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April 20, 2005

It all started with the Fun
1, then the 2 Fun, then the Fun, then the 4 Fun, Super Fun. Then I got
the All-Star done, the Star, and the Super Star, with the Fun 1.5 being
the last of the 2004 boats put in production. This spring we have been
working hard on the Rocker, Hero, and Super Hero. All three of these boats
are FULLY designed and only a few components are getting final production
tooling done. The idea of creating a complete line of the best whitewater
boats available in only 1 year was so exciting I can’t tell you.
Finally we are seeing the goal become a reality. No, you won’t see
a Rocker on your local creek yet (unless Jackson Kayak staff or team is
in it testing a proto). You won’t see a Hero or Super Hero on the
water yet either, unless I am in it. HOWEVER, you will start seeing them
VERY soon! These three boats will complete the Jackson Kayak lineup and
everybody who wants the best money can buy, will have their choice from
these three river running and creekboats. I wish I could give everybody
a chance to try one today so that you will all know just what is possible
in an 8’ or 8’6” package! They are lighter, drier, more
durable, easier to adjust, more comfortable, easier to paddle, and even
less expensive than the other new models available. I felt this same way
when I was paddling a 2 Fun because I didn’t have the Fun yet. I
also felt this way when I was paddling a Fun and didn’t have an
All-Star yet to show you what the best playboat could feel like. Now,
I am feeling impatient again, wanting everybody to see, feel, and paddle
these river runner and creekers.

So, what is it like, one year later, having what appears
to be a successful first year company?

It is very satisfying that what I set out to do, long
before we had a kayak, was able to become a reality. Cross-linked plastic
is not easy to find a good molder for, any molder can mold linear, but
we eliminated many options when we chose cross-linked plastic. Lighter
boats were not so hard really, people put a lot of junk in a kayak, requiring
lots of holes in it to attach the junk to. That part was a matter of designing
from the ground up. No holes in the boat, that was a tough one. It requires
a more expensive three part mold to make it work and also requires more
labor, more engineering to design the cockpit (thanks to David Knight)
and it required that the outfitting be designed before the boat so we
knew how to make the boat. Seeing all of this come together, and still
being able to charge only $895 for the Fun Series, and $995 for the other
boats, and $795 for the Fun 1 was like winning a world championships for
me. How did we start the company, make cross-linked boats with 6 sizes
of one model and still be lower priced? We decided that the money should
go into the boats, not into selling them. Sales reps cost a company 6-7%
and are not needed for Jackson Kayak. We don’t sell a boat to our
dealers, they simply buy what you, the customer tells them to buy. When
you ask, “Do you have any 4 Funs in stock?” they call us and
say, “I would like to order some 4 Funs.” It is that simple.
Advertising is a tough one. Many people don’t know what a Hero or
Super Hero or Rocker looks like. A full page ad in major kayak magazines
would fix that problem fast, but I don’t have the cash to spend
on that and still make a quality product. The way our company is set up
will allow us to eventually advertise once we do enough volume to afford
that overhead and not affect our product. I will advertise eventually,
but very selectively and support those magazines and events that support
us first. So, I simply have to rely on you telling your friends what a
wonderful boat we have and let the product sell itself once they try it.
That is something that was a huge risk from the start by most standards,
but was something I would bet my life on; build a better product, price
it right, and the customer will find out about it soon enough.

What kind of challenges have we had to overcome? Many
people would like to think of Jackson Kayak as a fairy tale story, I agree,
it is a fairy tale. There are monsters, there are those who don’t
play fair, and there are many people helping us along the way. This spring
we had to deal with finding a new place to mold our boats. Our initial
molder just wasn’t up to the challenge of molding to our standards.
We expected a higher level of quality than they would give in 2005. We
simply ended up with too many demo quality boats and not enough available
to the public. (I paddle a demo, just FYI, and always have. I won the
worlds in a demo!) What about the new molders. Well, we’ll get our
first major shipment of 1st quality hulls from R+R in Indiana this week!
It was a huge challenge to find the right molder, get them trained up,
(you can thank our molding expert, Alex, for that, and John Schreiner
of Mold in Graphics for that part of it). We have the worlds best staff,
I wish everybody could see them work. From our office staff, like Kristine’s
mom, Carman, John Dean, and of course, John Ratliff, to our assembly team
lead by Don. David Knight is a magician, genius, and work like a dog guy
all in one. Kristine can’t be replaced by anyone and is the secret
to my high productivity and a resemblance of organization. No challenge
is too big for our staff and they are a team that won’t tolerate
anything but excellence from each other.

I predict a good year. It will take a few great years
before you’ll see anything that looks like, wow, EJ is getting rich.
The funny thing is that I rarely even think about the money. So far the
only individuals I have seen make the big pay dirt are those who sold
their companies out and cashed in. I want to have a business that makes
an annual profit; one that can one day be run by my kids if they want.
Besides, what is a Jackson Kayak without the Jackson’s? Initially
I was encouraged to name the business something without my name in it
for that very reason, so sell it off later. Both Kristine and I decided
that we don’t even want that option, we want our name on the company
we own, so there is no confusion about who you are buying your boat from.
I know who owns Fluid, Bliss-Stick, and Riot, but only because I am in
the industry. I don’t even know who owns the other companies. I
know that investment companies, banks, molders, etc. are involved, but
it is all so in flux that I stopped paying attention to who it really
is. Is that bad? No, not bad, just not what I have in mind. I owe Tony
some cash from making so many new boats so fast, and from growth in general,
but we are quite healthy, even when riding the perfect storm daily. For
me, a good year means that I will not sacrifice a single ideal in order
to earn more money or further the business. I will not stop paddling,
stop paddling with my kids, or setting my schedule around my personal
goals, in order to start taking orders from the dealers. Instead, I’ll
make sure the dealers don’t really need my help by not selling them
more than they can sell, by providing them with boats that the customer
wants. Yes, I can be helpful in selling the boats by coming to their shop
and personally selling boats for them. I do this and love it! However,
it has to fit in my schedule. This type of plan will assure that in 5
years, I won’t burn out. I’ll simply be doing what works for
me every year. Personally, I think this is the key to a happy life for
everybody. What about responsibility? What about doing what you have to
do instead of what you want to do? You don’t have to do anything,
and most of the things you “have to do” you took upon yourself
without much thought about the effect on your life long term. In 1984,
the year after my mother died at age 44, I decide that life was too short
to be a good citizen and do what you have to. I decided to try to figure
out a way to be a good citizen by doing what I want to. I wanted to kayak,
spend my life with Kristine, and be a world champion in 1987. I wanted
to kayak, spend my life with Kristine, and my kids, and be a world champion
in 1993. I wanted to spend my life with Kristine, my kids, kayak, design
kayaks, live on the road, and be a world champion, again, in 1997. In
2002, I added having a house at Rock Island. In 2003, I added having my
own kayak company to spending my life with my family, kayaking, becoming
a world champion again. Now, I am adding one more thing, to provide my
kids with the highest level of support to be ahead of the game of life
when they fly the coupe, instead of being challenged. What is the “give
back” to society from only doing what I want? Well, I am paying
more into the federal budget than your average American through taxes,
I am a pretty good ambassador for the coolest sport in the world, kayaking,
I am employing quite a few people who make their living at Jackson Kayak,
and I am helping the USA balance the budget by exporting boats in 5 continents.
Is that why I do what I do, no way. I just want to spend my life with
Kristine, my kids, go kayaking every day, be a world champion (again on
Buseater, oh yea, big waves coming my way!), prepare my kids for their
lives of doing what they want, and do it all wearing my actions on my
sleeve where there is never a temptation to cheat, because the world will
know, and I have a world wide watchdog to make sure of that.

A business like Jackson Kayak has too thin of margins
to be a goofball owner. Luckily for me, I have Dave Olson who is my chief
financial officer. He is the man. His expertise are so all inclusive that
my business plan is evolving almost weekly, certainly monthly. I also
have the ultimate partner, Tony Lunt. Tony is not an angel investor for
me, he makes your average angel investor look like the devil. We have
a mutual trust and respect that is unshakeable and have each others interest
in mind on every decision we make. Jackson Kayak will be a great long
term investment for him, and his value is seen everyday at Jackson Kayak.

Well, my battery is about to die on the laptop, as
we speed easterly towards the Potomac River. Kristine is the captain of
our land yacht right now on highway 40 east. We’ll go about ½
way tonight and finish the drive tomorrow, getting into DC in time to
teach instructor trainer clinics for Valley Mill Kayak School. I will
also do a few slalom workouts, even though the Ricochet is two weeks out
for me. I’ll borrow a boat from my good friend Danny Stock, or from
my coach, Sylvan. I want to test my endurance, strength, speed, and technique
against the Olympic Team athletes, and all of those on their heels. I
am doing USA team trials for slalom and a preview of how things would
go if I was competing tomorrow is a good idea. I am not training for trials
this year in the traditional sense, at least not until I get my new slalom
boat the Ricochet. Then, I will get in the boat from time to time and
speed around, in and out of eddies, and if I am lucky, find some gates
to try out. I am the guy who watches Rocky, and imagines that I too, can
take on the world and win, just on will alone. Then I find that it takes
more than that, but I usually am willing to do what it takes. I trained
for 15 years straight to get through a slalom course faster than the competition.
I stopped doing that back in 1996, 10 years ago. Can my river running
and playboating time, along with my 15 years of slalom be enough to beat
those who are training full time now, and have been for 15 years? I don’t
know, but that is my goal. It will be fun to try! That is why I am doing
it. I’ll show up and the athletes will know that I think I can beat
them (it is in writing right here, so there is no secrets), but they too
know that they can beat me, so that his how it will go down. I’ll
have the advantage of not having my hat hung on the USA Slalom Team. If
I don’t make the team, my life won’t change one bit. Those
who are training full time may feel a little more equity in the position
of USA team member. I have been told by parents of younger paddlers that
I should not compete since I am “retired” or that I should
not take the position if I earn it. My position is always the same, you
earn what you deserve and if I can make the team, that spot is mine and
I am headed for the world championships in October in Australia and I
am going to train for that event, cool. If I don’t make the team,
I’ll at least know what I need to do for next year and I will have
a slalom boat for a whole year!

I just past my dream house on Interstate 40 at the
Pigeon Forge Exit outside of Knoxville. It is a Heritage Log home model
home. It is the house we are saving for, well paying off debt to save
for is more like it. I plan on building one house and that is it. I don’t
care what it is worth because I am not selling it, I am living in it.
If we sell 5000 boats in 2005 I will be able to get a bank to give me
the money to build it next year, cool. If not, no worries, we’ll
wait another year. I just want Emily to enjoy her own bedroom before she
turns 18! She shares a bedroom with Dane in our doublewide trailer for
6 months a year and her bed is the couch in the RV. She isn’t complaining,
to be sure, but she has more than one drawing in her notebook of how she
wants her dream room. It will be a master bedroom on the second floor,
with a balcony out the front, overlooking the fields of our property,
through a few hardwoods, catching the morning light. Dane, well he is
only a little interested. Kristine, well she is very interested, however,
she was confronted with a choice today and her choice was a true testament
to this woman; we have a new foal on the property that needs attention
daily. She discussed staying home while I went to DC and taking care of
it, because it is fun for her. Last night she said to me that she wanted
to come to DC because she never wants to add things to her plate at home
that makes her feel she needs to stay home, because she wants to always
be with me and the kids. In 1997 she stayed home a lot while I traveled
to compete. We did an about face and got an RV in which we spend 99% of
our time together since then. She saw that same pattern trying to repeat
itself with the horse, and decided that to have John Dean and Tom from
the shop look after them. This way she can have the best of both worlds.
I would never suggest that she give something up, so it was all her idea.
As with everything in life, it is only a sacrifice if you do something
that you don’t want to do in place of something you want to do.
What a woman.

EJ 🙂