Mizzou Founder Features: Nic Parks

Kiley Grimes2024-03-04

Welcome to Mizzou Founder Features, where we spotlight exceptional founders who embarked on their entrepreneurial journey at Mizzou or thereafter. With over 20 billion-dollar companies created by alumni, Mizzou has an impressive but under-the-radar legacy. This series serves as a catalyst to empower student entrepreneurs and link the vibrant Mizzou Startup Community with some of the best entrepreneurs and investors out there, igniting opportunities and fostering connections for aspiring innovators. The Mizzou Startup Community connects Mizzou alumni and student entrepreneurs, facilitating access to valuable network effects, insights, and a carefully curated collection of guides and resources!

Nic Parks | Como Business Times | 2018’s 20 Under 40

From building Legos to building empires, Nic Parks has owned and operated more companies than we can count on one hand, proving the American Dream is still alive. After coming from a working-class family, and graduating college with $70,000 in student loan debt, he turned a successful online retail business into a business empire. He lives his life by one philosophy: do something good for your business and community every day and have fun doing it. What he calls his “Empire of Fun”, his collection of businesses, is nothing short of incredible. Whether you know him for The Pinball Company, Silverball, Lakeside, Cantina, Shiloh, Level Up, or another one of his ventures, Nic is much more than just a businessman. He is an extraordinary family guy, creator of fun, problem solver, and a people person.  He continues to chase his dreams while prioritizing those most important to him, his family, and his employees. Nic is truly one of Columbia’s greatest, but his journey wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows.

Humble Beginnings

Nic Parks was raised in Florissant, Missouri where his mother hung wallpaper and his stepfather did van conversions. He had a humble childhood and understood from a young age the value of education. As a kid, he had always been a little farther ahead than his classmates, recalling that math always came easy to him. Being a problem-solver, by nature, ignited his fire inside to take on more challenges and think bigger.

“I always thought that I was made for something bigger than myself, and I still don’t think I’ve found that thing yet, but I’ll continue problem-solving and growing the community until I find that.”

Despite financial struggles, Parks pursued higher education at Mizzou, earning both a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Business Administration. At Mizzou, he was involved in Entrepreneurs Unlimited. This group introduced him to like-minded people who had a voice inside, driving them to dream bigger. However, his academic achievements came with a hefty price tag. $70,000 in student loan debt created pressure to make money and make it fast.

Right out of college, Parks worked at Amini’s, a furniture and game room retailer. He said he was good at the job, and able to make a living from commissions. Parks said he enjoyed being around games all day. The store sold pinball machines in the back corner. While the sales were sufficient, Parks saw an opportunity to make money selling pinball machines online.

“There was a company in Florida selling pinball machines online. But their website was not attractive and he didn’t have very much inventory. I thought, if he can do it, I can do it too and I bet I can do it better.”

He did in fact do it better. Parks opened The Pinball Company in August 2006 with $10,000 in credit card debt, because no bank would give him money. It was an instant success and orders were starting to pile up. Interestingly enough, he was making his first sales with zero inventory. When someone ordered a pinball machine, he would buy one online and ship it to the customer.

The profits were invested right back into the company, enabling Parks to start buying inventory. First, he filled his garage, then a small showroom in Brentwood, Missouri, then a warehouse. By 2007, just one year after opening, The Pinball Company had brought in $2.5 million in revenue - Nic Parks’ life was about to change forever.

Building An Empire

It was clear that the company was going to keep growing rapidly. Parks knew he needed to build a team of people he could trust to help shape his empire. He asked his wife to quit her job and help run day-to-day operations. For a long time, Parks paid his family friend Kevin to deliver pinball machines across the country.

“The truck broke down on the side of the road somewhere in Illinois. I told Kevin just to leave it there and get a taxi home because we’re done being a logistics company. We found companies that could do nationwide deliveries for us and that let us scale a lot faster. It’s about finding solutions to problems and making them work until they don’t, then finding a new solution.”

The Pinball Company subcontracts hundreds of technicians nationwide to help service the machines and employs a few full-time technicians who fully refurbish old machines. As for the future, Parks said they’ve always toyed with the idea of breaking into the pinball machine manufacturing market, whether that be merging with an already established manufacturer or starting their own.

Nic Parks ran The Pinball Company for 6 years before starting a family because that’s how long it took before he knew that he could sit down and eat breakfast and dinner with his kids every day. He remembers changing his son’s diaper on a pool table at work – now his son is eleven and he has a six-year-old daughter. Parks said it is incredible, watching his family and his companies grow alongside each other.

“When we got to the point where the business no longer needed as much reinvestment to grow, I knew I had to invest it in the next business instead of spending it on useless stuff. I don’t have a boat, a lakehouse, a Rolex, or a Ferrari, but I do have a handful of growing businesses and I think that’s more powerful than any material thing.”

In 2011, the owners of Galactic Fun Zone, came to Parks wanting to partner. He put $80,000 worth of Pinball Company equipment in the space for a fifty-fifty profit share. After a few years, Parks’ arcade games in Galactic Fun Zone were producing $500,000 annually, which they used to make improvements in the business.

Parks saw an opportunity to take entertainment in Columbia to the next level. His investment at Galactic Fun Zone was becoming a lot to take on under The Pinball Company. In 2014, he created Parks Amusements as a way to split his entertainment ventures off from the online retail business. Parks asked his wife, Brooke, to step into the role of CEO of The Pinball Company. He thanks her for being not only his life partner but also his most valuable business partner. She’s been there through thick and thin, supporting him as he transitioned from CEO of The Pinball Company to growing Parks Amusements. Brooke’s leadership has taken The Pinball Company to new heights, and they remain side-by-side in all their ventures.

Parks Amusements became the umbrella company for his “Empire of Fun'' which today includes Level Up Entertainment, Silverball, Cantina, and Lakeside Amphitheater, with a couple of other businesses bought and sold over the years.

Since the birth of Parks Amusements, Parks has lived up to his goal of making Columbia a destination town – and he’s not finished. Galactic Fun Zone became Lazer Lanes, which he bought out and relocated to Columbia Mall. He built a full bar and kitchen, a ropes course, a laser tag arena, and is still adding more. Silverball, Columbia’s first arcade bar, opened in 2017 and became a staple for college students and arcade lovers in the area. Parks focused on newer arcade machines and frozen drinks as opposed to the vintage games and craft beer of other arcade bars he visited.

However, business isn’t the only item on Parks’ agenda. In 2015, he discovered Tigers on the Prowl, a local charity organization that auctions off tiger-themed art made by artists, most of whom are local. Parks loved the idea and decided to jump in and help out. By 2016, Parks was president and made Tigers on the Prowl an official nonprofit charity. The organization has raised over $1 million for a few dozen local charities, of which there are usually about five chosen per year.

Parks bought Shiloh Bar and Grill in 2021 with friend Justin Benson. They remodeled and restructured the place and brought a fresh, exciting feel to the restaurant. In late 2022, after a long time of planning and building, Parks opened Lakeside, an outdoor amphitheater and venue in Ashland, Missouri. It’s been a huge success so far, bringing in thousands of people from the surrounding communities through a variety of events like Fight Night, corporate events, and music festivals.

“Lakeside is one of my favorite projects. Our goal is to make it the best place to listen to live music in Mid-Missouri by bringing in talented artists and providing a beautiful and fun environment for our guests.”

Lakeside Ashland | Facebook

Legacy and Looking Ahead

Nic Parks has touched so many businesses and lives over the past 20 years, yet there’s a fire inside him that burns to do more. When asked what keeps him coming in every day and giving it his all, he said, “Everyday I try to do something to make the business better for me and my customers. It’s not hard to build something great when you’re showing up every single day making incremental steps in the right direction. There’s no cheat code, just hard work day after day.”

Parks' approach to business is rooted in empowerment, both of his employees and the community at large. He subtly mentioned that he once sold Tiger Bounce, a children’s amusement center, to one of his employees for $1. He fosters a culture where creativity and entrepreneurship thrive, encouraging his team to think like owners and contribute their ideas. Moreover, Parks extends his impact beyond the boardroom, mentoring students at Mizzou and offering free consulting sessions to aspiring entrepreneurs. Parks stops by all of his businesses regularly to check in, lend a hand, and say hi to his employees, whom he calls family.

Of course, there are lessons he has learned along the way from decisions he wishes he could change. For example, he wishes he would have taken on outside investors earlier in the game. He now sees the value in having a diverse team of people working together. He finds it hard to not own 100% of Parks Amusements, but he sees value in what investors bring to the table – they challenge him to think and act bigger.

However, Nic Parks isn’t one to dwell on the past. Looking ahead, he envisions further growth for Parks Amusements, with the goal of expanding his brand to impact more communities and lives across the nation and reaching $100 million in annual revenue within the next 10 years. Parks started and operated numerous businesses and hopes to be able to use Parks Amusements to take the passenger seat as an investor and consultant in businesses. He remains committed to his mission of elevating Columbia as a premier destination, enriching the community he calls home. Parks said his next big things are a tech startup, bringing Level Up to communities across the nation, expanding Lakeside, and teaching an entrepreneurship class at Mizzou.

“I want to show students that they can turn their lives around too. I’ve built my resources up so much to be able to put them back into the community.”

Nic Parks is a force to be reckoned with and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. His story serves as a testament to the transformative power of entrepreneurship and the enduring spirit of the American Dream. As Nic Parks continues to pave the way for future generations of entrepreneurs, his legacy will unfold for years to come.


Who are some of the individuals who have been pivotal figures in shaping both your business endeavors and personal life?

Growing up, my mom ran her own wallpapering business and she was a very hard worker. My upbringing definitely taught me frugality and the value of a strong work ethic. To this day, anytime something needs to be done or fixed I can do myself, instead of hiring someone, I’d rather do it. When I am at Level Up, I clean and help customers, and at Shiloh, I’m often bussing tables or running food.

I would not be as successful in business without the support of my wife, Brooke. We work great as a team. She has taken the lead at The Pinball Company and supports me in all of my ventures. I’m lucky to have her as my partner in life.

If you could sit down with freshman-year Nic, what would you tell him?

  1. Instill confidence in yourself to dream big
  2. I can overcome the financial challenges and be successful. People have this mindset that they can only do it if they come from money but that’s not true. Don’t worry about the financial challenges when starting your business – you can overcome that.

Share your best piece(s) of advice for current and aspiring entrepreneurs at Mizzou.

  1. Reinvest as much of your revenues as you can. Your goal should be to live off of a smaller and smaller percentage of your income each year. For example, if you need $100,000 a year and you make $200,000, reinvest the extra $100,000 in growing your business instead of buying stuff you didn’t need. That’s how you build an empire.
  2. Think bigger. I did it and you can too.
  3. Look for opportunities everywhere you go.
  4. Real success takes self-improvement and hard work. Don’t ever believe that there’s a shortcut you can take - there’s not.
  5. Continue to learn and work on yourself. Mental toughness and resilience will get you a long way.

Share the title of a book or two, or a podcast, that you would recommend to any entrepreneur.

I’m not a book reader. I don’t think I’ve ever read a full book in my whole life, other than the children's books that I read to my kids every night. I’m reading Shoe Dog right now - I’m hopeful I can make it to the finish line. I feel like I could write a book.

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