J. Nabs Carlson '85: From Artist and Surfer to Successful Entrepreneur

J. Nabs Carlson '85: From Artist and Surfer to Successful Entrepreneur
Amy Barnard

"I'm not an entrepreneur!" insisted this MA grad, when executives from Van's challenged him to launch his own company.


Place of Influence: In-store merchandising worldwide.

Role: President, Row23: row23.com

Key Design Clients: Vans, NFL, Nixon, Oakley, Rip Curl

Fun Fact: Carlson chose Point Loma Nazarene in part because he wanted to be near the ocean and surf. His surfing led to roles in both TV and film. True to surfer stereotype, he loves old VW buses and vintage boats, which he restores as his current side hobby

Biggest MA Takeaway: Don't let others talk you out of your values and standards. Know where you stand regarding your faith in God. Draw those lines in cement, not sand, so that when pressure comes you don't waver.

Advice to Current Students: Know where your line is and be comfortable with it. Work with passion and integrity, it will lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and to greater long-term success.


The California Dream

Jeff Nabs Carlson chose Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego in part because he could see the beach from his dorm. He studied art, taught himself to surf, and began fishing for large bluefin tuna, and fell in love with the ocean.

A man on a surfboard rides the edge of a large wave with the image of a cliff in the background behind him.

Carlson immersed himself in the surfing community, attending competitions and even making appearances on local TV shows and Baywatch. 

One day, working in the tennis department at the newly opened Oschman's Sporting Goods while still in school, he had an encounter that would set the direction for the next two decades of his life:

"The national visual merchandiser at the time was there to open the store and do all visuals inside the store. [He] walked up to me one day and said, 'are you NABS?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'you have an art degree?' And I said, 'not yet. But I will.' He said, 'Okay. Would you like to be the merchandising manager at the store?' And I said, 'I don't know. Maybe.'"

That maybe turned into yes. That yes led to roles as the merchandising director for brands like Oakley and Quiksilver, where he continued on to ever larger projects and responsibilities designing displays and full stores for major brands.

A restored VW bug sit in front of a wide ocean scene.

Carlson's first promotion at Oschman's required him to pack up his beloved VW van and move to Houston, Texas. While there he decided he needed to find work that would take him back to the Pacific shores. Today, restoring VW vans and old yachts continues to be his at home hobby.

For all intents and purposes, life seemed to be on a really good track. Carlson married, started a family, and found time to get out onto the water as much as possible.

Then, an unexpected offer set him at a crossroads. 

A Risky Proposal

In 2011, Carlson sat down with his wife and shared a new dream with her. Then he said: "[This is] what I want to do, but I'm afraid...we might be on Top Ramen for a while. But if we feel we can make it through, [I'd like to] give it a go."

We might be on Top Ramen for a while!

At the time, Nabs was a merchandising director for one of the leading manufacturers of displays and store designs in the nation. A solid, guaranteed salary dropped into his account biweekly without hiccup. But today he was asking his wife, Kathy, if she might be open to the idea of a new adventure: starting a company of his own.

Unlike some entrepreneurs, Carlson didn't grow up dreaming about starting the next big thing. As an artist and designer, he wanted to create beautiful, innovative spaces within the safety of a larger company.

Just a few days earlier, two executives from Vans had challenged that ideal. After exploring ideas for a flagship store next to a skate park in Phoenix, Carlson sat with the Vans team on the flight back to Orange County. The topic of discussion? What it would look like for Carlson to design the store from the ground up.

"Look, we want to give you this job," one of the men said, "but not if you're working for someone else. We want this to be a jumping off point for you to start your own company."

Feeling a bit shocked, Carlson thanked them for their trust. "But I'm not an entrepreneur...I've got a wife and kids; I need a paycheck." Although the team had initially reached out to him personally, he had assumed he would be bringing their proposal back to his employer.

I'm not an entrepreneur...I need a paycheck!

The men spent the rest of the flight trying to talk Carlson into the plan. As they landed and retrieved their luggage from the top rack, Carlson said, almost rhetorically, "What would I even call this business?"

One of the Vans executives pointed to the row number tagged on the overhead compartment. "Why don't you call it Row 23?"

In spite of the risk, Carlson's wife agreed with the Vans executives: Carlson had something unique to offer the merchandising design community, and he should take the risk.

The Foundation Beneath the Success

A decade later, Row23 has designed everything from the Oakley Safe House at the London Olympics to an award-winning store for Nixon in Paris and Super Bowl displays for the NFL.

A darkened store with watch displays artfully lit through the middle and against one wall.

The award-winning store for Nixon in Paris.

A store of outdoor gear is designed with varying tones of wood.

Store design for Fjallraven.

In spite of this success, Carlson shares that while his skill and the belief others had in him opened the doors to launch Row23, the company's long-term success in part boils down to years of faithful, hard work in the industry. Carlson had already built a reputation among the surfing community (another story for another time!) and the California design community as someone who works hard, works with passion, and maintains integrity. At work and in his personal life he committed to certain standards, and that commitment built years of trust as his network expanded.

Reputation doesn't pay you anything...but it did ensure that people wanted to work with me."

"Reputation doesn't pay you anything," he says, "[but] it did ensure that when I started Row23, people wanted to work with me. I didn't have deep pockets [to fund a company], but brands wanted me to succeed."

A man and wife stand with their teenage son and daughter between them at a spot overlooking the seaside town of Dana Point.

A final thought from Carlson, on faith:

"If you believe in God, if you have a strong faith, don't let anything make you waver from that. You can be at a surf contest and surrounded by a million people who don't believe the way you do and might present you with opportunities to do things outside of your beliefs...You have to know what you believe. And if you know what you believe that means you've defined a line in your life that you're not willing to cross. The world will tell you that line can move, but you need to know where that line is, and that it's made of concrete. It's not drawn in sand...know where your line is and and be comfortable with that." 



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