Spokane Journal of Business

The Great PNW: #UpperLeftUSA appeal


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-—Treva Lind
Joel Barbour recently left his job at Seven2 digital advertising agency to focus on The Great PNW, which tripled its sales last year.
-—Treva Lind
Tori and Joel Barbour, pictured with 2-year-old son, Davis, are operating The Great PNW out of their South Hill home. The couple recently installed a two-story, 672-square-foot building in their backyard that has storage space on the bottom floor and an office space on the top floor. The Barbours are the company’s only employees so far.
-—Treva Lind
The Great PNW has more than 60 different designs that it uses on its products, and about 30 percent of its sales are T-shirts, with the rest being hoodies, hats, and other apparel.

Apparel marked with The Great PNW seems to speak a logo language to people who appreciate the region.

At least that’s how Spokane business owners Joel Barbour and his wife, Tori, describe the genesis of The Great PNW, a business that sells clothing items and accessories with region-themed designs. Joel is the company’s graphic designer who often shares newly created images on social media to draw customer interest.

While raised in the Spokane area, Barbour says he soaked in endless outdoor recreation and scenery, from lake cabin time to Oregon Coast adventures. He and Tori figured other people also appreciate the region’s many pluses, enough to buy Pacific Northwest-branded apparel. 

“Growing up in the Northwest, I realized how much I loved it here,” he says. “I spent almost every summer going on road trips to the Oregon Coast and all over the Northwest. I thought, ‘There’s not really an apparel company that’s all about the Northwest.’ We know there are other people who love it as much as we do, so that’s why we started it.”

The business started two years ago after a campaign on Kickstarter, an online fundraising tool, with the idea for PNW T-shirt creations. 

“We were in the 30-day Kickstarter campaign, and we were funded within two days,” Barbour adds. “We’ve been able to fund the business with zero debt from the beginning.”

The Kickstarter raised more $8,000, plenty to develop about 15 T-shirt designs. Today, The Great PNW sells more than 60 products, roughly 30 percent of those being T-shirts with differing graphics. Other products include hats, hoodies, vinyl decals, and water bottles. 

Putting a lasso around a boundary description of the Pacific Northwest proved tougher, Barbour says, so he landed a catch phrase: “Upper Left USA.” 

He started using #UpperLeftUSA as a social media hashtag, which is a way to make online posts searchable by topic. The new phrase proved popular and now adorns many of the company’s apparel items. Barbour also contends the moniker aptly captures a regional picture, whether people see the region extending into parts of Montana and even Northern California, or if they view boundaries as only Washington, North Idaho, and Oregon.

“I think the region is very broad, and that’s probably the way we should keep it,” Barbour says. “Because there was no defined region, I was researching, how do we define it? Then that occurred to me to use Upper Left USA. It’s really become a part of our branding.”

He adds, “We were the first to use that hashtag, and now 767,000 have used that tag online. It could be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.”

The couple say the business has grown and is profitable. In June, Joel was able to start working full time for the business. He previously worked as a motion designer for Seven2, a Spokane-based digital advertising agency.

He says about The Great PNW, “Our sales tripled the second year from sales the first year. We’re projecting to do the same this year.”

About 90 percent of The Great PNW’s sales come from online orders on its website: shop.thegreatpnw.com. Spokane store Atticus Coffee & Gifts currently is the only retail outlet here selling its apparel. Elsewhere, several shops on the West Side and in Portland carry the products.

“Mostly our clients are in the Northwest,” says Tori Barbour. “Typically, we resonate with people who love the outdoors, adventure, camping, hiking, road trips.”

Wholesale customer orders could grow substantially by fall, Barbour says. The company is in talks with the Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI about stocking The Great PNW apparel for its flagship store in Seattle, he adds.

“We’re talking to REI about starting in September,” he says. “We’re really excited about that because we mostly ship to the West Side, so that’s a perfect location. Their projection is five times the inventory we typically keep in stock.” 

Both Barbour, 28, and his wife, 29, work out of their South Hill home as the only employees. In their backyard, they recently had installed a two-level, 672-square-foot structure for a storage warehouse and upstairs office to provide more business space. 

Joel Barbour, a Mount Spokane High School graduate, studied graphic design at Spokane Falls Community College. Tori Barbour also spent her high school years in Mead and graduated from Mount Spokane. She earned a business degree from Whitworth University. 

Today, she handles The Great PNW’s finances, orders and shipping, customer service, and support for wholesale clients with retail stores. 

The owners credit a large part of the company’s success to its use of social media to share product photos. It has about 60,000 Instagram followers. 

“We like Instagram because it’s a really easy way to share a product and have social engagement with our community,” Joel says. “Instantly, all your followers see it. I’ll post and see what people say. Mostly, it’s showing a finished product, so that drives sales.” 

That interaction also helps Barbour learn a bit more about customers and the styles they prefer. Barbour described many as outdoor enthusiasts who often post photos of themselves wearing PNW attire on adventures. 

He adds, “We haven’t gathered official demographics; that’s just feedback from our followers. They are people who love the Northwest and outdoor adventures, regardless of age, or whether male or female. They want the big, bold graphic that says the Northwest. If they post on Instagram, they tag us, and we see where they are. It’s usually up in the mountains somewhere, and they’re wearing our product.”

They also get orders from former Northwest residents who moved away, so they’ve shipped products internationally, as far away as Japan and New Zealand. 

The Great PNW has Spokane Valley-based Zome Design do all the screen printings of its designs. Barbour first creates images with sketches, and then draws them out on the computer. 

Some of the most popular products so far have included a grizzly bear image T-shirt and a Mt. Rainier hoodie. 

“I just think we’re fortunate that we found a niche that people love,” Tori says. “I think Joel’s design and our product tap into something that people are already passionate about. People love the Northwest. Now that Joel is full time, we hope to grow the retail side of the business getting products in stores.”

Adds Joel, “With the retail side, we’re just getting started.”

Treva Lind
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