Growing A Kayaks & Outdoor Gear Company to $100k/mo

The Story of Bay Sports

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi, I'm Hamish from Bay Sports. We offer a wide range of Kayaks, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Boards, Inflatable Air Pontoons, Surf Skis and growing. We started with just kayaks, and branched out to become a more holistic online water sports business.

Australia is such a outdoors and active country, being water locked and also thousands of rivers, estuaries, lakes and more all throughout the land. Our ethos from the start was to deliver the most affordable, high-quality watersports products online, delivered to your doorstep.

Kayaking is especially popular in recent years, as it's a great low-intensity way to keep fit and active, without doing your joints damage. Fishing kayaks, Sea & Touring Kayaks and Family Recreational kayaks are our most popular and in demand items, and especially our new range of rigid inflatable SUP boards. Check out our video we made up on Lizard Island on the Australian Great Barrier Reef.

Being able to run the business online via Shopify has allowed us to offer pricing well below what our customers see in bricks and mortar shops, and as >70% of our customers shop online via a mobile device, a beautiful mobile experience has been importance and imperative for us to deliver.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

It all started with a tandem kayak back in 2012. We were the horse races with our family, talking about a guy up in the mountains was flogging off kayaks dirt cheap out of a warehouse.

My business partner bought a kayak from him at half the price the identical item was in a big retail shop. Living on the beaches in Sydney, I'd see people every day kayaking around the harbour - and lots of them. Seeing the opportunity, and our idea to run the whole business online, removing many of the overhead costs associated with a traditional (old school) retail storefront, the business that is Bay Sports (formerly Bay Kayaks) was born.

I've heard some bloody great ideas come out from the mouths of people I know, but they just never got around to starting. So if you know you've got a idea, opportunity, connection that you can turn into a profitable business, just start.

At the time we were both working Full Time jobs in Finance and Project Management. I knew I didn't want to work for other people forever, I always had ideas popping to mind about new business ideas (even pitched an app idea back to Microsoft during my uni days) and was growing bitter at the idea of working to making other peoples companies money.

We decided to go for it and ordered a single 20' container to test out the market over the summer. 6 years on, we have one of the largest ranges of online water sports products in Australia, and growing.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

Kayaks are made via heating up a raw plastic powder in a cast-iron mould. There is a special technique to ensuring the kayaks are heated correctly and the plastic formed perfectly to ensure they are as durable as they should be. A team assemble our kayaks, based off the exact specifications given to them, and pack them well for transport before shipping them to us in Australia.

Finding the right manufacturer was key, as many know there are horror stories from China about what seems to be a legit company, which turns out to be a phoenix and their hard earned savings all but vanish. We started with the brand my business partner had originally bought, knowing the quality first hand, and as time progressed, opened our scope to other suppliers via Alibaba and numerous emails from factories in China emailing us asking to 'try out' their products. Challenges we found is that the Chinese can report whatever they so please, regardless if it is true or not. They can report they produce 20,000 kayaks per year in their state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, with zero proof. Ironically, the manufacturer with the most impressive product brochure ended out having the least impressive manufacturing processes, and no quality control whatsoever, whilst the company with no brochure, had the best quality control. Just goes to show don't believe everything you hear. Do your own due diligence and stick to your gut.

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Places like Alibaba are a great starting point to find a reputable supplier, with assurances and insurances provided by Alibaba, though going to China and meeting with your future supplier is smart business. Plus there are lots of very very similar looking products from several different suppliers, so visiting the factories and seeing for yourself what differentiates them apart (quality control, seeing if the factories photos on their Alibaba site match the actual factory you visit etc) will give you a gut feeling who to go with.

We have a range of ClearView Clear Bottom and 100% Transparent kayaks that were a real winner, and allowed us to differentiate ourselves from most kayak retailers. Not only are they freaking cool, but through some serious prototyping by our suppliers, and much testing (and continuous improvements to the design), we were able to add a unique product line to our water sports and kayak range, whilst putting smiles on our customers faces. Transparent kayaks aren't a new thing, but we are bringing them mainstream and affordable to every day Australian's who can own their very own one.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

I had a little background in making some websites as a hobby, and so started my first website on Weebly. Weebly provides template websites and heaps of free images to use, so starting your website even with no experience is relatively straightforward and easy.

It was a great launching pad, but with the growth of online shopping, Shopify was the clear winner and enabled us to run a full online platform, with it's extensive integration of marketing, inventory and customer service apps available at our fingertips.

Worst case - you tried, failed but learnt what went wrong and how to improve next time. Best case - it works and you make bank. If you don't try, you'll always look back and wonder "what if?"

Lucky for us, the demand was there for our products, as at one stage we looked at one another, a container of kayaks in front of us, and thought "Who the hell is going to buy a kayak from a business who hasn't even sold a single one!"

But I guess that's how all businesses start right? It was nerving but the initial response to sales was positive. We'd sold out of kayaks in 3 weeks. The moral of the story is: The hardest part is just starting.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Make sure your website is sound. Technically and aesthetically. You need to make sure that Google loves your website for it to be found, then you need those customers who arrive at your website to have the best experience they could possibly have. Onpage and offpage SEO are critical elements, and understanding what SEO is essential. I highly recommend spending money on quality SEO company with a proven reputation. The time, effort and skill it takes to learn SEO and run it yourself is better spent on your business, than you trying to master your SEO. Just make sure you're clear from the outset what your SEO agency will do, within an agreed timeframe, and if they guarantee their work.

In simple terms, you want the least amount of obstacles and frustrations, as customers have extremely limited capacity online shopping. Think about how you shop, you need to uncover the desire, the want and/or need, then it's about matching features with their benefits to the individual. Your website needs to do this all on its own.

A good mixture of Organic traffic (SEO), Google AdWords (SEA), Social Media presence, and word of mouth referrals is essential to diversifying your risk. If AdWords shuts down tomorrow, you'd be screwed if you entirely wholeheartedly relied on AdWords. So finding what channels work best for your business, and your customer base, is important for not only short term wins, but long term existence and growth. We've seen many online kayak businesses pop up over the summer, selling off dirt cheap kayaks with "5 year warranties", only to disappear after the summer ends, along with the customers warranties.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Finding the right balance between profit and revenue is challenging in all businesses. You may have in your mind a profit margin that you want to make off your products. But you also need to carefully analyse who your key competitors are, and what prices they are offering.

Have you checked you can sustain selling at such low prices to undercut your competitors? Or do you want to sell at a higher price, and win customers with a beautiful website, a great customer service experience and making the purchase that much easier?

Nothing is for free, and hence finding what mix of service, quality of product and price is right for your business. Sometimes low prices just to get customers in the door can lead to business later on down your business path. But you need to weigh it up with if it is all worth the time and sweat you'll pour into your business over time. Only you will know what is right for your business.

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Our short term goal at Bay Sports was to offer high quality kayaks, SUP boards, surf skis and other inflatable products at very competitive prices, but with the highest level of customer service. It has worked for our business, especially considering our customer base is generally 40-60 year olds, who appreciate a personal touch and a good ol' phone number you can ring and talk to a person (and not a call centre).

Our long-term goals is to continue to expand the range of products, carefully and slowly, picking products that complement our existing range. E.g. We already have Inflatable SUP boards which are becoming increasingly popular due to their practicality, so naturally we now produce our Air Pontoons; an inflatable platform which can be tied off the rear of your boat, expanding the usable area. You see families crammed on their motor boat, and so the idea was born to make Air Pontoons that lets the family lounge on the platform, soak up the sun and jump off it to swim. We already had a manufacturer of Inflatable SUP's, so the process of adding a new product line was relatively easy.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Understanding your products, how they are made, and the inherent risks of selling these products is important. You need to be confident and knowledgeable about what you are selling, or you won't be seen as a source of truth in your industry. Take risks, but calculated risks.

If you want to expand your product range, ask your supplier for a test of the new product, and what problems/issues they've had in the past. Growing too fast can be a costly mistake, say if you order a massive amount of a new product which the supplier says is a "hot seller", then having all your customers returning the goods saying there is a manufacturing flaw in all of them. The cost (both time and monetary) can be massive, and detract from you focusing on what made your business successful in the first place.

Understanding your supply lines, delays (such as Chinese New Year where basically the entire China manufacturing closes down in February), and working equally hard on your ordering as your selling, should reap benefits. Every dollar saved is a dollar earned.

Pricing is important - knowing your margins and how to price your products is a balancing act. You need to make profit, but you also need to be competitive. Unless your brand image generates its own demand, and therefore you dictate the price, you need to decide where you want to sit in terms of pricing. Are your products superior quality to your competitors, and therefore you can charge a premium? That's great, but you should look beyond just your product, and at your overall brand.

For example, if your shoes are premium Italian leather, hand-stitched and have a lifetime warranty, you may be thinking to charge a higher than price than your average pair of leather shoes. But your product photography, description and content, landing page experience, and overall ease of transaction need to be on point.

If your product is of high quality, all other aspects of your business should be to convey that indeed your brand is a premium brand, not just your product. Aligning your business activities to match your price point in the market completes the holistic understanding of your brand to a customer whose just landed on your home page for the very first time. Just think of Nespresso, everything oozes lux from George Clooney to their premium bags they place your 'sleeves' of coffee pods in.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify is arguably one of the best online website platforms. Their extensive range of apps are outstanding, and they integrate seamlessly into your website. It's user friendly and they have fantastic customer service for when things are tricky. Just look at Shopify's App store and you'll quickly see how many online business tools there are for your disposal, and for free!

Bay Sports use many apps, but one worth mentioning is Abandoned Cart Recovery. I read online that globally, 80% of shopping carts are abandoned. Once you let that sink in and realise the opportunity there, you'll want to make sure you have a bulletproof process for turning those website visitors into customers.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I don't read books. Just reading online blogs about successful entrepreneurs is always a sure way to get some fresh ideas in your head.

Plus Tony Robbins - watch a few documentaries on him. He may seem very commercial and corporate, but his deep thinking and underlying theories can be applied to any business and at the very least will get you thinking.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just do it. The hardest part is getting started.

I've heard some bloody great ideas come out from the mouths of people I know, but they just never got around to starting. So if you know you've got a idea, opportunity, connection that you can turn into a profitable business, just start.

Worst case - you tried, failed but learnt what went wrong and how to improve next time. Best case - it works and you make bank. If you don't try, you'll always look back and wonder "what if?"

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start your own business?

Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.

We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business.

By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.

If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.

- pat-walls Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story

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