myBemidji relocates, bringing a little more Bemidji to downtown scene
Kevin Johnson's myBemidji business recently relocated to the downtown area at 318 Beltrami Ave. NW, next to the Bemidji Community Theater building and directly across from Brigid's Pub.
BEMIDJI -- You’ve probably heard of Kevin Johnson. If not, you’ve certainly seen him behind a camera at any one of the events in town.
But if neither of those ring a bell, you’ve definitely heard of his internet brainchild myBemidji.
With a Facebook following of nearly 10,000 -- along with thousands of followers on other social media platforms -- Johnson’s myBemidji is an online source for local news, deals, business promotions and Bemidji-themed merchandise.
The business’s Facebook description reads, “myBemidji is a carefully selected list of the best posts showing why we love our Bemidji...We want to show why Bemidji is so special, and why we love our First City so much.”
But, myBemidji isn’t only for the web. It’s now a physical store located in the downtown area at 318 Beltrami Ave. NW, next to the Bemidji Community Theater building and directly across from Brigid's Pub.
Here, customers can browse and buy their fill of all-things Bemidji related -- from plaid hoodies to Paul and Babe earrings to Blue Ox Marathon gear. There are also masks with Ojibwe designs available through Johnson’s collaboration with Indigenous artist Brian K. Dow.
Previously, Johnson was located in Bemidji’s Mayflower Building, where he was primarily operating his web design company Great River Design.
But this recent move into the downtown area is something Johnson sees as an opportunity for more growth and exposure for myBemidji.
“Where I was in the Mayflower, I was hard to find. Customers would only be those who saw my stuff on social media, so this is going to be different in that people who have never heard of me are going to see my storefront and walk in,” Johnson said. “It's going to be a completely different audience, so it'll be interesting to see what they think -- when they're not online fans. Hopefully they still like it.”
A self-described “jack of all trades'' with regard to design, Johnson began doing web design in 1996. A couple years later, he created an early concept of myBemidji.
Back then, it had a different name and was “basically a directory of Bemidji area businesses with websites.” He said he saw it as an opportunity to sell his web design services while also promoting his hometown’s local businesses.
“Places that wanted to be listed in the directory -- if they didn't have a website -- I'd sell them a cheap two or three page one,” Johnson said. “It was a really cool website. I did photography, and you could get a custom email address and find the few websites that did exist, but it just didn't go anywhere. Social media didn't exist yet.”
So for 10 years Johnson kept his business venture in a retirement of sorts, focusing instead on Great River Design.
It wasn’t until he noticed Facebook gaining popularity in the mid-to-late 2000s that he saw a chance to brush the cobwebs off an idea that was once ahead of its time.
“I claimed the name and just put a couple of random posts out on Facebook at the time, and they were really popular. So I then had a friend design a logo, which everyone loved,” Johnson said. “People started asking for hats, and it just kind of grew from there. I was like ‘Oh, I can put this on other stuff. I can make shirts, hoodies, key chains, whatever.’ It just kind of grew on its own.”
As myBemidji increased in popularity, Johnson also became the town’s unofficial event photographer and social media promoter. He said his tech savviness and propensity for high standards allowed him to meet coverage gaps that needed filling.
Over the years, Johnson has made it a habit to attend and photograph nearly all local events and then post them to his myBemidji social media pages. It’s an activity he continues to do to this day.
“I would see things happen quite often and wish there was someone there to take a picture, so that's why I originally started doing it,” Johnson said.
Johnson said one of the things he loves about Bemidji is it’s diversity. He also mentioned the immense amount of passion people have for the town -- the Bemidji fans and the Bemidji lovers.
Though, like anywhere, Bemidji has its struggles, and Johnson said he’s excited about the younger generation and where they will take the community.
Yet, Johnson’s current involvement in the community goes beyond myBemidji. As a Bemijdi Jaycee, he’s involved in the planning of town events and also works closely with both Visit Bemidji and the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce .
An animal lover -- who is often joined by his black lab Norway, who has a social media following of his own -- Johnson is a board member and volunteer for Great River Rescue and does pro bono design work for Pet Fixers.
He also lends out his expertise to various local vendors and businesses around town and works to forge partnerships with them.
For example, he partners with VRTX Laserwork s on a regular basis to create items in his shop. He has also worked with Rother’s Just Desserts to create a myBemidji cookie and is looking to possibly develop a myBemidji coffee drink with Heroes Rise Coffee Company . He has also helped Brigid’s Pub design a scannable menu with a QR code.
“I think the thing I'm most proud of is the partnerships that I've made, and the fact that now that I have a big audience, it's not just for me. I can use it to promote all businesses,” Johnson said. “In a way, I kind of think of it as a form of guerilla marketing because people follow me for things that are happening right now and see pictures that are happening right now. But then, every now and then, I get to throw in a product placement.
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“It's just fun to partner up with these businesses and promote them. It works out for me in the end, which I don't think any other business uses their social media to promote other businesses.”
Johnson acknowledged that he’s never made a business plan for myBemidji and is content to let it grow organically. However, in the future, he said he would like to integrate more news and weather into his content.
For now, he’s focused on continuing development of his store and furthering his knowledge of ecommerce with his new website mybemidji.com .
“I do have to be a little bit careful of not posting too much sales stuff and just slowly increasing it to see what happens,” Johnson said of his myBemidji social media content. “Because I've been afraid of scaring people away because that's not what they're used to seeing. They're used to seeing cool stuff, but so far it hasn't seemed to bother anybody. I've gotten more likes -- not less -- and more traffic.”
As warmer weather approaches, Johnson looks forward to the possibilities that summertime tourism offers his business. Because, while myBemidji's initial concept was geared toward locals, he believes his growing brand now has much to offer visitors to his hometown.
“I can’t wait for summer because then tourism will pick up,” Johnson said. “But now, just walking down the street with Norway, it all feels so real.”
Johnson’s myBemidji products are available for sale online at mybemidji.com .