John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past nine years. He knows their ups, their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Jon Walters, Founder of Nature of the North.
1. Will you please tell us your Nature of the North elevator pitch?
Learning a new outdoor activity or skill can be intimidating and frustrating. Nature of the North is an outdoor education and community center that provides a safe and approachable environment for beginners to try new outdoor activities and learn new outdoor skills without judgment. Unlike REI or ‘Youtube University’, we provide an actual roadmap from introduction to education to integration and, finally, to self sufficiency for each activity. We are the “Outdoors Built for Beginners”.
2. I heard you recently talk about researching and fostering a nature or outdoor community first before diving into your business. In my interview with John Schneider of 3D-Fuel last month, that was something he said he wished he had done first before starting an early business, that later failed. Will you please tell me a little more about your rationale for that and what you did?
When I first started thinking about Nature of the North, my first priority was to simply create a sense of outdoor community in our region. I had met a variety of highly engaged outdoor enthusiasts when I first moved to the area and knew that there had to be more. So, I wanted to start creating fun events that allowed folks to learn new skills, build their confidence in the outdoors and find like-minded people. In this, I was essentially doing market research. What did our community need from an outdoor provider? Education? Events? Private? Public? Rentals? Planning? I wanted to know what our people actually needed from me to help make the outdoor more accessible.
3. How did you then incorporate what you learned into creating a business that starts making revenue off of this?
I learned over the first two years of business that there were a variety of barriers preventing our community from getting outdoors. Some had the skills, but were new to the community and needed to know where to go and whom to go with. Some never had the opportunity to try these activities and didn’t know where to begin. Some tried and had a bad experience, so they never went back. Some simply didn’t have the confidence in their abilities to try. Others simply couldn’t afford to go out and buy equipment just to try something they might not use regularly, or even enjoy it enough to be worth the investment.
These were the problems and I needed to start solving them. I had to figure out what services or products I had the ability and resources to launch, and what my long-term roll-out plan would be. Essentially, I began building multiple lean business models to figure out which had the lowest hanging fruit with the biggest branches.
In order to test these models, I needed to earn income in ways that allowed me to explore my dreams and vision as it came into focus. To make it happen, I was working full-time at Junkyard Brewing slinging beer, playing local music gigs and walking dogs. This happened all while spending small amounts of free-time building my business and hosting the first versions of our outdoor skills workshops and community events. It was an incredibly meaningful, yet tiring four-year time period.
4. What helped you take that leap into opening the brick and mortar location?
Ultimately, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had spent the time building the services, finding partners and collaborators, building a community, and validating the need for what I was attempting; but I was getting burned out from the 80-100 hour work weeks and I needed to find a way to go full-time for myself. I knew that I needed a physical location for my new community to gather, and after living in Colorado for a period, I had learned that outdoor communities were built at the base of a bouldering, aka rock climbing, wall. I needed a bouldering wall in our space, not only to give our community a daily opportunity to find friends, build confidence and learn skills, but also for an opportunity to start earning recurring revenue.
As I developed the full plan, I eventually secured the pre-seed funding I needed to open our space. By the way, taking on over six figures of personally guaranteed debt is terrifying! Within three months, we had found our location in downtown Moorhead and began building. Another six months later, we were preparing to open our doors when COVID-19 hit the world.
5. Let me get back to the COVID comment, but first a question on your location. It’s been exciting to see all the development and redevelopment in downtown Moorhead, with more coming down the road. How has your experience been in starting a business in downtown Moorhead and do you have any advice for others who may soon be a part of the growth that is coming for that area of town?
Oh my gosh, I honestly can’t say enough good things about opening my business in Moorhead! The community members themselves are incredibly grateful and supportive, which means everything to me. Then, we start looking at the support systems such as Moorhead Business Association, Downtown Business Inc, Moorhead Parks & Recreation, direct access to the City Manager, invitations to local committees and roundtable discussions and honestly just the other local businesses that surround me. Every single person along the journey has been incredibly helpful, informative and supportive. I couldn’t feel more welcome.
Advice? Do it! The ‘56560 Proud’ community is a powerful, excitable, and supportive community. There’s a lot of energy building and the new comprehensive 30-year plan has been well thought out. Moorhead should not be overlooked when looking at locating or expanding a business.
6. Let’s talk about pivots. Between just being a newish biz owner and, as you mentioned, having COVID hit right before the opening of your location occur, you’ve probably had several pivots already. Am I correct in that assumption?
You have no idea how correct you are. Before I started creating our location, I thought I had a pretty elaborate plan. About 80% of that plan went out the window months before opening our doors. This meant we had to stop the development of new products, part ways with team members, launch products that we weren’t planning on until further down the line and honestly do anything except sell the shirt off my back… which I actually did sell one of my Nature of the North t-shirts I was wearing because we didn’t have that size in stock– hahaha.
We would pivot, test, pivot, test, pivot test. It was painful. I lost a lot of great employees. I confused our followers. I used up every ounce of energy and thought power I had within me. Being too new of a business, we couldn’t receive any PPP or EIDL funding to provide assistance. Somehow… almost two years later, our doors are still open.
7. As you’ve been working it all out, aside from the earlier mentioned Moorhead supporters, who or what are some of the resources that have helped you along the way?
Honestly, the biggest resource that has helped me out was ILT Academy. I was accepted into their 20-week Lean Startup Innovation program at the beginning of 2021. We had a class once a week and we worked heavily on truly understanding your target customer, the problem they have and your solution to that problem for that specific customer. Then, actually validate those assumptions.
Through this, I realized that I was solving multiple problems, for multiple customer groups, with multiple solutions. Essentially, I was building multiple businesses. This allowed me to simplify my business model and focus my efforts on the most important components of my business. What I also learned is that even though I had an operational business, I needed to take time to prioritize what was most important and work on my business while also working in my business. This simplified my marketing, my team needs and many other micro-decisions that need to be made on a daily basis and helped me to become a more disciplined and focused entrepreneur.
An unexpected benefit of ILT Academy was the variety of resources that were instantly at my fingertips and extremely helpful to improving my business outcomes. ILT Academy has designed tools specifically to help entrepreneurs think differently about their business. The mentors were amazing, the other founders in my cohort, and the other ILT Alumni founders that actually want to come back and help the new founders… that really helped me realize there is something different going on here.
I also have to mention the slew of great videos and articles that were curated to help me learn things that I had never been exposed to before. There are lots of free resources, books and videos on the internet, but the way that ILT Academy has designed this whole experience was an absolute game-changer for me. I utilized every single resource I could get my hands on to help me make sense of this massive franchisable vision I have in my head.
8. You’re obviously a believer in their program as I know you’ve been assisting ILT Academy by helping them work with other entrepreneurs, just like they did for you. How did that come about, how are you helping and what type of budding entrepreneurs should check out ILT?
I really hit it off with Nick (Nick Tietz, ILT Founder and CEO) and the rest of the team and I wanted to help them with their mission. They helped me so much that I wanted to make sure others can get the kind of help that I received. Before I knew it, I was getting trained to help facilitate future cohorts of entrepreneurs. They say one of the best ways to learn something is to teach someone else. This has allowed me to do exactly that.
Who should check it out? Anyone from ideation stages, anyone with a working prototype, all the way up to already having received early funding. The concepts we cover and group exercises really help focus your hypotheses, and, then, either validate or invalidate them. The biggest help for me has simply been able to truly identify who my target customers and potential stakeholders are. This has allowed me to better market, as well as decide on product/ service launch priorities. I highly encourage those that have “too many ideas, and too little time” to join. The ILT innovation framework is really designed to help give you the tools to run all of those beautiful ideas through the process. Then, at the end, you can pick your best chances for success and start moving forward!
9. If you could go back in time to Jon from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
That’s a tough one. Some of the things I’ve learned I simply had to learn over time as the situations presented themselves. So, maybe it would simply be to have patience, give yourself grace, ask for help and read more books!
- Everything takes time, and we often get really hard on ourselves as entrepreneurs when things don’t move as fast as we’d like them to. So have patience.
- We’re not always going to perform at as high of a level as we’d like every single day. So, on the days that you didn’t get as much done or didn’t act in your highest self, just give yourself some grace.
- Oftentimes we find ourselves struggling, but don’t want to reach out for fear of looking incapable or weak. So, we struggle alone and are hard on ourselves. Set the ego aside and ask for help.
- Lastly, start reading more! Doesn’t even really matter what, just take intentional time from your day to sit down and read. It will help calm your mind and allow you to be more present with your day. I recommend The Art of Stopping Time: Practical Mindfulness for Busy People by Pedram Shojai.
10. What can we do as a community to help Nature of the North succeed?
One of the best things anyone could do is to simply come into our climbing wall in downtown Moorhead! We’ve designed the space to be as approachable to beginners as possible, as we do with all of our outdoor activities. Afraid of heights? Fear not! Our wall is only 14 feet tall, and 12 inches of memory foam flooring to help keep you safe.
Outside of visiting our location, I have some really big ideas and plans. So, we’d love to find partners that we can grow alongside. Whether that’s through events or educational programming, outdoor equipment rentals or commercial space sharing. We plan to build a franchisable model that we can bring to other rural communities in various capacities, but we want our flagship location to be right here in Moorhead, MN. So, help us make Fargo Moorhead West Fargo an actual destination for outdoor enthusiasts!