In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Zak Heald, owner of NorthWest Arkansas ALIVE!, partner in Farm Studios, owner of Intercut Productions, and partner in Fyrecycle. Zak is an incredible entrepreneur with a resume to impress. Zak, while still in high school, began his venture into entrepreneurship and has excelled ever since, developing his skills across many businesses.
Listen as Zak details how he found success in entrepreneurship and innovation in Arkansas.
0:00:03.8 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today Zak Heald, who is an incredible entrepreneur here in Northwest Arkansas. He is the owner of Northwest Arkansas Alive. He is a partner in Farm Studios. He's the owner of Intercut Productions. And he's now starting a new company called Fyrecycle. And we're going to explore this with him today. Zak, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me.
0:00:51.4 Zak Heald: Yeah, thank you for having me.
0:00:54.9 Matt Waller: Zak, you clearly are an incredible entrepreneur. And I know that your real passion, at least originally, was video production. You've been doing that since 2012, and you have worked with a lot of our partners as well, and you've won all kinds of awards in doing this. So I'd like to talk a little bit about how you got interested in owning your own business, but I also would like to dig into the businesses that you've started. But if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to start with your new business Fyrecycle. Tell us a little bit about that.
0:01:30.6 Zak Heald: Yeah, so Fyrecycle is something that I discovered through a friend of mine. At the time, he was I guess, an employee and a friend of mine. Right now, he's just a friend, and now a new business partner. But a friend of mine named Evan Paine. I brought him on, in Intercut Productions here. He was kind of my right-hand man, at Intercut Productions for a number of years. And during his time or his tenure here at Intercut, he fell in love with the sport of indoor cycling.
0:01:58.0 Zak Heald: And I watched that sport transform his life from a physical fitness perspective, but also from a emotional and mental health perspective. That sport and that activity and that community for him, I just watched it transform him. And the more and more I kind of was around that space and saw his friends and all, it was a contagious energy that they all had. And so I had one time listened to a podcast on I think, How I Built This. And it was about SoulCycle. And it was about how they had built the SoulCycle brand, and I think ended up selling it for, I think in their sell, I think it was, I don't know what it was, $2 billion, or something insane.
0:02:36.3 Zak Heald: Or maybe that's what they're worth today, I don't remember now, but they've had an incredible growth story and scaling story. And so I've always taken a keen eye to this indoor cycling thing, and going like, "That interests me. I love the culture. It seems to create the community around it." I think it's just a really interesting business.
0:02:54.1 Zak Heald: And so during the pandemic, after Evan has left Intercut, now, he's worked at a couple of different companies. He's now very happy, happily employed, working remote for a company out of out of San Antonio. And him and I had the opportunity, potentially, to purchase one of the spin studios here in town, in Bentonville, during the pandemic. And of course, the pandemic was in the middle of that. And both of us really wanted to do it. It's something we had both talked about quite a bit of like, How cool would it be to own our own studio someday?
0:03:22.5 Matt Waller: So real quick question.
0:03:25.5 Zak Heald: Yeah.
0:03:27.1 Matt Waller: Indoor cycling. When you say that, I think of a room with spinning cycles for spinning.
0:03:32.0 Zak Heald: That's exactly it. Yeah. It's a room of indoor stationary bikes.
0:03:32.1 Matt Waller: Okay.
0:03:32.4 Zak Heald: Yeah, belt-driven, indoor cycling, indoor stationary bikes.
0:03:40.4 Matt Waller: I didn't know that was called indoor cycling. I see.
0:03:43.8 Zak Heald: For my full-time day job, I think is Intercut productions. And we do a lot of tourism content. We do a lot of cycling stuff in Northwest Arkansas. I find myself with bikes on my camera quite a bit. And so I'm kind of involved in that arena here, and in that culture. And I've seen the desire for other training methods coming about. We're seeing more and more businesses popping up in Northwest Arkansas offering opportunities for year-round training for the mountain bike trails and for these races and all of that.
0:04:14.8 Zak Heald: But one thing I don't think has really been tapped into is the opportunity of indoor cycling and what that can look like for training for the outdoor trails. It could be a great resource for people looking to have an avenue they can go every morning, rain or shine, cold, sleet, whatever it is, that they can come in and get in their zone and have an amazing workout in 45 minutes and then get off to work.
0:04:36.0 Zak Heald: And so that's what Fyrecycle is. Is it's an indoor cycling studio. If you've ever been to a larger area such as like Austin or Dallas or New York City, you may have gotten to go to a SoulCycle. It's very similar to what a SoulCycle is in the sense that we're providing a 45-minute class, high-intensity workouts, that get you in and get you out the door and get you on to your next part of the day. And hopefully builds a really amazing community around you to do that.
0:05:01.4 Zak Heald: I've watched it transform my best friend's life, and I'm really excited to see what we can do as we continue to scale that into Northwest Arkansas. The big reason we're launching Fyrecycle is the business that we were looking at buying during the pandemic, ended up just getting sold to somebody else. And in that acquisition, they are actually closing the cycling part of that business.
0:05:21.9 Zak Heald: It was a bar and cycling studio, and it's now gonna become just a bar studio. And so we were able to buy all of their spin equipment off of them at a pretty great rate, which really is going to help us into this first year of starting this new business and getting memberships and all of that going. We couldn't pass up this opportunity of acquiring all of this gear at such a great price.
0:05:40.8 Matt Waller: So I've been in spinning classes before. In fact, probably for a year and a half, I belonged to Orange Theory. And I liked it because when I traveled, I knew I could get something that would be consistent. Any major city had Orange Theory. It was a combination of calisthenics, weights and rowing and cycling. But they had a monitor where it kept track of your heart rate and which zone you were in, et cetera, et cetera. So will this have something like that? Is there any gaming involved in it?
0:06:18.0 Zak Heald: So we've gone back and forth about whether or not we want to include that into the room. I think the end decision here has been, we're not going to. One of the big things that I think excites me the most about an indoor spin studio like this is that I wanted to feel like a place that anybody can come and feel welcome. At Fyrecycle, I think our goal is less competing with the people next to you on the bikes, but rather competing with yourself and in bettering yourself day over day.
0:06:39.9 Zak Heald: And that's I think a big part of what the indoor cycling culture is, is finding yourself. We call it Fyrecycle. We use the tag line, like find your fire, of looking inward at yourself, identifying what it is inside of you that might be holding you back that day, limiting yourself and working to work that out of you.
0:07:00.3 Zak Heald: And so the end goal, I think is we're not gonna end up doing the activity monitoring on the screen, but it was considered. I think most of our clientele that we've talked to, they have their own activity trackers that they're wearing. They're doing all of their own monitoring. And most of them said that that wasn't a feature that they were looking to have on the wall.
0:07:17.8 Matt Waller: Is it hard to find good instructors for that?
0:07:22.9 Zak Heald: Yeah, that's probably the number one challenge, I think, for any studio like this across the country is instructors. We're really, really lucky. Evan has been training for the last four years to do this and has recently become, I think, one of the top selling instructors in Northwest Arkansas.
0:07:38.9 Zak Heald: And so I'm really, really excited to have him on our team. We've also managed, since the only other spin studio in Bentonville is shutting down, we've also managed to grab up quite a few of their instructors, as well, and bring them on board. So we've got a really wonderful team of instructors, and obviously that team is going to continue to grow and morph, and change over time. But we get to come out of the gate with what I feel like is a really strong group of instructors that are excited to onboard and train more people.
0:08:04.4 Matt Waller: So Zak, I know your main business at this point, really is Intercut Productions, and I've been to your studio up in Bentonville. I was really impressed. I had no idea you had such a huge studio. It's so big, you could put a helicopter in it or a airplane.
0:08:22.7 Zak Heald: Yes.
0:08:23.2 Matt Waller: Tell me a little bit about that. That's kind of curious.
0:08:27.4 Zak Heald: Yeah, so I'll kinda start back at the beginning, a little bit of how we got here into Farm Studios. So I fell in love with video as a young kid, photo and video. My grandpa always had the nicest camera in the family. He lived four doors down from me, and I remember going down to my grandpa's house as a kid and stealing his camera away and taking photos, of like all the neighborhood kids playing baseball or whatever, just like taking photos.
0:08:51.3 Zak Heald: As a kid, I was big into wrestling. I thought my plan was to go to college in Iowa City on a wrestling scholarship, get my MBA and go work in the corporate world somewhere with an MBA. And then my family, when I was starting high school, moved to Arkansas. And Arkansas had no wrestling really at the time. There was not a college recruiter in the wrestling game coming to Arkansas looking for anybody.
0:09:15.6 Zak Heald: And I was like, "Well, even if I continue on this route and I try to wrestle through high school, it's going to take so much work for me to even have an opportunity to go wrestle on scholarship at one of these big schools, because no one's coming to Arkansas." So I had this conflict of, "Well, I guess I need to leave wrestling behind, pick up something else to get me through college."
0:09:34.1 Zak Heald: And so I ended up falling in love with theater. And through theater, ended up following in love with film and television. My theater teacher at Gravette High school, at the time he was doing a lot of freelance screenwriting. I just fell in love with that process of telling stories and making them come to life.
0:09:50.5 Zak Heald: And so with a lot of his encouragement, I just started kind of doing it. Bought my own camera, saved up. I was mowing a lot of lawns. I've always been an entrepreneur. I've always had businesses. I was the kid that had 37 different lemonade stand brands. As a kid, I had a company called Clippings Lawn Service. We mowed the grass like crazy during the summer times. I did snow plowing during the winter up in Kansas City, and then occasionally in Arkansas when it would snow, in high school.
0:10:16.6 Zak Heald: There were some weekends in the wintertime where I'd be able to clear $2000 or $3000 just blowing snow off people's driveways. And that's just always who I've been. It's not even so much about making a bunch of money for me, it's really about the process. I really am in love with the entrepreneurial process. I love solving problems, finding solutions to those problems and then working to streamline that as a solution.
0:10:38.0 Zak Heald: And that's part of what makes production really, really fun for me, is the problem solving that goes along with that. Anyway, I fell in love with video, and by my junior year, had saved up enough money to kinda buy enough equipment. I was doing more and more work, just anyone that would let me come and work for free for them.
0:10:53.8 Zak Heald: I wanna say, basically, right around the time I got my driver's license, it may have even been the day I got my driver's license, to be honest, I think I drove to the courthouse and filed for my DBA. I remember, I think my very first job that was written out to Intercut Productions, the check was written to Intercut Productions, it was like maybe that next week.
0:11:09.9 Zak Heald: Yeah, and so from there, graduated high school, still just doing this as a side thing. As I guess as the side hustle, as they would say these days. And just taking all the time. My high school was amazing. And Gravette didn't have a film program, but they were very supportive of what I was doing and this passion I had found for myself. And so were letting me leave school all the time, were letting me go out to meetings. I probably shouldn't say that.
0:11:33.2 Zak Heald: But I was traveling into Bentonville to go to meetings and then coming back to class as a junior and senior in high school. And they were just really supportive and trying to help and make sure that I had every opportunity to succeed in this thing that I had started.
0:11:45.6 Zak Heald: Anyway, graduated high school and I enrolled at John Brown. And in my first year at John Brown I met some amazing people. That summer, after my freshman year, this business really took off. That was the year that drones really started hitting the market in video. And I dove headfirst into that. I had always been in love with aviation. That was always a big passion of mine. And when drones entered the market, I was like, "Oh, I can combine aviation and film now at a level that I can afford to do." Like, "Oh, I'm so in."
0:12:13.9 Zak Heald: And so I started building my own drones. Ended up meeting a bunch of people in the industry that were also just launching at this infancy of drones. And ended up getting a really great group of people around me that supported me as I grew out this aviation side of our business. And there was a few years in Arkansas where we were one of the only companies with a FAA license to do drone work.
0:12:32.5 Zak Heald: We worked for the university, we worked for Crystal Bridges. We were doing work all over the state for tourism, for all different things as one of the only licensed drone companies. And so it really helped us grow out in that first year. Then in 2015, everything changed and shifted as BFF rolled into town. The Bentonville Film Festival came into town.
0:12:49.6 Zak Heald: I met Jason Netter through the Bentonville Film Festival. He's the owner of Kickstart Entertainment. Him and I really hit it off and set a dream for what Farm Studios could look like in Arkansas. And so that's how Farm Studios came to be, is through the Bentonville Film Festival. We were both producing content for Walmart that year.
0:13:06.3 Zak Heald: The next year came around, and we both said, "You know, Bentonville has got a lot going on. Northwest Arkansas has a lot going on. Arkansas has a lot going on. The opportunity for film production and Arkansas is abundant, we just need to start building infrastructure to support it." And so that's what Farm Studios is.
0:13:21.3 Zak Heald: We moved into Farm Studios in 2019, in January 2019 or February 2019, just before the pandemic, of course. But moved into Farm Studios here, and we now have the largest sound stage in the State of Arkansas. So while my team works upstairs, we have offices here. It's really built as a rental space for people to come in and use, other agencies, other production companies, you name it.
0:13:40.3 Zak Heald: We've had all different kinds of things being shot in here. During the pandemic, someone shot an old 1800s courtroom scene in here. They built an old 1800s courtroom in here and they shot a full scene with all these actors in period costumes. It was absolutely stunning.
0:13:56.2 Zak Heald: We do a lot of different things, from branded work and commercial work in here to weird rehearsals for different types of performances. Like it's just a big open playground. It's a 100 X 90 foot space, so about 9000 square feet of just open space to play and create. So that's how Farm Studios came to be.
0:14:16.4 Matt Waller: Zak, would you spend a few moments telling me about where you want to take Intercut Productions.
0:14:23.4 Zak Heald: So Intercut, we say we have three tiers of our business. We have our commercial production side, which is the day in and day out, Northwest Arkansas. When you think of what's being shot in Northwest Arkansas, that's that. It's the branded work for the Walmarts, the Tysons, the different vendor brands in Northwest Arkansas.
0:14:40.3 Zak Heald: The second part of our business is original content. For the original content side, that's something that I think we're really excited about. And that is how can we create and develop content that we can shoot here in Arkansas, or around the country, but ideally here in Arkansas, to promote the Arkansas area, through original content.
0:14:58.8 Zak Heald: And so that could look like a narrative film, narrative feature films about a girl that moves here to work for the big corporate company and meets the mountain biker of her dreams on the trails. Right? And they fall in love and live happily ever after. Starting to tell those stories about Arkansas. Giving Arkansas that national stage when it comes to culture creation.
0:15:19.8 Zak Heald: The third part of our business is the opportunity that we have right now inside of documentary filmmaking. And I think that's a big part of our team's passion is documentary work. We have gotten the opportunity to do a lot of branded docs with different companies where we get to go, and they'll send us somewhere in the country and we go shoot a five or 10-minute documentary about whatever it is they're interested in, or some story they wanna highlight.
0:15:45.2 Zak Heald: And so in that, we've been now starting to look at what are other documentaries we can develop on our own? Longer form stuff. And we've got a few different things in the works now from both on the series end, as well as, on a one-off documentary feature and of what that looks like. Some of it is about Arkansas, but a lot more of it is about the stories and the people that may be intersecting through Arkansas.
0:16:06.7 Zak Heald: Arkansas's a big passion of mine. I love promoting Arkansas. I'm always looking at ways how I can weave Arkansas into what we do to tell the Arkansas story. I think Arkansas, when I travel, I hate the perception people have of Arkansas, when they're like, "Oh, where are you from? And like, "Oh, I'm from Arkansas." And they're like, "Where from where?" And, "You do what for a living?"
0:16:26.7 Zak Heald: And no one ever can put all this together. Like, "Yeah, I have a production company in Arkansas. We're doing fine." Like, "We have a big studio." Like no one understands that that's happening in Arkansas, or anything that's happening up here. And so one of my big passions has become just sharing that. And that's where Northwest Arkansas Alive comes in. Is, How can we promote Northwest Arkansas through documentary, through nonfiction or storytelling? Through fiction storytelling even. How can we promote the story of Northwest Arkansas for what it is?
0:16:54.1 Zak Heald: And so I think the future of Intercut is really exciting. We're looking at documentaries, we're looking at narrative films, we're looking at online content, all working to tell the story of Northwest Arkansas through aviation, through cycling, through art, through all the things that make us all love living here.
0:17:11.9 Matt Waller: We have, it seems like a growing number of students who want to become entrepreneurs. Many times people tell them, "Oh, you should work for a few years after you graduate before you start your own business." And in some cases that is true. It depends on what you wanna go into. There's a lot of businesses you really couldn't just get in without having some experience directly working for someone else. But in some cases you can. It just depends. And different people have different abilities to adapt and learn and so forth. But for the students that are getting out and wanting to start off with starting their own business, what advice do you have for them?
0:17:55.5 Zak Heald: My first advice would be, take every opportunity. Which can take a number of forms, but I think with the obvious one coming out of this question is, take the opportunities that are given to you to go work. Right? For me, I've never had a full-time job outside of working for myself as far as getting a full-time check in the mail or direct deposit, or anything like that.
0:18:16.6 Zak Heald: Now, that being said, I did take the first two to three years of my career and worked for basically anybody for almost nothing or nothing. I volunteered my time. There's people in my life that I would say I did apprenticeships underneath that were mentors to me. I went to them and said, "Look, you don't have to pay me. I don't want money working for you. I just want you to invite me onto your film sets, I want you to invite me onto your production sets and just let me learn from you. I will carry sandbags across the room if that's what it takes. Just let me be there and let me absorb and learn what you're doing." And that's been a big part of who I am today, and the skill set that I have and have developed has come from the opportunities that I've said yes to.
0:19:00.8 Zak Heald: There were things I did. I used to do a ton of reality TV. And if you're ever in video, or anyone that's in video that's listening to this knows the reality TV is probably not where you wanna end up. It's a really terrible work environment, but it does teach you a lot of lessons, maybe the hard way, but you learn really quickly in reality TV. Things are happening so fast. The schedules are grueling. The content itself usually is the most painful of content to try to shoot, and whole horrible drama out of things, but doing that taught me a ton.
0:19:34.2 Zak Heald: And so I think that's my number one piece of advice is to say yes to every single opportunity that someone brings you. It may not feel like there's a immediate gain, but it may be the relationships you pull out of that, or it may just be the little things you pick up when you're not even thinking about it. But take the opportunities. They're going to help you along the way. There's a number of people that I've worked for, I've said yes to that I still go back and think about, "Oh my gosh, if I hadn't done that job... " The people I would have missed out on or the experience that I would have missed out on is so great.
0:20:03.2 Matt Waller: Well, Zak, congratulations on your tremendous success as an entrepreneur. And thank you for taking time to share your story and your wisdom with us. We really appreciate it.
0:20:13.7 Zak Heald: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
0:20:21.8 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast. One word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C-PODCAST. And now, Be EPIC.