In 2008 Alex Steed was living his dream in New York City. He had been freelancing for a number of magazines, including Time, and working for a then brand-new Groupon. For the Cornish, Maine native, it seemed like his career was about to take off.
But that all changed once he learned that his father’s cancer had become terminal.
Steed had to leave behind the big city life and move back home to Cornish to be his father’s primary caregiver. At 26 years old, he was back in rural Maine, dealing with an emotionally devastating situation.
Sadly, Steed’s father would lose his battle with the disease.
When his father passed away, Steed was living on credit cards and simply didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to work remotely for the companies he had worked for in New York. Adding to the stress, he inherited a 200-year-old house right in the middle of the country’s housing crisis. Steed was able to find employment with a local non-profit doing communications outreach, which helped. But, as he says, “It was just a boring job.”
So in 2012, Steed would seek to bring a little bit of that New York City experience to Maine with the creation of his own media company, Knack Factory.
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Steed had initially started his digital media career while still at the University of Southern Maine, working for change.org. After graduating from USM with a self-designed degree in political philosophy, he put his education and his interest in technology’s use for political organizing to work for the Vermont Democratic Party in 2006.
That year, Bernie Sanders was making the transition from House to Senate, but the party wasn’t quite ready to embrace the digital revolution for organizing just yet. Steed was largely on his own in doing things like using MySpace to reach out to people whose beliefs and interests made them a worthwhile addition to the campaigns.
During this time, Steed was also involved with Northwestern University’s Global Engagement Summit. Scarborough native Nathaniel Whittemore founded the summit after the two traveled together extensively through the Balkans and Palestinian Territories. The conference was conceived as a way to guide Gen Y’s social involvement, making it more of a conscious decision to be involved on a global scale.
Following his stay in Vermont, Steed continued his work encouraging and developing the use of digital tools for social engagement. Except now he was doing it from Boston as one of the first ten employees of what is now a nationally recognized brand – Groupon.
“It was the good old days when people thought they could pay a full-time salary just for blogging,” says Steed of his Boston-based job.
After he eventually landed in New York, Steed began writing for a fashion magazine as an intern-turned-political correspondent, and also landed work writing pieces for everything from an electronic music magazine to Time.
When he returned to Maine in 2009 to help care for his father, the pace of work was different. But his time outside of the state had provided him with the experience and connections that would allow him to set up Knack Factory.
Encouraged and supported by his wife, Steed officially launched Knack Factory alongside two partners in 2012. He approached two friends who came from different career backgrounds from himself to start the journey with him. Zack Bowen came from a corporate background, working in photography for L.L. Bean. Kurt Graser came from a sports background, working in video production for a number of large companies including ESPN.
With their disparate backgrounds, the three had different networks to pull from and different strengths to contribute to Knack Factory. At the time the company started, both Bowen and Graser were still working elsewhere full-time, but all three were equal partners in the venture. Within a year, they had incorporated.
One of their first projects, which preceded the company’s foundation, was a short documentary about Alfred Moldovan, a Jewish doctor, activist and self-identified communist who was active in the civil rights movement.
But it was the first official project under the Knack Factory umbrella that, as Steed says, helped truly define the the type of work that they wanted to produce. In late July of 2012, the team, of their own volition, put together a piece capturing the first same-sex marriages in Maine.
“It defines everything we’re into, from production to storytelling to our interest in social justice. It felt like ‘us’ all the way around,” mentions Steed of the project. Their finished video caught the attention of a number of high profile news outlets throughout the world, demonstrating the power of Knack Factory’s storytelling abilities.
From there, they jumped to producing the web series Food Coma with Joe Riccio, a project that started as Portland’s food scene was beginning to hit its stride. Now, they’re involved in documentary projects for Big Tree Hospitality, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and many other clients.
Steed credits Portland-based company Might & Main for proving that it was possible for a small, creative media company to be successful.
”They showed us that we can start a creative thing and have clients and survive,” he says.
Knack Factory has done more than survive. Their reach stretches far outside of Maine, and Steed travels to cities across the country as part of his work. In doing so, he says, he’s always happy to learn about the reputation Mainers have.
A friend who now lives in Los Angeles once observed to Steed that “Being from Maine benefits you 100% because you’re born to work hard, you don’t get discouraged by bad circumstances and you’re genuinely interested in what other people have to say.”
Steed agrees, and believes the Maine brand continues to improve.
“You used to have to hide from being from Maine,” he says. “But the Maine brand means a lot. It’s helped by Thomas Moser, L.L. Bean, Flowfold…and pop media like Stephen King. We have this rugged, tough mentality.”
As Knack Factory grows, Steed is committing to using the company to promote the values he believes in. He insists on paying interns $15 an hour, even though many may see that as unnecessary given that interns are traditionally unpaid. Knack Factory has also sold t-shirts in support of the ACLU. He uses his personal time to volunteer for Maine Youth Leadership, an organization that he says helped him greatly when he was a teen.
Steed could have returned to Maine, taken care of his father and then returned to New York City. Instead, he opted to make a life in Maine and to build a business here. He contributes to the community, he supports Maine’s creative economy and he helps build the Maine brand in his travels across the country.
That’s why Alex Steed is an Emerging Maine Icon.