John Hibbard went from a career as a windsurfer to heading up the world’s most successful paddleboarding brand. Now, Red Paddle Co leads the market with patented technology, and a rep for quality and durability (they test their boards by running 22-tonne trucks over them), but Hibbard’s startup almost didn’t make it. So how did he overcome the obstacles and what did he learn about surviving as a startup? RSNG caught up with him to find out…
RSNG Where did you get the idea for inflatable paddle boards?
JOHN HIBBARD, ENTREPRENEUR ‘I had a couple of glassfibre paddle boards that I would use to paddle with friends. They loved the concept and were always asking to go paddling. I just couldn’t convince any of them to buy a board. They were heavy (16kgs) and cumbersome. So I just thought that this was a problem that needed solving.’
‘There was already the odd inflatable board around but the performance was poor and the quality even worse. I knew I could do better and that if I could create a safe and reliable product it would break down all the barriers to entry like storage, transportation and weight.’
RSNG How much did you risk when you took the plunge to found Red Paddle Co?
JH ‘I’d just got married and had a baby so it felt pretty risky to take the plunge into a venture with no real idea if it would turn a profit. Saying that, I had just spent the previous 10 years as a Pro Windsurfer which was not exactly the most of reliable incomes as you relied on prize money and sponsorship to pay your way. Neither of which were exactly guaranteed!’
‘I’m not sure I took a single day off in 8 years – I was working on Christmas day one year’
RSNG What have been the biggest challenges?
JH ‘Learning how to make the paddleboards, and then make them on a large scale was a huge challenge. At the same time as doing that I was also running the business – selling, chasing for payments, ordering parts. So the main thing that nearly sunk me was the workload. I am not sure I took a single day off in 8 years. I was working on Christmas day one year trying to sort out a supply issue in order to hit an order deadline. I never really thought about it though. I just got on with it.’
RSNG Were there any other tough times that you thought you might not make it through?
JH ‘One of the earliest was making a business out of the activity of ‘standing on a board with a long paddle’! This just took perseverance. I talked to anyone that would listen and I dragged anyone who showed the slightest bit of interest out onto the water. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was hard yards! You just had to keep going. I feel my competitive nature helped here. I don’t give up, I just keep pushing looking for that vital wind shift or that chink of opportunity to get ahead.’
‘Another tough time was handling the rapid growth period when the sport really started to take off and we were developing our global network of wholesalers. We were a tiny team then and had to handle everything. In years gone by we would have had to use pen and paper or buy expensive bespoke software to help us handle all of the areas of the business.’
‘Fortunately, we were able to find a number of cloud based systems such as Freshworks that allowed us to get some key elements of the business under control such as CRM and new lead tracking. This free to use software helped us organise ourselves and set up processes that helped me to delegate tasks, while still being able to dip in to check progress at anytime – the free plans were a godsend.’
RSNG What has been the most valuable thing in getting to where you are today?
JH ‘My Apple Macbook and iPhone. This has enabled me to work everywhere and at any time. The business progress would have been a lot slower had I not done this in the internet age.’
‘Think big and don’t get stuck in the weeds – have a goal that is ambitious and then get creative’
RSNG Are there three golden rules you would now apply to any new startup?
JH ‘Don’t give up – there were many times when I thought I was failing and the easy option, and the option many of our competitors took, was to just throw the towel in.’
‘Think big – it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds and focus on things close to hand. The real skill is having a goal that is ambitious and then get creative with how to hit it.’
‘Ask for help – find someone who has gone through something similar and vent on them. Just hearing “it will be ok” is sometimes enough to keep you going.’
RSNG How challenging was it to get investment and what’s the process?
JH ‘We were lucky. We’d proven that we could grow off our own backs and potential investors could see that if they injected support things could be even better. So it was not that hard. I suppose the hardest thing is identifying which investor you can work with best. That’s not always the one with the biggest cheque. You don’t want a blood sucker who just wants to make cash and run. You want someone that invests more than money.’
RSNG How important is getting your story across to new customers?
JH ‘It’s the most important thing. There’s a real story to tell. We really were starting off in uncharted territory. Not only did we have no customers but the sport had barely any participants. We literally were creating, not only a brand, but a sport as well. In Europe we were the first to do what we did. Every other company who has entered the market since has followed on our coattails. That is, of course, quite normal and is how it is in life.’
RSNG What about marketing and social media – how have you used these channels?
JH ‘We’ve grown in the internet age and right at the hot spot for social media evolution so it’s been really important to use these channels. Our SM is full of User Generated Content. Our customers love to share their experiences and their pictures are amazing. We love our customers.’
RSNG Paddleboards are seen as ultimately disposable but that’s a lot of material and carbon footprint to junk – how are you making moves to make the tech and your business more sustainable?
JH ‘We are now at Zero waste in our manufacturing base and as of July we won’t be using Plastic in the packing of our boards. We are building boards that last rather than being disposable. We also are increasingly designing our products to be DFD. That stands for Design for Disassembly. I’d like to get to a point that every component part of our products was replaceable. So if something breaks you don’t need to throw it way you can just fit a new part. We are already there with our pumps.’
RSNG What are you most proud of your company for?
JH ‘Taking paddleboarding for a niche activity to a mainstream activity and for inspiring thousands of people to get out there and explore their world. If it wasn’t for inflatable boards and our early development of safe and reliable products, I don’t think the sport would have taken off. We didn’t do it single handed but we are the driving force. I am also proud of the team we have built. We have over 40 people working within Red and it is a great place to work. We all love to paddle and we love seeing other people enjoying the sport on our kit.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the Red Paddle Co 8’10” Whip in action surfing the waves of Australia’s Sandy Bay.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella