Holm-Made in the shade | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

Holm-Made in the shade

Area man finds success on the side as bowmaker

Posted: August 27, 2012 - 6:18pm

Each found their mark somewhere on the makeshift target.

And, in area business circles, so has Holm. Even though it’s not quite what he was shooting for.

That Holm has established a successful side business doing what he loves is something special, particularly when you consider that businesses — side or main — as a whole have struggled in recent years in the greater Brainerd lakes area.

Times are still tough. And Holm still has a tough time swallowing this whole business thing, regardless of his success. For Holm, growth comes at a price he’s not ready to pay.

Ever.

And maybe that’s why he’s found business success in the comfortable shop at his country home about 10 miles south of Brainerd. The business thing is secondary to Holm — at most. And he plans to keep it that way.

Holm is the founder and owner — and everything else — of Holm-Made Traditional Bows LLC (www.holmmadetraditionalbows.com <http://www.holmmadetraditionalbows.com> ), handcrafting traditional recurve and longbows. He’s built bows for about 12 years — the first six as a hobby and the last six as a side business. In his “real” job, he’s a gym teacher at Nisswa Elementary School, which allows him to build bows on the side.

But long before he built bows, even as a hobby, Holm was an avid traditional bow hunter. Still is. And therein lies the quandary.

For you see, the more bows he makes — the more business he gets — the less time he’ll have in the field hunting with those traditional homemade bows.

“It’s definitely growing,” Holm, 40, said of his business. “But I’ll never have any employees. If you take on one employee you have to make three times as many bows (to make it financially feasible). And I like to do it myself. It’s a passion of mine. But I keep it under control and don’t let the business aspect of it dominate too much so that I’ll still enjoy building bows.”

So far this year, business has been good. But again ...

“My goal is always 50 (bows) and this year I’m on track to make 60. That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Holm said.

But it would take a lot more to make a decent living as a bowmaker, or bowyer, which makes it easier for Holm to stick to his guns. He charges $525 to $675 a bow, “depending on options and wood choices. It’s more on an average of $625,” he said. But after costs — material, advertising, taxes, etc. — he figures his profit is maybe half of that. So this year, that could add up to about $20,000.

“I started out just messing around building bows for myself as a hobby, and then some friends wanted a few, but it was still a hobby,” Holm said. “Materials are very expensive and I had to get some return on it. So I started a business planning to keep it small. But with the overhead you have to do it all out or not at all. Small won’t even break even. You still have insurance costs, advertising costs, material costs and heating the shop so I figured it would take 25 bows to break even and then settled on 50 to 60.”

And then there’s the investment of time. Holm figures he puts about 12 to 15 hours of work into each bow — plus time spent consulting with customers, which is crucial. No, this whole business thing isn’t quite what Holm envisioned.

“There’s a lot of parts of the business like paperwork — I hate it. It’s not why I started this business. It’s a necessary evil,” he said. “Paperwork, insurance, taxes. And there’s also a federal archery excise tax — 11 percent of every bow goes to the federal government. And there are other things, too. Not every bow turns out. Sometimes things go wrong with the lamination process and you have to cut it up and throw it away.

Every bow has to be perfect. And with the Internet today, if they (customers) get a product they’re not satisfied with, all you have to do is go on the Internet and thousands of people will read about it every day. You have to bend over backwards to make sure customers are happy and the product is perfect. A lot of times that’s hard to do. It’s hard to please them.”

But Holm has, and folks are noticing. And, this year, not just those 60 or so customers from across the country. In June and July, Holm and his side business were featured in two prominent archery magazines — Traditional Bowhunter and TradArchers’ World. In a review of Holm’s Osprey longbow in Traditional Bowhunter, reviewer R. Blacky Schwarz said, “He’s meticulous when it comes to bow building as you can see in the detail(ed) woodwork and the accompanying performance data.”

That exposure has helped, Holm said. But that and the business side as a whole remain a constant battle — even for a side business.

“There are probably 100 to 150 bowmakers in the country and I can count on one hand the ones who are full-time,” he said. “And those guys have pensions or are retired or have a wife who has a good job that carries insurance.

“It took a lot of time to get established. It’s a mail-order business. It takes a long time to build that trust online. They (customers) aren’t just going to a website and saying, ‘I’ll buy that.’ When you buy a bow it’s near and dear to your heart. You’re passionate about it. So I’ve really had to get out and in front of people, traveling to shows, online advertising and getting out and meeting people. They have to like you as the bowyer because there are a hundred people doing what I do. It’s important that they like you and want to buy a bow from you.”

And, that the price is right. Holm has learned that doesn’t necessarily mean selling cheap.

“I’m still on the low end on what custom bows cost, but I’m getting up there,” he said. “I was always $100 to $150 cheaper than the competition, and finally, in the last year, I’ve seen that it hurt business by doing so. I raised my prices quite a bit in the last year and sold more bows. If you sell too cheap, they (customers) wonder what’s wrong with them. It’s not something they need. I’m selling to people who already have bows. They want it right and don’t want to take a chance on something not being right. That want something proven. And if they have to pay a couple hundred dollars extra to know they’re getting it from a better business and not a flash in the pan, they’re willing to do that.”

With archery/bowhunting’s growing popularity in Minnesota, one might think that, even though it’s essentially a mail-order business, Holm might have location on his side. Not so.

“Traditional archery is like going back in time, but you have to move forward with advertising,” he said. “Word of mouth is not enough. The target is not people locally. It is, but it’s too narrow of a field. There aren’t many traditional archers out there.

“Almost all (business) is from outside the state — 90 percent. I just shipped a bow to New York and have customers in Ontario, Europe. Everything is out east (in the U.S.). The people and money are out east.”

Still, his summer schedule included a trip to Idaho for a bow show — and a summer vacation for the family. He and his wife, Amy, a teacher at Forestview Middle School, and children Madison, 10, and Jacob, 8, were planning to make a detour to Yellowstone National Park while out West. Before that, Holm was on a June bear hunt in Alaska.

A June bear hunt? Yes, because of the school year, he’s not able to enjoy many of the traditional hunts. But, true to his word, he finds time to get afield with his homemade traditional bows, regardless of the time of year.

“I hunt a lot,” Holm said. “I’ve shot 40-some big-game animals with bows I’ve made myself. I’ve shot antelope, hogs in Florida and Alabama and Texas, Caribou in Alaska and have hunted bear quite a bit, but with no luck. They’re the toughest. They have the keenest senses and are the most wary.

“With traditional equipment you don’t shoot as many animals, but when you do, it’s special. Anything taken with a (traditional) bow is a trophy.”

Even while on summer break, Holm has maintained just a steady bowmaking pace, looking forward to a time when the teacher and bowyer/businessman will mostly be a hunter.

“It will be nice to retire from teaching when I’m 50. At that time I’ll have 25 years in and maybe I’ll be tired of having 25 kids around me every day all day,” Holm said with a laugh. “I could travel more for hunting. I would love to go elk hunting or moose hunting. For me to get 10 days off in September, that will never happen.

“It’s a nice thing that I’m not dependent on selling bows to pay the bills. It’s a nice situation to be in. My lifestyle is based on teaching. I don’t go beyond that. I see other bowyers quit their day jobs and then they can’t make ends meet. They get frustrated ... and hate building bows. One thing I promised myself is I wouldn’t quit hunting to build bows. I’m a hunter first and a bowyer second. I’ll hunt and if I have time I’ll build bows. You get further and further away from your roots because of the business side.”