May 25, 2004

This is a mental rewind of the year so far. It is what I remember as I think back. What a great ride. It can best be described as a 700+ foot per mile run, for six months straight. Here’s how I got from 2003-to ½ way into 2004.

2004 Started off at Rock Island, Tennessee with Kristine, Emily, Dane, and I spending our time at home on the ranch. I was paddling daily at Rock Island, just for fun, along with the kids. Emily was the only one in the family on the U.S. Team and was planning her trip to Australia for the International Freestyle Championships. I was just coming off of 6 months with no job. I quit Wavesport six months earlier and no longer had an income besides my videos, and sponsors. I can honestly say that I don’t spend too much time focusing on my personal income from sponsors or videos, so they don’t support a family, a ranch, and my kayaking habit. Two days before I quit Wavesport I had settled my debts on credit cards, loans, etc. and put enough money in the bank to live for six months. At that time I had no idea if I would be starting a kayak company, focusing on the WKF, or simply doing ad-hoc clinics, and maintaining a kayak bum lifestyle.

Fast forwarding to January; I am now living on credit cards, and am rushing full steam ahead with Jackson Kayak. Two days before Emily and Kristine were to leave to Australia (more credit card action), I found out that my alternate position became a real live position on the US Freestyle Team for the International Freestyle Championships. The third junior boy’s position became open when one of the boy’s had to cancel the trip and suddenly Dane became the alternate to take the spot. 48 hours later Dane and I had plane tickets to Australia too. The Jackson’s were starting our season with an unexpected bang. I had an All-Star that I wanted to show the world, while Dane was paddling the Fun 1. We went to Australia and had a great three weeks. I won my 4th World or Pre-World Championships, Emily got a silver in the Junior Women’s class and Dane got a 7th at age 10. It was a great kick start to the season. I was not in competition mode. I was trying to turn a lazy little town of Rock Island, into the home of a rocking Jackson Kayak manufacturing, and World Headquarters. I was 10 pounds overweight going into Australia and hadn’t “trained” since September. 10 days into the trip, and the start of the competition, I was back to my normal self. Emily had her first boyfriend, Dane was becoming an internationally known paddler, along with Emily. Kristine was orchestrating our lives in such a way that I felt I was simply a kayaker, no more.

Returning from Australia, I now had Brian Talbert working as my first full-time employee. The weather was cold, and my kayaking was cut back to 4 or 5 times per week. I had a single focus at this point. Turn my energy and my partner’s cash into the best kayaks on the market. David Knight and I were focused on the design of the Fun family, while we also set out to create an outfitting package that would make us the far away leader. David’s eyes were focused on the computer screen long after most of the world was snuggled in their beds day after day. I honestly never felt like I was working. I felt like I was out to create a masterpiece that I could enjoy for years to come.

On March 3rd, I turned 40. I got the ultimate birthday present, a Mini Cooper S, British Racing Green, go fast stripes, satellite radio, and roof racks. Kristine got her first salary at Jackson Kayak and went and spent it on the Mini for me. I have always wanted one in the USA, but never was willing to spend the cash.

I was the number one ranked freestyle kayaker in the world, but was getting out of shape, again. The quantity of work to be done, and that certainly would be forthcoming was so great that doubts about my ability to remain competitive crept into my mind. I found my self making my New Years’ Resolutions on my birthday. I asked myself what I really wanted out of life and what “price” I was willing to pay to create Jackson Kayak. It was clear that what I wanted was to be a kayaker first, and to spend my time with my family. At the same time, I wanted to create the world’s best whitewater kayaks. A little bit of soul searching, and running scenarios in my head and on paper, showed that the two were not mutually exclusive. I could do both. How do I kayak full time and still do what is needed to make Jackson Kayak work for the customer, employees, and my partner Tony? I decided that three things needed to happen.

1. I needed to avoid straying from my business plan which was to stay small, streamlined, and to sell boats by making the best kayaks, so that people buy them because of the quality, not the marketing, ads, and sales efforts of a staff and team. It would have to be the “If you build it they will come” concept. If they don’t sell themselves, Jackson Kayak will be out of business, because I have no plans to sell them aside from what I am doing now.
2. I needed to hit the road in my RV with the family. This would assure that I spend the time I want in a kayak, in a variety of locations. Where should I go? Wherever the rivers are flowing, and the events are happening. This is the year of the Jackson kids. Emily and Dane are in their first true year as kayakers. I want to expose them to the creeks, rivers, and events that they will enjoy most at their level. So, we went to California, Oregon, and Washington, even Reno. We will now head to Colorado, Oregon, then the Ottawa, etc. etc. People will be exposed to Jackson Kayak in those areas. If we sell boats because of it, that is awesome. If not, then the boats won’t ever sell, because if somebody actually sees a Fun, sits in it, tries it, but doesn’t buy it, we will have the world’s shortest lifespan as a kayak company. I believe that at $895, lightest weight, most durable, easiest to paddle, driest, most adjustable from in the boat, and the most comfortable, not to mention super high performance, anybody considering a new boat will at least want to consider a Jackson Kayak, if they can wait a little bit for it.
3. I need to be a kayaker first. My entire life has been lived in the ideal sense of the word. I have not once given into reality. In the ideal world, I can be 40 and still paddle faster, harder, and win more than anybody else. Reality says, “you’re too old”. Well, I have a 14 and 10 year old that are just getting started in their careers and I have no intention of sitting on the sidelines when I can compete along side of them. As of right now I am in the shape of my life and have either won or got second in every event I have entered. I am the kayaker I always wanted to be, almost. Those pesky second places have to go. My life is a personal experiment to see if I can live from start to finish without ever, “growing up”. Kind of like my own Peter Pan story.

I am being challenged in a way I have never been right now. I have 1000 kayaks on order, 10 employees, numerous vendors, only 735 square feet of assembly and shipping space, an entirely new set of processes to organize our business, many of which aren’t working right. I have employees who have been working 7 days per week, 12+ hours per day trying to catch up. How does that work? Well, growing pains are painful. There is not an employee that has ever done it quite like we are doing it and we are growing from 0-60 in one second. Once our molds came in house, theory went out the window and reality hit. We have done a great job getting up to speed and I will pit my staff’s against any body elses in a contest any day of the week, but it is still not enough to make the job a walk in the park. Lorraine, Brian, and Tanya are the front lines at Jackson Kayak that keep the machine running. We hope that we will be “over the hump” in a month or two and there will be more time for everybody to reflect on the season with a glass of wine, and a chair on the deck of the World Headquarters (my house). I just flew in to do what I can to help smooth out the system. These three team members are wound tight right now, and I wish it was easier for them. Marty Cronin arrived the day I left, today, to lend a hand as well. We are shooting for a new record in assembly and shipping next week, 50 boats per day. Last week was 30 per day.

Back to April-
The Jackson family loaded into our 30 foot Coachmen Mirada RV with Mini-Cooper S in tow. We were to leave Rock Island and not return until October. Right now the RV is in Yosemite National Park. We drove it across country to California, via Kentucky. Emily and Dane have their school work, kayaks, and a few toys. Kristine and I have a few toys, and our computers and cell phones. Over the winter as we planned our trip, it seems that every week filled up long before we left Rock Island. We have something going on 7 days a week all summer long. Our first stop was in California on the Kern River. We parked the RV right at the river and shuttled around in the Mini. One night in a bed and breakfast across the river for some reason that I can’t remember, maybe just for fun. A bunch of runs down Brush Creek with the kids, their first 500+ foot mile, was their true introduction to creeking. We went to the American River after that and hooked up with Jed Weingarten for some more creeking action on the Silver Fork and South Silver. The American River Festival was a great experience, since we parked right at the river and the kids could paddle all day. The Oregon Cup was next, runs down Canyon Creek, Pacific City Ocean surfing, Bob’s Hole, etc. I got my Fun right before Bob’s Hole, then won the event in it. That was sweet.

People started buying boats in May. I only have 40 dealers in the USA, but they started getting deposits on boats that we hadn’t made yet. Our orders shot up and we responded by bringing more staff on board, still all kayakers. We shipped Fun 1s and 2 Funs to dealers, and just started to make Fun, 4 Fun, and Super Fun boats. All of the sudden, Jackson Kayak is not a plan in my head, but a real company that is turning a promise of a great boat into the actual great boat. It is only in this month that the Fun was put on a scale that I predicted in October would say 28 pounds, and 9 months later, the actual boat weighs 26.3 pounds. I love engineering. I started shipping Happy Feet Footbags to people to use in their current kayaks. This foot system is something I am very proud of. I was going to only put it in my boats and not sell it as an aftermarket piece, but decided that holding back something that will improve a kayakers experience on the water is not something that I want to do. For this reason, I will never patent anything I do. I think patents only keep great ideas from getting better. I hope that others don’t hesitate to copy my ideas in their products. I figure that anybody worth their salt as a designer, can outpace their competitors in new design ideas that work. This is for me, the same feeling I get when I compete. I enter a competition just like anybody else, with only my reputation to lose, not to gain. Winning a competition won’t influence anybodies’ opinion of me. I have been placing in the top three since the mid eighties in just about everything. When I enter, if I don’t have great rides, or paddle really fast in races, then people will begin to say, “he is on his way out”. I have more people suggest to me that I “bow out” now with my reputation intact, “why risk it?” they say. That is playing defense. I am not a good defensive player. I have the same feeling towards Jackson Kayak. I want to make a great boat, put it out there, and say “bring it on” to the competition.. For example: my 2 Fun weighs 26 pounds. I told the world that it would 9 months ago. Have you weighed the boats on the market today? Many of the new models that my competition is selling weigh over 40 pounds for the same sized person as the 2 Fun. My outfitting is so simple that it can be copied in one season by any company out there. However, to copy it means, new seat molds, finding a supplier for a composite track, creating a Happy Feet Footbag mold, and copying the design, and figuring out that there is a couple of key features of that bag that doesn’t stand out that without them, the bag is useless. The outfitting only weighs 6 pounds total. That is ½ of what most of my competitors outfitting weighs. So, what I hope is that they are trying to compete with my stuff. My goal is to be trained up and ready for the competition and already have something better so that they are always a day late and a dollar short. This is how I approach my kayaking. At Reno, I had my own McNasty, and could do it both ways. Add to that, the Phonics Monkey, and I have at least one move more than anybody else at every competition. At least that is the goal. It is such a fun way to do it. But only worth living that way if it is a source of recreation; to compete like this. To do it because you have something to prove is not a good idea because the stress of putting who you are on the line all of the time, for somebody elses benefit would create an ulcer in no time.

June-December- A preview

I am sorry if I am speaking in such “heavy” life subjects, even if it is just kayaking. There is only enough time in a day to deal with the things in my life that are of paramount importance to me. They are my wife, kids, and kayaking. I am so fortunate that kayaking is so important to my kids. If they were in love with soccer and wanted to stay home and play soccer in a league, I would have real issues to resolve in my family life. Luckily, my kids have seen what freedom feels like; to spend months at a time traveling from one “vacation” spot to the next, but for a purpose. They are aware, just how rare of an opportunity they have. Dane is on the verge of becoming the official Team JK manager. He takes Jackson Kayak so seriously that I found tears welling up in my eyes more than once just listening to him talk about it to random kayakers interested in a Jackson Kayak boat, or getting their kid into kayaking. Dane knows so much about it that he is a source of information on kayaking for most people and really approaches it with a very humble, helpful attitude. He is a little EJ, and any dad can appreciate how good it makes you feel when your kid emulates you.

I will really focus on what I learned from this first season with Jackson Kayak. I can already tell you that we are not keeping up with demand, and will adjust this fall so that we can mold, assemble, and ship the boats people want, within reason. We aren’t going to move out of the house for the offices, we won’t move out of our 735 square foot assembly facility (we may expand it a little!). Also- as we move to complete our line-up, which includes our Creek boat, river running/creekboats, and all three sizes of the All-Star, and the Fun 1.5, we will take what we have learned about the boats this year and adjust anything we think needs adjusting. So far, the boats are everything we wanted, and more. But, there hasn’t ever been a boat that I haven’t wanted to adjust something 2 weeks after it was launched, and this won’t be any different.

I would like to look at my finances sometime this year. I haven’t looked at our debt from this past fall yet. I would like to pay it off. I am also looking forward to building our dream house on the 20 acres at Rock Island. It is the same house I have been looking at for the past 2 years. It is a Gastineau Oak Log Home. The model is the Seven Gables. I will create an office in it for Kristine and I to work out of. Check it out at Sweet or what? In order to achieve this, I need to meet or exceed the goals set forth for the year for Jackson Kayak. Keeping our personal expenses to a minimum helps too, of course. This house is not super expensive, it is perfect for what I want at Rock Island though. A house this year, a dock and a boat for waterskiing next year, and a float plane for running shuttle around the Southeast the year after that. Fair enough? They aren’t that humble of goals, but they aren’t the build it and sell it for the cash out goals. I intend to build Jackson Kayak as a profitable small business that Emily and Dane can work themselves into as they get older. It would be silly to ever sell the business unless both kids decide that they want no part of it. I figure that sending them to college is a great way to help prepare them for the real world. I also figure that if I can build a business and train them to run whatever part of it that they want, that is another way to prepare them for the “ideal” world. That is assuming that they consider a career in kayaking ideal. Emily would make a great ambassador to any country. Dane actually wants to be a bus boy when he grows up, so hard to call that one.

I was really hoping that David Knight and his lovely wife Phyllis would be able to move to Rock Island this year. David is only 50 and he is still a little young to retire from the Naval Surface Warfare Center. I will wait until he is ready. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have David on the team. He is a genius, and a great friend to boot. We have had the EJ/Knight design team since 1993. We are an unbreakable team too. It was always our team first. The best thing that ever happened to us is that Wavesport took David off the roster, which meant I was right behind him. The funny thing is that David and I don’t design boats because people pay us to. We started on the All-Star right after I quit, and long before I knew I would have a kayak company. It is just what we do. In fact David and I designed the All-Star, Fun 1, 2 Fun, Fun, 4 Fun, and Super Fun before we got paid one cent. That is cool, I think.

So, I was just thinking, how is it different owning a kayak company, verses just working at one. Well, the first thing is that I feel personally responsible for every kayakers experience on the water with a Jackson Kayak. If somebody were to try a Fun and not like something about it, I would be crushed. I have found the educating the customer on the boats is as important as the design of them. Today, I put about 75 people in Jackson Kayak boats at the Valley Mill Kayak Shop in Germantown, MD (just outside Washington, DC) Everybody, I mean 100% of the people were only getting their boat about 80% of the way outfitted to be as comfortable as they could be. Most of the learning curve was in the Happy Feet Footbag. Some was the hip pads, and some in the position they sat in the seat. But I wanted them to get the true Jackson Kayak experience, so I went around to each of them and got their footbags right, their seat, hip pads, etc. all just right. I know I can’t do that everytime somebody wants to get in my boats. That bugs me. The funny thing is that I didn’t feel much different working for somebody else. I managed to take full responsibility for the boats for many years, but the responsibility got pulled from me, one at a time until I could only watch things happen, and they weren’t what I wanted to see for “my customers”. Enough of that.

To sum this rambling on of my next six months; I will continue to test the Fun and All-Star to its fullest. I will design the rest of the boats with David. I will do what I can to improve the quality of life of my family (90% of that has zero to do with cash). I will be trying to balance the pursuit of excellence in my personal kayaking, with the pursuit of excellence in making kayaks. I just got word that a couple of dealers were mad that I was competing the last couple of weeks instead of making boats myself. Talk about trying to have their cake and eat it too. What’s the point of making crappy boats because I don’t spend enough time in my boats to know the difference. They are pissed because they somebody wants to buy one but they don’t have it yet. I figure that this is a better situation than nobody wanting to buy one and having them in stock. The good news is that I will do what I can to get everybody the boat they want, as fast as I can, but at the same time, I will still be the paddler I want to be. Fair enough? I have seen way to many kayakers trade their kayaking for the business of making kayaks, only to wake up realizing that if they were making garbage cans it wouldn’t make a difference, because they haven’t paddled one of their boats in years. Not at Jackson Kayak, every employee with the exception of my wife and mother-in-law, and accountant must be a kayaker.

See you on the river,