Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the last paycheck that didn’t come from my own business account, and of my first days as an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur, and I had dreamed of “having my own thing” since I was in high school. Economics seemed like a good degree for a young man with such aspirations, and banking seemed like a good career to learn about different kinds of businesses and gather ideas. Colorado had seemed like a nicer climate and more vibrant culture than my native North Dakota, and I was blessed to land in Fort Collins and embark on my banking career in 1999.
Fast forward to that summer and fall of 2013, I had been touring potential restaurant locations, building a plan and a list of menu ideas, and had opted to depart my Senior VP role at the bank for an entirely uncertain future. I had created Colorado Food & Beverage to become my restaurant entity - but had no location options secured - and had just created Bear Capital Advisors, LLC to share the skills I’d built with the marketplace (and stay alive financially) as a banking consultant until such time that I could get my food enterprise off the ground.
LoCo Think Tank somehow sprouted out of that chaos, and has become the business that I never could have imagined while working on my father’s farm or while planning my restaurant venture. The people and decisions and navigations of those early years are the general topic of this month’s blog, reflecting especially upon those whom I’m grateful for. Please join me if that seems interesting to you, or move on and enjoy the rest of the LoCo Perspective newsletter if not!
I was in over my head right from the beginning, with far too many ideas and far less capital than I’d require. I’d saved about $50K, and had a handshake agreement with my father to join in for another $250K based on a smart project and plan. His farm had been particularly profitable in the years leading up to that time, with strong yields at high prices - every farmer’s dream! - and he had long known of my yearning to create an enterprise. Restaurants cost a lot though!, and I’d have to find another $250K+ in capital to lease an appropriate space and build it out, or much more if I found a location I could consider buying.
One of the properties that I toured was the former Northern Colorado Feeders Supply store at the corner of Willow and Linden in Old Town - now the amazing Ginger & Baker coffee & gift shop / teaching kitchen / upscale cafe / fine dining / event space. I toured the property when it was still a recently vacated and dusty feed store, with the property owner and Doug Dohn, of Dohn Construction. We walked around and shared ideas, and Doug shared with me that a restaurant project would necessarily require a building addition due to requirements around a commercial kitchen - and the historic society would never allow the feed store to be torn down and getting heat and utilities to the right places would get complicated. I asked him for a range on what the project might require to get to a functional restaurant, and he answered something like “Well, hard to say without getting into it deeper, but I’d think the total cost would be somewhere between $750,000 and $7,500,000.”
This was basically Doug saying “Be smart kid, and walk away from this project. It’s very complicated, and you don’t have the balance sheet for it.” Thanks Doug, I’m grateful. I’ve heard Ginger share publicly that she and Jack planned to spend $7,000,000 on their renovation of the property, and ended up spending $15,000,000 instead. (admittedly, I had no intention of going that big!) But I’m glad that it’s her and not me that has to figure out how to make such a large property and mix of enterprises profitable! (she’s a lot smarter than I and with a bigger balance sheet!)
On top of restaurant space tours and negotiations and continued planning on that front, I had launched a consulting business, which required its own marketing and sales efforts. My offering was fairly simple - I had been a banker for 15 years, knew the banking system and the community banker landscape, and I could help you find the right bank, banker, and banking package for your business. Every bank will say they’re the best fit for just about every customer, but it’s just not true. Certain banks and bankers are better positioned to help you get your financing package, and you can make their jobs easier if you come in with a sound business plan and some well thought out cash flow projections. I could help with all those things.
Providentially, I was able to secure a pair of good clients for Bear Capital Advisors over the next few months (even though no one knew what a capital advisor was) - and I believe I invoiced a total of $6,000 over the first few months of that business. Now, this was much less than my monthly salary at the bank, and half my Rotary Club thought I’d lost my mind when they learned I’d left my secure banking job to pursue the great unknown.
The other half of the club believed in me though, and most of my closest friends, and especially my wife, and even my in-laws! This was a kindness I’d done nothing to earn, but when I was really down on myself it was the encouragement of those who most loved me that moved me forward. I’m grateful for that season in my life, and those encouragers. It was the first time I’d really eaten humble pie in my working career, and it was on the menu almost every day, but to know you’re loved and believed in even when you’re down on yourself is a blessing everyone should know at some point in their lives.
By January of 2014, the restaurant project had gone exactly nowhere, I was poking around at an Old Town redevelopment project at the corner of Maple and Meldrum (coincidentally, this property was redeveloped into a great residential over commercial project years later - by Dohn Construction) but I hadn’t secured any more clients at Bear Capital Advisors and was mildly fretting over my circumstances with my friend Mike Labate one evening on my patio. I’d been friends with Mike for years, and had finally gotten his loan package approved to move to my bank - right before I left!
Mike declared “You should start a think tank! You know all kinds of business owners from your years in banking, you’re great at getting people together for Old Town Tuesdays (my monthly networking group where the bank bought beer and pizza at Coopersmith’s (RIP Poolside 🙁) for my favorite pool and ping pong playing business leaders), AND you really need to make some money!” This was all true, and he was right. And I’m grateful.
Mike had been a member of Vistage and the experience had helped him improve his business to the point where I was able to offer the banking package mentioned above. I had also been a member of Vistage in a Trusted Advisors group, and I’d been well trained in group facilitation by Bible Study Fellowship. But remember, I was BUSY trying to figure out my restaurant and my consulting business too - and so Mike suggested we have lunch with his former Vistage Chair, Andrea Grant.
Andrea has a story all her own, along with her husband Scott. Together they built a company called BAC - Builders Appliance Center - and grew to multiple locations across the Front Range. She was an accountant and CPA/CFO by education and experience, and we’d known one another through the Small Business Development Center and she and Scott were both regular attendees of Old Town Tuesdays. Andrea had been consulting and volunteering for SBDC since they first moved to Northern Colorado from the Denver area after selling their company, and she served the community through Vistage and SBDC for the impact and not for the money.
The model for LoCo Think Tank was created during that lunch, and Andrea made it obvious that she was in it for the community when she agreed to lead the chapter for a flat fee of $500 per month. We decided to charge $150 per month for membership, and so I had only to find four paying members to cover her fee! A few weeks later, in February of 2014, the first LoCo Think Tank chapter meeting was held, with 6 paying members, plus me, and by the summer we were up to 10! 9 paying members at $150 was $1,350, less $500 for Andrea’s fee, $100 monthly for coffees and lunches for prospects, $100 more for breakfast burritos and expenses, and LoCo Think Tank became my first for real business, with positive cash flow of ~$650 per month.
Relevant Sidebar: I still hear the phrase NoCo Think Tank at least once a quarter, often from people who’ve known me for 10 or 20 years, but we’ve been LoCo since the start. LoCo Think Tank was a DBA of Bear Capital Advisors, LLC for the first few years before I officially changed the name, and the truth is I was only minutes away from registering NoCo Think Tank at the Secretary of State when I felt constrained by the name and called my friend Elizabeth from LOCO Food Distribution to see if I could borrow her name. LoCo Think Tank is short for Local Community Think Tank, and wherever you are, that’s the community I want you to be passionate about. If you’re in Fort Collins or Loveland, love your town, or in Windsor, or Ault, or Columbia, Missouri, or Grand Forks North Dakota! Shop local, support your local schools and businesses whenever you can, and create new small businesses to serve the needs that you see in the communities where you are! In my opinion, it is largely through supporting a vibrant local community business ecosystem that we can avoid sliding into the serfdoms and tyrannies that typified the world before the dawning of the American dream. But I digress, and will take off my tinfoil hat and get back to the story…
My chapter helped me decide to postpone the here-to-fore fruitless restaurant search and start a mobile food business in those early days, and by June of 2014 Bear’s Backyard Grill was operational. Backyard party in a box, delivering a catered experience from a food trailer for company picnics, backyard birthday parties and weddings in the park, plus occasional brewery stops and food truck rallies. By the summer of 2015, I was building a brand and working 70 hours a week in peak season - and making very little at the bottom line! I always had cash, but I never had any money! I needed to expand if that was going to change, and so I asked my chapter about it. “Park that trailer in the backyard, and go get a job!” was the first suggestion after processing the challenge a bit, followed quickly by “...and get a job that’s flexible enough to keep working on LoCo Think Tank!” And so I did. And I’m grateful.
I sold investments and insurance with Thrivent Financial, beginning my training in the late fall of 2015, and worked for that excellent company through all of 2016 and 2017. I kept growing LoCo Think Tank on the side, had some early success at Thrivent but had hit a rough patch - and in the fall of 2017 my friend John Shaw asked after a motorcycle ride - “Which one thing are you going to be the best in the world at? He saw that something had to change, and I needed to focus - probably on LoCo Think Tank. And I’m grateful. I took the question to my chapter, and they echoed the sentiment, and added “and you need to hire a detail oriented person to help you build a system from all of your connections and ideas!” Enter Ellie Naaze, my very first employee at LoCo HQ.
Very few employees have catalyzed more change in an organization in a shorter period of time than did Ellie with LoCo. She was a Masters in Applied Economics student at CSU, coasting toward graduation - and within two weeks of hiring her at 10 hours per week, I asked if she could do 20 hours instead - and gave her an hourly raise. Her thinking style was different than mine, but complimentary, and she was a do-er! We (she) built a new website, created some of our earliest marketing materials, created an online payment system to replace monthly invoice sending and check collection, created a newsletter and built out our social media accounts, launched a new chapter, prepared and executed multiple speaking engagements for me in the community, documented and shared our Mission, Vision, and Values, and put on the first ThinkerFest event - and more - in about 7 months.
And, when she left that fall for her first big-girl job - I was happy for her. She left behind a well-defined marketing role that I could hire capable interns to fill, and I’ve been blessed to attract awesome teammates ever since. But no one sparked as much change at LoCo HQ than Ellie did in those first full-time LoCo months for me, and I’m grateful to and for her. Ellie later moved back to her native South Dakota and is now the Director of Community Impact for Dakota Resources - working to uplift the small business ecosystems of rural communities across the state. I’m sure she’s great at her job and has made a lot of impactful change in the organization, that’s what she does.
I could go on and on in the years to follow and people I’m grateful to for being a part of it or helping me see something more clearly. As I reflect on those decision points, especially at the chapter engagements, one thing that’s obvious is that these people helped me see - and be - me. They helped me understand myself and my talents, and encouraged working within those talents and hiring in my gaps. I’m grateful for that, and thankful to have created an enterprise that many dozens of business owners and leaders find value and community in today.
You didn’t know it - and I didn’t even know it when I started, but this month’s blog led you through a refresh of our Values at LoCo Think Tank. We revamped our Values at LoCo HQ early last year, and had a list of eight - with long trendy words like collaboration and diversity and authentic sharing among them, along with extended descriptions of each. This fall when I was looking at our poster on the wall I thought back to a line shared by Todd Gilson during the first year of our shared membership in the Original Thinkers chapter. “Complex is interesting, simple gets done!” I’ve thought about this line at least a hundred times since that day, and I’m grateful. And so, with a little help from my chapter, and incorporating some great feedback from Alma, we refreshed them again last month. Now they’re simple, and will soon be listed on our chapter agenda templates, select marketing materials, and displayed on our website and on a poster on our wall:
Be the Change
Be your best you today, and then do 1% better tomorrow. Be grateful, and grace-full, and tell someone who’s impacted your journey how much they mean to you today. They’ll appreciate it.