Innovation December 20, 2017

Starting an Adventure

The circuitous path to creating a business

‘‘It’s a leap of faith to do your own thing, without a doubt,” said Jon Duval, former director of the Ketchum Community Development Corp. “For me, I thought about it for a while and it’s definitely scary, having to bite that bullet and say, ‘I’m going for it.’” As scary as it might be, Duval has long been exposed to entrepreneurial angst during his tenure running the Ketchum Innovation Center (KIC), the Wood River Valley’s incubator for entrepreneurial innovation and development. After seven and half years helping others start companies, Duval got an itch to start an adventure travel company of his own.

Duval grew up just outside of Boston and went on to attend and play hockey for Williams College. Upon graduating in 2001, he immediately moved to London to work for an investment bank, only to find that he “hated it … It was bad for me, and I was bad at it,” Duval said. However, there was an upside to the experience: he discovered a passion for international travel.

Based in London, Duval was able to travel much of Europe easily and cheaply. After a year in London, he wanted to take the Trans-Siberian railway but didn’t want to do so during the winter. So, inspired by a friend who was teaching English in Japan, Duval moved there instead. By chance, he ended up in the north, in the now world-renowned ski destination of Niseko. Duval started work with the Niseko Powder Connection, an independent company run by an Australian and Scotsman, helping non-Japanese travel to and ski in the area. In 2005, the company hosted Porter Fox, a writer for Powder Magazine. Duval noted that Fox’s article contributed to skiing in Japan becoming a popular stop on the world circuit of adventure skiing.

More or less, Duval learned how to ski in the powder wonderland of Niseko. As he said, “I grew up playing hockey, so barely skied. I was a terrible skier then and wish I could go back now, but I skied like a hockey player—as fast as I could and in the back seat.” He had so much fun, he knew he had to return for another winter, but in the interim “backpacked around the world.” Then, from 2005-2006, Duval struck up residence in New Zealand with friends who called Sun Valley home, and he worked as a bike messenger. Ultimately, he knew he wanted to live in a small mountain town, and so, upon return to the States, he “bought a crappy truck and drove out West to give Sun Valley a try.”

Duval played for the Suns hockey team, and began writing humorous “game diaries” for the Idaho Mountain Express, where he soon found himself writing full time. “There’s no quicker way to get to know a community than writing for the newspaper,” said Duval. “Covering Ketchum and Sun Valley got me plugged into what was going on in the community and plugged into the city council and politics. I enjoyed it but got to a point where I was tired of having to remain impartial as a reporter.”

A position opened with the Ketchum Community Development Corp. and, as Duval said, they “took a chance” on him. He dove right into the Town Square project and Northwood Place, an affordable housing development near the YMCA, among other projects. One of the core missions of the Community Development Corp. is to grow economic development within the Valley.

“The question is,” said Duval, “how do we leverage the immense intellectual capital in town, especially the retirees and second-home owners, and how do we help the talent that’s here?” Thus, the idea for the Ketchum Innovation Center was born. After seeing Sun Valley resident Rick LeFaivre, the former vice president of Advanced Technology at Apple Computer, speak at the 2013 Economic Summit in town, Duval set up a coffee meeting. At the meeting, he presented a two-page white paper centered around the idea of developing an incubator in Ketchum to give every entrepreneur in the Valley the greatest chance of success. LeFaivre was on board, and so was the city.

The Ketchum Innovation Center (KIC) was developed with the mission to create more professional, higher-paying, non-season-dependent jobs in the Wood River Valley. KIC provides programming and workshops for anything from how to finance your business to the ins and outs of intellectual property rights. Creating a network of professional mentors and partners such as Boise State University College of Innovation and Design and the Sun Valley Band of Angels and Mentors (BAM), KIC preaches and teaches the Lean Business Model, which is one of the many tools Duval will have in his pocket as he passes on the role of executive director to Kathryn Guylay, and “takes the leap” with his own entrepreneurial venture called Blue Beta Tours.

“Going back to all the travel I did,” Duval said, “I’m starting an adventure travel business. I’m really trying to marry the cultural aspect with the climbing and biking in Europe. Rather than pick and choose between the two, why not do both? And sleep in a nice bed and have a nice French wine at the end of the day?”

Duval headed out to do reconnaissance work this fall, beginning in Belgium, to climb, and to visit breweries. Next on the itinerary was the Southern Alps, where Duval did extensive road biking in 2004 and where the Tour de France will pass through next summer.

“The road biking in France is absolutely amazing; it’s as famous as the mountain biking in Sun Valley. There’s a reason for that, and I really want to share that with people.”

For the past year, Duval has been teaching spin at Zenergy. As taught at KIC, part of being a successful entrepreneur is knowing your market, and partly through his experience at Zenergy, Duval identified a market of individuals that are “super active and love traveling.”

General manager of Zenergy, Derek Agnew, said that, “It’s a no-brainer to collaborate with Jon on his new adventure travel business. Jon’s worn multiple hats and earned a lot of respect in the community, and we have no doubt he’ll deliver the high standards Zenergy members expect.”

Ideally, Duval seeks to build a business in which he can split time in Europe and Sun Valley. Sun Valley has a history of being basecamp to such high-end boutique adventure travel businesses as Mountain Spirits and Gerry Moffatt Expeditions, and looks to have a new European connection with Duval’s Blue Beta Tours, which will offer its first trips in summer 2018 as Duval joins other KIC entrepreneurs in the great adventure of starting a business.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.