REGIONAL—A trio of N’West Iowa businesses are dreaming BIG with a regional entrepreneur contest choosing a winner Thursday, Nov. 17.
The Build, Innovate, Grow Challenge has its list of five finalists. The emerging companies are competing for a grand prize of $5,000.
A pitch-off event in front of a panel of judges is the culmination of the BIG Challenge. It will be held at 1014 Design Place in Sioux City. A social hour begins at 5 pm, pitches will start at 6, the winner will be announced at 7:30.
Finalists include S2B Fishing Supplies of Rock Rapids, WalkMemoryLane of Sheldon, and Carroll Street Treats of Rock Rapids. There are two other entries from Sioux City.
S2B Fishing Supplies
The Stubbes’ entry is based on a good, old-fashioned invention: the Shack Anchor.
“It’s such a simple idea — ‘Why didn’t I think of it?’ — but nobody did. We did,” Greg Stubbe said.
The Shack Anchor battens down ice fishing setups even in the high winds that howl through N’West Iowa. Insecure shacks are a common hazard for wintertime fishermen such as the Stubbes.
The usual tool for the job is essentially just a screw, but shacks are still prone to taking off. Greg, along with his sons, Lucas and Wyatt, developed, designed and manufactured a new idea: Bolt directly into the ice and hook onto the fishing gear. Shack Anchor parts have a rubber coating to curtail wear and tear.
“I was ice fishing one day. I got home a little discouraged because it was a windy day,” Greg said of a poor outing years ago. “I went to bed that night, got up in the morning about 6, and this popped into my head for this design. I put it on a piece of paper, took a picture and sent it to my sons.”
The Shack Anchor has spread far from its home in Rock Rapids, shipping to 31 states in its two years on the market. Greg said the company, punnily named S2B Fishing Supplies, is in talks with multiple sporting store chains to establish their product’s retail presence.
With the prize money, the Stubbes can invest more into their equipment. They get some of their manufacturing done in a shop half an hour out of town. This would save money as well as time since most of their work is done in the evenings.
Working in-house would also aid the creation of new products from S2B Fishing Supplies already in the works. The BIG Challenge could make that happen faster.
“We’re moving in baby steps. We’re not going out and borrowing money if we don’t get any money out of this,” Greg said. “It might be two years down the road, but we keep investing what we make into our business. It would be a big boost to us.”
The farthest-reaching business of the finalists, the origin story of WalkMemoryLane starts in Nigeria, where co-owner Shalom Nwaokolo grew up.
“He kept talking about his high school that he went to,” co-owner Ashley Nwaokolo said. “You have a really good high school experience, and you really love to show that off to your family or friends. He wanted to show me his high school and there’s not a good online presence for his school so it’s not like he could show me without physically going there.”
The couple’s idea is to create a nostalgic virtual reality experience. WalkMemoryLane can provide the user a tour of a high school, an old downtown or anywhere else of a bygone era.
The Nwaokolos have been working on a similar service since summer 2020 with their Sheldon-based business, Egents Photography.
Both experiences result with interactive, digital tours where users can look in any direction thanks to cameras that capture entire panoramic images.
“The pandemic definitely pushed us into this business. Not being able to go to places created this demand to be able to do things virtually,” Ashley said.
Egents has in-town clients such as Sheldon Christian School and the Northwest Iowa Lifelong Learning and Recreation Center as well as those as far away as North Dakota and Ohio. The plan is to eventually take the company overseas to Nigeria and elsewhere.
For Egents’ spinoff and its BIG Challenge entry, WalkMemoryLane, the main hurdle is bankrolling expensive tech. The couple needs more virtual reality headsets and marketing capacity to get that side of the business off the ground.
The Nwaokolos are optimistic about the applications of the emerging VR market.
“This is where WalkMemoryLane comes in. We’re hoping to go to nursing homes and assisted living to put on programs with them. They can use the VR headsets, and they can walk areas they may have walked at one time,” Ashley said. “That can help with the nostalgia factor as well as memory, that kind of stuff. It also helps with social isolation and anxiety issues.”
Carroll Street Treats
It takes a whole family of sweet tooths to run Carroll Street Treats and the thousands of ice cream sandwiches it sells.
Reece Vander Zee, a junior at Central Lyon High School in Rock Rapids, started the business on the sidewalk when he was just 8 years old. Since then, he has built a reputation in town for his dairy desserts.
“I’m used to it by now. Most people in the community know about the business and have been really supportive,” he said.
Parents Meredith and Joe help organize production, but the company is entirely kid-owned. Reece and his five younger siblings have full reign over expenses and profit, 14 percent of which is donated.
“Carroll Street Treats really is a for-purpose ministry. That is our first vision with it. Then, to serve people with the best ice cream sandwiches in northwest Iowa is the second vision. It’s just fun to combine ministry and service and see how God has been ahead of it all,” Meredith said.
Reece, 17, is the chief executive officer. Liam, 15, is the chief financial officer. Ayda, 13, manages inventory. Blake, 11, organizes the freezer. Nora, 8, is the main labeler. The youngest, 4-year-old Evan, is generous enough to be a taste tester.
The ice cream filling is the dense richness of Blue Bunny, but the signature cookies are from scratch.
“They have the perfect amount of soft even after they’re frozen. It’s great. We’ve really worked with the recipe so that the cookie is a good eating texture,” Meredith said. “It’s a different kind of an ice cream sandwich because we don’t mass produce. We wrap with love.”
The BIG Challenge could find a mobile freezer for the Vander Zees so they could work events even in the sweltering summers. A long-term future is indeed in the cards even after the firstborn heads to college in 2024.
“The plan is definitely to continue,” Reece said. “We really enjoy doing it and love the perks of having our own business. All of my siblings will step into different roles and keep things growing as God intends.”