February 8, 2011

B-Line in the News

Thanks to the announcement of our new contract with the City of Portland and Office Depot to deliver office supplies to various city agencies this week, B-Line has been all over the news.

Grateful for the opportunity to tell our story and spread the word about B-Line's innovative business model, it is always interesting to see how different media--from national outlets like Reuters, to blogs, to local print, television, and radio outlets-- will run with a story. To make matters more interesting, our most recent media coverage happened to fall during the same week that the second episode of Portlandia aired, which if anything, has generated its own forcefield of public debate.

Episode 2 took a special jab at not only our bikophiliac culture, but at the city government's embrace of it and all things progressive. (Nice timing for a press release on delivery of office supplies by tricycle to the Mayor's office and other city agencies.)More than one reporter who called this week to follow up on the press release mentioned something to the effect of, "I thought it was a joke at first --a Portlandia stunt or something." Hearing these reactions, and some of the head-scratching commentary posted online, had me asking, "What's so funny?"

Full disclaimer: I'm a fan of Portlandia. To borrow a phrase from my six-year-old son, it's downright hysterical. But the real draw of the show for me is better described by MIT research affiliate and Harvard Business Review blogger Grant McCracken: "Cultural innovators, like the ones who live in Portland ... usually get a pass. The satirists leave them alone. The notion: if you are a rule breaker, you're above reproach. Making fun of a rule breaker —? This is actually very rule breaking."

This is exactly what B-Line is about: breaking the rules, in other words, innovating. Our approach to urban core distribution may sound crazy or even cute to some--"those crazy Portland bike lovers" or "only in Portland" was a common refrain in the news commentary this week. But I'm not sure what is so "crazy" about using an appropriate-sized vehicle rather than a large truck or van for small parcel account delivery.

We're taking trucks off the road in the downtown core, so they can be directed towards more appropriate loads and distances. We're cutting not only congestion and carbon emissions in our city, but by and large we are cutting costs as well. A case study recently completed by group of MBA students at PSU shows that for two stops or more in the downtown core, it costs our partners less to deliver to their accounts via B-Line.

The parody of Portlandia, which was hilariously embraced by Mayor Adams in his episode 2 cameo, is a call to question not only how deep, but how flexible our values as a progressive culture are. Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times television critic writes, "If there's an overall theme here, it's that heaven contains its own portion of hell — that right living takes work, relaxation causes stress, and that a thin line separates responsibility and rage. ("Cars, man! Why?" fumes Armisen's "bicycle rights" guy as he navigates the city streets.)"

Laughing at ourselves and our applaudable efforts toward sustainability is a great way to examine our values. How committed are we to making change? Have we considered the values of all stakeholders? How can we maintain a productive discourse?

Then, let's cut the funny-business and get down to real business. While I was watching Portlandia this week, I could easily imagine a spoof with one of our riders waltzing into Kyle McLaughlin's mayor's office with a delivery. And sure, it would have been laughable. But when it comes down to it, as Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin wrote this week, "For once, Portland leaders have come upon a save-Mother-Earth-scheme worth applauding and mimicking elsewhere, either the private sector or other public agencies. Why shouldn't governments use their ample buying power to push suppliers toward a more sustainable model, as long as the changes do not cost taxpayers more?"

In response to the notion that readers might wonder what a post on Portlandia is doing on HBR.org (and you might similarly be wondering what it has do with B-Line), Grant McCracken suggests that: "Most corporations simply do not pay enough attention to contemporary culture — they react instead of respond. But corporations need to know about... shows like Portlandia — because such intelligence matters for how they shape their products and interact with their customers. They need to see the early warning of changes taking place in American culture."

While we can all use a healthy dose of self-ridicule now and then, we can't lose sight of the values we embrace, and more importantly, the real innovations we are developing from those values. We are doing business, and doing it better. It has been great to see all of stories spinning out there this week, but even greater to have the support of the City of Portland, Office Depot, our other partners, and all of you Portlanders who are getting behind B-Line and a new way to do business.

--Carolyn Holland

B-line delivers on the promise that business can be a catalyst for social and environmental change.
1140 SE 7th Ave, Ste. 190, Portland, OR 97214
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