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Treasuring the Entrepreneurial Spirit: from Big Box to Main Street

Sometimes the entrepreneur’s path is obvious. But rarely does it follow a straight line.

Don Nelson’s journey took a curvy road that led him several times to entrepreneurship, then away, and now back again. His career has traveled from Big Box retail to Main Street.

“As both an intrapreneur and entrepreneur, I truly enjoy the energy, the excitement and solving problems quickly without a lot of resources, figuring out what’s working and then devoting resources,” said Don. “Now as an ‘older’ entrepreneur, I want to give back. I want my team to experience new challenges and opportunities and share my experiences.”

Don started his career at Home Depot and then launched his first startup eight years later, selling toys and educational products online and via direct mail. That experience led to a career-long focus on digital commerce, marketing and sales. The toy gig turned into overseeing business-to-business ecommerce for a large industrial supply distribution company. He parlayed that into a sweet role producing live online broadcasting shows for a children’s education company.

Don got his first taste of Main Street success after helping a family friend turn around their brick and mortar operation, and by helping other companies develop simple and executable digital plans.

But corporate life came calling again. Only this time, Don had to decide between Walmart and the Small Business Administration in Washington, DC.

Ultimately, he was enticed by the data value behind Sam’s Club (a Walmart, Inc. entity) and its small business clientele. Later, he was recruited by ToysRUs to lead digital marketing across its enterprise. He followed that with another startup vision, founding a company which incentivized consumers to take control of their advertising.

“It was a great idea with a great team, but it was too big of a challenge for the capital we had,” said Don. “In the summer of 2014, I helped everybody on the team get new jobs. I got a great job, too, leading the global practice of a business consulting and outsourcing firm with offices in London, New York and India. I was based in New York and spent a lot of time in great towns and cities across the US, in Europe and Asia.”

Traveling 90 percent of the time had its disadvantages. His wife (a Walmart exec) and young family had relocated back to Arkansas. But his extensive travel had an unforeseen advantage that only came to light as Don recognized that he needed to make a change.

Said Don, “I needed to start something where we wanted to be verses where recruiters were sending us. Charlotte began to make sense.”

Don’s new venture grew out of a problem he experienced and witnessed during all those years of travel. Trying to find gifts that could fit in his suitcase, he started noticing and frequently talking to other travelers about leaving behind the treasures they can’t get home.

That’s when his Main Street retail expertise and desire to share his learnings really kicked in. Seeking to support small businesses and artisans, Don founded SeeSnapGet, which he describes as being in the treasure fulfillment business. The company serves as a virtual concierge service for traveling shoppers and shopping travelers.

“Unique treasures are attached to an experience,” he says. “It’s all about the one-of-a-kind story behind the artisan or the community you visited. Say you see an awesome treasure but it won’t fit in the suitcase or you don’t have time to talk to the merchant about shipping. So you skip the purchase – and often regret it later.

SeeSnapGet steps in to take away all the friction that keeps you from making the purchase,” he noted. “You just snap a picture and we do the rest. You approve the quote, pay and it’s on its way.”

For Don, building the application and solutions hones his extensive retail and digital background. More importantly, he is inspired by the huge opportunity to help small businesses recover lost sales and customers. And he sees plenty of opportunity to partner with others who serve Main Street merchants, the traveler and the shopper, ultimately supporting the local community and culture in this digital mobile age.

“There is nothing better than having conversations with merchants,” said Don. “We’re definitely helping merchants and artists recover sales and gain more customers. And yet, we’ve just scratched the surface. There is a bigger vision coming.”

Don recently shared that vision at 1 Million Cups Charlotte, an organization he believes in for its dedication to small business.

Just like him.

 

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Where does the entrepreneur’s mind wander?

“It was totally unexpected, but after graduating in 2016, I managed to seriously injure my knee and found myself basically bed-ridden for eight months. All of a sudden, the job I just moved for fell through and I had no idea what to do. Laying there, I decided to just start something. Within a month, I came up with 42 ideas – and all of them were really bad. 

But during that time, literally 40 friends texted me asking for travel advice. And it hit me. I wondered why there wasn’t any where to share that kind of experience-based expertise. That’s when I decided to develop Rayka.”

Landon Sanford has traveled to 38 countries and 42 states, thanks in part to his Dad’s job. But a semester abroad in Spain really solidified his wanderlust.

“During that one semester, I traveled to 17 countries. It is so easy to get cheap flights in Europe so I would sleep in airports or hostels – anything to be able to afford to keep the adventures going.”

So, it might not seem unusual that this globe-trotting entrepreneur turned that passion into a business named after the Icelandic word for “wander.” After all, Rayka  taps into Landon’s wealth of first-hand expertise – and that of more than 50 participating world wanderers (so far).

As of August 1, 2017 Rayka is live in the APP store! Initially focused as a resource for foreign exchange students living in Europe, Landon points out that Rayka taps experienced travelers who have ‘been there/done that,’ not a star rating system that often becomes bogus.

What’s unusual about this entrepreneur’s story is what Landon says his college friends find most surprising about his latest start-up.

“My friends would never guess that I would start a business that involves social media. I actually quit social media altogether in college. I wanted to experience life, not live it online. Rayka is different. It doesn’t draw you into your phone, it pushes you out into the world.”

Landon had no experience in app development, but he started his first business at 15 and put his past negotiation skills to work to hire an app developer. Still, he quickly discovered that his preconceived notion of keeping everything as secret as possible until launch was all wrong.

“You have to talk about the idea and talk to as many people as possible to get feedback. I talked to everyone I knew who traveled and I surveyed 5,000 foreign exchange students. My sales background also helped a lot in dealing with rejection and push back. I know not to take it personal.

Every comment helps you understand where you can be different. Everyone kept asking if I’ve heard of the Untappd app for beer because it sounded similar to them. Now I use that to tell our story. We want Rayka to be the Untappd of travel.”

So when a traveler wants to know the best places for fun, or food or entertainment, someone like Landon will be there (via a smart, social app) to welcome fellow wanderers.

All because during Landon’s unfortunately-timed medical emergency, his mind wandered. And just look where it took him!

 

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