THAT LITTLE BIT OF EXTRA THINKING
Blue Q products are fun, irreverent, and a portion of the salescontribute
to non-profits all over the world
THE FOLKS at Blue Q just want you to be happy.
There’s always a certain practicality with the products they sell. Who doesn’t need socks, bags, gum, or hand sanitizer? But then they pose an unexpected question: Why use lip balm when you could use Lip Shit? There is “Wash Away Your Sins” liquid hand soap. Socks that say, “This meeting is bullshit.” Breath sprays that make you “Look and Feel Canadian Instantly.”
STUFF DONE WELL
Fun and irreverent: that’s the essence of a Blue Q item. Blue Q describes themselves as proud designers and manufacturers of life-improving, joy-bringing products since 1988.
Originally based in Boston, the Nash brothers, Seth and Mitch, moved their operation to their hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts after just six years. If you see a Blue Q product in a store in North America, it was shipped out of Pittsfield.
The Nash brothers were a little worried about losing the urban edge that the product depends on when they moved, but the brothers were soon aware of the “embarrassing options of cool art and culture” in the Berkshires.
Pittsfield is the urban center of Berkshire County. Manufacturing dominated the city’s economy for over a century, from textile and paper mills to General Electric. The Blue Q offices are nestled in a building that has been in the Nash family for decades. The old layer-piano factory at Hawthorne Mills was purchased by their grandfather in the early 1950s. It embodies all the beauty of old industry, at least since the brothers removed layers of paint that had covered the red brick and tore up shag carpets to reveal the original hardwoods. Light pours into both floors of the offices onto a maze of desks, workspaces, and product displays.
It is here that the creative team cooks up their next big ideas for products and artwork. Blue Q currently has nearly 450 items — adding about 150 new items each year and discontinuing roughly the same number.
“Things stay fresh, and stores expect to see new stuff all the time,” says Seth Nash, one of the brothers who co-founded Blue Q. “We have kind of a crazy mix of products, but to us it makes total sense.”
The team is constantly on the hunt for items that have stayed the same for too long. Oven mitts and hand towels are two of their newest products.
“Most oven mitts are plaid or have some ducks on it — that’s as exotic as it gets.” Seth explains. “We wanted to make some really cute oven mitts that are a little more snarky, and no one was doing it. And so we’ve been super successful just because it stands out from all the other oven mitts out there.
“Some of the more conservative kitchen stores won’t touch it, but as the line gets larger there will be more G-rated stuff for them to buy into without feeling… troubled.”
Ninety-five percent of the business is wholesale to retail stores — about 1,500 in North America — but Blue Q’s socks are sold in as many as 5,000 stores. The company strikes a balance between creating products that are so cool that customers have to have them and keeping prices accessible. Nothing made by Blue Q is intended to retail for above $15.
“Because then everything is a spontaneous gift,” says Mitch Nash.
Alan Solman, owner of the Hudson Square Pharmacy in New York City, sells Blue Q bags and socks, as well as the new oven mitts and dish towels. He says the product sells very well because they are attractive and the humor resonates with his customers. He also says that he can count on his sales rep at Blue Q to reach out and spend time with him to introduce the newest products at least twice a year.
The products have a certain way of jumping off of the shelf while maintaining a quality that the brothers describe as intimate. That intimacy comes through in small ways, like the illustrated scenes on the reverse side of the products, a small nod to the customer.
As Mitch says, “That little bit of extra thinking is what makes something Blue Q.”
STUFF DOING GOOD
At every available opportunity, the Nash brothers decide to make their business about more than just selling goods.
In their larger product categories, they work with organizations to bring social benefit to their success. It started about 12 years ago with their tote bags, which are made out of 95 percent recycled materials. One percent of the sales of those bags still supports The Nature Conservancy, an organization working to protect lands and waters in 72 countries.
“It made sense,” Mitch explained. “We’re not just here to make cool stuff. We’re very much about the community. We want to be nice.”
The brothers then decided to add the benefit to other products. One percent of the profit from socks supports the humanitarian efforts of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF); for the oven mitts, proceeds go to hunger relief.
This nuance of their business model is not something intended to be self-promoting. In fact, the text that describes the charitable donation is printed perpendicular to the other product information on the tag. Blue Q will be giving Doctors Without Borders over $100,000 in 2017.
“And they’re really stoked about it,” Mitch says. “But it’s not a marketing strategy for us. We’re just trying to make a better product that does more things for more people.”
Thomas Kurmann, Director of Development for MSF, has seen the impact of the donations.
“In 2016, over 80,000 severely malnourished children were admitted to our inpatient feeding programs in countries such as Nigeria, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said. “Thanks to the contributions of donors such as Blue Q, MSF can continue to provide this care in the years to come.
This relationship does require that MSF approve every design from which profits are donated. Seth explained that they have embraced just about all the quirkiness that Blue Q has dished out, so long as it does not promote drug or alcohol use, or a negative body image.
“They’re ok with the word motherfucker so long as it’s being used to empower, Seth said. “We aren’t calling anyone a motherfucker, but we say motherfucking girl power, and it’s one of our best sellers.”
We’re not just here to make cool stuff. We’re very much about the community. We want to be nice.
For the folks at Blue Q, giving back is just what they do, and donations are just the beginning.
The Nash family owns both their multi-tenant office space at Hawthorne Mills as well as their multi-tenant distribution center. A few years back, the brothers were looking for another way to give back a few years ago — this time to the grid. In 2012, using Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) program subsidies, they installed solar panels adjacent to their distribution center. The system is designed to produce enough energy on an average day to meet 75 percent of the building’s energy needs.
Creativity abounds in everything this family touches, and that includes lawn maintenance. When it came time to cut the grass underneath and around the new solar panels, the brothers were horrified at the several-day long process using a gas lawnmower.
Luckily, the quandary came up in conversation with a local friend, who also happened to be a landscape architect redesigning the side entrance to the warehouse. Jon Piasecki, owner of Golden Bough landscape architects, raises animals to feed his family and friends. Jon offered to let a few dozen of his sheep summer under the solar panels and maintain the grass.
The sheep happen to be perfect for the job. Goats are often used for a similar purpose, but can’t be used in an electrical area. Soay sheep are a desirable, small, fairly wild breed. Significantly, they are touted as one of the top-tasting lambs in the UK. And so, the sheep who keep the grass short under Blue Q’s solar panels wind up on the dinner tables of some of the most knowledgeable chefs in the region.
Jon’s customers are largely English ex-pats and local marketplaces such as Red Apple Butchers in downtown Pittsfield. He has also successfully bred a variety of Soay know as Skew-Bald, with an extremely rare white head. The folks at Blue Q couldn’t be happier to have them on the team.
They paint jokes down the hallways of their offices, throw wild holiday parties, and celebrate both successes and failures. The employees at Blue Q function as a family, one in which teamwork and creativity thrive.
The Nash brothers have tried to create an environment that is uniquely self-aware and adaptive. To achieve this, they maintain a pretty horizontal power structure, where suggestions from all levels are taken seriously.
Blue Q employs the “Lean” or “Toyota” Method. This refers to the attempt to optimize every individual process to save time, energy, or just because it feels right. Groups of employees create teams and review their processes constantly. According to Mitch, this structure encourages everyone to be involved and gives employees a louder voice than before.
This ongoing effort started with a workforce development grant from the Patrick Administration in 2013. The $50,000 grant was enough to bring in an expert for quarterly, week-long workshops to evaluate and make changes to different parts of their process.
“You end up moving things around,taking things apart,” Seth says.
One of the more recent changes effects small shipping orders. Up until August, a team member would grab a shipping box at the beginning of the assembly line, walk down the line grabbing the items for the order, and then package them at the end.
“When they got to the end the guy would think, ‘There’s no way all this crap is fitting in this box.’ So now they put all the boxes at the end,” Seth describes. It helps for employees to first see the collection of products and then decide which box is most appropriately sized for the shipment.
“I know it sounds super logical and ridiculous,” he continued. “No meeting, it didn’t require a lot of discussion, and they may find for some weird reason it doesn’t work; but they’re doing this small, insignificant thing thousands of times a day.”
And the improvements are not just to the physical processes; the customer service teams are also encouraged to think about how their process can be more lean.
Teams who are otherwise not jazzed about numbers end up high-fiving over Excel sheets by the end of the week. Teams are making changes every day, Seth says. “It made everyone responsible for making this place better, and that has been unbelievably empowering.”
This empowerment is one reason Blue Q has experienced extremely low turnover in their staff.
“Everyone here is happy to hang out with one another after work,” Seth says.
“That’s not always the case at a lot of companies. Corporate culture is really important to us, and we spend a lot of time making sure that everyone has a job that they enjoy doing and they feel like they are making a contribution.”
In total, Blue Q employs around 60 folks between their office and operations facilities. Since arriving inPittsfield, the brothers have maintained a partnership with Berkshire County Arc (BCArc), through which they are able to hire individuals with disabilities to work at the company.
“It gives us this wonderful diversity,” Mitch says.
BCArc is a nonprofit human service agency offering a wide range of services to individuals with disabilities across Berkshire County. Around 1993, BCArc wanted to move away from their facility-based operation and introduce individuals with disabilities into integrated work environments, on site with other employees. The transition was accomplished with the help of willing employers, and Blue Q was one of the first to extend a welcoming hand.
“They really sought us out when they first moved here, and through that entire time they’ve been wonderful,” says Rick Hawes, Director of Employment Services at BCArc.
The employees are responsible for small packaging that requires a human touch to ensure quality. The Lip Shit page on their retail site proudly touts, “Expertly assembled by individuals with and without disabilities working together.”
When they are not working, they are outside tending to the gardens adjacent to the solar panels, feeding the sheep, or taking art or music lessons. Seth makes pesto with the employees using ingredients grown on site.
“Whenever Mitch gets an idea for something that would be fun to do, we do it,” says Jen Miller, who has been a site supervisor for BCArc at Blue Q for 22 years. Those ideas include trips to museums, bowling alleys, and the Berkshire Mountain Bakery to learn how to make bread.
Their work is celebrated by everyone at the company, and their drawings are featured everywhere from shipping boxes to the walls of the center. The Nash brothers recognize that everyone at the company has different skill sets and comes from a different walk of life, and every unique skill is elevated and capitalized on.
Seth and Mitch are now well-known figures in the region. When they moved back home, they were initially driven to cultural institutions to re-establish themselves in the community. They figured, correctly, that donating time was the best way to get involved.
Both Seth and Mitch now sit on boards of local museums and schools. Mitch and Caitlin Nash recently cochaired the Jacob’s Pillow Anniversary Gala. They are often taking the Blue Q staff to events and performances to engage with the creative economy in the Berkshires.
Having roots in the area gives the family a perspective on the decline of the city and the region in recent decades. Seth says the biggest problem with this area is young people having enough job opportunities outside of the service industry.
..you have to care about more than making something that’s cool. You have to care about making a place that is important, that actually matters.
The redesign of their warehouse entrance pays tribute to the city’s history. An archway of materials from demolished buildings in Pittsfield has been erected by their friend Jon (the same Jon who owns the sheep). It is a nod to the old industry in Pittsfield; the found materials and objects are recycled and reimagined, topped with a steel beam that came from their dad’s old building.
Seth seems hopeful, saying the revitalization of the region “is happening, but slowly,” and the Nash family is doing their part to make it happen. Other tenants of their distribution building include Shire City Herbals and LympheDIVAs, and the folks at Blue Q were quick to speak to their success.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the brothers care about people. When it came time for a truck driver at the distribution facility to retire, Blue Q wanted to send him off on a high note. The driver driver, a man named Dick who was in his 70’s, never expected the entire staff to put on “I [heart] Dick” shirts and throw an “I [heart] Dick” party. But that’s just what they do.
When an employee, famous for giving hugs around the office, was diagnosed with cancer and unable to continue working, the staff visited her with posters, food, and decorations to let her know that she was loved. One by one, they each gave her a big hug.
“To keep this business healthy for this long, you have to care about more than making something that’s cool. You have to care about making a place that is important, that actually matters,” Mitch says.
“It’s debatable whether or not this oven mitt is good or bad, but what’s not debatable is this whole way of trying to make a place where it happens.”