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Combining entrepreneurship and philanthropy with new product

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Bunny_Ear_iPhoneTwo years ago, when Sean Agatep set out for Southeast Asia with five of his Gonzaga University buddies, it was to travel and experience a culturally rich region of the world.

The WHS alum (Class of ’06) never thought he’d end up living there, but after venturing around the area for several months, he and his friends decided to put down roots in Guangzhou, China, the third largest city in the country, located about 80 miles from Hong Kong.

“The opportunities and potential for growth were just too much to pass up,” says Agatep. “There’s so much opportunity here, it’s often hard to focus on only a few ventures. But, we are young and energetic and we definitely have the drive to make things happen out here.”

The group of men eventually established a company, F2E Ventures, and initially focused on sourcing iPad cases and running a U.S.-based e-commerce store.

They’ve since moved on to other projects such as importing American made wines, particularly from Washington and Oregon.

“Our vine venture, Royal American Wines, came to light after a friend we played pick-up basketball with started asking about American wine,” explains Agatep. “He was a local wine distributor here in Guangzhou. We brought some bottles back from the U.S. and hosted a couple tastings to get a feel for the palate. We then had a small shipment of wine sent over that included labels from Airfield Estates, Kestrel Vintners, Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Ardiri Winery and Torri Mor.” He adds, “There isn’t a strong presence of U.S. wine here, but the quality is definitely on par and above the Italian, French and Spanish wines available. The Chinese consumer is still new to wine and wine culture, so there are great opportunities for growth. Our quality-to-price ratio has definitely been in our favor with the high-end hotels and restaurants here. Those establishments definitely appreciate high quality wines.”

The company is looking to expand its import operation to include other products, especially U.S. consumer brands looking to enter the Chinese market.

Agatep notes that Chinese consumers have a great amount of admiration and respect for foreign-made items, especially Western brands and companies. Recently, the company developed its own designer iPhone case, which it has begun selling via its e-commerce store under the name of QT Case.

The cases are distinctive for their “bunny ears” style and currently come in three colors, which speak to different personality traits. There’s “Vixen” (red), a leader that’s always on the lookout for new cutting-edge ideas; “Summer” (yellow), energetic and spontaneous with a lighthearted spirit; and “Breezie” (blue), imaginative and creative.

“The bunny ear cases are tremendously popular over here,” comments Agatep, “and they served as our initial inspiration. Some friends we met over here were headed back to Eastern Europe and mentioned that all their friends loved the bunny-ear cases. I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity to start this trend in the States. I came to the conclusion that if we didn’t do it, someone else would and I’d regret it the rest of my life for not taking a chance on it.”

Agatep and his partners brainstormed ways to adapt the product to the U.S. market and did research, with the help of a Gonzaga U. marketing professor, to determine target market age range.

Then they made a sample batch of about 200 cases and brought them back to the U.S. last winter. The response, he says, was amazing, providing clear evidence that the product had potential in the States.

When they returned to China, the group worked on fine-tuning the cases. They received assistance from a friends’ company, Source-Find Asia, to determine the best factory in China for production.

“The first official QT Case line landed in the States the first week of May,” comments Agatep. “Our site went live shortly thereafter.” He adds, “We’ve seen a great amount of interest from group-buy sites like nomorerack.com and we’re solidifying the final details to be featured on at least four group-buy sites in the near future.”

Though the goal of the company is to be financially successful, it also aims to be philanthropic when it comes to worthy causes.

“We want to give back,” says Agatep. “With everything we are trying to start up out here, we have learned that a little goodwill goes a long way. Companies with integrity always seem to stand the test of time.”

To this objective, Agatep and his partners are donating 10 percent of all sales of their iPhone cases to the Susan G. Komen “For the Cure” Foundation.

They have set a donation mark of $10,000 by the time the Race for the Cure holds its Portland event on September 16. “We’re a little less than 10 percent to our goal, but we’ve only been official for about a month,” adds Agatep. “I have high hopes for July and August. Once we get the details finalized with the group-buy sites and other online retailers, we should see rapid growth towards our goal and will hopefully go above and beyond.”

Though Agatep and his partners had wanted to be involved in charitable giving at the get-go, their last e-commerce venture (iPad cases) had too low of a margin to be able to make the commitment. This time around, however, they understood the “sourcing game” — what to look for, what is worth spending money on, where to save money, etc. — so they were smarter with their costs and were able to build in a charitable donation within their pricing structure.

The bunny design case is only the first of many different designs the company plans to create and thus far, the response to the product, as well as the charitable cause involved, has been very positive.

As for challenges, Agatep comments that from a production side, getting the right product manufactured in China can be a difficult task.

He remarks, “Our experience from previous projects has definitely helped this time around. But, like everything else in China, the process takes much longer. The right balance of assertiveness and patience is a necessity.”

He adds, “I’d say our biggest challenge now is publicity and spreading the word — getting the cases to the masses.”

For Agatep and his partners, the sky’s the limit. He notes that South China, where he lives, is a major manufacturing hub, with many of the world’s products produced in this region.

He says, “The same factory making cases for the States is also making cases for Europe, Africa, South America, etc. It’s a melting pot of culture which creates a breeding ground for new ideas and products. Soon to come for us will be iPhone case designs of cats, dogs, bears, birds and of course we’re always open to suggestions!”

For more information about QT Case, visit www.QTCase.com.

Why it’s so Great Selling Real Estate in Woodinville

  • Written by Submitted by Shannon Woodcock, Cascade Team
If you have lived in Woodinville for more than a few years, you have seen quite a surge in its regional and national recognition and subsequent popularity for home buyers.  Everyone knows there are super destination spots here: world class wineries and restaurants, great equestrian training centers and parks and recreation spots. But even more exciting is that Woodinville is just such a great place to live!

There was once a time when Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond were the only cities that someone living outside of Washington state had ever heard of. It used to be that when people transferred here from other states and countries for jobs, those cities were usually at the top of the target list for the inevitable “house hunt.” But times have changed. Woodinville is definitely on the list and for good reason.

Like anything that grows in popularity and success, it is often fueled via word of mouth. With the prevalence of great portals of communication — blogs, email, facebook and other tools — word has gotten out that Woodinville is an awesome place to live.  There is also the good old-fashioned conversation over a glass of wine after work; one colleague tells another, “I moved here five years ago from the East Coast for a job and have lived in Woodinville the entire time.  And I LOVE it!”

What makes Woodinville so great? In my opinion there are two main factors:  First, it’s the people who live in Woodinville. It makes sense that such a beautiful town that places such a premium on green space, recreation and awesome, high-quality businesses would attract awesome, high quality people. Sure, the commute from Woodinville to the technology corridor in and around Redmond and Bellevue is excellent. But the clients with whom I have worked as buyers and the ones who have bought homes I have had listed say the same thing time and time again:  “Once I came to Woodinville, I fell in love with it.” Also, people who have moved here from other areas (myself included—a transplant all the way from Seattle) have felt welcomed by the long-time Woodinville residents. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it sort of feels like there is an unspoken understanding that if you are smart enough to choose Woodinville as a place to live, then you are invited to the party.

The second factor that I see as being responsible for Woodinville’s popularity is the variety of neighborhoods from which home buyers can choose. There is nothing cookie-cutter or boring about what Woodinville has to offer. If you love large lots and large, well-built homes, while still having a structured neighborhood feel, you may like Lake of the Woods, Saybrook, Aspenwood, Brook Trails Estates or Tuscany. Waterfront homes can be found on Cottage Lake, Lake Leota and Lake Tuck. If you like charming homes on large private lots with a more natural setting, you may choose Wellington, Reintree, Cottage Lake Bridle Trails or Ring Hill. And if you want to have a lovely home on a beautiful piece of land or live on acreage with your horse and have trails close by yet still be super close-in, Hollywood Hill is probably for you; I call it home and can’t ever imagine living anywhere else now. Want to be super close-in but don’t want a lot of land? Reinwood I and II and Woodinville Highlands are great choices. And there is an ample selection of condominium complexes available in Woodinville as well.

There are too many great neighborhoods in Woodinville to mention them all.  But rest assured, Woodinville’s star continues to rise and its reputation for offering “Country Living & City Style” is alive and well.  Enjoy living in one of the best communities on the planet and take comfort that you have chosen wisely for your own pleasure and as a super real estate investment for years to come!

Creating curb appeal on a budget

  • Written by ARA

14813357_webThe arrival of summer has many homeowners outside planting, preparing the patio for cookouts and taking evening strolls through the neighborhood. Often, this extended outdoor time brings on a desire to improve a home’s curb appeal.

But home improvement projects can be expensive, and many homeowners are still wary about spending money on renovations, despite the improving real estate market. So what’s the best way to spruce up the appearance of your house without breaking the bank?

There are many budget-friendly exterior changes that will make a big difference in curb appeal. A fresh coat of paint can work wonders, whether it’s applied to the entire house or just on the front door. If your house is painted a neutral color like white or cream, be adventurous and try an energizing red or soothing aqua on your front door; the pop of color will add appealing interest.

While a landscaping overhaul can be very expensive, window boxes or planters are an easy and cost-effective way to add natural beauty to your home’s facade. Learn how to build a container garden that will provide extra dimension and color to a front porch or patio.

Take a look at your house from the street. Do your windows look bare? Try adding shutters, but make sure they are appropriately sized. Buying shutters that are smaller than the windows they flank is an all-too-common mistake homeowners make, which leads to the windows looking disproportionately small.

And if you have a garage, don’t overlook the importance of a good-looking garage door. A garage door can account for up to 30 percent of a home’s exterior that is seen from the street, so having an attractive one is vital to good curb appeal. But, like shutters to a window, a garage door should be appropriately matched to its house’s architectural style. Not sure which door fits your home the best? Try out the handy door designer tool at www.amarr.com which lets you choose from six different home styles and then matches an appropriate garage door based on that style.

Of all these budget-friendly improvement projects, a new garage door will give you the best return on your investment and provide the most value for your home. Over the last few years, surveys conducted by the Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report indicate that installing new garage doors has been the project moving up the most in the rankings.

Most people, to some degree, factor in resale when making their home improvement decisions. Both structural and decorative curb appeal is important when it comes time to sell a home, bringing in a larger number of prospective buyers and making it more likely that they will make the purchase.

According to principals at Smykal Renovations, a contracting firm in suburban Chicago, curb appeal projects “may not have the ‘wow’ factor of a major kitchen remodel, but [they] pay off more in the end.”

So don’t let budget constraints keep you from improving the appearance of your home’s exterior. There are many low-cost changes that can be made that have a big impact on how your home looks. Whether you’re making these changes to enjoy for yourself, or to make your home more marketable, the summer is a great time to get outside and focus on curb appeal.

Portraits promote awareness and acceptance of autism

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Autism Camden
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Camden
In 2001, Charlie Cotugno’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

The Woodinville man, who was a photographer, wanted to do something to raise awareness of the disorder, as the rate of diagnosis was skyrocketing.

Four years later, he began a portrait project aimed at this mission.

“The original plan was to create about 12 to 15 large-format black and white portraits to exhibit around the community,” explains Cotugno. “Then things got a little bigger than I expected.”

autism Dean
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Dean
By the end of 2008, the local man had amassed close to 50 pictures and had invested nearly $40,000 in time, materials and new equipment.

 

There were also costs associated with framing, keeping up with the demand for exhibits and requests for interviews from all over the country.

Cotugno says, “It was taking a considerable amount of time from my photography business and I just couldn’t afford to continue with it. I was ready to shut down the project when some parents and organizations I had been working with convinced me to establish a non-profit organization to help raise funds and keep it going.”

In September 2009, the Woodinville-based organization, Stories of Autism, was founded with the goal of promoting awareness, acceptance and inclusion of people with autism spectrum disorders in their communities.

Cotugno explains that this is done by matching volunteer professional photographers from around North America with children and adults with autism spectrum disorders in their area.

They coordinate a day and time for a portrait session and either the subjects or parents are asked to provide a short narrative about life with autism.

He adds, “They are free to write about whatever they’d like — anger, frustration, breakthrough moments, their love for their child —whatever moves them. As a whole, we want the project to be a balance of art and journalism that honestly portrays all aspects of dealing with autism.”

Autism Maggie
Photo by Charlie Cotugno. Maggie
Currently, there are 64 photographers from the U.S. and Canada who have contributed 207 portraits to the project.

Finding the subjects, according to Cotugno, can be the most challenging aspect of the work.

Those involved in the project look for organizations and service providers they can contact and ask for help in identifying potential subjects.

Participants choose to become involved mainly because they view it as a safe context for them to share their experiences, as they know there will be a level of understanding, connection and support from others who can relate to their situations.

“Sharing experiences is a basic human need,” comments Cotugno, “especially for those who have just received a diagnosis and don’t know where to turn or what to expect.”

He adds, “For many, Stories of Autism has provided a virtual community for learning and sharing through our social media presence. Many people just find it a great opportunity to educate others about autism by telling their story.”

Photographing the subjects can also be a challenging experience, notes Cotugno. He comments that preparation is essential in photographing anyone, but when working with individuals with special needs, it is even more crucial. “In my business,” he explains, “I always make sure I meet my clients beforehand to learn something about them and plan exactly how we’re going to create a portrait that shows them as being relaxed and at their best in front of the camera. You need to do the same thing with a special needs subject, but you’ve also got to understand any limitations or opportunities you are going to be presented with at the time. You need a plan A, B and C all figured out and ready to go. And you have to be ready and willing to throw them all out the window because there’s a good chance you’re going to be presented with a challenge you never anticipated.”

He adds, “But finding that one portrait that tells the story of your subject in the 1/250th of a second slice of time that your shutter opened and closed makes the whole experience worth every moment of panic.”

Stories of Autism photos have been exhibited in numerous places around the Seattle area. Coffee shops are popular spots, according to Cotugno, as they provide the most exposure and are the source of most of the feedback that the organization receives.

He says, “People generally frequent the same coffee shop and they may read one or two of the stories each time they visit. That type of repeated exposure seems to have the most effect on people.”

There have also been long-term exhibits at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center and both the Seattle and the Bellevue locations of Mosaic Rehabilitation, as well as for Special Olympics, Families for Effective Autism Treatment and most every other major autism service provide in Western Washington.

To date, most of the showings have been in the Seattle area, with just a few east of the Cascades and in the Vancouver area.

Cotugno notes that moving an exhibition around the country is an expensive proposition, which requires diligent and focused fundraising efforts.

He admits though that fundraising is not the primary mission of Stories with Autism, yet it is an important part of continuing the organization’s work.

“We really want to have a core collection of about 50 large-format images we can exhibit, not only in cities around the U.S. and Canada, but other places around the world,” he says. “Expanding the reach of the project is one of our primary goals. There’s no reason why every country in the world can’t be represented in this project. We also want to continue to elevate the level of photography by implementing very high standards for acceptance into the project. Without any of the stories or even knowing what the project is about, we want this to stand on its own as a world class photographic exhibit.”

He adds, “We’ve already got some absolutely amazing photographers associated with the project who are pushing us in that direction. To keep moving forward, our photographers need to continue pushing the limits of their creative thinking and break a few artistic rules. That’s the mindset we need to have in every aspect of the project to get it where we want it to be.”

In the interim, the organization is developing an app for the iPad that would present the best work from the project, allowing people to easily navigate between stories, subjects and photographers.

Cotugno hopes that the first version of the app will be available at the end of the summer. Future versions will allow users to search for images and photographers by geography. The app will be free and will include a convenient method of donating to the project.

Currently, photographs from Stories of Autism are on display in the lobby of Woodinville City Hall. The exhibit will run through July 31.
For more information about Stories of Autism: www.storiesofautism.com.

French bakery, market, boutique coming to Woodinville

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Vineyard one
LeeAnn Belarde will open The French Bakery and The Market at the Vineyard July 4. Staff photo/Deborah Stone
Starting one small business is challenging enough in this economy. LeeAnn Belarde, however, is getting ready to open three businesses on a five-acre parcel of land off of Woodinville-Redmond Road.

The Vineyard, “A New Destination in the Heart of Woodinville Wine Country,” is a multi-faceted venue that contains The Market at the Vineyard, The French Bakery at the Vineyard and The Boutique at the Vineyard.

The project has been almost three years in the making and the Woodinville woman is thrilled that her dream is finally becoming reality.

“I’ve wanted to create a culinary destination promoting Washington agriculture and viticulture for quite a while,” says Belarde. “Initially, I was looking for a building, not property, but then a friend of mind found this piece of land. When I saw it, I just knew. It’s a very versatile property and it’s really special with great views of Mt. Rainier and lots of natural vegetation. I was able to see the potential. I could see through the neglect that it was a beautiful treasure.”

Belarde’s father, John J. Belarde, helped her get the ball rolling and she began researching the property’s potential.

The local woman, who has years of experience in sales, event coordination and facility management, has ran several businesses in the past, mainly bakeries.

Vineyard two
Anticipation for the opening of The Vineyard has been building. Staff photo/Deborah Stone
She and her former husband, a Frenchman, owned and operated The French Pastry Place on Mercer Island, The French Confection and Belle Pastry in Bellevue and The French Oven in Anchorage, Alaska.

 

“I know a thing or two about running a bakery,” Belarde says with a smile.

The French Bakery at the Vineyard will feature a complete array of traditional French baked goods, cheeses, Caffé D’arte coffee, artisanal teas, freshly squeezed orange juice, European chocolates and a variety of picnic goodies.

It will be open seven days a week and although currently there isn’t any indoor seating in the establishment, customers are welcome to munch on their purchases al fresco, on the nearby patio.

“Everything is freshly baked,” comments Belarde. “It’s baked daily using the best ingredients. We don’t skimp on anything. This is true French baking.”

As for The Market at the Vineyard, Belarde describes it as an outdoor marketplace that will offer locally sourced produce, flowers, honey, specialty olive oils, homemade sauces and a variety of artwork, including jewelry, yard art, glass and more.

“It’s a place for local vendors to sell their goods,” explains Belarde. “Right now, it will be open weekends only.”

And then there’s The Boutique at the Vineyard, a doll-size shop that will specialize in selling Washington wines and microbrews, along with an assortment of wine-oriented accessories and handcrafted chocolates.

Belarde plans to hold different events at The Vineyard, including culinary classes, Native American cultural activities and live music.

“I’m really excited about making this place into a venue for people to come and enjoy the outdoors, eat good food, buy local and even learn a thing or two if they want,” she adds. “It’ll be a place that offers a number of experiences.”

The Vineyard will also be available to rent for special occasions, such as weddings and reunions. Anticipation for the opening of The Vineyard has been building in the community, with most of the interest generated by the bakery.

As it stands, both The French Bakery and The Market will officially open July 4th, and The Boutique is slated for later on in the summer.

“It’s been crazy getting it all ready,” admits Belarde. “There’s just been so much to do and there still is so much more, but it will eventually come together. It’s an incredibly exciting time for me to finally see my dream come true.”

Local vendors are still needed for The Market at the Vineyard. If interested, call LeeAnn Belarde at: (206) 992-4099.