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Birdman of Monticello: Online business caters to devotees of growing pursuit

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Like a lot of folks these days, Chad Mathys dreamed of running an online business out of his home. The only question was what kind of business.

His first experiment was with custom pens. Drawing on his previous work experience at Parker Pen in Janesville, Mathys launched a web-based business offering personalized writing instruments. But while the concept sounded good, Mathys soon discovered there were far too many people out there competing in the “same space.”

So Mathys switched gears. He thought back fondly to his youth on the family hobby farm near Argyle, helping his late grandmother Josephine maintain the backyard bird feeders.

“Birds were always something we could have a conversation about,” recalls Mathys. “It was nice because when there’s that much difference in age, you really don’t have very much in common.”

With those happy memories in mind, Mathys in 2007 launchedBarn in the Sticks, an online retailer of bird feeders and other backyard wildlife products.

Today, the basement of the Mathys split level home off Wisconsin 69 serves as the de facto warehouse for a dozen kinds of bird feeders, kits for building bird houses and metal baffles designed to keep squirrels at bay. The backyard is a testing ground for new products. A telephone line, desk-top computer and laser printer make up the balance of the operation.

Orders received online are generally filled the day they come in and mailed out via the U.S. Postal Service. If a product is not in stock, Mathys will have it shipped directly from the supplier.

“To be in our store, products must be environmentally friendly, solve a problem, made in the USA, and be unique,” says Mathys, whose father works in the banking business in Argyle.

To date, the business has proven profitable, although not to where Mathys is ready to quit his day job managing the Middleton warehouse for Avelle, the Seattle-based online fashion rental company. His wife, Susan, is a second-grade teacher in Argyle. The couple has two daughters, ages 10 and 7.

“I always knew I wanted to run my own business so we’ll see where this goes,” says Mathys, 37. “So far, it’s been fun because birds are something I can do with my daughters.”

Whether by design or not, Mathys has hit on one of the country’s fastest-growing recreational pursuits.

Bird-watching, or “birding” as it’s know to devotees, generates some $25 billion per year in economic activity in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, employing more than 60,000 people there, according to a recent story in the New York Times. Birders spend money on everything from seeds, feeders and binoculars to exotic travel trips and heated birdbaths for winter.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a sweeping 2006 report estimated that one in five American adults — some 50 million people— consider themselves serious birdwatchers, outnumbering hunters and anglers combined. And since bird watching is considered a “life sport,” the number of participants is predicted to keep increasing as baby boomers age.

“It’s absolutely huge and keeps getting bigger,” says Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society.

Moreover, since bird watching is a relatively inexpensive hobby— save for the travel trips to South America or other exotic locations — it fits into a more modest retirement lifestyle.

“All you really need is a pair of binoculars and a basic field guide,” says Etter Hale. “Fill an old garbage can lid with water, set it on a few rocks, and you’ve got a bird bath.”

Wisconsinites are especially fond of following birds. Thanks to the Mississippi River flyway to the west, the Horicon Marsh in the east and thousands of small lakes and streams, the state is blessed with a variety of migratory and year-round feathered residents.

The state’s love for birding is reflected at eBird.com, a real-time, online checklist program. Founded in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird allows people to post bird spottings and track the data.

Wisconsin birders were fifth most active posting to the national site last month, trailing only much larger states California, Texas, New York and Florida in terms of number of reports. “On a per capita basis, that puts Wisconsin No. 1,” notes Etter Hale.

To Mathys, having a growing business is only part of the reward. He says helping people with their questions about birds or backyard wildlife in general is one of the most rewarding parts of the business.

For example, Mathys got an e-mail from a Texas Boy Scout troop interested in houses for barn owls. Mathys doesn’t stock any owl houses but did some research online and ended up sending the Scout troop instructions on how to build their own.

Mathys also offers tips for attracting different kinds of birds, what kinds of seeds to use and where to place the feeders. One trick he’s just picked up is using water-soaked raisins to attract bluebirds. He’s also got grape jelly in a feeder to lure in the orioles.

“Haven’t seen any yet this year,” says Mathys.

The key to any successful online venture is loving what you sell, says John Carmona, co-owner of Wingra Direct, a Madison-based company that hosts four niche retail websites: the Rust Store,SharpeningSupplies.com, WisconsinGoods.com and Mendota Tools.

“Being passionate about what you do and conveying that interest to your customers is undoubtedly the most important thing,” says Carmona.

Carmona and Mathys had previously worked together at Duluth Trading Company, the Belleville online retailer. He offered Mathys some advice on getting his business off the ground.

“People ask me all the time about the shortcuts to starting an online business,” says Carmona. “But there aren’t any. It takes more than just wanting to do it.”

Mathys has already discovered both the joys and the sorrow of the online business world. For a time he was paying Google for the top advertising slot under the terms “Barn in the Sticks.” But after being charged 75 cents per click by Google, Mathys quickly discovered the ads were costing more than they were worth.

“I needed at least one out of every 10 people who clicked on the site to buy something or I was losing money,” he says.

Mathys has since played around with more “organic” search engine optimization techniques or “SEOs,” designed to attract visitors searching for various keywords. So far it’s been helpful, with Arizona and Texas proving two of the most popular states for visitors to his website.

“I’m learning some of the tricks; that’s half the fun of it,”says Mathys.



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