposure through receipt paper. According to the agency, some glossy receipt paper contains the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics estrogen in the body. Preliminary research suggests that those who handle receipts as part of their employment have higher levels of BPA in their bodies than other people, according to the agency.

As a result of the research, some local restaurateurs like Kim Bartmann of Barbette have decided to stop using receipt paper with BPA, they said.

Courtright and Hollander said manufacturing sustainable products isn’t as costly as some might think, perhaps 20 or 30 percent more. For Whole Foods, Made created a line of vegan bags made of woven polyester and faux leather.

“It’s easier for large companies to move toward materials that are sustainable because price is not such a stop sign anymore,” Hollander said. “You can make your t-shirts out of recycled bottles and it’s not that big of a deal.”

They said it helps to use local artisans and nearby manufacturers to reduce the carbon footprint. Local vendors can also generate creative sourcing ideas, such as manufacturing with trees that came down in the 2013 storm.

Despite the local sourcing, Made’s client base is increasingly national, with a client roster that includes ad agencies like BBDO NY and global companies like Coca-Cola and The New York Times.

“There is so much creative coming out of the Midwest, specifically Minneapolis, and it’s so interesting that there are firms like us that national companies are using,” said Hollander. “We’re so much more national now.”