I get a lot of questions about Jackson Kayak, as you can imagine. I spent the weekend at Gauley Festival, talking to kayakers who I have had on water experiences with as far back as the 80’s, up to the newbie kayaker just getting into the sport. Then, there is my time spent around kayak fishermen, at trade shows for fishing, whitewater, or events where our coolers are the main attraction. We have cast a pretty wide net… perhaps too wide? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a look at Jackson Kayak, through my eyes, and through the years.
I have really got my start in the kayaking world in 1979 when I got a job as a whitewater photographer on the Kenebec River in Maine. During that time, I hurt my upper back and was unable to use a paddle on the river. Luckily, I had a really strong hand roll and began running the river with my camera everyday without a paddle. I became very proficient at hand paddling, and soon learned that nobody else was doing that. I was breaking some new ground with my no paddle river running. It felt good to be creating some new skills that were not being employed by others. That was my first taste of being a leader in kayaking in some small way.
Fast forward to the early 90’s, I hooked up with David Knight, a naval architect, and we created a couple of slalom kayaks for racing. I was recently in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona and wanted to create a better boat. We worked together on the CAD Design, that David did with his own proprietary software using Excel (paramax) and we cut out foam cross sections, glued them together, faired them in, and made a plug, then a mold, and finally a kayak.
I also had personal experience manufacturing kayaks, when my dad was president of the Merrimack Valley Paddlers, we made a mold in our basement and ultimately I helped my dad make 100 kayaks that winter for club members.
In 1997 after seeing success in my freestyle kayaking (called Rodeo back then), with a gold and silver medal, I wanted a better freestyle kayak then what was coming from Wavesport in Colorado. I conceptualized the X boat and worked with David Knight to put that concept into reality. The result was a boat that I was able to dominate competitions with over the next two years, and made me a much better boaters. This boat gave David and I the confidence to continue our designing and we started pumping out new, innovative designs for Wavesport.
In 2002 Wavesport was purchased by a venture capital firm. David Knight was fired, and I was demoted from Brand manager and designer, to just an athlete. Meanwhile- I had a design for my son, Dane, that was taking his kayaking to the next level- the Ace 2.1. The new management at Wavesport refused to make this kids boat, which was the final straw for me. I quite and became unemployed. The first thing I did was to design a new kid’s boat for Dane with David, The Fun 1. We also designed an All-Star for myself. I had a popular blogspot that I was chronicling my life on, www.jacksonkayak.com. My wife, Kristine, suggested that I start a kayak company to make these boats and more. It was not something I had intended for myself, but I warmed up to the idea and ultimately decided that I could not be the influence on the sport of kayaking from the outside, like I wanted to.
Jessie Stone, a long time friend, kayaker, doctor, and supporter of my dreams, introduced me to Tony Lunt. Tony is a kayaker from Arizona and met Jessie on the Rogue River on a multi-day trip. Jessie asked his group if anyone was interested in being an investor in a new kayak brand with Eric Jackson. Tony invited me out to meet him at his ranch. We hit it off and he provided the initial funding to get us started, and has been my partner ever since.
What was Jackson Kayak, back in 2003 when I wrote the business plan? What was its heart and soul?
We wanted a kayak company that would take care of everyone on the water. Kids, big people, beginners, and experts. We wanted to take care of our customers if they had any issues with any of our equipment, as well as our dealers who are needed to bring our equipment to you directly.
I wanted to assure that we had a family business, one that we could work hard at and make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.
I also wanted a kayak company where the kayakers, the people who spend their time on the water, who have the most knowledge about the sport, paddlers, dealers, and boats, would be a major part of the company. We call these people Team Jackson Kayak. We chose to eliminate all advertising, trade shows, and sales reps from our overhead. Instead, using a mostly voluntary team, as well as a core paid factory team to show off the boats, and get them in front of paddlers, so they could also choose to buy one for themselves if they wanted. They put the articles on the website, made the videos, took the photos, managed our social media, etc.. I was tired of seeing companies push the best paddlers away, while spending their marketing dollars on outsiders who don’t kayak and couldn’t possibly come close to being as effective or authentic in their messaging.
When designing the first round of boats, I had four things that I felt we could do better than anyone else. We could produce boats that were lightweight, durable, comfortable, and dry.
Our whitewater boats were and are today, lighter than our competitors.
Lightweight: We combined our lighter weight outfitting system, with a very tight tolerance molding system to keep our boats lighter than any others. We actually sent fish scales to our dealers in the early years because our main competitors were advertising boats at a weight that was often 5 pounds lighter than their actual weights. For example, our Medium size playboat was 29.8 pounds, while our competitors were advertising them at 32, while they were often as much as 37 pounds or more. Performance is greatly reduced with extra weight, which is why we spend so much time making sure our boats are not overweight.
Comfortable- Our boats are built differently, and that starts with the design. Your legs and feet fit better in a Jackson Kayak, because of the shapes of our deck/thigh area, combined with our foot system, backband, and seats. We fit a larger person in our playboats, due to the perfectly positioned legs/feet and the sizing of the footbumps. Our fully adjustable system from inside the boats, with a Uni-shock bulkhead, or Happy Feet, allow you to loosen up or tighten up on the fly.
Durable- For many years we used cross linked plastic, which disappeared as we know it due to EPA and other regulations. It was the most durable on the market. We had to switch to a super-linear material like our competitors, but we are still able to mold them and Q/C them at a higher level, to produce a better hull.
Dry- David Knight and I figured out how to mount 100% of the outfitting on the inside of the kayak without having to drill holes in it. The average whitewater kayak has over 10 holes drilled through the hull. Each hole gets bigger over time as the boater flexes the boat and puts stress on the bolts. Each hole leaks more and more. Our boats can only get water in through the cockpit or the drain plug. It is such a better experience not having to empty water out all of the time.
After a few years of growing the whitewater business, we decided that we should be making boats for the non-whitewater kayaker, too. We created the Day Tripper and Journey. Each one had a following, but it wasn’t until the Coosa, a fishing kayak that could run whitewater, that we had something I could get excited about and that would actually change the world of kayaks again. With the addition of the flatwater boats, I added Tony Lee, as R+D manager. Tony worked for Dagger for many years prior to that before Confluence purchased Dagger. Tony is one of the best product developers in the world for boats. His craftsman, hands on shaping skills is one that is quickly being replaced by CAD design world-wide, making him one of the last of his kind. That skill is becoming a lost art, making Jackson Kayak extremely lucky to have Tony in house for all of these years. He is currently teaching Brad Cisco, our product development manager, some of his hands on development techniques.
I also hired Marty Cronin as brand manager for our recreational kayak division, and he eventually took over one of my other jobs, sales manager, from me.
The Coosa brought stand-ability, and a high seating position, as well as a standing platform to the fishing kayak, thanks to Drew Gregory. I created Team Jackson Kayak, and put myself on the team as a starter, as well as Drew, and we grew the team from there. Following the whitewater model, our team grew organically and we maintain a strong team of fishermen with incredible accolades, who are approachable, friendly, and effective.
James McBeath, who was working with me on managing World Kayak, took over my position as marketing director as well. I was slowly finding quality people to take over important positions. Each one a kayaker.
Anyone who knows Jackson Kayak, and the management of the business, knows we think we can do anything. I believe that is true, but we also bite off more than we can chew sometimes and it doesn’t always make our job go smoothly.
Some of our projects, which were huge undertakings, may have been necessary. Getting into the manufacturing of our kayaks in 2009, versus subcontracting out the work was a big one. We purchased a 100,000 square foot factory and bought used ovens and went to work! John Shepherd, became VP of manufacturing and Leif Koelher became head of molding. We started with kayaks and soon found ourselves making things like playground slides, road barriers, and other contract work.
Dave Olson, who has been my right hand man since I conceptualized the business in 2003, was my CFO. He took over the operations from me and eventually became our CEO and holds that position today. Dave is one of the most loyal, hard working, and intelligent people I know. He is fair, fun, and has done amazing things.
Somehow we thought it would be a good idea to start a new brand in Orion Coolers. We thought of calling them Jackson coolers but we were talked out of it somehow. We created a new website. More specifically, my marketing director, James McBeath, created a new website. The coolers are amazing, but trying to run multiple brands is tough. Building websites, managing social media, and trying to reach critical mass for more than one brand is not easy. Jackson Kayak is a big brand but we started Orion from scratch.
In the spirit of challenging ourselves further, we created another brand, Blue Sky Boatworks. It is a great name and logo, but it is not Jackson Kayak. The boat, specifically the Angler 360 is incredible. However we were now trying to create another brand name that nobody had ever heard of…whew! We did a pretty good job, I think, with our Kickstarter and marketing, but it was still starting from scratch.
Meanwhile- our business was growing, with fishing kayaks taking off big, and coolers becoming bigger as well. As a family business, there are many families working at Jackson Kayak. Husband, wife, father, daughter, sons, etc. etc. In the Jackson family, the first one to be hired after Kristine and I was Lorraine, Kristine’s mom. She was our office manager, and accounting for the first few years. She now, at age 80 works 40 hours/week managing accessories. Kristine’s brother Bill was in charge of Rotomolding and now is in charge of purchasing, while her nephew works making Orion Coolers, and her brother used to deliver kayaks for us. My daughter, Emily, is in charge of Team JK whitewater, as well as social media, and web content. Dane makes videos, takes photos, and is a team member extraordinaire. Nick makes videos, takes photos, and is brand manager for whitewater. The family is “all in”. We are lucky to be able to work together and play together.
Back to where we are at today. We have been spreading ourselves pretty thin with four websites to manage… did I mention Orion Kennels? We also saw our first downturn in the sales of the business this year. Europe represented 30% of our whitewater kayak sales and the tariffs on our kayaks going into Europe are now 25%, which has wrecked havoc on our sales there. Other challenges like getting our Flex Drive (Pedal drive fishing kayaks) system up to the level we want with generation 2 (Flex Drive 3D) was a big distraction for many of our top staff.
We were lucky enough to have some very productive branding meetings with some very skilled consultants that helped us answer our own questions, which included “what does our brand stand for?”
Well, we came up with a single statement that encompasses Jackson Kayak-
“Outdoor to the Core”.
We are now bringing our brands back under the Jackson Kayak umbrella. The Jackson Orion 45, the Jackson Blue Sky Angler 360, the Jackson Orion Kennel. Jackson Adventures is born. An umbrella website that houses our different activities and the equipment we use and sell. Choose your adventure, choose the equipment that will make your adventure more fun, safer, or finally possible.
James, who is managing the new website, now only has to manage one, instead of 4. We should be able to be more successful with the different product lines since they are all part of an established readership that we developed with Jackson Kayak over the 15 years of putting great content online.
Improving the customer experience:
Buying the equipment you want and need for your next adventure, should not be a chore. Sometimes your local dealer doesn’t have what you want in stock. Sometimes, you want to buy from the comfort of your home, or at work and have it delivered. We are making the buying of what you need easier with this new website. Find what you want, click “Buy Now” and then choose to finance it, or pay it all right away. We are offering generous financing options that allow you to get what you want today and pay in small monthly amounts. You can choose to pick it up at your local dealer, or have it shipped to your house. You save shipping money going to a dealer. The dealer is not being cut out of that transaction. We are working in partnership with your dealer.
The Future of boats that we manufacture. We have too many types of kayaks that we are trying to manage at the same time. We are paring down our offering for 2020. Example, for whitewater, only the Nirvana, Rock Star, Antix, and Zen will be sold through dealers. We’ll do some batch runs of boats based on the demand for them. Almost everything is available to buy if we can find at least 50 people to get one…
2007 Super Fun
2010 All Star
You will be able to put your name on a boat and we’ll make at least 50 at a time. This allows us to run the mold for a week instead of trying to put it up and down for a single boat. Look for where you can get your name on one of our previous models!
President- Jackson Kayak
USA Freestyle Kayak Team
USA Bass Kayak Team Captain
FLW Touring Pro