CULTURE (n) The shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution, organization, or group of people

ROUNDHOUSE

  • 82 Employees
  • 1,000-fold increase in revenue since 2001
  • 2 beers on tap

IN 2001, Joe Sundby and Dana Bainbridge accidentally started a marketing agency. Basically, they liked messing around on computers, taking pictures, and “designing stuff” (as Sundby puts it) for snowboarding companies, while working out of their basements. In the first year, they billed a grand total of $20,000.

Today, Roundhouse sprawls over two floors of Southeast Portland’s East Bank Lofts. (Sundby remembers attending debauched after-hours parties in the 1912 industrial structure back in his ’90s rocker days; more Portlanders would recognize the premises by the ground-floor J&M Café.) More than 80 employees work for clients like Adidas, Red Bull, and XBox. Projected 2013 gross: $20 million.

Despite exponential growth, Sundby keeps the culture grounded in the improvisational chaos of the firm’s beginnings. (Bainbridge prefers to work remotely, from a cabin he designed for himself in the woods outside of Weed, California.) Fridays often see all-staff socials, with prizes (bonus vacation time, swag from clients) and beer from Widmer Brothers (a client) on tap. The staff has grown so large Sundby can’t socialize with everyone anymore, so managers are effectively under orders to take their teams out on the town.

“For me, getting paid to do this stuff is a dream,” the cofounder says. “I grew up doing hard manual labor to make tiny amounts of money. I don’t want to lose sight of that. We want this to be a sanctuary for everyone, where they can be their most creative.”

And it does feel good at Roundhouse. The light is natural. Sheets of recycled sailcloth serve as the only dividers between most workspaces. Kitschy-cool Northwest décor abounds, the functional ’70s ski-lodge fireplace being particularly impressive. 

But trappings aside, Roundhouse aspires to a deeper ideal, one shared by many of Portland’s most fascinating and (yes) successful businesses: reinventing work. As companies bank on the selling of ideas, human-resource hierarchies have dissolved in favor of looser, more collaborative creative flows. In competitive fields like high-tech and marketing, employers wage a cool-place-to-work arms race to lure talent. On the flip side, with metro-area unemployment still around 7.5 percent, those lucky enough to draw paychecks don’t get the luxury of slacking off. If you’re laboring longer and harder than ever, work should be better than tolerable—and some Portland companies (with plenty of help from their workers) make it downright pleasant. 

If Roundhouse provides a glimpse of the horizon, the future could be bright—from both employers’ and employees’ perspectives. The firm’s workforce has nearly doubled since 2011, and it’s quietly become a coveted gig in its field. “When I interviewed here, I told myself, ‘If I don’t get this job, I’m moving to Siberia and shaving my head,’” says Jake Watt, a strategist who moved to Portland from Miami. When he arrived, he found a freewheeling atmosphere, where senior partners brainstorm on equal terms with junior copywriters and entry-level designers.

“It’s wide open,” he says. “Everyone knows they can throw their best ideas in, and no idea gets cut until a better one comes along. Even if it’s not your idea that wins, you’re still excited.”

As long as all that remains true, Sundby believes Roundhouse can grow without losing touch with its humble past. “The most junior person could walk through my door with the best idea, so I leave the door open,” he says. “When we started, we had no idea how an agency should look or operate. We still don’t know, so we just do it our way.”  

Get a Closer Look at Roundhouse

 

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