We’ll cut to the chase and let you know that you’ve probably never met Dan Nelson or heard his story.
But, you may have tasted his kettle corn.
If you’ve ever had kettle corn at the Lincoln Farmers’ Market, there’s a good chance it was made by Dan.
He’s the guy in the tent meticulously watching and stirring the big, metal pot with bubbling sugar and freshly popped corn. His wife and sons often help him sell bags of the still warm kettle corn or give out the coveted sample cups to anxious market browsers.
But this is just Dan’s summer/weekend job. During the week, Dan is the owner and founder of Vahallan, a hand-painted wallpaper company.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Dan said. “I’m a professional finger painter.”
The lead-up to Dan’s “finger painting” career was about as nontraditional as his job. He graduated from the University of Kearney with a degree in business administration, considered going back to work on his family’s ranch in Alliance, Neb., and then decided ranch life wasn’t for him.
He moved to Omaha and worked as the manager at Blockbuster Video before trying out the insurance world for a few years. Eventually Dan moved to Lincoln, took a few more college classes, got a job in the medical field and then worked as a manager at Applebee’s.
Then, his brother told him about some hand-painted wallpaper he’d seen and was making, so Dan thought he’d try to make it too. Dan worked 60 hours a week and painted paper for another 40 hours, finding time before and after his day job.
He tested his designs in his sister’s garage and hung the papers over the fence in the backyard to dry.
Yes, that’s really how it all started. No art degree, no risk assessment, no second thought, just jumping in full speed.
Dan said that’s pretty typical for him. He sees something he wants to try and he goes whole hog.
That’s how he got into the popcorn business too. He saw kettle corn at an event, bought a kit to try it out and then started selling at the farmers market. His methods often cue an eye roll from his wife, but she’s always been extremely supportive of his ideas, Dan said.
But just because Dan quickly got into the paper and popcorn business, doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Most of the time it’s borderline crazy, Dan said. Starting a company comes with a host of demands that require Dan’s full attention at all hours of the day. And while his natural creativity propels a large part of his business, the technical elements of managing people, developing a workflow and coming up with ideas to help his company grow are all daily challenges.
It’s stressful too. Creating and selling hand-painted wallpaper is a delicate process. It takes creativity, design know-how, patience and physical strength. The hand-painted look is intricate and freestyle, but it also needs to be uniform and consistent enough to fit seamlessly into homes, offices, hotels and restaurants.
And while Dan doesn’t have any direct competitors in Lincoln, he does have competitors, big ones.
At times, Dan feels like a little fish in a big pond, and other days he gets a call from BCBG, Saks Fifth Avenue, one of his international suppliers or a famous baseball player who wants Vahallan paper in their space.
It’s a constant up and down, and as he gets older, it’s harder for him to handle.
Dan isn’t a peppy guy with a flashy smile. He’s simple and to the point. In true Nebraska form, he says what he means and works until the job is done.
He has a seemingly endless stream of ideas for designs, many of which use natural elements like pine needles and twine to give his paper a unique look and feel. But Dan is more than a finger painter, what he’s creating is art.
His story is about laying his chips on the table, going all in, because he’s proud to stand behind two businesses that he’s grateful to call his own.
He’s a fighter and a risk taker, and Dan wouldn’t have it any other way.