Home / Blog / BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Blue Q—A cultural revolution with Cat

BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Blue Q—A cultural revolution with Cat

Aug 31, 2023Aug 31, 2023

In an age when "corporate culture" is increasingly prized as a means of attracting investors, employees, and customers, there could never be a better time to have new ideas about the way we conduct our society in the workplace. The Misters Nash have them in spades.

Counter-Culture WarriorsThe social anthropologist, philosopher, and psychedelic pioneer Terrence McKenna once famously opined that "culture is not your friend." From jacked-up, militaristic blockbusters to supermarket-pumped corporate pop music to unaffordable designer luxuries produced with child labor (we’re looking at you, Big Tech), how healthy are our society and its products?

The very word "culture" recalls a mass of bacteria swarming across the fiery crimson-red agar surface of a petri dish, like some microscopic hellscape conjured up by Hieronymus Bosch in a signature fit of medieval whimsy. Then again, such a scenario of teeming activity gave us penicillin, which has saved tens of millions of lives. And as far as human culture goes, thank goodness for Dostoyevsky, Da Vinci, the moon landing, "The Godfather", and the "Baghavad Gita "for starters. The double-edge of this "cultural sword" is perhaps why we keep returning to the armory; maybe when this blade is wielded with ingenuity and aimed toward progress it can be a vanquisher of the world's problems, rather than a means to fill junkyards and capture a new generation of criminally exploited workers.

This is what brothers Seth and Mitch Nash, owners, managers and gurus of Pittsfield-based gift company Blue Q, want to talk about most. In an age when "corporate culture" is increasingly prized as a means of attracting investors, employees, and customers, or is held up as a reason why a company should change and adapt to the times (or be shuttered forever), there could never be a better time to have new ideas about the way we conduct our society in the workplace. The Misters Nash have them in spades.

Blue Man Groupies

Blue Q predominantly designs gifts like socks, coin purses, kitchen aprons and tote bags emblazoned with subversively adorable imagery and text. The company began when the founding brothers started out of their apartments in Boston's South End in the 80s, inspired by their father's Pittsfield-based manufacturing business and their mother's passion for art and design. In the intervening decades, the cheerfully irreverent brothers have built an internationally recognized and beloved brand, with hits like the fold-out-cardboard-instant-pet "Flat Cat", an iconic interpretation of Chapstick dubbed "Lip Sh*t," a kitchen apron depicting a woman straddling an alligator which suggests "Do something every day that scares your family,", and recent additions like a new new line of catnip, one particular model depicting a feline staring into a mirror and enquiring of itself in thought-bubble form, "Why do I kill?". Seth, Mitch and team titled this one "Existential Kitty," which is embroidered above the mirror-staring cat onto the nip-filled pouch.

The winking, Puckish sensibility underpinning all that Seth and Mitch do is nothing without the staff that supports their vision and makes it possible—and the brothers know it. Unlike Willy Wonka, who admittedly did his best to try and make megalomania fun, Seth and Mitch are committed to a more democratic vision of whimsical creation, and it immediately shows; when this reporter first entered their offices in search of the Brothers Nash, a staff member rose from her desk and approached like the host at a cocktail party, garrulously engaging me in conversation without hint of insincerity, rush, or, indeed, some rendition of that ubiquitous question "can I help you?", which invariably translates to "what the hell are you doing here and how can I get rid of you?" As we chatted, I asked her about working at Blue Q, and her reply was one of delighted relief—relief that she doesn't have to work anywhere else. Not that anywhere else is so bad, but that Blue Q is so good. She had scarcely begun waxing about the sense of joy and belonging she experiences here when the Brothers burst in and greeted me.

That this sense of community cohesion and sheer friendliness should be so immediately palpable is credit to Seth and Mitch prizing it above almost any other aspect of their work, with the essential business of coming up with new ideas for the company democratized and arrayed along a lateral rather than hierarchical structure that takes everyone into account and enfranchises the group. Mitch explains: "We have these, we call them flash card sessions, the whole office will be involved, and we write each phrase on a 4×6 flash card and then put them on the floor, we move them into a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ pile but at least then we have everyone kind of behind what we’re going to do." The "office" Mitch refers to is a voluminous, breezy, converted warehouse space a staircase or two above the whirring, contraption-packed shipping floor, which also happens to be adorned in various murals and art pieces by Blue Q staff members, who might be spotted packaging up an item while standing directly below their own wall art. The open-plan, light-filled office on the top floor allows easy travel around the room and to colleagues’ desks, which are festooned with lovely (and tidy) collections of creative ephemera.

Mitch expands on his brother's comments: "We have a company thing called ‘The Weekly Report’ so every department shares what's going on, there's a template for it and we show everyone what we’re working on so they’re up to date and can make sure that there's nothing that anyone hates. We recently designed and paid for a new bag; when it popped up in the weekly report and the sales department came over and said they didn't like it, we were like "no problem, we’ll go make another one." Staff member Sheri Esko expands on the value of this system: "One of my first product development ‘flashcard sessions’ was probably about a month into my employment at Blue Q. Everyone gathers around and goes through recent ideas for various products. It was a really fun experience and I felt comfortable giving feedback and ideas. It's great that the entire company collaborates on developing products and the (product development) team welcomes and values the input." Mitch is so passionate about enfranchising his staff in this way that he can barely sit still as he shares his convictions: "‘I think that sometimes people will walk in and look over here where all these projects are being done and they’re like ‘oh, is this the creative part of Blue Q?’ And I’m like ‘raghhhrghhhhhh!!!," like ‘no, actually we want everyone here to be creative," because everyone is creative, everyone needs to feel like they can create something and build something and contribute something and not just be a robot."

The brothers don't do all of this for Brownie points and good cheer—a happy staff and a contented customer base is also self-protective. Also, the reps in charge of actually selling what Seth and Mitch greenlight for production can do a better, more efficient job when they appreciate and understand the products they are selling. Seth explains: "When we send samples to all the sales reps, they get all the feedback from the stores, back to us. They usually have a good sense, and they’re selling across the whole country, so something that's a little edgy in the Northeast or on the coasts, the Midwest may frown upon… they don't like the word "motherf***er," and sometimes we have too many swears and they’ll go "hey, this winter release has too many swear words and we’re going to lose the whole middle of the country." Head of New Product Development Katie Frisina expands: "Brutal honesty is at the heart of the flashcard sessions that help to steer our new product ideas. (The) sessions can get a little rowdy—sometimes I wonder what our neighbors in the building might think we’re up to. Lots of laughter but hard thinking, too. Just because we all think something is funny doesn't mean it will sell. One of my favorite moments … is that Caitlin Nash almost always suggests we make a product that says ‘I Beg Your Pudding.’ She suggests it nearly every time. She's the only person to vote yes. We’ve still never turned it into a sock or oven mitt or gum, but I love that she keeps trying."

Comparisons Shmarisons

This jovial, joyful, steerage-deck-on-the-Titanic sense of communal care, higher purpose and mutual respect flies in direct contrast to so much of our current top-down corporate culture, perhaps the most prominent recent example being the maximalist, chest-thumping takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk. Mitch: "Look how (he) had this public discourse with his employees and was saying ‘I’m going to get rid of half of you.’ I think there's a lot of disgruntled people there who feel like they’re just a piece, they’re just a part, they’re replaceable, and he could probably just be working toward some of the same goals by framing what he's trying to do differently and not be left with a lot of people who have a lot of resentment." Seth adds "To me, that's a horrible business decision. You just bought the place. You should come in and just lie low for a little bit and get a bead on how everything's going. And yeah, I’m sure there are some surgical cuts that could and should be done, but just to lop off half the employees? The half that are left, I guarantee you, are looking for jobs."

Blue Q's playful, aesthetically tuned-in ethos feels a bit like Silicon Valley, but without the superficial pretension that often comes with the egomania and manipulative hiring tactics of that particular culture. Seth calls theirs "the B.S. version: you buy a foos-ball table and put it in the most obvious place and call that "culture." Mitch adds that "My son is dating someone who works at Google, and he can go into their office and get free lunch. The perks are amazing. Google knows that people want to be coddled, but the way some companies do it is very…like they put inspirational posters on the wall or whatever, but they’re not doing it in a way that's creative." Seth and Mitch don't just want people to be creative, they want them to be enfranchised.

A critical aspect of the company, and a major contributing factor to its internal cohesion, is Blue Q's commitment to charitable causes. Sheri Esco feels that "the most inspiring aspect of Blue Q's mission to me is the amount that (the company) gives back to various organizations." Mitch provides several examples: "When we began making our recycled bags we started giving 1% to the Nature Conservancy and now we’re also giving some of that to the Housatonic Valley Association. And when we started making socks, we’re like ‘who can we give 1% of sock sales to?’ and we met with Doctors Without Borders and they said ‘sure, we’ll work with you’ and they actually let us print ‘Doctors Without Borders’ on the packaging. We’re, I think, the only company in the world that actually gets to do that, but by now we’ve given them $1.6 million or something. And, that's really awesome that this product is doing double-duty."

Behind all this is clearly a fundamental underpinning, a moral code that unites and informs the company's decisions, endowing its charitable inclinations and activities with further weight. Mitch continues: "We’re really conscious of working with factories that are what you would want them to be. We go there, we make sure they’re not polluting, that workers have good lighting, that they employ individuals with disabilities." (Incidentally, Blue Q works with Community Access to the Arts, better known as CATA, to bring workers with disabilities onto their staff.) This part of the work is a key draw for many employees. Sheri concludes that "It makes me feel like I’m doing more than just earning a paycheck and adds value and purpose to my everyday job."

Smells Like Team Spirit

This cohesion extends to innovative and proactive internal stratagems designed to maximize the impact of all this good intention. Mitch shares one example: "A number of years ago, our warehouse manager proposed that we investigate lean manufacturing techniques, the ones that Toyota pioneered in the 70s or 80s, where you get a group of seven or eight people into workshops called "Kaisen Moments" and you decide what you feel you can do better to avoid waste. Whether it's wasted motion, wasted inventory or what have you. And Seth's wife Mary, who works in fundraising, got us a state grant to have a company come in and do a series of these "Kaisen" episodes here at Blue Q". They were enormously successful, engendering changes in the company that are here to stay: Mitch reports, "Downstairs we have a conveyor belt where orders are packed. We stopped work, took the whole apparatus apart and found a new way to do it better. And immediately we’re packing orders like 30% more efficiently."

The Brothers Nash make sure to distinguish between the kind of efficiency protocols that lead to redundancy and the system-tweaks which allow them to keep what they have and make it work better for everyone: "When this consulting company comes in and says ‘we’ll help you be more efficient,’ we say, ‘but not so you can fire people. That's the deal. we’re not here to help you wield an axe.’" In an age of mass layoffs and labor shortages, this kind of prioritization of employees’ interests comes as a welcome oasis of respect and reliability.

When asked if he considers the Blue Q model transferrable to other businesses in Berkshire County (or beyond), Mitch quotes an imaginary critic: "‘You couldn't pull this off with Berkshire Gas’" but, he insists with a flash of controlled exuberance, "you could pull off a version of it. We gave a talk years ago about culture and someone who’d worked at a law firm came up to us and said ‘I could never do what you’re talking about in our law firm’ and I was like ‘yeah you could.’ And I know which law firm it was because we’d been there, so they ask ‘what would you do?’ I said ‘I’d go into your lobby and take all those bookcases with the books that no one's ever read, and I’d throw that whole thing in the dumpster and take all that antique furniture and throw that all away too. You need to change how your place looks and feels’, but they were too scared. You don't have to go all the way. There are some things you can do. And I think people are scared about change, and that freaks them out. The notion that teamwork and collaborative culture only belong in a creative or "kooky" context is perhaps one we ought to re-examine."

Market Cat-pitalism

Like a feline for catnip, the vicissitudes of the marketplace come clawing for everyone at some appointed time or another. Mitch recalls a recent example which saw their heads being handed to them: "We made toothbrushes, and we worked really hard on them. They had little messages on them, but no one liked them. People don't give toothbrushes as gifts maybe, maybe the content was wrong, maybe people didn't want to buy something that was made of plastic, maybe it was too expensive, whatever, but the jury comes in really quickly here and when something's not working we get rid of it and move on to the next thing."

The next thing may well be a hit, and the brothers have a regular streak of them, but the days of filling up malls and retail stores and watching the cash roll in are, if not gone, critically endangered. Seth figures that "people have much higher expectations, because of Amazon, for instance. Back in the day there was no internet, ok, so the way orders came to us, believe it or not, was that reps would write orders and put them in an envelope and mail them to us. That standard went out the window a long time ago. All the orders are coming electronically now, so a sales rep writes an order at the store, we’ll have it five minutes after they walk out, and the store is expecting us to ship the thing out hopefully that day. You go on Amazon, you click, you’re like, ‘it's going to be here in two days.’ Well, we never thought we’d ever have to be at that level of speed and accuracy, and our warehouse didn't even have a computer in it in the early days. There are now 40 people down there. Logistics is huge."

The effort Seth and Mitch have put into the culture of their company also pays dividends in the logistical arena, as Katie Frisina explains: "After more than ten years I’m still surprised by the speed of our decision-making. We spend time making sure we have all the important information needed to make a decision, but we don't have countless meetings or committees to evaluate a problem or opportunity." Trial and error are an integral part of Blue Q's operational mandate. Seth: "We’ll develop about 120 or 150 new SKUs (stock keeping units, i.e. individual products) per year, but then discontinue the same amount. The ones that are selling at the bottom, zzzhooop, there they go, you know, even if we love them, if they’re not performing. Stores are always expecting something new … it's a treadmill of ‘new’."

This kind of honest internal critique, ego-free from the looks and sounds of it, perfectly dovetails with the production demands of a modern marketplace. The brothers also feel it's important to keep up with social media and all things tech because, as Seth figures, "those people (social media users) are your customers, and our stuff is entertaining. And if you can entertain them more often, you’re more likely to have someone go, ‘oh I really like that, I want to buy this.’ So, it's in our best interests, and you can see as soon as we do a web blast, the website traffic, zzzhooop, it's just a graph that goes up like this and just like clockwork it slowly goes back to baseline two days later." The sense of a narrative, of a journey, of some great and unknowable vision unspooling itself before your eyes day by day, is increasingly a powerful revenue driver; "There's also this thing happening where people are really curious about ‘who made this?’ What are the stories behind these things? We kind of have this cult audience of people who tend to come back again and again and they really like knowing about all this stuff that goes down here … we’ll stop work on a day and the whole company goes, or there's this crazy themed party for someone who's retiring. People today, they want to know about these things."

Culture Can Be Your Friend

Seth's and Mitch's grand experiment has now been running for over three decades, and they have a pretty good idea why. When employees love where they work and love why they work, there's no twisting of arms required to get them to show up and do their best. This even extends to their wallets. Mitch beams as he talks about the company's "very generous profit-sharing plan" with the humble satisfaction of a scientist whose beakers continue to show the same promising results across multiple samples. "It's not like people just get an extra thousand dollars. It can be a very significant proportion of people's paychecks, so that is an incentive to work at Blue Q and the company's organized as an ESOP, which stands for Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The people who work here actually own shares in the company." You may be unsurprised to hear at this point that Blue Q had no issues whatsoever finding and keeping staff during or after the pandemic, nor did they have any difficulty enticing them back to the office.

Of course, it all comes back to the brothers’ commitment to culture and community, without which their profit-sharing plan and zany offices and charming wall art and fabulous track record and annual profits might well collapse into a pile of dusty catnip. And Seth would probably celebrate that: "if you’re at a place that's all full of cubicles and you’re not really enjoying being in the office? Sure, I’d rather be at home. I get it. But I think then the problem is that your company sucks. Sorry." Mitch puts a fine point on their success, attributing it to a single, monumental idea, a word without which no human endeavor is possible or desirable: "We’re in year 35, I think? We’re designing our new catalog and it's like, we’re at 35, whoa, that's crazy, but it's really just all about the group. The group, the group, the group."

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Counter-Culture Warriors Blue Man Groupies Comparisons Shmarisons Smells Like Team Spirit Market Cat-pitalism Culture Can Be Your Friend