OtherForging Ahead for Social Good: Meet Forge Portland

Rob Bart, Executive Director of Forge Portland
Rob Bart, Executive Director of Forge Portland.

No entrepreneur should have to go it alone. That’s why our primary goal here at Oregon Entrepreneurs Network is to be exactly what our name describes—a network of people who can share resources, ideas, and advice for those who are taking that exhilarating but terrifying plunge.

Incubators take the ‘network’ concept one step further—by offering a physical space in which a group of entrepreneurs can gather, learn, and offer support. Throughout our 23-year history, we’ve been excited to see a plethora of incubators crop up to help nurture the next generation of innovators.

But until now, one sector has been largely left out of the growing incubator craze. Local law student Rob Bart saw this hole and decided to mend it. Here, we sit down with Rob to talk about his soon-to-launch venture, Forge Portland, and how it will help social entrepreneurs who are forging into the unknown.

The market you think exists when you first start out is not the market you will end up selling to.” (Tweet this.)

What was the spark that inspired Forge?

I’m about to graduate law school—today is actually my last day of classes. Before that, I was teaching high school at a small alternative school and working in politics a bit on the side. About a year and half ago I decided that going into politics/policy, which is where I thought I’d end up after law school, wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

I started looking around in the business world, looking at businesses that were using business for good, not just using ‘good’ as an add-on. I also started thinking about ways we currently spend money, where we don’t have a connection to the transaction. I was working at a small nonprofit at the time and started thinking, there are three nonprofits in the building and they’re all paying money for that office space… wouldn’t it be more efficient if they were sharing resources, like conference rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens? I was looking for a way for nonprofits to share resources so they could run in a more efficient way.

But it wasn’t just about space—these nonprofits also needed some very tangible skills and services that they can’t really afford to pay for. For instance, it’s not really worth an accountant’s time to provide services to a small nonprofit, and it’s not worth the nonprofit’s money to pay that accountant. But by banding together, it becomes more worthwhile on both sides.

My vision is for Forge to become a consolidation point for organizations doing great work.  There are people doing amazing things that other people don’t know about – this is a big problem and one I hope we can address.

View from Forge Portland
It’s hard to beat the view from Forge Portland’s office space.

How is Forge different from other incubators out there?

Our focus on nonprofits and social entrepreneurs is unique. The reason I would hope people would start to say Forge is really different is that we’re invested in our members’ success. The more successful they are, the more successful we’ll be. As long as we’re covering our bottom line, we’ll be able to do that without any financial interest in helping people. I can give people my own unbiased opinion.

We’re also about strengthening the local economy. Every business has a website, but I don’t have any connection to GoDaddy. We try to find local professional service providers who fit that role. You need hosting services? Here are some good guys, they’re local, I can see their building looking out my window. If you have a question, you can walk down the street.

Imagine that Forge becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?

All socially-minded businesses and organizations would know that if they’re not here, they’re not as efficient or successful as they could be. That’s how we define success, and we achieve that by becoming very hands-on with our members.

How has the idea evolved over time? Is it different now from what you originally conceived of?

The short answer is that it’s changed a ton. When I first started, my thought was that larger nonprofits would be better off if they were sharing resources. I shopped that idea to other nonprofits and they said, “Yeah, conceptually, maybe.”

But it turns out that as an organization evolves, its needs become more specific. For instance, MercyCorps is trying to create a database system that manages currency transactions in the 150+ countries they work in. That’s great, but nobody else needs that.

I didn’t think our network was going to be mostly smaller nonprofits., but that’s where the need is greatest. They need similar services.

Rob Bart's partner, David Hoch
Rob Bart’s partner, David Hoch.

It really runs the gamut – there are people literally just starting, people who are running local chapters for affiliate organizations, for-profit businesses focused on social good. We’re creating an ecosystem where any of those organizations can walk into our main space and someone can assist them personally or connect them to someone who can.

One of our members told me, “I want to stop consuming so much coffee and crap.” Our prices are cheaper than sitting in a coffee shop!

What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding social entrepreneur?

The market you think exists when you first start out is certainly not the market you will end up selling to. Look for the holes in your model by testing your concept before you commit anything to it financially.

I really wasn’t out any cash before committing to this. I had people lined up, I had good connections, I had people who validated my concept.

Also, regardless of how good a job you do at that, you’ll have to decide whether you’re going to take a leap a faith. And if that scares the hell out of you, which it should, think carefully about whether or not you want to start a business.

Do you think Oregon is a good place to be a social entrepreneur? Why or why not?

If Portland does it right, we’re in a place to brand ourselves as the place in the country where social entrepreneurship is happening. If you ask 20 people what social entrepreneurship means, you get 20 answers – that’s a problem and an opportunity. We can define what that term means and there’s room to push that term more.

Essentially, we want to support businesses that are creating local jobs and doing good for our community. Portland has no shortage of creative people, people addressing problems in ways we never would have thought of in our wildest imagination.

I think the model has the ability to expand and grow to other cities. Portland is a great test case because we’re community-minded. So many people tell me, “We’re so hungry for what you’re doing.” There’s a desire for community, but also a physical space that people can identify with.

As far as obstacles go – well, we have a tax issue. It’s punitive to be a sole proprieter. We pay a lot of money in taxes if we’re successful. That’s not something we’re going to resolve in Oregon, probably ever, but it’s an issue.

Any other tidbits or fun facts to share?

We’re still looking for 8-10 initial members to join us; we’ve also started an IndieGogo campaign that will close on May 9. We’re excited for our May 12 launch!

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