By Eric Jackson
Pushing the Envelope, one boat, one decision at a time…
There has always been something unique about Jackson Kayak, a theme, if you will, that broke the trend of the kayak industry when we started. For that matter, there are many unique things about Jackson Kayak, that go outside of the box, that was a conscious decision before there even was a Jackson Kayak. Doing things differently, especially differently than conventional wisdom, requires a staunch staying power, and the ability to not listen to the well meaning, and seemingly intelligent advice of others.
There is one man, who not only was open to our unique and untraditional ways, but has been a key supporter of them since day 1 and has helped keep our brand on track through even the toughest of times. His name is Dave Olson. Dave was originally the CFO at Confluence, when I met him and became Brand Manager for Wavesport. He became my “go to” guy when I wanted to do something different that I wouldn’t likely get approval for otherwise. He always listened to my “crazy ideas” and judged them by my enthusiasm, and if I could convince him that there was a way I could make it work. My ideas are not that crazy, really, but they are not easy to get a second opinion, as the second opinion is, 90% of the time, “That isn’t a good idea. If that would work, people would do it already.”
That really does summarize some of Jackson Kayak’s core personality, we do what others are unwilling, unable, or didn’t know to do. Because Dave Olson is always in the background, along with my partner, Tony, the other guy who has believed in me and my team since day 1, they don’t get much credit for our successes. In the toughest hours of our business, when it seems there is no hope, both of these guys are on duty and have been critical to finding solutions to not only keep going, but to make our business better and grow.
Back to pushing the envelope. The simple concept that “everyone deserves a kayak for them” was one of our starting points and exists today. The Fun 1 was our first kayak. It still is in production today, 13 years later. It is for 30-80 pound kids. Zero dealers, zero advisors said we should make that kayak, but I had a higher purpose, I wanted my son, Dane, to have a kayak to learn in. I quit Wavesport over them not making the kids kayak David Knight and I designed for Dane, and certainly I would not start a kayak company myself and not make my own son a kayak. While this may sound petty, and Harvard Business School might not teach this method of doing a start-up company as sound business, it one of the most viable strategies I know. If I am that adamant that my kid deserves a kayak his size, there must be plenty of other kayakers with kids that feel the same way. This proved to be true, and we sold 21 Fun 1s in the first weekend at our first dealer event, Spring Splash at NOC. We also made the Super Fun, Monstar, Side Kick, Little Hero, Shooting Star, Large Karma, Mega Rocker, Punk Rocker, Fun 1.5, Small Antix, Rock Star XS and other boats outside of the norm for sizing. Many of these boats are still available, and the key ones are all still available, meaning, even though they may not be the newest iteration of that design, they are fully functional, and give everyone a boat they can enjoy in their size. We still, today, do our best to make boats that provide people a new design in the type of kayak they want. Yes, we have a prototype of another cool boat, that nobody else is making, that will be super fun, and it is hard to find people to support it, as it is out of the norm, but, I want it, I know others who say they want it, and I think enough people will be fired up on it to prove once again, that following the trend isn’t how you run a business that thrives.
Emily with her first All Star
The management team in 2009
Dane Happy with his Fun 1
Jackson Kayak also focused on a unique way of selling our products. Instead of sales reps, trade shows, and advertising to “push it out the door” we focused on a team of paddlers to share the love of the sport and the kayaks with paddlers, who, after seeing the boats, would want them, and ask for them at their local dealers. Dealers were invited by me to be part of our family if they wanted, and many accepted right away, while some did not. We had a dealer network for whitewater in the first few months that was all we needed. We didn’t ask our dealers to stock a bunch of boats, just a demo and at least one retail version of that kayak so customers could buy one right away if they wanted. We became the number one selling whitewater kayak brand without using the traditional tools of the industry, but focused on the organic method of real people promoting the brands, and putting the kayaks to use in the most extreme of circumstances as well as in the most common ways. Team Jackson Kayak is how we sell kayaks today. It is how Red Bull, and GoPro became number one as well which was great to see. The Team is always on the water to help anyone who wants or needs it. While an Ad in a magazine is just another sheet of paper that can’t really do anyone any good.
Once we got into recreational and fishing kayaks, I had no way to personally see every dealer and our locations got spread out beyond my normal travel routes (mountains/rivers). We needed a way to reach the dealers along the coast, in the mid-west, and all of the other flatlands that were not whitewater markets. Marty Cronin, who was already part of the family and had lots of sales experience in other industries, took over for me as VP of Sales and began bringing in some key, in house sales reps who could help us grow our dealer network in a market that didn’t know us yet. Many of the recreational and fishing dealers still didn’t know who Eric Jackson was, for example, and didn’t know that they should be looking into our fishing kayaks yet. We also started attending some key trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, EORA, iCast, etc. . These trade shows are were many people saw a Jackson Kayak for the first time. Of course, what they saw at the trade shows, were things they never saw before. Even our first fishing kayak was so unique that it put us on the map right away. The Coosa, was the brainchild of Drew Gregory, who had been turned down by the other big brands with his idea to make a fishing kayak for rivers, one that you could stand up in and has a high seat in it. When we launched the Coosa we were the only brand with both the high seat and stand-ability, which made this kayak the most fishable kayak on the market. A year later, still nobody else followed suit and it gave us a big shot in the arm as we grew so fast in two years, doing what we do best, go outside of most people’s comfort zones. In year three of our fishing brand, every other brand started making high seats and standing platforms, but we had a great fishing brand and boat sales in that category already going.
Another key factor that makes Jackson Kayak different is that we outwork our competition. On average we design 3 times as many new kayaks as any other brand. This means more new products to choose from for our customers, but also our existing designs get upgrades way more often. It has been apparent in our whitewater for many years with new freestyle kayaks, creek boats, river runners, etc.. Our life cycle for a mold is way shorter and you can count on all of our key designs to be fresh and best in class at the moment. The Nirvana, Zen, Rock Star, Fun, Karma Unlimited, Traverse are all the newest designs in their respective category. Even the 13 year old Fun 1 is the newest, as it is the only one out there. Our design and production teams have their work cut our for them to pull this off, and the money we spend on new molds is enormous, but the concept is simple- we need to provide our team and customers with the best boats on the market. A great example of when we stuck to our guns on this was during the financial crash of 2008 and instead of slowing down and protecting what we already had, we tried to grow and made many new boats. This thwarted the recession for us in 2009 and we started growing fast in 2010.
There are a lot of things that go into running a successful business. Being profitable is one of them, and being profitable enough to be self sustaining and have left over cash is the goal. Jackson Kayak had many years that were in the negative as we were growing, and even our most profitable years are still not enough to have left over cash or avoid needing cash for our growth. This provides us with major challenges each year, as we look at how we can spend less, one way is less new product, lower budgets in team, etc. etc. Another is more revenue from sales, more new, successful products that grow the business further and we get the benefits of economies of scale. I am a believer that you are either growing or dying in business and we have been running our business off of that concept and finding new growth areas, such as adding Orion Coolers, and now Blue Sky Boats as new brands, along with molding some other products in our growing factories, such as road barriers, playground slides, etc.. These other projects keep our people busy, allow us to get new ovens and grow into our new, much larger, factory in Sparta, TN. Is there risk that it won’t work? Of course there is. There always was that risk and always will be that risk. Risk is not the same for everyone. The risk of failure for a team of motivated, hard working, “never give up/never surrender” personalities, who treat this business as an extension of themselves is nil, while the same business given the same circumstances has a high risk of failure if there are weak links in the chain of command and the idea of failure being possible working itself into the culture. That doesn’t mean we don’t consider and use the risk of failure as a motivator for ourselves and team, but it means we keep our eye on the prize, not look over our shoulders at the looming dangers and allow them to get closer and closer to what is so important to us.
Since the moment I decided (aka- Kristine told me to) to start Jackson Kayak, back in 2003, I have been lucky to have one amazing person after another join my family. Tony Lunt, Dave Olson, Jase Bouldin, James McBeath, Marty Cronin, Lorraine Valet, Kristine Jackson, my kids, Clay Wright, Brad Cisco, Tony Lee, Joe Pullium, etc… and that trend of amazing people continued, many with me bringing them on, but some of our top talent was brought on by others, such as John Shephard by Dave Olson. This is just some of the 180+ people who make up our team at the factory, and doesn’t include our top paddlers, fishermen, etc.. that, without them, we would not be here.
We’ll see where we go from here, but what we are working towards, we believe, is exciting, possible, worthy of our time and efforts, and will be a good thing for all involved. This is, I believe, the best you can do. Growing your business is to give your team opportunities to grow with it. That is a goal worth fighting hard for, everyday.
Thank you for being part of our family, as a customer, dealer, employee, team member, owner, or supplier. We hope you will always be part of our family.