Nicolaas Mink earned a Ph.D. in history and environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, before founding Sitka Salmon Shares and becoming a full-time fishmonger. He divides his time between Illinois and Alaska, with his wife, Meridith, and his daughter, Nova.
How and when did you get your start in Alaska fisheries?
I began work in Alaska’s fisheries as a summer employee of the Sitka Conservation Society. There, I worked to protect salmon habitat and raise awareness among the general public about the issues that fishermen, fish and fisheries face.
What inspired the founding of Sitka Salmon Shares?
While working at the Sitka Conservation Society, I met all of the fishermen who founded the company with me. These fishermen were eager to access better markets for their perfectly handled fish. For me, I was interested in finding ways to build a better seafood system for Midwesterners, one that delivered a higher-quality, more sustainable product. At that time, I was still working full-time as a food systems professor at Knox College, a small liberal arts college near Chicago. Sitka Salmon Shares was very much an academic, intellectual project.
What are the distinguishing goals of direct marketing?
Consumers are looking to connect with their food in entirely different ways than they were just a generation ago. Direct marketing is the purest form of meeting this modern consumer desire.
What have been your biggest challenges marketing Alaska seafood in the Midwest? How does Sitka Salmon Shares work to overcome them?
Every day in fisheries is such a challenge because you have to be prepared for the unexpected and, sometimes, even, the unbelievable. But what we do creates some additional unique challenges. Given that we are trying to foster an intimate tie between consumer and producer, with 3,000 miles in between, we have to be laser focused on creating that connection. Every time we interact with our consumer we have to be aware that so much of what we do is unknown to them. Our job is to create those connections by illuminating the unknown, whether through social media, newsletters, short films or a variety of other media.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of direct marketing?
The advantages are many. Most important is that all of our fishermen relish the direct connection with our consumers. To be able to interact with people who have the same food philosophy as them and who appreciate the hard work of bringing a perfect product to market is invaluable. It’s what drives the direct marketing connection. On the other hand, the disadvantages of direct marketing usually come from uncertainty in the supply chain and harvest. There’s just so much that can go wrong that larger companies have the resources to fix.
What do you think have been the most important factors to Sitka Salmon Shares’ success?
We’ve made it our business to tell great fish stories and to do everything we can to make the connection between our fishermen and our members. We want that connection to be visceral. We also have had a lot of passionate people in our organization — our fishermen, our employees, our members — who have fought tremendous headwinds to make this organization what it has become. Many of us worked for years without a paycheck, giving loans to the company, extending generous terms, and working long hours, just to give us a shot at being where we are today.
Are there any helpful resources you’ve used as an entrepreneurial direct marketer that might be helpful to others starting out?
The organization of Sitka Salmon Shares was blessed with a unique set of networks, which we leaned on heavily starting out. Our fishermen knew many other fishermen who spoke generously and provided sage advice about direct marketing. I was lucky enough to know a lot of people in the sustainable food world and a few business professors, who shared their own knowledge on failures and successes. So lean on your networks!
What advice would you give another direct marketer just starting out?
Stay focused on over-delivering on expectations. I want the people who buy from us, at every turn, from start to finish, to be wowed by their experience with us.