There are numerous things that contribute to an entrepreneur’s success, and at Startup Sioux Falls, we believe a strong support system is one of the most critical.
Support needs are different for everyone, but we have found that many founders deeply appreciate being paired with a business mentor. That’s why we take the time to connect every one of our CO.STARTERS graduates with a mentor in a relevant industry.
It’s a powerful way to get one-on-one support from people who have been through it all before. If you’ve been seeking advice or accountability from someone who truly understands the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, consider reaching out to be matched with a mentor.
We connected with several of our recent mentor/mentee pairs to hear about their experiences together. Keep reading to hear what they had to say!
Ngoc Thach and Jason Schlechter
Ngoc Thach is the founder of MixMaker, a collective of independent creatives that serves a variety of marketing needs for businesses. She was matched as a mentor to Jason Schlechter, the founder of Ale Hop Brewery Tours.
What’s been the most rewarding part of the mentorship experience for you?
There isn’t much of a difference between my approach as a mentor and my work as a contractor or consultant. Each business or project I interact with comes with its own set of puzzle pieces, and I love to account for those pieces, create new ones, and assemble the larger picture.
Additionally, I believe that when one mentors, two people learn. Through mentorship, I get to meet people at a variety of stages in their life and business which simply helps me be a better human and community member. And the challenges, benchmarks, and wins they share not only motivate me but offer me real insights into the market’s needs and how a business (like mine) can help meet them.
How have you been able to offer your expertise and experience to Jason?
At the time, Jason had already received notable mentions from the local press and was even featured on a morning show on Dakota News Now earlier that summer.
The problem was that Jason had only given a few paid tours, so the challenge of growing his business at this stage was three-pronged.
- Customer Experience: How do we understand the offering through the customer’s eyes?
- Market Research: How do we know Sioux Falls can support this business?
- Messaging: How do we redefine the messaging and implement new marketing tactics to grow this business?
With such a small sample size to survey and harvest testimonials from, we started with low-bearing fruit. Jason conducted outreach to his personal networks and tapped into the local brewery scene to round up more tours and explore ways to better differentiate the Ale Hop Brewery Tour experience from that of ride-sharing apps.
After he earned more bookings, we crafted a survey to better understand the customer experience, gather testimonials and generate repeat business. When his marketing contractor transitioned elsewhere, we worked to create a new content calendar and dove into Calendly and other social marketing functions.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your mentoring experience?
While Jason has a background in banking and reiki (ok, wow), his dedication to his wife, Terry, and their shared passion for travel has always been clear to me. When I’m working with him, the stakes aren’t just about generating more profit, they’re about bringing his passion and talents out from behind a cubicle and building a sustainable path toward his vision of entrepreneurship.
Business ownership is a possibility for anyone with a solution to a problem, a mechanism to resolve underserved needs, and most importantly, a clear vision of what the destination holds for them and their customers.
Tell us about your business, Ale Hop Brewery Tours.
I have a six passenger Volkswagen van that I use to take people on brewery tours. You can book on my website, and I offer tours Tuesday through Sunday. I do pick-up at whatever location works for the customer, and then we discuss where we're going to make stops. Customers can choose either a four, five or six hour tour, and at the end of it, I'll drop them off at their desired location. I officially started about two years ago, but it was around last May that I really got going, because COVID hit right about the time I originally started.
Where did the idea for the business come from?
Several years ago, my wife and I were in the Finger Lakes of New York, and wine tours are really popular out there. There are all these bus tours that you can take, and a lot of them are your typical party buses you might see around here, where it's a 15- or 30-passenger bus. But my wife found one where a guy had this 1976 Volkswagen van that he used, and so she booked our tour with him. He picked us up at our Airbnb, we rode around with him all day and then he dropped us back off in town at a restaurant.
I told my wife that I thought I could do that here but change the model to breweries, and that's where it started. At the time, I had been working for Premier Bankcard for about 24 years, and in spring of 2020, I retired from there and started this whole thing. I purchased the van, made some updates to it, got the business going and took care of all the legal stuff I had to get with the city.
How did your mentorship opportunity come about?
My wife actually met with some people at Startup Sioux Falls about a business she was thinking about several years ago, so it was always in the back of my mind. When I first got started, I reached out, and they put me in touch with a couple different mentors. At the time, the mentorship model was a little different than it is now, in that the people I met with were actually retired, and a lot of the input they had just didn't translate really well to what I was doing.
However, once I got going again last spring, I talked to Sadie Swier with Downtown Sioux Falls and she encouraged me to reach back out to Peter Hauck. They had changed their model up, and she thought it would be a better fit for me now. I reached out to Peter, got started with it again and I’ve been in the program ever since.
How has Ngoc been helpful as a mentor?
One of the things that’s been important for me is to be able to bounce ideas off of somebody who isn’t a friend or a spouse and who isn’t engaged in it in the way that I am, with all the stresses and the backstory.
What would you say to another business owner who might be considering finding a mentor or wondering if they should take that step?
When you're starting a business like mine, where there wasn't anybody else in town doing this and there's no model for it, it’s so helpful to be able to talk with somebody about the fears that you have or just general questions.
One of the things I found was that I don't know what I don't know. To meet with somebody who can help answer some of those questions that you might not have even thought about—that's really helpful. I know I can reach out to her and ask the question, even if we're not going to meet for another two or three weeks.
Mary Campbell, Corey Gerlach and Nate Boscaljon
Mary Campbell and Corey Gerlach are the founders of local coffee roasterie, The Breaks. They were matched as mentors to Nate Boscaljon, the founder of Boscaljon Design Co., a custom woodworking shop. Boscaljon is also a graduate of Startup Sioux Falls’ CO.STARTERS program.
When you were paired with your mentors after CO.STARTERS, what was the biggest issue you needed help with in your business?
The biggest issue in my business was deciding how, when and if I’d be taking my business full-time. I was thinking about how I would scale it and how it would provide for my family as our sole source of income.
I was looking for some relatable, local business owners that had made a similar decision to go all into their business within the last few years. I wanted an example of someone that I could see myself in.
How did your mentors encourage you?
They helped me by sharing stories about their journey when they were just starting out. They also offered some perspective on a lot of the questions and concerns I had, they still had or were figuring out, too. They helped me realize that business success wasn’t going to be on the other side of my questions being answered. It ended up being on the other side of taking a strategic leap of faith.
What would you say to another business owner who is considering finding a mentor? What is the value of the experience?
Finding a mentor is something I think should be high on the to-do list of any business owner. The value of a mentor is much more than just advice and check-ins. My mentorship has blossomed into friendship, a community, a local business to support and an example to follow.
We’re lucky that we get to see our mentors as much as once a week. We support their coffee shop every Saturday morning and have the pleasure of giving both small and big updates about our business. We have had two scheduled meetings together to just talk about business, ask questions of each other and talk in-depth about how everything is going.
What drove you to volunteer as a mentor?
I think it was probably Sara Lum who reached out, but to be totally honest with you, I just skimmed the email at first, and thought, “Oh, someone wants to mentor me, great! Oh, wait? We’re supposed to be the mentors?” It really could have gone either way. You know how it is, you didn't see yourself that way, but when I look back, I suppose we’ve had this spot for six or seven years now.
We didn't actively sign up to be mentors though. Cory and I kind of keep to ourselves. We can be extroverted when we have to be, but we aren’t out there pursuing opportunities. Having a coffee spot is a great way to meet people though, and I think we’ve also made connections through some of the folks from Startup Sioux Falls.
Tell us a little about your experience with Nate. What expertise and perspective were you able to offer him?
He had been through the CO.STARTERS program, and in some ways, he perhaps knew more than we did. But I think what we had to offer was that we were living, breathing people who had taken the leap and done it, and I think that may be a really important part of the puzzle that is missing from any course or formal education. I think he had all the tools he needed, he was just getting ready to take that leap, and we were a couple people who had done it and lived to tell about it.
Is there any specific business challenge you were able to tackle with him?
He was just at the point where he had everything he needed, but you know, you're just never sure you can make it work. It's such a double-edged sword though because if you quit your job, it really forces you to pull it together and make it work. So, sometimes you can't do that until you quit that other job, that safety net. He was right there, and we were just able to say, “Nah man, do it. It'll be great. You have everything you need.”
Kurt Loudenback, Matthew Cole and Logan Wolf
Kurt Loudenback is the founder and CEO of Grand Prairie Foods, and he was matched as a mentor to Matthew Cole and Logan Wolf, the founders of Prairie Biotechnology LLC. Cole and Wolf are also CO.STARTERS graduates and the second-place winners of the 2022 Governor’s Giant Vision competition.
What drove you to volunteer as a mentor?
I have spent over 20 years attending the school of hard knocks, and I understand the trials and tribulations of starting and scaling a business. Understanding that small business startups are the backbone of our economy, I feel a sense of duty to help others succeed. Maybe they can learn a thing or two from my experience that helps them avoid some of the pitfalls of building a new business.
What specific expertise and perspective do you offer your mentees?
I try to challenge them to spend time working “on” the business as opposed to working “in” the business. Strategic planning, considering growth options, target customers and marketing plans are areas that I feel I can offer some input. It’s about removing some of the focus on the “product” and spending more time articulating why the world needs it.
What can you share about your mentorship relationship with Matthew and Logan of Prairie Biotech? What specific challenges have you worked on together?
One area that I worked with Matthew and Logan on is to think outside the box regarding their target market. They had a fairly narrow vision of where they thought their product might fit, and I tried to challenge them and offer suggestions on potential markets they had not considered. I helped them secure a prospect list that they developed a survey for so they can gather more market intelligence to better understand the opportunities for their technology.
Why do you think it's valuable for entrepreneurs to find a mentor?
It’s a tough world out there. The deck is stacked against new businesses, and our fast-moving business environment is not kind to those who slip up. I don’t profess to have the answers to all challenges, as we still face them every day, but if a mentor like me can provide input that increases their chance of success, then we have benefited society as a whole and helped to maintain America’s economic dominance.
Entrepreneurs need a champion who can help them navigate difficult circumstances and there is no substitute for experience. That’s why the Sioux Empire economic engine is so vibrant – we want everyone to succeed and build successful enterprises. If we do that well, people like Matthew and Logan will be the mentors of tomorrow, and this great thing we have here continues to chug along.
Matthew Cole and Logan Wolf:
What pushed you to join the CO.STARTERS program?
Logan: I got an email from my mom about a business training that popped up in her email, and she sent it to us, saying, “Here's this cool opportunity. I think you guys should check it out.” We ended up applying because we hadn't had any formal business training. We got selected, and it was a great opportunity. Our business was in the concept phase, about to transition into the prototype phase. We kind of had the ideal market and structure, but it was still too formless. So, it came at a really good time.
What were some of the particularly helpful takeaways from CO.STARTERS?
Matthew: To be honest, our mentor, Kurt. He’s been a real rock star in all of this. He deals with food distribution, so he's been able to give us the ins and outs on how to enter the marketplace with our idea.
What was the biggest issue that you were looking for help with from your mentor?
Logan: I think our biggest issue was trying to relay how our products can actually help people. Kurt was a great example of someone who was a potential buyer for our product, so we got to know what his needs were, and he gave us some insight on how to introduce or sell our product.
What would you say to another business owner who is considering finding a mentor?
Matthew: Know how to really use your mentor because they're very resourceful and knowledgeable in their area. Kurt doesn't do a lot with food preservatives, but he's an expert at food distribution, which is the first marketplace we’ll enter. He's been great with helping us formulate our questions and figure out how to talk to people so that we pique their interest and get them on the hook.
Logan: Find a mentor who cares. One thing I’m so grateful for with Kurt is that, while we are in a bit of a mutually beneficial relationship, you can tell he's the type of mentor who actually cares. Obviously, if it works out, we both benefit, but he actually cares overall, which is fantastic.
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