Cody Wiesmueller of Ripon, WI asks:
My name is Cody Wiesmueller from Ripon WI. I am 18 years old and one of my biggest goals in life is to work with some of the biggest ice fishing companies and travel, produce television shows, promote products at shows, etc. I have sponsorship experience but recently I have had a really hard time getting any type of company to notice me and believe in me. Seeing as how you've become really successful in the fishing industry I would like some advice. I attend shows and talk to various companies. I really feel like I am qualified to work with any company. I make connections but nothing ever comes of them. Any advice is great. Thanks Joel.
Hey Cody - I get this question quite a bit, and I remember asking it several times myself when I was trying to work my way up in the industry. It's a tough question, with no simple answer. There's even a book or two devoted to the subject. I'll offer the same advice that a great friend and brand manager of a national fishing company offered me more than a decade ago. The thoughts are his, and I've found them to be wholly accurate and important.
Fishing Industry Thoughts:
You need to think of yourself as a business. You must make the initial capital investment in your business in order to sell your product to a sponsor. Being a skilled angler is not enough (it’s expected). What makes you attractive to a sponsor is thought leadership and influence. Most brands/products/manufactures will have been in business and selling well without your help, your “business plan” must be centric to explaining “why” they need you (not the other way around). That’s where your investment comes in. You must first invest in developing your “business” because the early years will be 99% funded by you with 1% support from the industry. Your “Business plan” should be to reverse those numbers over a period of time. How quickly you get there is determined by how hard you work.
Set your expectations equal to your effort, knowing most start up business don't turn a profit for the first 5-7 years, so figure out a way to fund yourself. Whether that’s guiding, retail sporting goods, normal 9-5 gig.... but do it in a manner that allows ample time on the water, because there is no better credibility than a big fish & a bigger grin.
Location - Is your market is currently under served? Is it a destination/vacation area? If so, this works in your favor in that you have a dense population of local anglers as well as a ton of visitors thirsty for information. Your job will be to promote the fishery as much as yourself. Spend some time doing your due diligence to better understand and duplicate this. There are plenty of case studies out there (Jason Mitchell + Devils lake), (Tony Roach + Mille Lacs), etc, all multi species anglers that promote the area and in doing so themselves. You see they know these are destination lakes with healthy fisheries therefore people will want/seek information to have a successful day on the water. Be the person that gives them that information & make it easy to find. All the examples above are guides turned promoters. They did the hard work years ago and are now reaping the rewards. They are all trusted thought leaders of the sport but that didn’t happen overnight, their credibility was earned one hook set at a time.
Decide what to be and go be it - Specialize early on. Think of it like opening a restaurant in your area. We both agree your location would support a restaurant to feed locals & travelers, but what kind? Burger, BBQ, Taco?
Are you going to be a buffet and serve up information year round on all of that, or are you going to be specialty focused? Again, do your due diligence/market research from a competitive stand point. Who is already successful in your area, what are they doing, who are they doing it with, how do you fit in, will you create enemies? A buffet has more inventory, but they make it up in volume whereas a specialty restaurant has less inventory and makes it up on margin. Point being are you going to do a lot of things and be all thing to all people, or a few things really good? Either way you can be successful but make sure you know what your signing up for. One is a shotgun blast that requires a pellet load, the other a rifle shot that has to hit center of mass. Are you going to be a big fish in a small pond (specialized) or a small fish in a big pond (All things to all people)? It’s easy to raise one’s profile in a small segment. Ice fishing is a market size of roughly 2 million anglers. There is roughly 12 marquee thought leaders to serve the market all geographically based and so on, but you can get more blanket coverage by being all things to all people, but raising ones profile in larger segments (Open water / Bass) requires more work as there are thousands of regional thought leaders with long lasting relationships serving the industry. Either way you go, your product is credibility and influence because without it, you have no basis in creating a path to purchase towards the gear/brand you endorse. Cause at the end of the day, if you cannot convert sales for your sponsor you have no value to them.
Once you select the segment, your next step would be to select the gear you want to use/promote. Again do your market research - Let’s use ice fishing as an example OK.
Nobody wants to represent/endorse “junk products or brands” but there is a good better best that all sell well in each category. One could rate shelters as such good/better/best. In every case, the good is volume based more unit sales require more support so getting on a crew like that is easier. The best is not volume based. A company like that spends more money on development & quality and less on marketing with the mindset good products sell themselves. They invest in the product -vs- the marketing of it, so getting on their crew is a little harder, but in the long run worth it, as aspirational brands make the credibility factor easier. Next you need to explore the need aspect. Anglers on Lake of the Woods “need” quality as they make 20 mile runs out to the fishing grounds daily whereas an angler in Iowa that has limited ice and a shorter season can get by with any shack...
Determine what’s the right product mix for the style of fishing suited for your area. Once you determine this decide which products/brands offer the unique selling position and cater best to your area, then go into retailers and find out how those products are selling. If they are already selling well, it’s no mistake, if they are not, there’s your opportunity to reach out to the Manufacturer and offer assistance in growing sales in area. Remember you are a business, most new businesses fail, failure is the result of poor planning. Spend a lot of time formulating your business plan, determine if it’s possible, then go execute it.
Marketing - Frequency, Consistency, & Reach. This should become your bible. Look at In-Fisherman Frequency - 40 years of TV programing every Sunday morning. Consistency - same slogan, messaging, position “catch more and bigger fish”. Reach nationally broadcast multimedia organization (TV, magazine, syndicate articles...). That being said they started out in the same boat you are. They grew up in Chicago, and moved to the Brainerd area, became successful guides and tournament anglers. That drew the attention of Jerry Mckinnis (I think it was Jerry if not someone else that had a show back then) They filmed a show one day with Jerry, and the very next day Ron looked at Al and said, “we can do this,” and so they did. Reach is the most important part, remember everyone can catch fish, your value to the industry is reach. Kevin Van Dam’s reach is by winning Tournaments (Consistently see how this word keeps coming up) the Lindners do it via TV/print. This day in age it’s easier than ever. 20 years ago you needed a larger investment in that the medium wasn't free (TV, Radio, Print were large investments, i.e., production cameras, cameramen, editing suites, commercial spot sales people, broadcast airtime fee’s...) Now a kid with a hot stick and a go-pro can create a YouTube channel that creates more views than Fox sports north programming (Look up un-cut angling YouTube views/subscribers or In-Depth Outdoors YouTube views/subscribers.) Follow their formula. One is entertainment based and one is information based in creating a following. Both have gathered an audience large enough to attract sponsors. How will you gather your audience must be part of your business plan and fit the product mix (Serious brands require serious influencers or are technical sales)
The rest of the playbook is as follows:
Build relationships with the brands you want to target. Don’t ask for a thing (that’s a turn off). This is an old boy’s network, so become one of the old boy’s. Frequently (there's that word again) send them an email telling them how you caught a fish because of their product or because of a unique feature only they offer. Include a picture. Emails like these travel all through the office. It’s like getting a thank you card. Do it often enough and eventually you will strike a relationship with a decision maker within the organization. Call them up in the off season, find out what new products are coming out tell them why that will be successful in your area, because after all they now their product, but you know your area and how it fishes. Eventually they’ll ask you to do more. Point is don’t ask for anything until you have a relationship.
Tourism councils/Bureau The local community has budgets and resources dedicated to driving in tourists dollars associated with the resources. Find out how you can become part of the similar objective. This won’t happen overnight, but is a key ingredient.
Local writers Writers write and fishermen fish. Do you want to spend your time fishing or writing about fishing? Writers are always looking for a story (cause that’s what they are paid to do. Call/email them build a relationship with them. Read their articles send them an email when the write a good one telling them how much you appreciate it... When you’re on a hot bite, tell them the story send them a picture. Give them a reason to write about you and eventually they will.
Digital & Social media. Post Consistently on fishing forums pick one or do all (Fishing MN, Lake State Fishing, In-Depth outdoors) all have regional threads dedicated to your area. Give updates on water conditions, bites, species... Do enough to build credibility, but walk the razors edge of not pissing of the locals and killing a bite with too much pressure.....
Live a clean life. It’s worth saying, one stupid mistake like a DUI or Fish and game violation can destroy any credibility you have. In this day in age with all the special regulations make sure that you know every one of them. You’ll be under a microscope and local angers pissed that you’re promoting their hot spot or an envious competitor will be looking to knock you down. Don’t give them a reason.
Good Years & Bad Years - Expect change. It’s the nature of the industry. Expect change that is out of your control. A relationship you have with a brand could change overnight. As long as you are valuable to the brand the relationship won’t matter. Every business ebbs and flows, don't ever get discouraged.
Take your time and build it right. Be in it for the long haul. Nothing happens overnight. But everything that’s worth it is worth working towards. Your business should start today (register on a forum search for a writer) and be self-sufficient in 6-10 years.
Let me be the first to tell you that you can’t do this and you will fail. Everyone you love and everyone you respect will eventually say this to you. As long as you feel the magic that happens when your line is ticked, you are impervious to that statement. It’s easy to make a living, everyone does it. You can go out and get any job you want, make money and fish on the weekends, do it for 40 years, retire, and fish every day. They say “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” if that’s what you want, I just gave you the play book.