We talk with Ratio Founder, Mark Hellweg about the insanity of small business ownership, how dumb luck can push you into success, the joy of great design, and the origin of his love for coffee.
First, a disclaimer. We get that a profile of our own dear leader may be a little too self-interested, but for the 10th anniversary of the initial Ratio Eight design, our editors thought it would be fun to pretend that Mark is a stranger and see where our conversation might lead.
Mark Hellweg is like a blue-eyed golden retriever. He has this seemingly endless supply of positive energy, to the point that if you spend enough time with him you begin to wonder, has this guy ever been frustrated? What would that even be like?
Having spent the last ten years designing and bringing to market a coffee maker with insanely high standards in everything from design aesthetics to water temperature and distribution—a coffee maker that captures the flavor profile of an amazing pour over, but with incredible consistency, all while being made from the highest quality natural materials in an intentional push against disposable consumer culture—and then to lead a growing small business through a pretty wild late-pandemic supply chain, uh, SNAFU, Mark looks back at the last decade of his life with his characteristic energized grin.
From a certain vantage point the last decade has been punishing (from complying with small appliance safety requirements without sacrificing design aesthetic and functionality, to dealing with entire shipping containers of materials being locked away, unavailable), but Mark is like an Ironman competitor, or some other such crazy person: he loves it. As he says, ‘all the bad stuff that’s ever happened, it just empties out of my head.’ It’s a gift. It’s perverse.
"From a certain vantage point the last decade has been punishing, but Mark is like an Ironman competitor, or some other such crazy person: he loves it."
When he talks about the ability to take on risk and to overcome the immense inertia in order to bring something new into the world, he credits his dad. Watching his dad set up a makeshift office and take the difficult and uncertain path of building his own business, gave Mark a sense of confidence, a calm, measured assurance that this problem can be solved, and so can the next one. Seeing his dad buy nice instead of twice, even when money was tight, imprinted in him an uncompromising requirement for quality goods that last.
He smiles, remembering his first job working for his dad at age 11, pulling and packing auto parts orders, gaining a sense that hard work and patience can bring a dream into reality. But his own sense of self is rooted much further in the past—he can see the entrepreneurial spark lighting up his grandparents and great-grandparents. His ancestors ran a tobacco shop in Bielefeld, before his grandfather emigrated to the US and began importing Porsche and Volkswagen engines for the enthusiast market.
In a similar way, Mark can look back and trace his love of beauty and design through his mother’s family. His maternal great-grandfather played trombone and sketched horses with charcoal. You can almost see the images projecting in his mind as he recalls his mom’s parents’ mid-century modern house in Los Gatos. His 90 year old grandmother, Fayanna (whom he just came from visiting), had a strong sense of light and interior design–from a Warren Platner dining set, to multiple Eames loungers, to signed Calder prints hanging on her wall . ‘My appreciation for a proper dinner preparation, golden hour, you turn on the jazz, you pour some Napa Valley chardonnay, you start sautéing the garlic…’ it all flows through Fayanna.
Coffee came into Mark’s world after a family trip to Starbucks in the early years. After falling in love with espresso, Mark’s dad immediately bought a Barista Express. A few short years later some friends introduced Mark to Torrefazione in NE Portland (the precursor to Cafe Umbria). Having grown up in the country, an Italian-style cafe was a revelation for Mark. ‘The city thing for me, as a 16 year old, was driving to Torres’ with a Hemingway book and sitting with a cappuccino pretending I was literary.’ He was so hooked on intentionally crafted coffee, that in college he had Torrefazione beans shipped to his dorm room where he started optimizing his French press routine.
"The streams of entrepreneurial energy, a love of design and beauty, and a fascination with coffee and the culture it creates, were beginning to coalesce."
After college, Mark experienced the early Stumptown offerings and it brought him into a new awareness of what coffee could be. The medium-roasted, single origin coffee experience was closer to drinking a fine wine than anything he’d experienced to that point. The streams of entrepreneurial energy, a love of design and beauty, and a fascination with coffee and the culture it creates, were beginning to coalesce.
With a lot of family encouragement (including a $10k loan from Fayanna), Mark set up a merchant business selling high-end consumer espresso machines called Clive Coffee. It was at Clive that Mark began really refining his aesthetic approach. Through Mark’s direction, Clive started focusing on handmade Italian espresso machines that are as close to countertop art as one can get. Eventually Mark’s own aesthetic sense required something more and the Lucca brand was born: a collaboration between Clive and a handful of the world’s best consumer espresso makers working to make precise and hardworking machines that would live out a long life as a beautiful visual statement on the counters of even the most luxurious kitchens.
Blue Bottle Coffee founder, James Freeman, shares first impressions of a Ratio Eight brew, cup in hand!
As his customers started asking, increasingly, for a good drip brewer, Mark and a curious friend took apart an existing brewer to try to understand how the thing worked. Mark’s desire to create something beautiful and long-lasting sparked, and he started taking slow steps toward something he couldn’t quite define. Years before the initial design phase, the dream of the Ratio Eight began to take shape in Mark’s mind.
"Mark’s desire to create something beautiful and long-lasting sparked, and he started taking slow steps toward something he couldn’t quite define."
Throwback to the Ratio Tour with the good folks at Blue Bottle, deep in conversation over a Ratio carafe of their world class coffee.
After years of market research, learning from other coffeemaker designers, and gaining a better understanding of the basic mechanics involved in building a coffee brewer, right as the pour over trend was burning through cafes, Mark began raising funds and set about designing the Ratio Eight with James Owen handling industrial design. There were, of course, challenges and difficulties (‘it was super tedious with a lot of dead ends’)—to the point that Mark sometimes wonders what his 30 year old self was thinking. But the rewards have been incredible. Seeing a dream come to life and bring a moment of beauty into people’s daily ritual is its own sort of ROI. Even now, facing the continued challenges of a disrupted supply chain and a contracting economy, Mark is facing the future with his infectious, baseline optimism.
‘My business partner, Brad [Ratio COO and for all intents and purposes, co-founder] calls me Ferris Bueller cuz I’m happy and I run around and know everybody.’ Mark does seem to live by Ferris’s own creed: ‘The question isn’t what are we going to do, the question is what aren’t we going to do.’
As for what it might be like working with the Ferris Bueller of coffee? Well, rest assured dear reader, we’ll be talking to Brad soon.