Northern Michigan People: You’ve seen it a thousand times and probably have one of your own. Simple and sleek, this Michigan and Great Lakes decal makes even my baby blue Hyundai look black Jeep-sporty. But even better, it contributes to non-profits and programs all over Michigan and beyond. The company is Great Lakes Proud. And when you buy one of their products, they donate no less than 15 percent to a do-good organization. So after receiving our media complimentary stickers in the mail (definite perk of the job, guys) we met up with the company’s founder, Austin Holsinger. Read on for the back story of the sticker that’s classing-up your back window—And now ours.

You’re a Michigan native and the creator of a pro-Michigan movement. Did you ever leave the mitten before launching Great Lakes Proud?

Actually the family jokes that I’m a little vagabond, maybe a gypsy spirit. I grew up in Petoskey and went to college downstate at Hillsdale. But after school I left Michigan, moved to San Francisco and then from there went to Montana. I just wanted to be active and be moving.

So what did you do out there, a little soul searching?

Something like that… Basically I had this long season of skiing where I’d go to clinical studies, wash my hands with a new soap for like 3 hours, earn 150 bucks and take the money to the ski runs. I knew I wanted to work for myself but was still in the brainstorm phase.

Ah, sounds like there is an entrepreneurial spirit inside that little gypsy.

Oh for sure. In high school I rebuilt golf clubs for money. And then in college, my friends and I started up something called the National Park Tour. The first step was to visit 15-20 National Parks and spend the first day taking pictures, the second day cleaning. We all went off in different life directions, but from the beginning I’ve wanted a purposeful business that’s really about leaving something better than how we find it.

And so you think, I’ll make a sticker?

Yep, the sticker was born.  With my vagabond tendencies, there was a point in time between San Francisco and Montana that I visited family in Florida. I crossed paths with a girl I grew up with, who conveniently is a very talented graphic artist.  I told her about this South Carolina sticker I’d seen all over cars in the south. It had a crescent moon and a palm tree in the design, very similar to their state flag. But with our state being an emblem itself in geography, I thought, I can do that for Michigan.

Are you saying this graphic guru suddenly appears and the rest is history?

Not quite. I asked her, Hey how hard is it to make this? Confident, she went ahead, drafted up the first design and I took it back to Montana. I started researching costs and building a business plan around the product. Finally I just decided to order a shipment online and try it out. I had 1000 stickers in my hand and went from there. I thought worse case, I give a bunch of cool looking stickers to a bunch of friends. But yeah I built the website, used the store app on Facebook and started utilizing the basics.

Alright so the design is solid, the stickers are made, but how do you get the ball rolling on the charity end?

From the very get-go that was a part of the business plan. If we were going to do this it was going to have purpose. The sticker is a simple, attractive product and there was no reason in my mind people wouldn’t buy one. Then when you add in the 15 percent donation to special organizations, the sticker becomes an emotion.

How do you choose the organizations you partner with?

We’ve done a few different things. It started with the concept of crowd sourcing the organizations on Facebook. We thought we’d let our consumers tell us where they want the money to go. Say somebody’s from Marquette and knows of a little shop that does beach cleans ups—Maybe they need new shovels. And so then we could move in and get those shovels right away. I was very green in the process and maybe naïve. But it’s still something we do today, though we have steady partnerships with a handful of Michigan and Great Lakes-based organizations.

Well go on, let’s hear ‘em.

So the more obvious programs include those like the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. They have a new initiative for preserving, cleaning and raising awareness of the Great Lakes.

And the less obvious?

What’s been cool is that the sticker has morphed and taken on a bit of my personality. I know I’m kind of all over the place. I like to be active, do a lot of things. So we’ve partnered with the Rock CF Run in Grosse Ile. This run goes right along the Detroit River—a feature that’s actually on our emblem—and it raises money for patients of Cystic Fibrosis all while promoting an active lifestyle. I figure, why pigeon hole the money into one area when we have an opportunity to support so much more?

Okay so rewind in the story. You get this first shipment and come back to Michigan. What’s your next move?

I knocked on doors. Literally. I didn’t know formal sales training, but I guess you set up meetings? Well I knocked on the door of Petoskey’s Roast and Toast Cafe—the manager Ben is a friend of mine. I go, Hey Ben I have this idea, can you try and sell these? We’ve sold them for $5 straight up since day one. I think I dropped off 50 stickers when he called me back a week later. They’d sold out. At that point I was like, Yeah this is going to be pretty cool.

What’s the growth been since?

I laugh when I think about it. I mean we really started launching it in my friend’s garage in Maple City. That first shipment came in March of 2011. That year we sold 10,000 stickers. As of March 2013, we’ve sold 100,000 total.  But the really cool part is that we’ve sold a sticker in every single state.

Safe to say that this emblem has captured an audience. How has it captured you?

Personally, I love that the sticker is not directly promoting a business or brand, but still empowers consumers with their purchase. Even if it’s just a couple cents, you’re gonna still feel good. It was important for me to follow business models I admire, like Tom’s Shoes.  When it comes down to it all, the 15 percent really isn’t a huge sacrifice that breaks a business. It’s simply a socially responsible thing to do.

Last one, the name. Why Great Lakes Proud?

Well it’s exactly what we are. We’re proud. From our active lifestyles to the environment that supports it—We’re thankful and want to preserve it for the generations ahead. So yeah, Great Lakes Proud. Why say more?

Uh, heads up, Northern Michigan.

We’ve heard rumors of hunter orange stickers to premier this fall. Spend five bucks on your sticker and bring home your big buck of the season.

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