One Job at a Time: The story of Nots!

Rob Fuglie’s brainstorm began with the swinging of a hammer to smash sunflower seeds on his kitchen counter. His young son is allergic to nuts and so, tired of munching plain old sunflower seeds, Fuglie endeavored to create something more crunchy and tasty. “My wife and I missed peanuts in our life,” he said. “I was frustrated because I wanted sunflower seeds to snack more like a peanut.”

He added some sweet ingredients and a bit of olive oil to the crushed sunflower seeds, popped the mixture into the oven and presto, the first Nots! were born.

Fuglie is the kind of person who encounters a problem and then actually goes out and creates a solution, unlike most of the rest of us. When his square Costco milk jug wouldn’t pour neatly, he invented a customized cap to help it along (he started shipping them to consumers last week).

In a lot of ways, the 40-year-old is typical of entrepreneurs in Minnesota. He started Nots! with $1,000 of his own money. But what’s most interesting is that he’s succeeded so far with a lot of help, from fellow entrepreneurs, from a test kitchen in Crookston and from the city of Fergus Falls, where the company is located.

Fostering entrepreneurism is an economic strategy that has gained momentum in Minnesota of late, especially given a sluggish economy in which established companies may be reluctant to start a new plant or open a new office. It seems that everyone these days, including President Obama, is looking to encourage small business start-ups. And there are myriad ways to do it, whether through microloans, incubators or simply helping out where needed.

Fuglie is good at networking and lucky for him, he knew Lois Josefson, executive director of TiE Minnesota, an entrepreneurs’ education, networking and mentoring organization. She was the first to try his sunflower snack and said they were “not bad.” But, they needed work, an assessment Fuglie agreed with.

“They tasted not bad but looked really bad,” he said. “They looked like chicken feed, pale and extruded looking. They were very formed and cylindrical. They were not the most appetizing looking pellets.”

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Josefson suggested that Fuglie perfect his snack at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute in Crookston, founded by the state Legislature decades ago to help develop new agricultural products. He spent three days at AURI last spring and learned how on scale up the Nots! recipe and improve their texture. He also discovered that molasses was a good way to add a warm tone to an otherwise pale snack.

Once he had the formula down, he needed an inexpensive place in which to make the Nots! Though Fuglie lives in Chanhassen, Josefson suggested Fergus Falls, where she lives, because a smaller city would be cheaper than a bigger one and because Fergus has a culture that supports entrepreneurs.

Fuglie had already met Harold Stanislawski, executive director of the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission, and so the connection was easy to make. Stanislawski offered commercial kitchen space in an empty nursing home in town. Fuglie moved in and began production in mid November. So far he hasn’t had to pay rent, but he hopes to give back in other ways.

“We’re working with a group in Fergus Falls called Productive Alternatives,” Fuglie said. “They work with adults with severe developmental disabilities. We’re working on getting them in to do packaging for vocational training.”

Nots! shot out of the gate and by Dec. 5, the product–every nugget of which Fuglie makes by hand–was on backorder. “We had product demand that was six months ahead of what I’d planned,” he said. “That’s over the top. That’s awesome. But it also means the business plan is six months behind.” He’s since caught up with orders and again has Nots! to sell.

Fuglie has ordered customized equipment that should streamline production and he’s hoping to hire two staffers by spring and also start paying his lone volunteer. “My goal is not to be the Nots! maker,” he said. He’s working to become “retail ready” and figure out distribution.

He acknowledged that things wouldn’t be going as well or perhaps at all without the help he’s received. Working in Fergus Falls has been “fabulous,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people who want to do things. The people you deal with on a daily basis are generally very active in the community.”

Also, he said, locals in Fergus Falls are interested in local products and are some of his best customers. “You are not missing anything by not having a brand name that everybody has heard of.”

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