Before launching his eponymous kayak-manufacturing company in 2003, Eric Jackson spent a day in California soaking up the wisdom of one of America’s most revered entrepreneurs. Yvonne Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, had agreed to act as informal adviser to the startup, based in Rock Island, Tennessee. Jackson, a first-time founder, sought his advice on subjects like sustainability and leadership.
Chouinard and Jackson have much in common. Both started their careers as athletes (Chouinard scaled rocks; Jackson shot rapids); then designed equipment for their sports; and then created businesses to serve practitioners of those sports. A more profound similarity is their belief that fiercely protecting work-life balance benefits both company owner and company.
“Yvonne talked to me about MBA–management by absence,” recalls Jackson. “You can either be a domineering leader who knows what is going on at all times and enforces how things are done, or you can step back and let people have the ball and do it their way.”
The step-back option suited Jackson. By the time Jackson Kayak launched, he had been living with his family for six years in an RV, motoring from river to roiling river to challenge new waves and train for competitions. Resolutely he had resisted pleas from his employer, a midsize kayak manufacturer, to work from the confines of an office. Chouinard’s experience encouraged Jackson to believe he could run his own business the same way.
Jackson Kayak employs 185 people and does $23 million in annual sales. Jackson says he expects to hit $100 million in a few years. (His business partner and investor Tony Lunt, however, says Jackson’s forecast is “optimistic”.) The company competes aggressively on innovation. “For every new model [our competitors] make, we make three,” says Jackson. “A lot of accountants would look at that and say, you need to slow that down. But it is our tool for growth.”
Jackson’s most important tool for growth–personal as well as business–is a document he and his wife drew up in 1992, back when they were poor and Jackson was going door-to-door soliciting donations to fund his Olympic dreams. Titled “Life Without Compromise,” it ranks both spouses’ priorities and states that all decisions will be based on those rankings. Jackson’s top four priorities are 1) His wife 2) His kids 3) kayaking and 4) His company.
“The list makes decision-making easy,” says Jackson. “If Tony were to say, ‘EJ, you have either got to get an office in the factory and spend the next 24 months there full-time or I am out,’ it would take five seconds to decide. I would say, ‘Sorry Tony. You know me better than that.'”
Prioritizing in this way has freed him to spend at least 300 days each year chasing thrills on the water and developing ideas. “You see on the list that my kayaking is more important than my business,” Jackson says. “And that has been good for my business.”
The kayak community agrees. “People know EJ as Mr. Fun Loving, not Mr. Businessman,” says Jon Lugbill, a world champion canoe slalom racer and former Olympian. “They think of him paddling all the great rivers, doing awesome stuff. You buy a Jackson boat, and you feel a little bit like EJ.”
Eric Jackson was born in Ohio. After several moves, his family settled in New Hampshire in 1979, drawn in large part by the kayaking and whitewater rafting. Jackson got good, fast. Starting in high school, he set his sights on the U.S. Olympic team.
Schoolwork at the University of Maryland interfered with his training, so in 1985 Jackson dropped out. Eventually he ended up living in his car and subsisting on scraps from fast-food joints. But he made the U.S. kayak team in 1990 and two years later traveled to Barcelona for the Olympics.
With glory finally in reach, Jackson did something stupid. While warming up for his first race he lost track of time and had to sprint madly to the starting line, arriving just as the beeper was going off. “During the race I literally had to slow down to catch my breath,” he says. After a second race he finished the games in 13th place.
Jackson competing in the GoPro Games Freestyle Championships in the Jackson Kayak “Rock Star” freestyle kayak.
CREDIT: Nick Troutman
Despite the setback in Spain, Jackson achieved one of his life goals soon after when in 1993–a year shy of 30–he won the kayaking world championship. He then trained for the ’96 Olympics but failed to make the team. To make money, he started a small kayaking school in D.C. Training and races kept him away from the business, as well as from his wife, Kristine, and their two young children.
The couple talked often about a friend of theirs: another kayaker who lived in an RV and drove from river to river. “Eric said, ‘I wish we could do that,'” recalls Kristine. “I said, ‘Heck yeah, let’s do that! That way you can do the thing you care most about. And I can do the thing I care most about, which is be with my children.'”
So in 1997 Jackson shut down the kayak school. The couple pulled their daughter out of second grade, and the family pulled up stakes. For the next eight years they lived full-time in an RV, with Kristine home-schooling the children. “It was the best decision we ever made,” she says.
Designing a better kayak
But Jackson wasn’t responsibility-free. He still owed money on the kayaks he had bought for his school. To pay off that debt he agreed to become a sales rep for the boats’ manufacturer, Wave Sport.
Few people knew as much about kayaks as Eric Jackson. So when Wave Sport developed new models, it naturally sent its resident expert the prototypes to test. Jackson was appalled. “Each one was terrible,” he says. “The physics were wrong.”
Jackson persuaded his friend David Knight, a Naval architect with expertise designing super-strong hulls, to collaborate on a different prototype for Wave Sport. The X, as their baby was called, was an instant bestseller. Jackson and Knight became boat designers for Wave Sport. When the company was sold in 1999, Jackson stayed on as principal designer and brand manager.
Then in 2002, a private equity firm bought the business. The new owners stripped Jackson of his management roles. Worse, they refused to let him build a product dear to his heart: a kid’s kayak he’d designed for his son, Dane. Dane had been a preemie; at age 9 he weighed just 40 pounds. “He was super fired-up about kayaking. But there was nothing for a kid that size,” says Jackson.
For the first time, Jackson seriously considered starting his own manufacturing company. “I did not want to before because everyone I knew who had done it ended up spending all their time on the business and had no time to go paddling,” says Jackson. “But my wife challenged me. She said, ‘You mean you can’t find a way to do this and kayak even more than you did before?’ I figured I would give it a shot.”
In 2003, Jackson had $30,000 in the bank. He also had throngs of river-rat admirers. The blog on which he chronicled his kayaking adventures boasted a strong following. It was there he announced the launch of Jackson Kayak.
Kayak makers were plentiful when Jackson entered the market. But he planned to do things differently. First, he eschewed sales teams and trade shows; Jackson would get into dealers on the strength of his reputation alone. This time his optimism was justified. He called 80 dealers after launching, and 78 committed right away.
Jackson was also determined to spend no money on advertising or traditional marketing, instead choosing the then-novel path of using influencers to build the company. Influencer No. 1, of course, would be himself.
He also recruited other well-known paddlers to spread word of the new business in exchange for a discount on his product. Influencers now drive about 80 percent of the company’s sales.
Jackson Kayak’s products were distinctive as well. Its first models–called the Fun series–incorporated a number of innovations. For example, rather than drilling holes in their boats to attach things like seats and thigh and foot braces. Jackson and Knight came up with a way to attach everything internally, keeping the boats perfectly dry. Most radical, though, was the variety of sizes. During Jackson’s tenure, Wave Sport had become the first kayak maker to expand its line to two and, in some cases, three sizes. The Fun series was available in six.
Chad Gorby has been selling Jackson’s boats since 2004, most recently from his ecommerce venture, CKS Online. Jackson Kayak has been his bestselling whitewater brand for many years. “Eric designed some of the most innovative freestyle boats around,” says Gorby. “He has kept up with the trends. But his boats still have that playful Jackson spirit.”
Hitting rough waters
Crisscrossing the country in their RV, the Jacksons gravitated repeatedly to a few favorite spots. One was Rock Island, Tennessee, midway between Knoxville and Nashville, which features some of the best kayaking in the world. Jackson bought 20 acres by the river and made it his base of operations.
Hoping to land an investor, he began putting out feelers. A buddy introduced him to Lunt, a passionate kayaker, who put in $400,000. (Lunt remains Jackson’s sole investor. He owns 40 percent of the company. Jackson owns 25 percent, and key employees own the rest.) Jackson used some of the money to buy a 700-square-foot laundromat for a production facility. After two years the business moved into a former Wrangler jeans factory.
But the first three years were hard. Manufacturing kayaks through roto-molding–a process for shaping plastic–required more precision and was more expensive than Jackson had anticipated. Also, he priced the boats too low, assuming he’d make it up in savings on sales and marketing. “I was not as efficient at manufacturing as I thought I would be,” Jackson says. “The operations side kind of got me.”
Faced with losses, Jackson acknowledged a more consistent hand was needed on the tiller. But it would not be his. He opted instead to recruit top talent. For general guidance he brought onboard Joe Pulliam, the founder of a competitor. And he filched Dave Olson, an executive from his former employer, to be CFO. Jackson recently promoted Olson to CEO, but retained the title of president.
CREDIT: Courtesy Jackson Kayak
Jackson Kayak has been profitable since 2009. But it continues to plow back about 5% of revenue into product development. As the ultimate end user, Jackson is forever coming up with new things he can build for himself and his fellow enthusiasts.
A while back, Jackson returned to an old love: bass fishing, which he learned as a kid from a neighbor in Florida. Now he is pursuing a national championship in that sport. To accompany his quest Jackson in 2011 launched a line of fishing kayaks, which comprise the fastest-growing part of the business.
He takes the same influencer approach to fishing as to whitewater. “If you pick up the major bass fishing magazines it is 100 percent tournament fishermen in bass boats with big motors on them,” he says. “But now you have got this kayak guy fishing bass tournaments, talking to people, recruiting them. I am infiltrating and drawing attention to kayaks as the future.”
Also growing fast are the company’s Orion coolers, which at prices up to $550 are among the most expensive on the market. They are the sole product that did not emerge from Jackson’s aquatic pursuits. To keep the factory operating a full 24 hours, the business used to take on jobs for other customers, including an entrepreneur who wanted to make coolers. Jackson Kayak soon learned enough about the category to design and manufacture its own. The company sold 15,000 Orion coolers last year, including a limited edition that is the “official cooler of Metallica.” It expects to sell as many as 25,000 in 2018.
Even as Jackson Kayak churns out innovative products, its founder has never tried to protect them. “Patents are for wimps,” says Jackson. “I prefer to put the energy into redesigning and obsoleting my own products, so by the time a competitor copies me I have moved on.”
A family affair
The beauty of Life Without Compromise, explains Jackson, is that “it guides you toward doing things that are mutually beneficial. So I find a way to do something that is good for both my kids and my kayaking or for my kayaking and my business.” Life becomes a series of “ands” instead of “ors.”
CREDIT: Courtesy Jackson Kayak
The Jacksons still spend most of the spring and summer traveling together in their RV. The couple finally built a house in 2006, from which Jackson works much of the fall and winter, when kayaking falls off in other regions.
When Jackson is home he will pop into the factory once a week to check on things, particularly prototypes he’s working on. True to form, he has no office there. “If I spend time at the factory I’m going to see things I want to do differently,” says Jackson, echoing Patagonia’s Chouinard. “Then I’m on the road and gone and the managers have to deal with it. Better if I’m not there much.”
As for Jackson’s kids (Priority 2), they are deeply involved in Priorities 3 and 4. Both Emily and Dane are professional kayakers. Dane, who still travels to events in the family RV, has won the freestyle world championship and the Whitewater Grand Prix twice. Emily also has dominated many tournaments, including the 2013 Payette River Games in Idaho, where she took first place while nine months pregnant. Both are influencers for the business and work on marketing and social media.
Jackson’s competition schedule is no less grueling than it was 33 years ago. In November he competed with both his children and his son-in-law at the world kayaking championships in Argentina. He is on the fishing tour as well. Those commitments have not prevented him from opening a second $6.5 million manufacturing facility in Sparta, Tennessee.
Jackson has, on occasion, attended the Summit Series: an invitation-only event for creative people and business leaders that attracts the likes of Richard Branson and Ted Turner. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs there, and when you talk to these people you realize they know how to grow a business quickly and sell it,” says Jackson. “But they have not figured out life in general.”
Jackson believes he has life figured out, and it’s simple. Decide what things matter most to you. Then design your world around them. “I am free to change my priorities at any time,” says Jackson. “I have never changed my priorities.”