Portlander Nate Barr, founder of Zootility, designs ingenious pocket-size implements as fun as they are useful.
By Tina Fischer
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
[dropcap letter=”O”]ne too many times, Nate Barr has dashed out of his apartment with only his wallet and no keys — and it’s what spurred him to create his first multi-tool. “I kept thinking that if I had a thin, strong, flat metal strip, I could trip the lock,” he remembers, “and if it was something that would fit in my wallet, I’d never be in this predicament again.”
That “something” took two years to engineer and became known as the PocketMonkey, a rectangle of heat-treated stainless steel on which Barr managed to incorporate screwdrivers, a door-latch lever, hex wrenches, a ruler, a straightedge, a bottle and letter opener, a headphone wrap, and a cell phone “kickstand.” The TSA-compliant gadget is the size of a credit card and sports a cheeky little monkey face. Today, it’s the bestselling item from Zootility, Barr’s Portland-based manufacturing company, which employs 16 and uses American steel and state-of-the-art laser-cutting equipment to turn out some 20 models of clever tools and knives, key rings, bottle openers, coasters, and “the world’s first glamour utility necklace.” We talked to Barr about the wild world of tool making.
“Multitool with wild features that fits in your pocket” just isn’t as catchy as PocketMonkey. When launching that first product, I could see creating more designs with a similar animal theme, hence the name Zootility. I didn’t know we’d become a design and a manufacturing shop or evolve into more product categories than tools, but the name still seems apt.
Did you have experience with stainless steel or laser cutting when you got started?
I have a mechanical engineering degree and had designed laser-cut parts for medical equipment. All of our machinery is run by computers. I taught myself to code, and while I was growing Zootility, my day job was in programming. You don’t really learn manufacturing in school — you have to work with it to really understand how to manage it well.
What’s your design process like?
I sketch out concepts, and ideas emerge as I sketch. I have a habit of sketching the same concept many times, even if I have nothing new to add, just because the act of drawing it again often spurs new ideas. I frequently make mistakes while copying the drawing, and that can inspire new design directions.
You started in Massachusetts. What brought you to Portland?
A few years ago, my wife and I quit our jobs in Boston to travel. Then my wife wanted to get back to her home state of Maine. She landed a job at Bowdoin and was my “sugar mama” while I got Zootility off the ground. Our location allows us to be part of the arts and maker community in Portland, and it’s been really helpful that there’s a passion for making and buying local and a talented workforce. We love how Portland is diverse, affordable, small in size but large in services and events, and that there’s a love here for the outdoors. We live alongside conservation trails in North Deering, but we’re still able to get downtown in 10 minutes. My goal is to start biking to work more — once my kids are sleeping through the night.