Kevin O’Leary and Wonder Fund North Dakota made its first investment in LandTrust, an online land-sharing marketplace based out of Bozeman, MT that connects landowners with outdoor enthusiasts.
When you are doing a venture investment, particularly a series A investment, I ask myself, ‘What moat does the business have around it? What protection does it have? If it’s a great idea, what do they have in equity that others are going to have a hard time duplicating?’ That’s really important. What I found with LandTrust and their business plan was all of the previous work they’d done to arrange access to these hundreds of thousands of acres. What took me over the top was when I found out [that] the Wilks family out of Texas, who have millions of acres in Texas, were willing to put in hundreds of thousands of acres and become my partner in the deal. That sealed it for me because what really makes that model work—I don’t care if you are a hunter, a fisher, or if you are hiking and just like the outdoors—we got it for you. We’ve got anything you could possibly want because we have such a diversity of land. So now the job of the company is to acquire customers and that’s where I can help—obviously, we have a massive social media following. That deal checked the box on everything I like about new startups and they have a fantastic management team who really understand this business. One of the things I love about it is that it’s part of the share economy. It’s one of those deals where I looked at it and thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’ I love it. I think it’s great.Kevin O’Leary, O’Leary Ventures
If you asked LandTrust Founder and CEO Nic De Castro as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he says he would have told you that he wanted to be a professional hunter or fisherman because that’s what he loved to do growing up in the Laguna Beach area. He hunted, fished, surfed, and spear-fished before heading out east to attend Boston University, where he barely graduated.
“I graduated with basically a 2.3 GPA,” De Castro said. “I didn’t like school.”
But, a degree is a degree and De Castro found himself on the path to LandTrust quickly after graduating, grooming himself by taking on sales and partnership roles with technology startups in New York City. However, he didn’t know that those jobs were preparing him to one day found his own tech startup.
“I did a lot of traveling, I did a million miles by the time I was about 28,” De Castro said. “I was just traveling around talking to big brands and working with big brands, selling digital advertising and marketing technologies. Which provided a great background for learning how to acquire customers online. That was very foundational for me. I moved up to Montana from Colorado at the end of 2016.”
De Castro eventually moved from the Big Apple to Colorado and then on to Montana, taking on the same kinds of technology startup roles all along the way. “Quickly after moving to Bozeman, I was confronted with the idea for LandTrust,” De Castro said. “I’m certainly not the first person to come up with the idea. It’s not my idea, it’s an idea. There was just no easy way to get onto some of those beautiful private lands that are here in Montana. The only way to do that would’ve been to go knock on a stranger’s door. Even as a sales guy, I didn’t enjoy doing that and, after speaking with thousands of farmers and ranchers over the past 3 years, most of them don’t enjoy or have the time for it either”
De Castro didn’t move on with the idea right away. Instead, he continued to toy with it and think it through.
“Thankfully, I didn’t do it in 2017,” De Castro said. “Timing is everything for startups and that wasn’t the right time.”
But in November of 2018, the time was right for De Castro and he began to build out his deck and started pitching to investors.
“The first investors came in June of 2019 and I quit a well-paying consulting job,” De Castro said. “My wife and I had our first child about a month later on August 5. I didn’t have health insurance, no salary, and my wife wasn’t working, so it was a big risk. We launched the website on October, 2 2019. It’s very vulnerable launching and it’s very scary frankly. I think it took two days for the first booking request to come through. Those two days were really nerve-racking, but it wasn’t a big question of if there was a need for this because some version of this has been happening forever. People have always been knocking on doors and paying fees for access to private land to hunt. They’ve called them trespass fees, historically. It was more of a question of if people will do this online in this manner and if they will they do it with us.”
“COVID shook up a lot of things and made a lot of things possible that were hard to imagine before. Because of COVID, we now are able to do Zoom calls with farmers and ranchers. That would have been pretty hard to imagine happening beforehand. Since that time, LandTrust has put over 1 million acres on the platform.
“The cool thing is that almost all of our one million acres are from multigeneration farm and ranch families. We love that we are able to connect them to a new source of profitable income for their operations because farming and ranching are pretty low-margin businesses. And there is no sustainability without profitability. If the family farm or ranch cannot be profitable, it will be sold and will likely be developed, those are just facts. We’re really a rural economic development company. We bring new money to these rural landowners and we bring new money to their rural communities through tourism.”
Did You Know?
The state of North Dakota has the fourth most paid hunting license holders per captain in the country.
De Castro and LandTrust, which previously had no customers in the state of North Dakota, first became aware of the North Dakota Development Fund in 2022 through his first Fargobased investor, Erik Barner. Barner encouraged the young entrepreneur to explore some of the programs the state had in the works.
“I went out to Fargo about a year ago and met a lot of really great people. Hannah Lange at the Development Fund has been great to work with. Josh Teigen has been great to work with. The Fargo startup scene is really amazing. The people there like Jenny Sheets are pretty awesome. There’s great stuff happening in Fargo from a startup perspective,” De Castro said.
“The Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Development Fund came together to offer us a really great debt package to incentivize us to bring business to North Dakota and we decided to do that.”
“North Dakota has phenomenal waterfowl habitat that I think is a really good opportunity not for just for hunting, but for bird watching. There’s a lot of people that love looking at birds, not over the barrel of a gun,” De Castro said.
De Castro received more support from the state after and introduction to Paul Palandijan, the CEO of O’Leary Ventures. De Castro made a pitch to Palandijan, O’Leary, and the rest of the team, securing a $1.25 million investment in the process, contingent on establishing a base in Fargo which will be happening soon.
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