When Hugh Weber invited me to speak at OTA: Bismarck, I told him I’d “think about it.” Which really meant “No,” but I didn’t want to tell him that just yet. It was an honor to be asked, but I knew what I was-- just a hopeful dreamer trying to make a coffee dream work. After some encouragement, I decided to write something anyway and if I came up with something to say, I would (albeit reluctantly) agree. Otherwise, my fears were warranted and I could say no.
I went to Boneshaker Coffee with a laptop and I prayed. I typed out the prayer (I’m leaving that part out). I said that I like my new friend Hugh Weber, I was thankful for the opportunity, and if God wanted to go ahead and give me something to say, well, that would be alright with me.
I found myself with a half hour’s talk-worth about adventure, stepping into the unknown and saying yes, even in the midst of our fears. Timely.
I told Hugh “yes,” and had the most stage fright I ever had. Also, I decided to tuck in my shirt just before I went on stage. Haven’t gone with the tuck before and haven’t gone with it since.
This moment was notable because: A) I stepped into that fear and B) I reconnected with friends like Amos Kolbo, who champions Every. Single. Person. And through that, met some people who knew some people and we opened a coffee shop (DJ and Jamielee, here’s to you). You know how it goes. The ripples of consequence are weird.
Lesson? Sometimes you say “no” at the risk of not saying “yes.”
My good friend Hugh, who I’ve stayed in touch with, unexpectedly passed away recently. My prayers are for his family.
There is a whole community of creatives, in the OTA region and beyond, grieving alongside their family. And they are a community now because of the work Hugh did.
He believed in the power of connection, and I am extremely grateful to have gotten to experience Hugh’s friendship.
A GOFUNDME has been created to help his family with expenses during this difficult time.
I’m going to honor Hugh by hosting a potluck. Won’t you join me?
If you’re interested, here is what I came up with that one time at Boneshaker Coffee. It’s a little rough, but eventually I cleaned up and said on stage, thanks to Hugh’s prompting:
My dad and I have a new tradition. Every year, toward the end of summer, we swim across Lake Sakakawea. It’s the 2.4 mile width, bay to bay, of this immense lake in our hometown backyard. A lot of things need to come into play for us to be able to do this: the wind needs to be zero. Any breeze over 5 mph creates a chop in the center of the lake that causes you to miss your breaths; causes you to get battered around by the waves. The water temperature has to be perfect, and there is a two month window when we can make the attempt. Finally, we need to be in something of a relative swimming shape, which is never an issue for him but I like to come with a little bit of confidence.
The first attempt a handful of years ago, we went to the lake after supper, drove across the lake in the boat, jumped out, and began our long distance swim home, my mom kind enough to troll the boat alongside us.
It was cold, wavy, and I was a slow swimmer. Halfway across the lake, it got dark. (I don’t know if this was safe!) The waves calmed, every stroke crisply entering the glass-like water. I began breathing to my left to see a full moon, the only difference between the inky black below and my 2-pattern breath to the night sky.
When you swim, every stroke and kick creates bubbles and miniature cyclones, it’s your traction in the water. These bubbles caught the reflection of the moon underwater, and I’d witness a white mass rise toward my face from the depths below, followed by a full moon to my left.
It was an other-worldly experience.
I found my stride, the cadence of my stroke matching the tempo of a song in my head. It’s one I’d been listening to the prior few days, “Season of Rain” by Josh Garrels. The lyrics seemed to fit the scene, our big feat now within reach.
Eventually, we made it to the other side. It was an accomplishment, it was a unique, oddly spiritual experience. On the drive home from the lake, I put on the same song that had accompanied me across the lake.
I bought more copies of that record and gave them to friends, in hopes, really, to distribute the experience I’d had to everyone around me. Because I was now emotionally and spiritually attached to that album, and to that landscape. To this day, to hear the opening lines to that song, I am taken back to a place of perfect peace, a place of accomplishment. A place with family.
A couple of years ago, I began to pursue a big idea that scared me.
In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Odysseus, a man who has spent the past twenty years by sea, was charged to take an oar and walk inland until he met people who didn’t know what it was that he carried. I like the visual – imagine, walking so far from familiarity and so deep into the unknown, away from comfort.
My idea was about coffee.
Problematically, I didn’t know a thing about coffee.
But I did know that during these lake weekends, which are my favorite things in the whole world (seriously, go to Hazen, the “heart of Sakakawea South Shore” and see what I mean), I did know that during these lake weekends, coffee was present. Scratch that - - coffee was necessary. You go to sleep late watching the stars and get up early to find the walleyes. So we’d head to the lake and drop by the Cenex on the way to fill gas and fill up on everything we could possibly need for the day.
We’d also fill up on coffee.
I didn’t know anything about coffee but I knew something about bad coffee. And this coffee was historic.
It was interesting, though. Friends started missing the coffee if we didn’t have it. On a winter day, some folks would drop by Cenex to get coffee. Really?! “It reminded them of summer,” they said.
So what if, I thought, we had made a connection to a coffee that was good? Further, what if there was a coffee specifically built around these adventures?
I began Mighty Missouri Coffee Co., after learning everything I could about coffee. Some really great people took me under their wing, people who were passionate about coffee, and we began to craft the company, to work out the details.
I knew I was, like Odysseus, heading inland, but I didn’t know how far. I quickly learned just how unfamiliar everything would be.
I still consider Mighty Mo as “startup mode,” but I came to the table with experience in marketing and design, and I figured that would be 80 or 90 percent of it, and I could figure everything else out. Truly, that wound up being closer to zero percent. I learned a lot about business very quickly, mostly through atrocious mistakes. Nothing was simple, everything was scary. At some point, I was in crisis control mode, just trying to make sure this thing didn’t embarrass me too badly.
(I have a long history of embarrassing myself, and that is one of the few things that does not get easier over time:
Not long ago, I was standing in line at a department store, and I recognized the two people in front of me. It was a former boss and her daughter. I recognized them because they were both sort of “rotund.” I knew I had to greet them, but I didn’t want to be awkward and just say hello. What if they didn’t turn around? That would be embarrassing. So, I tapped the gal on her shoulder, making sure I would not make this awkward. And I don’t know why I said what I did next, I suppose I was just trying to be conversational. But I tapped her on the shoulder, and said, “Hey there, those are cute!” She turned around, and in her arms she carried a big pile of underwear. I saw this in horror, cursing myself internally for saying possibly the most awkward thing anyone on earth could think of, but I did my best to cover. I went on as though it didn’t happen. Or as though that’s just sort of normal for me. I finished our conversation saying we should all do dinner sometime. I never really got that invitation though.
Or the time in High School. High School was a time of my life too full of embarrassing moments to pick just one, but there are a few standouts. I was a drummer in the jazz band and on our biggest concert of the year (300 people came! This was “small town” BIG!) the throne, the seat that I was in while drumming, malfunctioned. The base of the seat was a tripod, and it collapsed, leaving me balancing on one center pole for the rest of the song. I remember the director glaring at me because the tempo got a little sketchy but can you blame me? I was doing a miraculous balancing act over here. I balanced through the whole song, finished the concert, my legs burning from balancing. I stood up, tripped on an extension cord from the bass amp and fell head first into the drum set. Cymbals crashed to the floor. I was laying face down on the drums.
This coffee thing, though, was all of my efforts on a big stage. The risk of embarrassment was high. I did not want to be the guy in his sixties still giving away free coffee from that one thing I tried back then.
I knew, though, that if the product was good, and if I worked hard, even failure would not equal humiliation. And this was a big vision I had, one I believe God put there, and I was to start heading Inland. Even failure would be forward momentum.
Of course, there was the second element to all this. My plan wasn’t to stop at a good product. I wanted people to have a connection, the same way I had a connection to that song while crossing the lake.
The same reason I immediately go back to that one summer with that one person when I hear my favorite record.
Coffee is a deeply sensory experience. There is a process called “cupping,” which is basically an elaborate taste test. It’s a standardized brew method so the coffee I’m talking about over the phone with a friend in Boston is the same coffee with the same flavors, because brewing variations affect the taste so much. The first part of a cupping is the dry aroma notes - - you cup your hand over the grounds and find the aromatic quality of the beans as they are ground. Then you capture the wet aroma, how the coffee presents itself when brewing. Finally, you get around to actually tasting the coffee. The idea is to wet your entire palette. I was taught that if you’re not choking on the coffee, you’re not doing it quite right.
I am convinced, though, that if someone came in for a cupping, but as they walked in the door received terrible news on a phone call, it wouldn’t matter if we were tasting the best coffee in the world, this will never be their favorite coffee.
Because if a positive experience can affirm one’s devotion to a product, the reverse is also true.
Why is it that the scent of a lavender candle, so many years later, takes us immediately back to our childhood, at grandma’s, who always had a lavender candle?
I was in an anatomy course in college and for someone’s thesis project, they had volunteers study for their final test with a specific scent. I thought “what they hey, something’s got to work,” and studied hours upon hours with something that smelled like Vick’s Vapo-rub. The more I smelled it, the more I felt like I was getting the flu, but it was worth a shot. When we took the test, we could smell our scent-packet, and they hoped it would help me recall information. That was certainly my hope, anyway. I got a D… It worked.
I wasn’t cut out for science. I think I actually did better than that grade, but the point is, the connection with aroma and memory is well-documented. There is a close connection between the emotional part of your brain and the olfactory bulb, where scent is processed.
I believe the connection goes further than emotion, though. I like what author Mark Batterson wrote about the Celtic idea of “thin spots.” People used to hike to the top of a mountain because they believed it was closer to heaven, that the veil between heaven and earth was thin. I can see why they felt this way.
I don’t think, in the OTA region, we need to climb a mountain to find a “thin spot.” Indeed, our mountaintop experiences vary from person to person. But we all have those places we’d rather be, born out of a desire to get away from it all.
Batterson went on to describe an idyllic time of traveling with his son, when every day a new adventure met them. The idea of “another day, another adventure” became a rallying cry to go places they had not been, and do things they had not done, finding mountaintop experiences at every step in their journey.
I found a mountaintop experience in those weekends on the lake. I have a friend who races mountain bikes professionally all over the world but finds a mountaintop experience in coming back home to Dickinson, North Dakota to ride where he grew up.
I have another friend who does marvelous paintings, and her mountaintop experience, her adventure, is being alone and finishing another masterpiece.
Still another has found adventure in personal history - - after creating his own Emmy-nominated documentary on his own family, he created a business in recording the personal histories of other people.
From wilderness and survival to paddling day trips; from photography to fishing; from water sports to the next big tech start-up, the space given to us to create in the OTA region is as expansive as it is varied. There are mountaintops in the prairie.
Another Day… Another Adventure.
It was my goal to build a brand that might reach that space, if people would be so kind as to let me in and were open to that message. It’s been my experience that coffee does a good job of bringing people together, as far as products go. You’ll find that my experience is not an example of success, but rather one of stepping out.
The unknown, while terrifying, is the greatest ingredient of success.
It is also necessary for a good adventure. Without stepping out, the boy never would have gotten the girl, and the hobbit never would have got the ring to Mordor, and your greatest achievements would only be a dream.
There is a great scene in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” when Walter finally “steps out,” the critical moment when he decides to put his dreams to rest and live the life he really could. Walter finds himself in Greenland, on the precipice of the greatest adventure his life has ever known. There is a very drunk helicopter pilot who offers him a ride to the ship he needs to get to, and at the last minute, under the inspiration of David Bowie music, he steps onto the helicopter, leading him through the Icelandic outback on bicycle and longboard, and by the end of the film he has scaled mountains.
Now, never, ever get behind heavy machinery manned by someone under the influence. But metaphorically…
One of the great brand successes I look up to is TOMS shoes. Blake Mycoskie brilliantly associated his product with an experience… in my opinion, one of the greatest experiences. TOMS has popularized social entrepreneurism. The shoe brand is famous for its “one for one” tagline: for every pair of shoes purchased, one person in need will receive a pair of shoes, as well. Mycoskie’s company has empowered its customers to do good in simply purchasing its product. Every day when you slip on your shoes you are reminded of the positive experience of giving something to someone in need, perhaps a more potent association than feeling like an all-star Michael Jordan. A basic, fabric shoe began to change the entire shoe industry, by emotional association with their product. And customers vehemently defended the brand, too. When a much larger, more powerful shoe company tried something similar, the customer base of TOMS cried “Copy!” and the larger shoe company was in PR crisis management mode, trying to repair the damage done by introducing this product. It was quickly off the shelves. Through this emotional experience with a product, customers became defenders and evangelizers of the brand, because an attack on the company was an attack on a positive experience that person has had.
When Odysseus takes his oar and goes inland, it is not comfortable. It is anything but. He spent the past twenty years trying to go home to see his wife and son, to save their house from utter ruin, and just when things got comfortable, he left.
Adventure is never a calling to comfort.
I have a strong belief that whatever this life I live becomes, it should not be about me. I am challenged daily to make my life not about self-love, but about self-sacrifice. What if my business looked the same?
Jars of Clay is a multiple Grammy award winning band based in Nashville. They’ve had a bunch of hits, but at some point their touring schedule brought them to Sub-Saharan Africa. They fell in love with the people they met, and, inspired by their time, began the non-profit organization Blood:Water, which partners with local heroes and doers of good to effectively end the crises of clean water and HIV/AIDS in our lifetime. Their music has matured through their 20 year career, but especially so with a new mission, a new song, a new purpose. To support their band, among other things, is to support life. In their most recent full-length album, they wrote a song, “Inland.”
Writes lead singer Dan Haseltine, “Every act of leaving is also an act of entering. We don’t have the luxury of finding ourselves nowhere, ever. We shake the dust from our feet and take a step … Inland as a metaphorical destination is the place we don’t know anything about. It might even be a disservice to call “Inland” a destination at all. It is more accurately described as a direction. A new job, a new school, a new love, a new way of speaking to an old love, a new place, a new anxiousness, butterflies in the stomach, a new path.”
Blood:Water had a project called “1000 Wells.” The idea was to build 1000 wells to bring clean water to different communities in desperate need of them, using this equation from the World Health Organization: $1 will provide clean water to one person for one year - Just one bottle of water, or one cup of coffee, or one pop – could help break a cycle of illness from unclean water… illnesses keep them from school, jobs, their productivity. It’s a major step toward sustainability in some of these nations.
The goal was to build a thousand wells, and they’ve reached that goal, affecting the lives of a million lives in the process. Today, they are looking forward to the next million, and I am excited to say that in some small way, Mighty Missouri Coffee Company is partnering with them. For every bag of Blood:Water coffee sold at mightymocoffee.com, one person will receive clean water for one year.
To start a business is a sort of scary thing, and as much as I wanted to start small, things got bigger than my comfort level fairly quickly. I was working with numbers and talking to different distributors and stores before I began.
People were not interested in what I was going to do, they were interested in what I was doing. So I got a list of all of these different places that would sell my coffee and input those numbers to decide if this business would be a success and I jumped into it.
So my coffee roaster came, a big beautiful machine, and it was in a hundred pieces with no manual and no picture of what it was supposed to look like. I had learned how to operate one of these things, but never how to put it together. So in what became a months-long process, working with gas people, plumbers, ventilation people… I was able to finally get a bag of coffee in my hands, my big idea now a tangible product in my hands.
I called my contacts – those numbers I had written down as prospective clients – and they weren’t interested. I couldn’t even get a meeting. I was devastated. How could this thing have broken down this fast?
That same week, I was asked to volunteer at a concert fundraiser for North Dakota Teen Challenge, with Christian musician Matthew West headlining the show. I was a gopher for the day - - whatever the tour manager needed, I’d drive around and get. It was kind of cool. I was in the back, when Matthew West came in. He introduced himself to me and I was wearing my brand new, sample Mighty Missouri Coffee T-shirt – this is the one that I wore to decide if I should get more. Matthew asked about my shirt, which gave me the chance to give my twenty-second elevator speech about what I was up to. He said, “Sounds great. Sweet shirt, I want one.” I figured there wouldn’t be anything wrong with Matthew West wearing the shirt, so I called the printer and asked, “Are those shirts done!?” And they were only just getting off the printer. I raced down there, got a shirt, and gave it to the tour manager.
That night, Matthew West wore the shirt in front of a sold-out crowd of close to 2,500. I was stoked. Beyond that, he introduced everybody to “an awesome new coffee company he was excited about.” All of a sudden, I had a captive audience in my first week of production, and everybody was wondering where they could get this coffee. I had no idea where they could get this coffee.
So I started telling them where they could get it. The problem was, those places just didn’t offer it yet.
Soon, the same places that wouldn’t answer my calls or give me a meeting were calling me about how to get coffee on their shelves.
I’m excited to see folks bringing Mighty Missouri Coffee to their adventures. It’s a part of people’s day, and they’re sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I set out with a mission to tie adventure to a great product, and it’s continuing to happen in so many incredible ways.
Moving forward, I’m working on a project called “Another Day, Another Adventure,” highlighting the stories of people stepping out and living adventure on the Northern Plains.
It’s a big dream, and this is a small start. To get to the other side of the lake, we have to jump into the waves.
It’s a dream. But what are we capable of?
I’m Brian Jackson, and I’m heading Inland. Won’t you do the same?
Thanks for inviting me inland, Hugh.