Sunlight and the smell of starch filter through the ceiling-high windows of an industrial workspace in the International District. I’m inside the headquarters of MakrBox.com, and it’s very much a work-in-progress. Founders Barrett McBride, Dustin McBride and Jackie Gow moved into the Noodle Works building—where actual noodles are made, hence the scent—in late August.
Amid the bare room, a glass-topped wooden table sits dead center, filled with an artful smattering of handsome, handmade objects. But simple wooden shelves on a nearby wall hold the real bonanza: Glass containers of solar-harvested salt from San Juan Island sit next to petite porcelain cups from Portland, raw white on the outside and bursting with color within. Folding baskets made from recycled chopsticks in Eugene, Ore. Hand-carved maple sauté spoons, crafted in Ferndale, Wash.
All of these ingredients have or will be packaged in a MakrBox, the newly minted service that mails subscribers two or three household products for $29 a month.
A few months ago, Barrett, his girlfriend Jackie and his brother Dustin returned from a six-month stint in Santiago, Chile, where they’d relocated after winning an entrepreneurship grant through a tech incubator called Start Up Chile—Barrett and Jackie from an architecture/engineering firm in Bellevue, Dustin from a web design career in his native Oklahoma. In Santiago, they’d learned a lot about the high-risk, high-finance world of the start-up—enough to know they didn’t want to be a part of it.
“We wanted tangible products,” Gow says on a bright morning in her brand-new office space. “We wanted to meet people who are making things with their hands.”
Within 10 days of settling on the MakrBox concept, the trio had five customers, which meant they needed products. They traveled to Maker Faire in Canada, part of an international circuit of gatherings where hundreds of artisans exchange ideas and showcase their wares. Then they booked a last-minute booth at the Seattle Mini Maker Faire to gauge interest and engage passionate, local, sometimes un-Google-able craftspeople. Now Maker Faires all over the Pacific Northwest are a regular part of MakrBox’s schedule.
These energetic young entrepreneurs are people people. They’ve met every single MakrBox contributor in person. Every box includes a description and photo of the artisans whose products are nestled inside the simple cardboard carton.
Now curating their fourth box and serving 70 subscribers, MakrBox is still bootstrapping on what’s left of the Start Up Chile cash. The founders are launching an e-commerce site for à la carte purchases and actively soliciting customer feedback to better hone their selection process.
A customer or two has unsubscribed for financial reasons, Jackie says, but they’ve also received validating responses. “The best was in our first month,” Dustin says. “We have a 20-something bachelor and a mother of three, and on the same day we got feedback from both of them saying how much they loved the items we’d sent them.”
Given the small scale on which their crafters work, limited supply is an issue, but according to Gow, that’s the best part. If they run out of one item, they’ll add a new one to the rotation. “No one’s making things in China where you can make 5,000 for nothing. That’s exciting for us.”
These designophiles are energized by the constant hunt for the new. Dustin loves Abeego flats, a natural alternative to plastic wrap; Barrett loves a jam made of local blackberries and Douglas fir tips. As for Gow, she loves San Juan Island salt so much that she carries a vial in her purse for seasoning emergencies.
The three are working long days at this point, but this is the life they chose: a hands-on start-up launched for the purpose of boosting other hands-on start-ups.
“A year ago we were sitting in some VC’s office,” Barrett says. “Now we’re hanging out with a man who makes spoons and gives us a box of tomatoes. That’s better.”
Subscribe at makrbox.com.
Photo by Jamie Zill