James Billig is the best friend of hundreds of thousands of anglers in twelve different states. How did he get so popular? Jim is founder of the Sportsman’s Connection series of fishing map guide books, which give fishermen instant access to lake contour maps, fish-stocking and lake survey data, and local know how from bait shop owners, fishing guides and other experts. This information can be used by anyone to make a successful day on the water, explaining the guidebooks’ popularity. Sportsman’s Connection books are readily available in local bait and tackle shops, big box sporting goods chains, bookstores and public libraries, increasing everyone’s chances at catching “the big one.”
Billig started Sportsman’s Connection in 1992 while living in Duluth. Twenty-three years later, Billig and his team have their production headquarters on Connor’s Point in Superior, WI, and have expanded their popular fishing series to 45 regional guidebooks, and growing. Not to rest on his laurels, Mr. Billig has launched the All-Outdoors Atlas and Field Guide series, which goes far beyond fishing. The stellar new series contains detailed maps and informative editorial on every kind of outdoor pursuit imaginable, from ATVing to cross-country skiing. We caught up with Mr. Billig at his Main Street, Superior office to hear the Sportsman’s Connection success story, and find out how the company’s growth has been influenced by the Development Association.
So how do you create the bible of fishing? Billig explains that the Sportman’s Connection empire started over on the Duluth side of the St. Louis River. Billig’s idea was to make an in-depth fishing guide book for every body of water with a viable fishery and public boating access in the Duluth area. According to Billig, “We got all the maps for the original guide book from the Minnesota DNR. This was 1992; there was no Internet yet. We pulled hard copies of lake contour maps and fish stocking/survey information from the DNR filing cabinets. We used Apple computers to convert the hard copies into vector art using Aldus Freehand and Adobe Illustrator software. Then we conducted interviews with local bait and tackle shops, fishing guides and DNR personnel to learn the local fishing methods and share them with the masses.”
While such a project would seem to take forever, Billig said the contrary: “We did the whole book in two weeks – we kicked out this publication in ridiculous time, taking cat naps on the office floor while working 40- and 50-hour straight shifts in order to get the publications to market in time for the fishing season. We then placed the books in bait and tackle shops, convenience stores, resorts and local bookstores. It snowballed, and people gobbled them up.” So how did Billig come up with the idea? “I loved to explore. I loved to hit the lakes that nobody else knew about.” Billig used this passion for exploring new territory for doing business as well: “We moved the company across the bridge to Superior in the Douglas County business incubator on North 8th Street. We were there for a good ten years. We joked how we had hatched and grown feathers, yet were still in the incubator ten years later.”
The business’ move to Superior led Billig to expand his fishing coverage to Wisconsin: “We used financing from a local investor, the National Bank of Commerce and the Douglas County Development Association to develop the Wisconsin line of guide books in 1998. You’re basically replicating the same formula in each new state. The big box stores wanted to see a fuller product line, so we’ve expanded as far east as New York and as far south as Tennessee.”
Billig said that the Development Association in Superior was instrumental in its early expansion efforts. “I started working with the DA when we moved our business to Wisconsin. The DA has a financing arm that helped us a lot. The business reincorporated in Wisconsin in 1998 due to the strong support we received from the community. The combination of a participating community bank and the Development Association’s business loan guarantee gave us the opportunity to expand the business. The DA’s participation with other regional development organizations including the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in Spooner, Wisconsin was instrumental in our growth. The DA was very open about telling us ‘Here are some of the people we’ve worked with, here are some of the resources we know about.’ They were enthusiastic about our product because it promoted tourism and the vast natural resources that the area has to offer. The DA support spring boarded us into the growth we wanted.”
Billig also credits the Development Association with keeping in touch with Sportsman’s Connection when times got tight following the 2009 recession. “[The DA] has made a big effort to visit with me and learn about our business. [They] always brings in any resources they can. We’ve continued our membership in the DA all these years thanks to the proactive development piece the DA provides.”
Today, Billig is making a foray into mobile app technology for his guidebooks from their new offices at 259 Main Street on Connors Point. “As time goes on technology has its say. We’re building the mobile app side and website interface piece now and are considering e-book options. We’ll update the information more frequently within the digital applications. Print is still a very desirable format for guide books like ours, but consumers have come to expect other functionality, plus instant access. We’re targeting Christmas of this year to test some markets.”
Jim Billig’s entrepreneurial spirit combined with people’s inherent love of the outdoors continue to make Sportsman’s Connection a winning formula based right here in Superior. For more information, go to www.scmaps.com.
By Christopher Pascone