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Blugold's custom fishing rod business takes off during pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Joe Swanson has turned his passion for fishing into a thriving small business, Gold Standard Outdoors. He builds and sells custom fishing rods, something he learned to do when he was a boy. With extra time on his hands after COVID-19 canceled sports and other activities, he began building and selling the rods in Eau Claire.

Joe Swanson was looking for a way to fill his days early in the COVID-19 pandemic when he decided to start building more custom-made fishing rods, something the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior had learned to do when he was a kid.

A year later, Swanson has built and sold nearly 300 custom rods, many to people in the Chippewa Valley who share his passion for fishing.

The Osceola native has turned his love of fishing and his talent for making custom rods into Gold Standard Outdoors, a thriving small business that is taking his future career planning in an unexpected but exciting direction.

“This is really taking off,” Swanson says of the business’ rapid growth during the yearlong pandemic. “I realized this past year that there is a pretty big market for custom rods in the Eau Claire area and no one else does it. Basically, because of COVID, I had time off from sports and that’s never happened in my life. Obviously, COVID isn’t a positive thing but it’s why I had time to focus on building rods and it’s led to things I never expected.”

A marketing-professional sales major and management minor, Swanson is using what he is learning through his studies at UW-Eau Claire to build the business, which he plans to continue to grow after he graduates in December.  

This spring, he formed an official LLC, giving the business the status of a limited liability company.

“That’s big news and it’s exciting,” says Swanson, who also created a logo for the business and already is selling sweatshirts, hats and other apparel featuring the design.

It’s exciting to see Swanson’s business take off, especially given his passion for fishing and the outdoors, says Jessica Gardner, assistant director of the Sales Center in UW-Eau Claire’s College of Business.

“I always encourage my students to follow what they are passionate about in life,” Gardner says. “In this case, Joe did just this. I am very proud of Joe for taking the initiative and necessary steps to take his talent of making custom fishing rods and turning it into a small business.”

It has been rewarding to see him grow in his thinking and understanding during his time as a professional sales student, Gardner says. She is confident Swanson will use the knowledge and skills he is gaining as a Blugold to succeed as a small business owner.

“His determination for success and courage to invest his energy into something he loves will no doubt help him become a successful entrepreneur,” Gardner says.

Learning a new skill

Swanson was still a tween when his neighbor taught him and his brother, Ben, how to build custom rods 10 years ago.

“I didn’t like it at all when I started,” Swanson says. “I was not good at it. Slowly, I started to like it a little better as time went along and I got better at doing it. I started by building them for myself and then for my dad and a few family friends.”

As teens, the Swanson brothers started their own custom rod business, naming it Gold Standard Rods. However, they invested little time or energy in it; it was more of a hobby than a business. A three-sport high school athlete, Swanson was more interested in practices, games, school and friends, he says.

When he was still in high school, his family’s home burned and they lost everything in the fire, including their supplies for building the rods. After that, Swanson had even less interest in the project.

It was not until last spring, when COVID-19 upended the world and left him with more free time than he knew what to do with, that he began thinking about the business again.

“From 2011 until about 2020 when the pandemic hit, I didn’t do anything,” says Swanson, a member of UW-Eau Claire’s football team. “I was building rods every now and then for a buddy but that was it. Then, suddenly, because of the pandemic, I had all this free time on my hands after sports were canceled. So, I posted more about fishing on social media, and began to tell people more actively about the rods I build.”

Gold Standard Outdoors

Soon, friends and friends of friends were requesting their own custom rods.

“It just snowballed,” Swanson says. “All of a sudden I was building a bunch of them because friends saw mine or people saw something I posted on social media and asked me to make them one and it went from there. I really started liking it the more I did it. Sales took off. It’s not anything I really planned or expected but it’s been pretty cool to see this happen.”

So far, social media and word-of-mouth has been enough to keep business booming, Swanson says.

“I don’t try to sell them; they sell themselves,” Swanson says. “I wear a Gold Standard Outdoor hat to a football meeting, and someone wants one. I catch a good fish, and someone asks about the rod and then they want one. It’s pretty crazy how many people want to buy them.”

After doing some research, Swanson established connections with suppliers in the Twin Cities and in Florida that provide him with the quality materials he needs to create the high-end rods his customers expect.

He assembles and decorates the rods, making each one unique to meet his customers’ requests.

“I put on the handle, build it and add the decals,” Swanson says. “I ask the customers what they want on it. Sometimes they want a name or a jersey number or a certain color. I do decorative wraps on the handle. Really it is whatever they want. I do a lot of customization.

“It’s kind of funny that when I was in high school, I had no interest in art and wasn’t good at it. Now, I really am an artist creating these custom designs.”

A bright future

While Swanson has been building all the rods during the pandemic, his brother also is involved in the business. He is in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in the Middle East, which limits his involvement for now.

“He doesn’t build rods where he’s stationed in the Middle East, but he helps me in other ways,” says Swanson, adding that his brother will begin making the rods again when he returns to his base in Georgia this summer. “For now, I talk to him two or three times a week. And all his buddies over there hear him talk fishing and suddenly I have 10 rods to build.”

After their business took off this year and they began to see its potential, they renamed it Gold Standard Outdoors, a name they think will help them more easily grow the business in the future.

“We don’t want to limit ourselves to just rods,” Swanson says. “If we come up with a hunting or hiking idea, we want to be able to expand.”

While he enjoys and is good at building the rods, he is even better at selling them, Swanson says of the rods, which he sells for $85-$200 depending on type and customization.

“I post a lot of pictures of the fish I catch on Instagram and Facebook and we have a growing number of followers,” Swanson says. “I love to fish, and I talk fishing all the time, so I meet a lot of people who love fishing as much as I do. I really enjoy talking to people — that’s why I got into sales.”

Eventually, he hopes to focus more of his time on the sales and marketing aspects of the business and leave the rod building to others.

Already, he says, he is building relationships with the owners of other fishing-related businesses who are interested in working with him. And he’s always looking for new products to sell.

For example, until December 2020, Swanson had only made open-water fishing rods. When customers began asking about custom rods for ice fishing, he saw another opportunity and began making and selling ice fishing rods as well. By the end of the winter season, he had sold more than 50 of them.

“I think we will really push the ice season,” Swanson says of future marketing efforts. “I went from building zero ice rods in December to building 50 of them by the end of winter. We already have two area bait shops that want the ice rods in their shops. Now that we will be an official LLC, we will have even more of those kinds of opportunities. There still are a lot of variables going forward, but we’re excited.”

Finding opportunities as a Blugold

Swanson credits UW-Eau Claire with helping prepare him to be successful as a student and small business owner.

Through his classes, he is learning about the many aspects of running a small business, and his professors are sharing their expertise with him, Swanson says. He has a strong network of teammates and friends — many of whom also now are customers — thanks to football and other campus activities. Two summer internships helped him gain the kinds of experiences and professional contacts that will help him in the future, he says.

“I’ve taken a little bit from every class and every experience,” Swanson says. “While some parts of business are logical and common sense, there still is a lot to learn. One of the things I learned this year is that there are still so many things to learn so I need to keep asking questions. I’m lucky because my professors answer my questions and if they don’t know the answer, they find someone who does.

“After seeing my business take off this year, I just know that I’m really glad that I went to college.”