NISSWA — Biff Ulm makes a lot of mistakes.
Those mistakes come with the territory, he said, of being willing to take risks and try new things.
“One philosophy as a business that's really, really core to me is that mistakes are OK, and we just need to learn from them, and they're just an opportunity,” Ulm said in late July while seated in the pocket park in downtown Nisswa.
The second-generation owner of Zaiser’s retail boutique, a 73-year mainstay of Nisswa’s Main Street shopping corridor, has overseen the transformation of his parents’ business from Minnesota-themed souvenir and toy shop to quirky, independent department store. He’s also dovetailed his knack for divining what customers want to buy into Minnesota Nice Enough, an exploding business currently producing artistic, snarky stickers and camping mugs. And the pandemic has done nothing but inspire even more creativity in Ulm — he’s exploring the possibility of another business marrying the concepts of personal gift shopping with subscription boxes a la Stitch Fix.
“My biggest joy is when we actually put something out there, and again … what’s the worst that’s going to happen?” Ulm, 45, said. “I’m going to fail, and that’s just an opportunity to learn, and then I’ll pivot and try to do it better next time.”
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In the beginning
Ulm grew up surrounded by entrepreneurship — first in West Palm Beach, Florida, before his family settled in the lakes area. His parents Mark and Kay Ulm owned the Mille Lacs Lake Curio Shop in Garrison, where they also opened a meat and fish market. The Ulms then purchased Zaiser’s in 1987 from Rose Zaiser and eventually went on to own seven gift shops throughout northern Minnesota.
Ulm took a stab at retail management on his own after college, buying the Painted Turtle gift shop just down the sidewalk from Zaiser’s. Although he loved the store and enjoyed running it, his passion for photography led to establishing another business, which eventually became successful enough, Ulm said, that his wife gave him a choice — the store or the studio. He chose the studio. For 15 years, he photographed weddings, portraits and more, his work infused with a bent toward photojournalism.
In 2012, his parents asked if he’d be interested in taking over the helm at Zaiser’s.
“The store wasn’t running to its fullest potential. And they approached me and said, ‘Hey, would you have interest in being here?’” Ulm said. “It was my best year photographically, like financially. But I’m like, you know what, I’m missing out on soccer games and missing out on my kids. So it’s kind of crazy — people would say retail’s a lot of work. But I came to retail to have a simpler life a little bit.”
Businesses: Zaiser’s and Minnesota Nice Enough.
Number of employees: Six year-round, with more summertime employees.
- Interesting facts: Zaiser’s first opened in 1947, and the Ulm family purchased it 40 years later. Second-generation owner Biff Ulm now also runs a company called Minnesota Nice Enough, producing decals and camp mugs. On a big day, Ulm said he can produce upwards of 20,000 decals from the basement of his home.
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The first couple years were spent returning the store to the level his father left it, Ulm said, before he began to experiment with merchandise and layout. The store’s seen a few additions from the tiny footprint of the original building, resulting in an eclectic floor plan that Ulm spent time outfitting into more defined sections. His goal? To offer customers items they won’t be able to find in big-box stores, bigger department stores or even online.
“We love stuff that has — I want to say it nicely — that has unsanitized designs, because sometimes you see those designs like in a department store, that type of thing, and it just looks like it's clip art. And we want people who are like employing real artists, and we're trying to get them here,” Ulm said.
There isn’t enough room here to list even a fraction of what Zaiser’s carries, ranging from kitchenware, jewelry and children’s books to footwear, home decor and yes, in the spirit of what Zaiser’s once was, Minnesota-themed souvenirs and inexpensive toys. Shoes are a centerpiece of the store’s offerings, featuring higher-end brands such as Pikolinos, Birkenstocks and a signature, longtime partner brand — Minnetonka moccasins.
“You'll see people who come in, and they remember when their grandparents came in and bought them their first pair of Minnetonkas, and now they’re bringing their grandkids in, and we hear those stories,” Ulm said.
There’s also an “R-rated” section, featuring merchandise with irreverent sayings and self-deprecating humor. This includes a line of naughty socks, as Ulm called them, which are a huge seller for the store.
“We say rated R. It’s probably not truly R, it’s probably more PG-13. But we give people fair warning,” he said. “If you go in that section, there will be a four letter word or two, and they’re used in kind of a harmless sort of way.”
Ulm employs numerous routes to track down items fitting the store’s aesthetic and the latest trends, both the traditional and the modern. Wholesale gift markets provide a mind-boggling selection of goods, for instance — one in Atlanta spans three city blocks and is 20 stories tall. But in today’s world, even more so in light of the pandemic, creators are turning to digital platforms like Etsy and Instagram to entice buyers. Ulm said he likes to find makers who are just starting out, ones who give back to charities and those who take into account ecological concerns. He also keeps an eye out for local artists and companies.
There’s still room for the traditional “up north” wares the tourists expect, though. This includes a toy section curated specifically with cabin living in mind.
“When kids are on vacation, $20 in their pocket, they would rather buy four things they can play with at the cabin, than one thing,” Ulm said.
This summer, Ulm brought back mystery grab bags — paper sacks filled with a selection of toys for $4.99. Each one is different, and the only rule is no peeking. It’s a nod to nostalgia and a project of his father’s, whom Ulm said found great joy in buying toys for the store over the years.
Along came 2020
When the realities of the coronavirus became clear this spring, Ulm tapped into his propensity for experimentation to find ways to keep people shopping. He employed some of the same tools as many retail locations, offering curbside pickup and shopping by appointment, rearranging the store to improve traffic flow and create more space, departing from fitting shoes for customers to mostly self-service. But in other ways, he added his touch and listened.
“We realized quickly, people wanted to shop, they just didn't feel safe shopping. So everything that we do — and this is just where I have found success in every business — is just really listening to the customer,” he said. “We’re here to serve them. And if we can create success for them, and whatever that is, we'll be successful, you know.”
The store now offers themed boxes containing a multitude of gifts, day brighteners as much as special occasion shopping simplified. He’s finding these are popular not only for events such as kids’ birthdays, but for defining life moments, such as housewarmings. They’re often destined for family far away — or who feel far away, due to social distancing measures.
In another interesting twist, Ulm replaced the store’s landline with a text line in an effort to remove barriers for customers to communicate. He and his team use an app called Avochato, a text messaging platform allowing real-time conversations with customers. For Zaiser’s, this also means personal shopping for people. Ulm offered an example from earlier that day: a query about whether the store carried popsicle molds. In response, an employee would take pictures of a variety of options, text those pictures to the potential customer and go from there.
They also put more emphasis on social media, engaging customers through photos and videos.
“We’re really adhering to where this can be an oasis. Because shopping in certain places is weird right now, I mean, just straight up. So we want it that people can come in here and they don’t feel rushed, that they know where they’re going,” Ulm said. “ … So if we get close to capacity, we close it down at the door. We do online reservations, and it’s worked. I was nervous about it a little bit, but it’s worked so great, because customers can really shop and they feel, they just feel comfortable.”
Ulm said while he expects the store’s revenue to be down from a typical year, it won’t be as bad as he once thought it might be. The innovation the coronavirus wrought opened Ulm’s eyes to another possible venture online: gift merchandise curation.
“There could be a new marketplace for online retail. We just firmly believe, like Amazon has its place for commodity based things, but for real specialty retail … the place that I see it the most is curated wardrobes, right now. So, can we curate gifts?” he said.
A new adventure
In the midst of adjusting to the unexpected challenges of 2020, Ulm somehow managed to find the time to send his other business, Minnesota Nice Enough, rocketing toward massive expansion. His stickers can now be found in more than 140 retail locations across the state and into surrounding states, with some of those also carrying the camp mugs he produces. This consists of mostly other small retailers, including area locations such as Christmas Point and The Crossing Arts Alliance. But he also recently landed an account with sporting goods chain Scheels. He hired five sales representatives last year to find even more opportunities to place his creations on shelves.
Ulm remembers the exact moment the brand name came to him. After selling a “Minnesota Nice” shirt to a customer in Zaiser’s in 2017, the next customer in line chimed in, “Well, it’s nice enough.” And the seed of an idea began to germinate. Ulm first produced T-shirts with the flagship design, a buffalo plaid outline of the state with “Nice Enough” laid over it.
That evolved into stickers, however, Ulm again took his own advice and listened to customers. He noticed a large number of younger shoppers carrying reusable water bottles with them, and he also noticed they were often personalized. A tagline was born: “Kickass tattoos for your stuff.” Or, in more family-friendly stores, “Killer tattoos for your stuff.”
Zaiser’s provided the perfect testing ground for designs he created himself, most of which are drawn by hand. But this wasn’t possible until Ulm figured out a complex problem — how to manufacture the stickers without so much waste. In traditional manufacturing, Ulm saw the potential for a huge number of his stickers to ultimately end up in a landfill, if he produced too many of a style that proved to be a slower seller. After near-obsessive levels of research, he landed on a concept familiar in the realm of brews and booze: micromanufacturing.
“If I have an idea, we only need to produce like 25 of it, I will test it in Zaiser’s before we even bring it to full market and then there’s no waste. Everything is made on demand,” Ulm said.
So where can one find the headquarters of Minnesota Nice Enough? In the basement of the Craftsman bungalow he shares with his wife Katie, three children and three dogs on the edge of town. Packed into what was once his photography studio are a massive printer, a laminator and a large-scale cutting machine. And while the space is small and the process is micro, Ulm said on average, he ships out 10,000 decals a week.
While 85% of the business is decals, Ulm also heat presses designs onto enamel camping mugs destined for some of the woodsier retail locales. Those then find their way into a kiln in Ulm’s garage for finishing.
The products aren’t only completed on the property. They’re also born there, often in the timber frame cabin Ulm built just steps behind their home. It’s a kid-free zone, Ulm said, where he and his wife whet their creative appetites. Ulm draws sticker designs there among other creative projects. Katie’s most recent endeavor is face mask sewing.
The decal designs range from nature-themed (think campfires and loons) to funny (like Big Foot crowned as undefeated hide and seek champion) to political (the state of Minnesota emblazoned with “FeMNist”). Ulm’s also brought into the fold two other Minnesota artists to increase the variety and broaden his audience.
“I just love bringing success to other artists and bringing that exposure. So it’s more of a collaborative effort,” he said. “ … I think I’ve got 150 designs of my own in the line.”
No ‘I’ in team
While Ulm’s entrepreneurial successes are undoubtedly impressive, he’s quick to point out he’s by no means a one-man band. And those who work for Ulm are quick to point out he’s by no means a typical boss, and Zaiser’s is not a run-of-the-mill summer retail job.
Ulm’s team works on both businesses: one day, they might be behind the counter ringing up purchases, and another, they may be brainstorming social media outreach for Minnesota Nice Enough or packing up decals for shipment.
Katie Jobe is a 21-year-old college student with four years of Zaiser’s experience. Back for the summer, when she’s not focused on the footwear department, she’s bolstering social media marketing for Minnesota Nice Enough. It’s ignited a passion in her she didn’t realize was there, she said by phone in early August.
“He’s such a good leader and he’s shown whatever your passion is, just go for it,” Jobe said. “Some things might not work the way you thought, but you can always try again.”
She said she feels as though she’s part of something bigger and like her opinion is valued. When summer ends, she plans to continue her marketing work remotely.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Jobe said. “I know I’m young and haven’t had as many experiences as a lot of people, but I don’t know how a job could beat this job.”
Ana Hennes has spent 15 years working at Zaiser’s, and she said every day, it feels nice to go to work. While mostly focused on the store, Hennes said she’s also involved in Etsy selling for the decal brand. Hennes is a woman of color originally from Colombia, and she said things she appreciates about Ulm and the store are open-mindedness, bravery and a willingness to take risks. She said this is especially true when it comes to merchandise, when some might expect the Zaiser’s of their childhood when they walk through the red door.
“He always does high quality in everything he does,” Hennes said during a FaceTime interview. “He don’t half-ass stuff, no. He wants the best. And he’s not happy until he can get the best. If he can’t, he just don’t do it.”
Ulm said the diversity of his staff is a key to his success — something he didn’t intentionally plan, but a feature that’s worked to the business’ advantage. He said hearing a wide variety of opinions from a team he trusts to guide him has opened more doors than anything he could have done on his own.
“I have very conservative, very liberal, I have openly gay, I have a trans employee. I have all this diversity inside and we look at each other just based on the work, and like, how we treat each other, and we’ve navigated that so easily so well,” Ulm said. “ … I learn so much from my team, trying things, and we learn from each other. So, I think it’s a real danger — this gets into more of a philosophical side — but the thing that I’ve learned … is that you put good people in there and you let them go.
“If I can bring them success, they will bring me success. So I try to create a successful environment for not only my customers, but for my team.”