Eugene Nurtures Bad Ideas Like Nowhere Else

Let’s begin telling a new story. Every new story is really an old story, recast. We know our old story. We’re the hippy-dippy place where people who thought the 1960s had it right don’t have to be reminded that was half a century ago.

Question: Why do so many hippies come to Eugene? Answer: Because they heard there are no jobs here.

The cult TV show “Portlandia” says it more elegantly. Oregon is where young people go to retire. Eugene, Oregon is to tie-dye what Oshkosh, Wisconsin is to overalls. It’s not a style; it’s a way of being.

Our new story must include all that, but much more.

We just completed two glorious weeks as Track Town USA, a distinction built on a ruined waffle iron. We’re in the middle of the Oregon Bach Festival, started by two thirty-something academics who didn’t know better. Next week, the Oregon Country Fair will unfurl around us, infusing its energy, enthusiasm, and asceticism. Creative people don’t need much. Not much money, not much clothing, not much ambition.

Except the last one’s not so. Inside the Fair Family’s go-along-get-along spirit, there resides a fierce determination to not do things As They Always Have Been Done. That’s no less ambitious than an Olympic triple-jumper sailing through the rain or a virtuoso violinist pushing his orchestra to a modernly raw interpretation of a score penned 300 years ago. Ambition is ambition. It mustn’t be confused with success. Success is optional. Ambition is essential.

Let’s learn to talk about the Oregon Country Fair as natural selection on steroids, combining the comfort of a family with the competitive commerce of a street fair. Whether you’re making sandals or burritos, you’ll be compared with your fellows, and the Free Market will Speak. If your shirts are less expensive, your buttons more clever, or your plates more tasty, you’ll know it after 40,000 people have passed by. The invisible hand of the marketplace will have a slap or a handshake for you after three days.

Sure, you can make do during the barter fair after the public fair has ended, where vendors weigh (literally) their remaining products and the distance home against the value of other vendors’ wares. But you’ll also know how your products did on the open market. And then you have 51 weeks to adapt.

The Fair’s every-week cousin, Saturday Market, offers entrepreneurs a tighter feedback loop. Saturday Market is the best manufacturing business incubator west of the Mississippi and it should be celebrated for that. It gives budding businesspeople what they need most — immediate, tangible feedback from real and potential customers. Every Saturday crowd serves as a de facto focus group. Every seven days, you have the opportunity to sell your product, converse with the public, and refine your concept. It’s called “research and development” and corporations spend millions of dollars on it. In Eugene on any sunny Saturday, it costs $10 and 10 percent of sales.

Our new story must include all these stories, joining them at their root.

Airbrush out the tie-dye and see these vendors for who they are: innovative entrepreneurs, willing to take chances, challenging conventional wisdom, determined to find a better way. If the proverbial “better mouse trap” ever gets built, it may well originate in Eugene, with or without hemp and patchouli.

Our people feel free to innovate, to tinker, to be wrong. Before we knew Bill Bowerman as a athletic footwear genius, his wife Barbara knew him as the man who ruined her waffle iron.

Bad ideas are not rejected here — they are nurtured. And, it turns out, most good ideas were once bad ideas, wanting just a little more attention and improvement.

Oshkosh doesn’t stand for overalls so much as hard work and a clothing that won’t slow it down.

Likewise, Eugene’s tie dye is a celebration of abundant spirit, symmetry, and sticktoitiveness that has been our region’s hallmark. Whether it’s Helmuth Rilling’s baton, Ritta’s burritos, or Ashton Eaton’s hurdle dash, we know the score. And we go for it. That’s our story, and we should stick with it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) built a business here that failed. He writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.