Like-minded brothers find success with separate entrepreneurial ventures
The year was 2017. The town was West Union, Iowa. At 13, Nathan Crooker (‘25, finance) was in middle school and too young to be employed but wanted to start earning money. With the help of his family, he bought a cotton candy machine and started selling his product at athletic events. Energized by this success, he got his foot in the door at the Fayette County Fair where everything changed.
During the county-wide event, Nathan and his twin brother, Davan, met the owner of a food truck called The Brain Freezer. Coincidentally, he was looking to sell. The next thing they knew, Nathan and Davan were negotiating a purchase price and going into business together. At age 14, they became owners of The Brain Freezer and operated it for the rest of the season. The shaved ice truck offered 30 flavors and three sizes of sweet treats. Nathan and Davan quickly learned the behind-the-scenes headaches of business ownership.
“The first event was a nightmare,” said Nathan. “But the second was during a homecoming event and we had a line for six hours straight. That was a great learning opportunity for managing procedures and working with customers.”
The Brain Freezer showed up at more events across northeast Iowa, and the brothers learned how to work together and manage a business. Then, in their second full season, the pandemic hit, and in-person events slowed down. Nathan bought out Davan’s half of the business, allowing each to focus on their own passions.
With high school classes happening infrequently and online, Davan (‘25, finance) started thinking about how he could merge his love of being outdoors with his need for cash. After hours of watching YouTube videos and consulting with mentors, DC Outdoor Services was born.
“My first project was leaf cleanup,” said Davan, “but that summer I got to bid my first job to install plants and mulch and redo part of a retaining wall. I hired my brother, dad, and a friend and knocked it out in two days. After that, I got mulch jobs and started getting medium-sized projects.”
After the success of that first year, Davan was able to purchase a dump trailer, skidsteer and truck, which expanded the capacity of projects and services he could provide. Now, DC Outdoor Services specializes in design-build projects like patios and retaining walls, and they also offer grading and plant installation.
Taking it to the next level
Despite their different business types, the brothers shared a strong entrepreneurial spirit and often supported each other. It was soon time to make a college decision. Davan and Nathan asked themselves where they could go to get a quality education and grow their ventures. The answer? The University of Northern Iowa.
“We heard good things about the business program and decided to attend a business visit day,” said Davan. “We liked that the department heads were presenting and engaging with us. One of the breakout sessions was marketing and entrepreneurship, and Bart Schmitz, program manager at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) asked if anyone had a business. I raised my hand and we ended up going to lunch to talk more.”
Finding a place at the JPEC
The UNI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center offered both Davan and Nathan office space and support to continue their businesses out of the JPEC’s R.J. McElroy Student Business Incubator.
“The JPEC has helped me go from one trailer to two!” said Nathan. “The JPEC’s been huge for giving me a growth mindset and focusing on what the next steps are, how to expand, and how to meet varying needs. I have four employees, and we’ll be able to hit more events in a larger market because of the systems and support we have.”
Davan and Nathan continue to live out their entrepreneurial journey with support from the UNI JPEC. Learn more about the JPEC’s offerings for student and community entrepreneurs at jpec.uni.edu.