MINNEAPOLIS – Joel Korte need only catch a glimpse of an old grade school portrait for the memories to come creeping back.
He's in the third or fourth grade and one-by-one his classmates have been responding to their teacher's cue to speak.
"As a person who stutters you know what's coming next," he says.
On days when oral reports were due, Korte avoided the anxiety altogether.
"I pretended to be sick," he says. That's how much stuttering wore on his young psyche.
But Korte has no need for fake sick days anymore.
The 31-year-old Ramsey resident has successfully launched a manufacturing business, thanks in part to a series of YouTube videos in which Korte pitches his product in full, unedited stutter.
"I just felt like I was the guy for the job," Korte smiles.
By all accounts, he made the right call.
In the two years since Korte started designing and building guitar effects pedals, he's shipped hundreds of his pedals to guitarists around the world.
He now counts among his customers members of bands such as Nine Inch Nails, A-ha and Soul Asylum.
But bright as his future appears, Korte has not turned his back on his anxiety-ridden past. It's the reason he can be found mentoring students at Kids who Stutter Camp, held each summer at the University of Minnesota.
"There's something about getting people together who stutter and especially kids who stutter," says Korte, recalling his childhood. "You really feel like you're alone."
Korte carried his stuttering anxiety all the way into adulthood. Newly graduated with an electrical engineering degree, he remembers his heart pounding whenever the phone rang on his desk.
"I would have this 4 p.m. meeting at the end of the day that I would just think about it all day and just worry about," Korte says. "That's not a recipe for happiness."
Korte credits his transformation to therapy - and his only brother Chase, an up and coming actor who died eight years ago when his car was struck by a drunk driver.
The loss was devastating.
"It really made me reflect, like, why am I spending my life in such a miserable situation, so unhappy?"
When Korte launched his company he chose the name Chase Bliss Audio, a reference to a Joseph Campbell quote that was his brother's favorite: "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls."
Rather than run from his stuttering,
"I really wanted to make my brother proud of me," he says.
Korte's YouTube videos contain a disclaimer. "Joel stutters," it reads. The disclaimer then suggests in PG-13 language that anyone who finds his stuttering unsettling or unpleasant should "buy a different pedal."
Commenters on Korte's videos routinely salute him for his honesty. One wrote, "I'm so flashed by the sound of the pedal I didn't even hear anyone stutter."
For Korte, the success of the videos has been empowering. "If somebody says anything negative, all these other people yell at them. Even the negative comments make me feel good because people defend me."
It's confidence Korte happily shares with the children at stutter camp.
"He is definitely a mentor," says Josh Hebeisen, an eighth grader who has been attending the camp for years.
"I watched some of his videos," adds fifth grader Sonny Ramirez. "And I try to remember that stuttering isn't a bad thing."
Though it's all Korte can do to keep up with orders for his pedals, he still took a week off this year to help at the camp.
He's determined no child should feel the way he once did.
"I just hope they know that they're great exactly how they are and that they're going to be able to do anything they want to do," Korte says.