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Living and Working on the Frontier of Wyoming - Part 1

Mar 07, 2011

By Shelli Johnson

Greetings from my mobile office on the Frontier of Wyoming.

The season dictates the mode of travel for my work “commute,” but suffice it to say it will be a 10-minute walk, a 4-minute bicycle ride, or a 2-minute drive. It’s a cold one this morning, so I drove. My furnace is still getting going so it’s a mere 40 degrees in my office right now. (Hey, that beats the 13 degrees that it is outside right now.)

My office is a 1973 RV. Cost for this office, which Inc Magazine recently honored as one of the world’s coolest indoor/outdoor spaces, was $2,000. It is bought and paid for, has wheels, and only 53,000 miles on it. A travel media writer and producer, I like to refer to my office as being “adventure ready.”

There are only five people per square mile on the frontier of Wyoming. I am alone, but it is not lonely. My coworkers are deer and sage grouse – and I have Facebook. If I must be in a big city for work, I can get there in less than a day. I simply board a small plane in nearby Riverton that affords me a seat that is both near the aisle and a window. And, I don’t mean to brag, but we are always first for departure.

Every morning when I wake up in my hometown of Lander, WY, I realize I am lucky. I’m 42, married to Jerry, who is a teacher here, and we have three sons, Wolf, 10, Hayden, 8 and Finis, 3. I am an entrepreneur, a consultant and travel publisher. In addition, I’m getting certified to be a life and leadership coach.

My parents, Nancy and Bill Sniffen, moved us to Wyoming from Iowa when I was three. Nothing against the Hawkeye State, but I view my family’s move here as one of the greatest gifts my parents have given me. I can’t imagine a life without my beloved Wind River Mountains.

Yellowstone is less than three hours away. I love the world’s first national park. As a child, I visited the Park on many occasions with my family. Jerry and I honeymooned in Yellowstone.

When I’m not working, or sometimes when I am, I explore the outdoors. One of my main passions is taking long day hikes. Last May I hiked from Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim of the Grand Canyon – 45 miles and 23,000’ of elevation gain/loss – in 23 hours. Every summer I go on a handful of day hikes in the Wind Rivers that are 20 to 32 miles in length. The hikes are mostly uphill, travel over rugged terrain and go for what seems like forever. The hiking is hard work, but the awe-inspiring views and precious solitude make the effort worthwhile.

It’s a lot like operating your own business. To be successful requires you work hard, and in Wyoming, you often do it in solitude.

In 1994, after publishing a weekly newspaper in the flat, farm country of south-central South Dakota, Jerry and I, in partnership with my parents, started Yellowstone Journal Corporation.

We launched Yellowstone Journal, “an independent newspaper dedicated to Yellowstone.” Our goal was to provide in-depth reporting about Yellowstone’s many features in a publication that was up to date and affordable.

Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I like hard work. For me, if the work is hard, the outcome is often more fulfilling.

That first Spring, Jerry and I drove 22,000 miles throughout the Greater Yellowstone region in a beater Suburban, whose engine often overheated on the mountain passes and whose tail end fish-tailed when loaded full of Yellowstone Journals.

I can still remember making an advertising sales pitch to a group of business leaders in Jackson Hole. More sophisticated than us, they looked at us like we were crazy – and with sympathy. But, they were polite and, I think, appreciated our enthusiasm. We closed our first advertising sale as a result of that meeting. (Mark Weakland, the then-marketing director of the Best Western Inn at Jackson Hole, bought an ad in our first edition. Claudia Wade, of Park County Tourism Council, and Judie Blair, of Blair Hotels, in Cody, were other early advertisers, to whom I will always be grateful.)

Years one through four were the most difficult, but it was always hard work. We never stopped pushing, innovating and reinvesting to grow and expand. It was never easy, and we never stopped pressing forward.

Because I love hiking up mountains, as an entrepreneur I like to think of a business as a mountain. Most often the going is painfully slow and impossibly difficult. You are frequently out of breath, and the slope is unrelentingly steep.

You seldom stop along the way out of fear that you’ll get passed by or that you may choose not to continue. You do, however, pause – if only briefly– to look back and take measure of how far you’ve come. Frequently, you are aware that it would be easier to quit – to turn around and cut your losses. But you don’t because somehow you believe that you will make it to the top, and that when you do, it will have been worth it.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I was fascinated with, and inspired by real life survival stories that involved expeditions where human will persevered against great odds. During the years of building Yellowstone Journal Corporation, I read books like The Worst Journey in the World, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose, about Lewis and Clark Expedition, to name only a few.)

Frederick Jackson Turner was an influential American historian in the early 20th century. He is best known for his book, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, whose ideas are referred to as the Frontier Thesis.

I love the way Turner described the frontier. In 1893, he argued, essentially, that unlimited free land offered “the psychological sense of unlimited opportunity.” This had many consequences such as “optimism, future orientation and shedding of restraints.”

Especially in Yellowstone Journal Corporation’s early years, we were probably overly optimistic, given our isolation and limited resources. I guess it’s the frontier’s fault for that.

Starting a business from scratch is a lot like showing up at a place where the road ends and the frontier begins.

The frontier is largely unsettled, unknown. It is full of promise and things to be discovered, opportunity. Much of it is ‘unclaimed.’ It’s rugged and impossibly expansive and big. I think it’s this “promise” that it holds for us that generates such commitment and resilience.

The frontier is also a land of few roads and few signs, and it’s short on people. It is harsh, full of hazards and, for the most part, uncharted. But the journey through it is nothing short of transformative. And, because it is the frontier, you’re one of the first to experience it.

Even though we were promoting one of the most stunning natural destinations in the whole world, as a small, privately owned and operated enterprise out on the frontier, it was difficult to get the world’s attention.

Still, we were inspired by the possibility that our business could be the best in the world, and motivated by the impossibility that it ever would be.

In 1995, we kept hearing about “The Internet.” We didn’t understand what the Internet was, but were smart enough to realize its importance. I reserved the domain name,, and we developed our first website. Soon after, was named a Yahoo Site of the Week. Following that honor, we went from reaching 25,000 customers in a year to reaching 25,000 customers in 24 hours. (Our small company was also featured in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

Suddenly, we could get the world’s attention.

Over the years, we innovated and expanded. We added another magazine, 99 Things to Do in Yellowstone Country, a direct mail Yellowstone Trip Planner Kit, email newsletters, translated the site in German, French and Italian, created more than 50 podcasts, added video to the site, and more. won the prestigious Webby Award (known as “The Oscars for the Internet”) for best tourism site in the world in 2005 and 2007.

But our work wasn’t done. Our grand vision for the business was to replicate our model to other national parks in the West. We began searching for a partner to help put wheels on our expansion plan. In September 2008, Active Interest Media, the owner of Backpacker, Yoga Journal, American Cowboy, Climbing, and other niche magazines, acquired our business. It was a wonderful fit. (From September 2008-September 2010, I remained on board as chief strategist for the expansion brand,, and helped develop websites for Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion and Rocky Mountain national parks.)

Of course, none of it would have been possible without the loving support and partnership of my husband and my parents, and the wonderful leadership and employees we had over the years, our advertisers and visitors to the Yellowstone region.

Currently, I am starting up a new mountain...

Stay tuned for Shelli Johnson's new Wyoming business....


Shelli Johnson is an entrepreneur offering consulting in: personal branding, social media, content development, tourism promotion, media production and small business development. She is also a life and leadership coach and a keynote presenter at various conferences, where she often shares her story about starting and operating a business from out on the frontier. An avid outdoor adventurer and traveler, Shelli posts regularly to her blog, She is YellowstoneShel on Twitter.

Category: Entrepreneur

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