Buy a Sticker, Save a Lake: Austin Holsinger and Great Lakes Proud

Written by Monica Vanderweide

If you’ve spent any time in Michigan or its neighboring states in the last few years (or even outside of the Midwest, for that matter), chances are you’ve seen a decal outline of Michigan and the Great Lakes on the back of a car. More than just a symbol of home-state love, these decals represent a commitment to environmental stewardship of the world’s largest freshwater system. Through his company, Great Lakes Proud (GLP), Austin Holsinger, ’10, is fulfilling a dream to celebrate and promote the Great Lakes while giving back to organizations that protect and preserve this national treasure.

After graduating from Hillsdale with a degree in marketing/management, Holsinger worked in advertising in Chicago and then for a tech startup near San Francisco, and he also spent some time in Montana. A native of Northern Michigan, he figured he would return to his home state eventually. Oddly enough, the inspiration for the business idea that would bring him back home came from the South Carolina flag. “I had seen the palmetto and crescent design on stickers on the backs of cars all over the country,” he recalls. “I thought, maybe I could do something like that for Michigan.”

It all began when Holsinger asked a friend to design an image of Michigan and the Great Lakes. He then ordered 1,000 decals of the image and set the price at $5 each, with 15 percent of each sale going toward one of several organizations dedicated to protecting the lakes. Furthermore, Holsinger wanted to empower customers by letting them designate which organization would receive the 15 percent of each sale. With stickers in hand, Holsinger traveled across Michigan, visiting small businesses to pitch his product. “I got a lot of rejections initially,” he recalls. But he persevered, finally getting his big break at a Petoskey coffee shop. “The 25 stickers I left sold out in a day,” Holsinger says. “That gave me momentum.”

Today, 600 retailers in the Great Lakes region sell Great Lakes Proud stickers, which are manufactured in Traverse City, Michigan. The company has added apparel and accessories, although the stickers “still drive the business,” according to Holsinger. In addition to the retail aspect, the business also has a corporate arm. “The stickers have become so popular that we are often asked to create customized, private label GLP stickers for companies as either a retail product or a gift,” Holsinger says. Clients have included the Detroit Pistons, Patagonia, and Moosejaw Mountaineering as well as several small businesses ranging from car dealerships to realtors.

In October, Holsinger launched another segment of the business—the Great Lakes Proud Community Project. Through this subscription service, members pay only $1 per month to receive a newsletter focused on Great Lakes recreation and issues, coupons to national and local retailers, a customized GLP decal and GLP discounts, and access to monthly giveaways. Holsinger hopes that by the end of 2019, all Community Project revenue will be donated to Great Lakes organizations. “Through the Community Project, I wanted to create a specific giving arm to the business that facilitates all and more of our 15 percent promise,” he says. “It also allows us to have more flexibility with our giving. I want to be able to react quickly when there’s an immediate need, such as a beach cleanup.” Ultimately, Holsinger wants GLP to have a major impact on the health and welfare of the Great Lakes so future generations can enjoy them as he does. “As citizens, we have a responsibility to protect the lakes,” he says.

Holsinger is eager to share his story of entrepreneurship and his passion for protecting the Great Lakes. He has spoken at all of Michigan’s colleges and universities, and he sits on the boards of several organizations dedicated to the lakes and environmental issues. At Hillsdale, he serves on the Career Services Committee of the Alumni Board, a capacity that allows him to give back to the institution that planted the seeds for his entrepreneurial endeavor.

“Hillsdale had a big impact on my life,” he says, “and now I love to talk to Hillsdale students and encourage them in their goals.” Through Great Lakes Proud, he lives out each day the advice he gives to students: “Work hard, operate with integrity, and be excited about what you do!”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of Hillsdale: The Official Magazine of the Hillsdale College Alumni Association.