Kettering University graduate driven by entrepreneurial spirit creates Cycleboat company

Nate Wilson ‘08 has launched Chattanooga Cycleboats as a way to help grow tourism in an area he fell in love with and as a way to showcase the beauty of the river.

Nate Wilson ‘08 doesn’t know if he was ever truly meant to be an engineer. But the journey through Kettering University and Electrical Engineering led him to new and unique business ventures that have made life fun and meaningful.

One of his newest journeys took him down the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on a cycleboat. As a way to help grow tourism in an area he fell in love with and as a way to showcase the beauty of the river, Wilson has launched Chattanooga Cycleboats.

“In engineering, it was always fun doing the analysis of what’s wrong and fixing things, but it never gave me the full satisfaction of things in life,” said Wilson, who also had a minor in Business Management. “I started looking for a role that more aligned with my hobbies.”

And that’s when he stumbled upon an advertisement for a cycleboat -- a 33-foot custom built super pontoon that has a stern paddle wheel kinetically driven by its riders. It has 10 pedal stations, five on either side of a high top.

“The idea of it seemed fun. Then the gears just started turning in my head,” Wilson said. “Chattanooga is the perfect place to have one of these. I started doing the math. If I had a bad year I could make more money in a year than when I was an engineer. I just went for it.”

Thinking outside the box

Wilson admits not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. Some are meant to be CEOs, project managers or lead engineers. But in his spirit, he knew he was meant to be an entrepreneur.

It started in fifth grade when he and other students would play “pencil wars” until one of the competitors’ pencils broke. He discovered a very strong pencil at a local craft store and decided to purchase them and sell them at a 500 percent markup to his classmates.

While a freshman at Kettering he saw an old photo of a student wearing a shirt that said “Love an Engineer.” That sparked the idea for Wilson to recreate them and sell them. He sold thousands of them and they are still recreated and sold by various people and groups to this day.

He also had his own deck refinishing business while in college, and didn’t mind delaying his graduation to pursue the business world.

“That’s just another example of my passion to be an entrepreneur and do exciting things,” Wilson said.

For Wilson, Kettering was no secret to him growing up. His family is from the Flint area and his grandparents worked for General Motors, Fisher Body and Buick.

He visited Kettering for engineering summer campus while in junior high, so it was a logical choice for Wilson when selecting a college. And the co-op opportunities put it on the top of his list.

“When asked, students will speak to the real-life experiences they are getting, especially when it comes to working in a real-world environment, learning to respect other people. Doing that at an early age is definitely something you don’t get going to a traditional college,” Wilson said.

Wilson also learned that being humble is extremely important. He said he learned that being humble was more important than being right, which is something he’s carried with him ever since.

Attending Kettering instilled a certain sense of creativity into Wilson, he said.

“I was definitely taught as a student at Kettering to think outside the box. It drove some creativity,” Wilson said. “The capstone classes are a great example. You’re given a problem and you’re asked to think of a solution, which leaves a number of possibilities.”

Presentations by entrepreneurs and leaders had long-term positive effects on Wilson as he learned from people with inspiration and a vision. His entrepreneurial spirit was cultivated at Kettering.

Entrepreneurial spirit

It was that creative thinking and go-getter spirit that didn’t slow down Wilson when it came to starting his cycleboat business.

He’s an outdoor guy -- hiking, fishing, camping and boating. This seemed to be perfect for him.

“When I was looking at the Tennessee River I saw it has a beautiful riverfront and there’s not a lot of activity on there. I saw an open gap,” Wilson said, adding there were large river boat tours, but nothing intimate. “I saw this a good opportunity to have a small, private-type of a vessel out there.”

Tickets can be purchased by the seat or the cycleboat is available for booking as a private charter for team building events or a family affair, for example. Bookings are made through his website, ChattanoogaCycleboats.com.

Those riding aboard the cycleboat will pedal to propel the vessel up and down the river. There are also bench areas available for other passengers. The high-top bar has coolers built in to keep drinks ice cold.

It becomes a unique experience.

“People are looking for ways to experience each other in a beautiful place and in doing so they can have lunch or they can have drinks,” Wilson said. “A unique family event is an appeal. You can create great memories together.”

Wilson will make a few test runs with local enthusiasts, have a ribbon cutting with the Chamber of Commerce followed by a Maiden Voyage with city officials, local influencers and a 94-year-old veteran of World War II, Vietnam and Korea.

To honor all those who have served, Wilson gives thanks by giving all service men and women a 100 percent discount.

“I wanted to do something unprecedented, and truly give thanks and not just a handshake,” Wilson said.

When someone asked Wilson what he would do if the local American Legion decided to plan a trip, he said “I smiled and said I’d load ‘em up and give ‘em a ride!”

“I believe that when you bless others, you will receive blessings in dividends.”

Until then, he will continuing preparing his crowdfunding campaign and getting the community excited about the new project.

But Wilson isn’t stopping there.

With his wife and partner, Wilson created Weekly Fig, which delivers foods from local farmers to customers’ doorsteps.

“There’s just so many positive reasons to eat local and shop local,” Wilson said. “If local farmers and artisans have channels to offer their goods, more money will be put back into our communities. The communities will improve and people will eat better.”

“Weekly Fig’s biggest competitors are Blue Apron and HelloFresh,” Wilson said. “But Weekly Fig has an advantage over them.”

The local farmers and artisans will be profiled on the website, weeklyfig.com.

“You will know where your food is coming from. You can trust your food is grown with the most sustainable growing practices without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. You will know you’re making a difference in someone’s life that lives in your community,” Wilson said. “Best of all, all your dietary needs will be delivered right to your front door, freeing up your time for the activities and people you care about.

“Being an entrepreneur is about initiating change you believe in after effectively listening to people and then leading them to the place they always wanted to go.”


Written By Sarah Schuch | Contact: Sarah Schuch - sschuch@kettering.edu - (810) 762-9639