From Cattle To Creative Arts – Business Owner in Lincoln Creates Custom Wallpaper Designs
Dan Nelson, owner of Vahallan, Inc., didn’t start out as a luxury wallpaper designer. He didn’t even start out as an artist. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Western Nebraska and always assumed he’d go back and take over the ranch after college. But in the 80s, the agricultural industry was hit hard, and his parents lost the ranch. So instead, Nelson found himself working in an office job in Omaha - and quickly decided that working in a cubicle wasn’t working for him. He went back to school, thinking to get into the medical field, but in a year or so he decided that he “just needed to find a job and get busy.” He then relocated to Manhattan, Kansas, working as a restaurant manager for a popular chain and living with a couple of roommates in a bachelor pad, where he recollects that the “the wallpaper in the bathroom was hideous.” And it’s here that Nelson’s entrepreneurial story begins.
Determined to change out the horrendous bathroom wallpaper, Nelson set out to buy some and hang it himself. “I didn’t have a clue how to put it in,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I got the pre-pasted wallpaper and hung it on top of the other wallpaper. I got all the way around the room and it was already peeling on the other side - then I got to the last wall and I didn’t buy enough wallpaper. So I went back to the store, but it was a close out and they didn’t have any left.” But all hope wasn’t lost – Nelson spoke with his brother who had seen a show home in Dallas, TX with hand-made wallpaper. It was made by painting craft paper, then tearing it and putting small pieces on the wall. He teamed up with his mother to make some for the bachelor pad and loved the way it looked. His roommates, friends and neighbors also loved how it looked, and told him that if he made that in a place like California, he could charge whatever he wanted. Nelson was working 60-70 hours a week managing the restaurant with very little time off, so it didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial dream to take hold. “If you’d told me 30 years ago that I’d be a wallpaper designer I’d have told you you’re nuts,” he says.
Nelson’s first step was to create sample boards of his designed wallpaper and show them around town, and it didn’t take long before he found an interested designer. Nelson knew he wanted to pursue this business, but that would mean leaving the restaurant industry. He took a job that relocated him to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he could devote more time to developing the business in his spare hours. He started showing sample boards around Omaha and at the Parade of Homes, where he decorated a wall in the lower-level bar in a show house. “I did that wall, and I could stand there and hand out business cards. The phone started ringing off the hook.”
Today, Nelson has less of a role in painting the wallpaper, but still has a heavy hand in the designs. He runs the business with 20 employees and works with a creative director and staff of artists who hand paint the wallpaper. They sell to interior designers and everything is made to order. Nelson’s designs are unique. “I love textures, and Valhallan is known for heavy textures. We do some crazy stuff – I’ll go to the park and find pine needles and embed them. I love incorporating nature and making things more organic,” he explains. And customers love it, too. They’ve grown the business to include show rooms in New York City, London, and Paris; and they have many international clients including Cartier and Christian Dior. It’s expensive to break into the international market, and Nelson utilized the U.S. Small Business Administration’s State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) to get funding to travel to trade shows overseas. “We went to Frankfurt twice, and then Paris. We were able to get connected with Cartier and Dior because of that trip. We also applied the STEP grant money towards the trade show booth – it just helped the overall budget of it. Those booths are pretty expensive. All we had to pay for is travel – that really helped.”
However, the pandemic drastically affected sales. “When COVID first hit the phone pretty much stopped ringing overnight. It was just dead,” he says. “I was to say the least very, very nervous. None of us knew what was going to happen. I thought we’d be in trouble. I thought no one would be putting money into houses. I thought everyone would be saving dimes and not putting money into houses.” Nelson turned again to the U.S. Small Business Administration and utilized the Paycheck Protection Program that was created under the Cares Act. “It helped me keep my employees,” he says. I was able to keep everyone. And thank God I we did, because 3-4 months into it everyone started spending money on their homes again. I would not have kept all my employees without it.”
Nelson doesn’t know what the future holds. “Right now it’s a little scary again. Interest rates are going up – I just read an article that the cancellation of home sales soared in July. [That’s] a little scary in my industry.” Still, he remains very optimistic. We’ve been at this long enough – we’ll find a way to get through it. Most of the products we use are made in America, and being made in America has really benefitted us. A lot of our competitors make their things overseas, and they got hit pretty hard overseas so they have a tough time getting product. It’s been a good thing for us being made in America.”
Nelson has sage advice for entrepreneurs just starting out. “Work hard,” he says. “If you have a great product and you have a good work ethic, as long as you work hard you can make it work. Just don’t give up.”