Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Anton Willis of Oru Kayak. We make origami kayaks that fold up into a portable box. Our revenues are around $5 million per year.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in the rural backwoods of Northern California. As a kid, I had two overwhelming passions: being outside, and making stuff. In college, I gravitated towards design and developed an obsession with boats- to me they really express the essence of design as a marriage between function and beauty.
It’s a lot easier to find a unique marketing or branding angle on something that’s already basically worked out, and that has factories ready to hit “go”.
Eventually, I went to graduate school for architecture and fixed up an old fiberglass kayak which I used to explore the San Francisco Bay on weekends. After graduating, I moved into a small apartment and had to put my kayak in storage. At the same time, I read a magazine article about origami and had the crazy idea to make a kayak that could fold up like a piece of paper.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started with folding pieces of printer paper, then cardboard, then 4×8 sheets of corrugated plastic from a sign shop. The first prototype sank in less than a minute- it turns out that a sheet that size doesn’t make a kayak big enough to float me. But I kept going, and the next prototype actually worked.
At first, it was just a fun hobby. But as I went out to test prototypes on weekends, people started to ask if and when they could buy one. Eventually, I decided to take the plunge. I got a high-paying contract day job for 6 months and saved all the money I made. This lasted me another 6 months of intensive prototyping and work on the business side of things; at that point, I also started to work with my business partner, Ardy. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in late 2012, with almost nothing in my bank account. Luckily, it raised almost half a million dollars, enough to launch a real company on a shoestring.
The material and manufacturing technology we used was developed for the packaging industry. It has been an interesting and often challenging process to adapt these processes to a high-end consumer product. Launching our first product required a ton of hands-on involvement and problem-solving.
While we technically use a contract manufacturer, we are still intimately involved with our production processes. I often envy businesses that can just place a PO for packaged, finished goods. We source, purchase and track inventory on every item in our Bill of Materials, which includes hundreds of items for each model. We’re down at the factory every month or two, getting our hands dirty.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched our company on Kickstarter, just as it was becoming the go-to place for this kind of thing. We started several months before this with a splash landing page and a Facebook page. To get the landing page and all the collateral for the Kickstarter page -video, high-quality photos, etc- we scrapped and called in lots of favors. It helped greatly that my wife is an outstanding graphic designer- she did all of our brandings. We also traded future kayaks for many services. We were able to do all of it for a few thousand dollars- now that we’re up and running, it costs a lot more to do things like that!
We couldn’t afford a PR firm for the launch, but through networking, I was able to find a couple of journalists who were interested in blogging about us. We lined it up for stories to run on the Kickstarter launch date- but a month before then, it somehow found its way to Uncrate. Our site crashed for a while, but luckily we had email signup and captured a few thousand emails from prospective customers. When we finally launched, we blew past our $80,000 goal in a couple of hours. We ultimately raised $440,000 in a month, selling 500 (future) kayaks. At the time it was the most successful outdoor product in the crowdfunding space.
Our big takeaways: it’s important to realize what you do and don’t need professional help with. Honestly assess what your skills are, focus on those, and get help for the rest. But once you figure that out, there are lots of ways to be creative about how to find it and pay for it. People want to help and share the excitement of launching a cool new product- getting creative with payment and trades was key for us to look like a professional outfit on a less-than-shoestring budget.
We started out thinking we could build a cheap product and sell high volumes. It turns out that we’re actually much better at building high quality, premium products and selling to a passionate niche market.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since the beginning, we’ve focused on having a strong brand and a coherent aesthetic. Both Ardy and I had some design background before starting the company, so that came naturally. It helped us originally to differentiate ourselves from competitors, and has continued to help us through the rise of Instagram and other more visual forms of social media and online advertising.
I’ve also learned that not everything we do needs to be innovative. For a lot of things in business, it’s really about finding a tool or system that’s tried and true.
We currently sell about 60% of our volume through retailers. In the US, REI is by far our biggest partner- they are fantastic to work with, and their support in our second and third year, when we were still finding our footing and required a big leap of faith on their part, was a huge factor in our success. We have other important retail relationships in Canada and Japan.
For the remaining 40% of our volume that is direct orders, email marketing is very important. Since we’re a high ticket item, many people follow us for months or even years before finding the right time to pull the trigger. Instagram is our most effective social media channel, although we’re increasingly putting resources towards YouTube and Facebook. For both of those, we use influencers and ambassadors strategically. Amazon hasn’t been a huge player for us so far, although we’re building it up slowly but steadily.
One of the biggest line items in our marketing is public relations- we work with a great small but focused firm, Purple Orange, and have gotten some great stories placed in all kinds of online and print media.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’ve been profitable since year two. Our manufacturing is still surprisingly expensive, so our margins are around 3.5x COGS for most products- they’re better on our accessories than the kayaks themselves.
We remain heavily involved in logistical areas that many companies outsource- partly a consequence of limited margins, partly to keep control of things. We don’t use distributors, here or abroad- we have sales reps in Europe and Australia, but handle the warehousing and fulfillment directly. We’ve been expanding abroad slowly but steadily- it’s definitely slower without distributors involved.
For the next year, we’re focusing on tightening up various operations, streamlining, and improving our existing products. Typically we’ve done a new product every two years, with the alternate year used to work on upgrades and systems. However, we’ve done new products for two years straight, so we’re overdue for some housecleaning!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
To sum it up: making a product that is truly new is both a blessing and a curse. On the marketing side, it’s great. On the manufacturing and operations side, it can be a nightmare. Getting the two to line up is the real challenge- just ask Tesla. I have enormous respect for those who pull it off seamlessly if anyone does.
It’s a lot easier to find a unique marketing or branding angle on something that’s already basically worked out, and that has factories ready to hit “go”. Sometimes I envy businesses like that (not to downplay the challenges faced by any new business). But at the end of the day, that’s not what makes me tick- I love the challenge of figuring out how to make something that sounds totally crazy (like an origami kayak).
I’ve also learned that sometimes we (myself especially) need to check that passion- not everything we do needs to be innovative. For a lot of things in business, it’s really about finding a tool or system that’s tried and true, and not trying to reinvent the wheel all the time. In our third year, we tried to redo our website as a totally custom, bespoke site- it was a nightmare to update and maintain, cost a ton of money, and we ended up heading back to Shopify like most companies our size.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As mentioned, we use Shopify. We’re in the process of moving our fulfillment in house, and choosing shipping software to run it. We’re also in the process of moving to Odoo for overall ERP and inventory management. In the past, we’ve cobbled together all sorts of software tools for all of this. We use Klaviyo for email marketing, which is great— it lets us tailor our messages for particular groups of people.
I have to say, the one tool I don’t think we could live without is google docs. We use it for everything, and for us running documents or spreadsheets with comments @’ed to each other have worked better than the project management tools we’ve tried- it started as a hack but actually works really well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m not a huge fan of business books or podcasts as a genre- I prefer to learn about design, science, art, and travel. I suppose it’s fitting that the “business book” that’s resonated most is almost an anti-business tract- Let my People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. He’s built that company on a stringent code of environmental ethics and been remarkably successful at it. I also admire that he’s a hands-on tinkerer and proud iconoclast.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If I could offer one bit of advice, it would be: find your one key strength (which is probably your passion as well) and push that like crazy. Are you a genius storyteller? Find a product that’s looking for a story. A genius designer? Find something that everyone uses a generic, undesigned version of.
Your current strengths are what will separate you from the competition- feed that fire. On everything else, don’t try to do too much- find a good enough solution and keep incrementally improving it year after year. After a few years, everything will work pretty well.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Not currently, but feel free to drop us a line anyways.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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