Midlands Business Journal | January 3, 2014

By Daniel Scheuerman

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of profiles featuring Midlands Business Journal 40 Under 40 award winners – entrepreneurs, business owners, managers and professional men and women under 40 years of age. The 2013 awards were co-sponsored by Lockton Cos. and Northwest Bank.


Dave Nelson, former pro skateboarder and founder of experiential branding agency SecretPenguin, could measure his accomplishments in a number of ways.


He could count them in ankle sprains (32); or skateboards confiscated (34), for example.


He could measure them in big design clients landed (NFL and The United Way) and restaurants branded (Plank Seafood Provisions, Blatt Beer and Table).


Or he could go by good works, like helping create Roberts Skatepark in Omaha in 1999, helping and serving on the board of directors for The Bay Skatepark in Lincoln in 2011, or helping with Skate for Change, an international movement to mobilize skateboarders for acts of charity.


Nelson started SecretPenguin in 2002 as a part-time gig, designing for some of his skate sponsors. He was in the thick of a pro skating career that would last seven years and take him all over the world. As injuries mounted, and his love for design grew, he naturally added more design work, until taking SecretPenguin full time in 2007.


Over the years SecretPenguin has expanded its focus from the visual to the experiential, “thinking through every touch point that each consumer would have with a brand,” Nelson said.


With Plank Seafood Provisions, Nelson helped Flagship Restaurant Group create an immersive brand experience through naming, signing, music, glassware, wall art, and editorial voice of the menu and social media campaigns.


With Core Bank, Nelson’s task was to form the identity of a new bank created out of the merger between Omaha State Bank and Centennial Bank.


To do this, he organized workshops with employees to “find out what both banks want in their place of employment,” he said.


Those sessions informed every element of Core Bank’s new identity.


For Nelson, the move from graphic design to experiential branding was a natural transition made almost in retrospect.


“We have always done experiential design in some fashion, but we weren’t aware of it,” he said, “We realized it while working on websites. We had always thought about what we want the user to do. Why not think about who we want them to feel?”


Nelson called it “a small but mighty shift” in his work.


Even as the scope of SecretPenguin’s work expands, Nelson said his approach of branding and design remains “rooted in skateboarding.”


Most of SecretPenguin’s employees have been skateboarders, Nelson said. Lacking a business background, he said, “I could look at how one skateboards and know how they’ll perform on the job.


“Skateboarders have this unique experience of getting to fail and fail again, with painful and real consequences,” he said. “It unknowingly puts you in a mindset of analyzing what you’re doing, attempting to correct it, and trying to execute it again. When a skateboarder translates that frame of mind to business, it’s incredible.”


For Nelson, skateboarding is more than a sport, subculture, or design aesthetic. In a speech in March at the 2013 Omaha YP Summit, Nelson talked about how skating helped him grow from a shy, bullied kid to someone who felt like he had a voice and could contribute to the community.


Just out of high school, he and his skater friends worked for five years toward the creation of a public skatepark in Omaha. Roberts Skatepark opened in 1999.


In 2011, he helped his friend Mike Smith create The Bay skatepark in Lincoln. The indoor park is on schedule to add a music venue, recording studio, art studio, and gallery in 2014. It’s a place Nelson said, “kids can come and be supported to do what they love.”


SecretPenguin did the branding for The Bay, incorporating a shipyard theme and compass symbolism to represent a “safe harbor” where kids can “find direction by learning tangible life skills through what they are passionate about,” he said.