By day, Brent Johnson is a marketing and sales manager for a large manufacturing company. By evening and weekends, he is a budding entrepreneur, operating a virtual/e-commerce business with help from his family out of the basement of their Waconia home.
The Johnsons are part of a growing “side hustle” culture bolstered by online technology that enables individuals to have side gigs while still being employed full time somewhere else.
Proline Medal Displays is the Johnsons’ side hustle. The business provides a “sleek, simple and functional” way to display the medals that every kid seems to get, Johnson jokes, and are frequently awarded at running and other athletic competitions, and competitive events. Proline offers a variety of medal displays made from steel with a baked-on paint finish.
The family has shipped around 2,000 items out of their basement in the past 12 months via online sales and wholesale distribution to other retailers. Proline Medal Displays products can be found in Scheels stores and Scheels Online, as well as three running stores in Minnesota, one in South Dakota, one in Wisconsin and soon to be one Iowa.
Johnson works in marketing and sales for AWI Manufacturing in Winsted, Minn., which produces stainless steel drain products for the food and dairy industries. So, Proline Medal Displays is a natural extension of his professional background and the metal business he is in.
By the way, this story is not going to reveal any secrets to Johnson’s employer. Johnson has AWI’s blessing for his side hustle, he says, and he employs a few of the company’s vendors to produce Proline Medal Displays products.
But Proline is not an outcome of any master business plan. “It just kind of evolved,” Johnson says.
Johnson started selling metal fire rings and fire pokers, which led to a business called Campfire Bay. That expanded into home décor items, including key holders with sayings like “up north” which proved popular among cabin dwellers and outdoor enthusiasts. That in turn led to the medal holders.
“We thought we had an original idea in those, but what we’ve learned is that it’s almost impossible to come up with an original idea. It’s all in the product and the execution,” Johnson said.
It turns out the Johnsons’ medal holders took off in popularity so they started a new company just to handle that part of the business called Proline Medal Displays.
“We went through a bit of identity crisis with that change because many customers knew us for our fire pokers. So, over the next year we phased out of everything else at Campfire Bay to focus just on our most popular product for that business, which is our fire pit poker. We have shipped them all over the U.S. and Canada the last three years.”
In the meantime, in developing Proline Medal Displays, Johnson learned more about e-commerce business operations and took advantage of resources available online. For example, Shopify.com, which provides an e-commerce platform for online stores. Also, Etsy, a website focused on marketing handmade or vintage items, and other sources related to digital marketing and web development.
“There are really lots of resources out there and it’s not hard to get started if you have an idea,” Johnson said. He also notes that providing products for a side hustle business like his in turn “created a side hustle for someone else.”
In the meantime, the Johnsons business has grown. Proline Medal Displays is getting repeat customers and now has more than 5,000 followers on Facebook. And the family basement has become a warehouse and center for packaging and shipping. Wife Heidi and his three daughters are a big help on that side of the business, Johnson says, handling orders, packaging items and making trips to the post office – sometimes three times a week.
“The side hustle keeps us very busy, but it’s fun to do as a family,” Johnson said.
Even now, the family is gearing up for Cyber Monday and the holiday shopping season.