Imagine for a moment if you will, a boy sitting in the dark trying to start a fire. He is trying with all his might, but he can’t seem to get a fire started. One day he discovers how to make a spark, but still, no fire. He tries all kinds of tricks to turn his spark into fire, he throws the spark, he yells at the spark, blows on the spark, and yet nothing works; mockingly, the spark just glows back at him. Every time he starts to make progress and sees smoke or a flicker of light, the rain comes or a strong wind blows the spark cold again. But he keeps on trying.
Some tell him, “fire is silly” and that “no one will want fire.” Others doubt that fire is even possible. But the boy keeps trying. The boy thinks – “Perhaps someone who knows more about stick and stones can help me make fire?” but alas, the sticks and stones people point to their archaic cave and say, “no thanks, we don’t need fire…we have cave.” With tail tucked between his legs, the boy heads back to his spot, but doesn’t give up.
The boy decides to find more kindling. “Perhaps what spark needs to become fire is a place full of kindling…” Turned out this is all he really needs. The key to making fire from spark is finding the people who believed in fire. So the boy carefully places the spark on a bed of kindling and thinks, “last try spark, last try.” No sooner does the spark land, than the kindling begins to burn! The boy steps back with his boyish smile of content and pride, thinking, “I knew fire could happen.”
As warmth and light from the fire become a storming blaze, the boy thinks, “Wow, this is hotter than I thought it would be.” And then he looks up to see the entire field and forest are on fire, the whole thing! Everyone knows he started the fire and knows where to find him… “Oh shit!” he thinks, while looking at the inferno. But his new friend steps up, hands him a shovel and a bucket of water, and with a quiet confidence said, “Don’t worry. We got this. I hope you like hard work brother, cause we have a lot of it coming our way. Now let’s go catch this fire!”
As the boy works he looks around and realized he isn’t alone. He smiles, and wonders if the sticks and stones people can see his fire from their cave. With a smirk he thinks, “If they can’t see it now, they will soon.”
I tell you this story because it would be impossible to detail the roller coaster of emotions that Anton must have felt throughout the years of development and how it must have felt to see his idea be welcomed by the Kickstarter World in 2012, and it sets the stage for the last four years.
Four years. One thousand four hundred and sixty-one days. Millions of problems and as many solutions and a little over 10,000 origami kayaks. This is not the full story of the past four years, but I hope it provides a unique look into the life altering journey of starting a company.
On October 12th, 2012, Ardy Sobhani and Anton Willis formed the company Oru Kayak Inc, and a brilliant idea became a company. Up to this point it had been a garage project of Anton’s and needed a push. Anton and Ardy would work without pay for months, knowing that the Kickstarter campaign would be the true test. If the campaign was a success, they would push on, but if it failed… For the first 3 months, Anton and Ardy would work with friends and family to build the foundations of a brand, a logo, a website and get this company off the ground.
I would be remiss if I did not thank Kate Lydon and Matt Lydon, Anton’s wife and brother-in-law (respectively), for the hours of work and energy the put into this project!
The weeks leading up to Kickstarter were full of factory visits and shopping for warehouses. Unfortunately not many people wanted to help us. Not many wanted to try and build an origami kayak. But when the Kickstarter campaign went live, we hit our goal before lunch on the first day! We would go on to sell 500 kayaks in one month, raising $443,000 dollars. It was the most successful Outdoor product ever Kickstarted and would stay as such for more than a year. Not many people wanted to build origami kayaks, but we sure had their attention.
Now the fun begins.
Ardy would find a manufacturer, then, more or less, move to Southern California to be near the factory. Anton would spend his time getting the boat ready for manufacturing at Tech Shop SF, and I (Roberto) did my best to get the word out there. In this first year and a half Ardy had two weddings, one in California and one in Belgium, so both sides were able to celebrate the young couple. I had the honor of flying to Europe and officiating the second wedding. That night, as the party raged on into the night, Ardy and I would stop the entire show, to do a demo kayak assembly on the dance floor. I can neither confirm nor deny the involvement of alcohol.
That same year, 2013, would be a year of accolades. We won 4 major awards at Outdoor Retailer in the US and possibly the two most prestigious awards in the industry in Europe. We were also honored by the Edison Awards and recognized with the likes of Elon Musk. With this came the expectations of delivering a product to retail and around the world, but we could barely make them fast enough for customers on our own website…we had created a monster! Customer service was held high, above almost everything else! I recall nearly booking a ticket to Seattle to help and early customer with assembly issues. We have shipped more than 10,000 kayaks around the World and we are still as passionate about customer satisfaction.
The struggle to catch up with manufacturing was real and yet we pushed on. 2014 would be our launch to mainstream America. We aired on Shark Tank, hired our first salaried employee, moved out of the locker at the Tech Shop SF and started taking the steps needed to becoming a real company, one where staying power outweighs reacting to every bump in the road.
It was time to innovate again so our design team pushed on. We hired, we fired, we both laughed and cried in the office, we found new opportunities and new obstacles. We launched a total of 5 boats in 3 years and raised nearly $1,000,000 on Kickstarter.
I cannot explain how much has happened in the past few years, to get us to where we are today. We often reference a year at Oru Kayak being equivalent to 4 normal years- just ask my belly or Ardy’s grey hair. We have all aged so much in the past 4 years, yet when I think back to the first kayak demo I did in Jack London Square in 2012, it feels like yesterday. Getting my first paycheck, or trying to explain to so many people that yes, “I am taking this PhD and starting a kayak company.”
We now have strong retail partners, a valuable manufacturer, and a team of 8 people, who do more than a small army could, in a crowded office in the heart of the greatest city in the World. We are just getting started, and I am not sure what exactly comes next, but we have a plan and that counts for a lot with a team as talented as ours.
I could go on about stories of building trade show booths out of 2x4s in the cold of winter with nothing but a screwdriver and furniture borrowed from our AirBnB apartment. I could tell you how much respect I have for the water, for the cold, cold water. I could tell you that I never get tired of answering the same 5 questions. I could let my fiancé explain how I have changed, who I have become or who I used to be…for better or for worse. But if I did all that, it would do no justice to all the stories that we, as a team, have created.
But the thing I’d like to share most is my appreciation for all the support we have received from people who always believed in fire. Not just the fire that is Oru Kayak, but the fire inside of the people who make Oru Kayak real.
I can tell you that it has not been all roses and that there have been moments when each of us has wondered if they would be able to muster the energy to show up to work. But I can tell you that we did, we do, and we will continue showing up. We are just getting started.
Chief Commercial Officer and Co-Founder