Northeast Portland small business, who is making a living feeding off the mud, might not be so small for too long.

Mudshark Studios LLC is fresh off of their Olympics debut where the ceramic production company created foot mold plaques of 13 Team USA athletes for a New York advertising company. Their work appeared in Citibank ads in build up to the 2012 London Games.

“The plaques got flown to London and were on display outside the Team USA green room area for the athletes and some of the feedback we got from the ad agency and Citibank’s corporate office were that people were stopping and taking photos in front of them,” said Mudshark co-founder Brett Binford.

And now Martha Stewart just flew them out to New York City Oct. 22 where they and other artisans were honored as Craftmakers of the Year through her American Made Awards. They even got to perform demonstrations in Grand Central Station.

mudsharksmall“It validates the business for our mothers that Martha Stewart has accepted us,” chuckled Chris Lyon, the other half of the Mudshark brain trust.

Expansion headaches leads to SBDC help

Things haven’t always been smooth swimming. In 2010, their company had filled up its old location in Northeast Portland and was exceeding monthly sales projections by 50 percent. With nowhere to expand, Lyon said they needed a bigger space and more equipment to meet the demand.

“We knew we needed money,” said Lyon of Mudshark, which is into ceramic mold making, production services, and product consulting. “And, so I slapped together a business plan and went to a bank with it and they laughed. We had a lot of work that wanted to come at us and we didn’t have the capital to get it up and running. That’s when we went to (PCC’s) SBDC to see what they could do.”

They were in good hands. The CLIMB Small Business Development Center is an economic development organization that educates and equips local small business owners with the essential tools to build thriving businesses. In 2011, the SBDC provided long-term business advising to 440 local small business owners and small business education courses to 1,300 people. In total, 153 jobs were retrained and 234 created during that time while helping these companies cultivate more than $3 million in sales. Plus, these businesses were able to access $4.2 million in capital with the SBDC’s help.

Rick Stone and Noah Brockman, who co-lead the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network’s Capital Access Team, worked with Mudshark on gaining access to capital to grow their business by honing their business plan and loan package into a something lenders could relate with.

“They developed an outstanding loan package and, honestly, one of the best we’ve seen,” Brockman said. “Based on our experience working with hundreds of clients on accessing capital, of those clients that stay engaged throughout the entire process, integrate our feedback, and make the suggested changes, a high percentage of them eventually get financed.”

A big catch for Mudshark

After five months, Lyon and Binford had developed a 50-page business plan and collected 350 pages of documentation to support it. Mudshark ended up reeling in an equipment loan from the Portland Development Commission and a line of credit through Albina Bank.

mudshark2web“Walking into a bank with that kind of binder made it look like we did our homework which we had,” Lyon said. “After talking to a few different banks we ended up getting two offers.

“Everyone there really cares,” he added about the SBDC. “They want to see us succeed.”

Today, they still attend small business management courses at the SBDC, which are funded by the Portland Development Commission. The classes have helped them figure out how to manage growth, employees and processes, Binford said.

“Initially, we started holding our weekly CFO meeting and we didn’t really even know how to read though a profit-and-loss statement or identify what we should really be looking at and what these numbers mean,” he added. “We started meeting with a financial advisor in Jackie Babicky. She covered real simple stuff and we began to identify from the business end what we are supposed to be looking at.”

Rocky Mountain fun and a business idea

Binford and Lyon met in Steamboat Springs, Colo., working at a small but respected clay production studio while snowboarding religiously. Lyon left to finish his bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in business at Fort Lewis College (Durango, Colo.) and Binford moved to Portland to attend the Oregon College for Arts and Crafts. Years later, Lyon reconnected with his buddy and moved to Portland, too.

“We were passionate about clay; living it and doing it all the time,” Binford recalled. “We started dreaming up the idea of how we could do this for ourselves rather than just as employees.”

In 2006, Mudshark Studios started in a basement not too far from their current studios on NE Oregon Ave. They’ve grown from a handful of seasonal part-time employees to 26 full- and part-time staff today. Binford estimates he’s hiring somebody almost every week. They need the staff considering they ship their goods to the East Coast as well as Peru, Japan, Australia, England and beyond.

“We make a little bit of everything right now,” Binford said. “We Make stuff out of several different kinds of clay. We’re making a lot of growlers for the Portland Growler Company. We cast some very large-scale spot tables for McGuire Furniture in San Francisco. We ship all over.”

But what about their name? Back at Steamboat Springs, Jonathan Kaplan, the owner of the clay studio they worked at, was really into Frank Zappa and one of his songs references a mud shark that comes from Pacific Northwest.

“We always thought it would be a cool name; being covered in mud all the time and trying to emulate the mudshark where we are out there in the brackish waters,” Lyon said. “It fits well.”
“Yeah, we’re feeding off the mud,” Binford added.

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