How to launch a new online business: Jet Engines, Self-Inflating SUPs, and the Paddleboarding

5 minute read

At first, Slovenia seems like an
unlikely spot for an innovative stand-up paddleboard (SUP) manufacturer like SipaBoards to set up
shop—even an online stand-up
paddleboard manufacturer. That’s the kind of business you’d expect to find in
Southern California, Australia or Fiji.

Think again. Slovenia, a small country
in Central Europe adjoins Italy, Austria, and Croatia, nestling close to the
warm Adriatic Sea. And Slovenia is famously known for outdoor recreation. River
rafting, for instance. Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps offers some of
the best rafting in the world along the Soča River, famous for its crystalline aquamarine
water. Lots of great paddleboard opportunities!

Two years ago, in 2014, Sebastjan Sitar, was out with his family
enjoying a pleasant afternoon on the water. He would end up being SipaBoards’
CEO.

“Actually
the idea for SipaBoards came from that experience,” Sitar recalls.
“My two girls and wife went out on SUPs in a very safe and beautiful
lagoon, but they underestimated the strength of the current and it was
extremely difficult for them to get back to shore. So I thought, suppose I add
a small jet engine to a paddleboard, just to help if conditions become
unexpectedly difficult?”

How
small is “small?” Well, SipaBoards’ engine may be a jet, but it isn’t
designed to turn your paddleboard into a jet ski. “It’s more like paddle-assist,”
says Sitar. “The idea is not to be like a boat. The idea is that you still
have to paddle, but when you need help you just switch on the SipaDrive and it
helps you to go further, to go back, to fight the currents… This is totally
unique technology.”

Walking On Water

With
or without jet engines, stand-up paddleboarding may well be the world’s
fastest growing sport. Whether you visit Bayou St. John in New Orleans, or the
Berkeley shoreline in the San Francisco Bay Area, you will probably notice what
looks a lot like people walking on the water. They’re not walking; they’re
paddling their stand-up paddleboards. And there are more of them every day.

The appeal is easy to understand.

Let’s
say you work ‘til 5 o’clock every day, and then you want to do something for
yourself. Some jogging, some exercising – but family time is always in short
supply, so you want to do it with your family. This is one of the biggest
advantages of the powered (or unpowered) SUP. You can go out with your kids,
you can paddle without jet assist
while they use the engine. So there you are, hanging out with your kids, enjoying
the scenery, and you’re doing your exercise too.

There’s
only one catch. Well three catches. First, hard paddleboards are big, and most
European apartments are small. Where do you store three or four SUPs? Second,
there’s the part where you get stuck in a nasty current.
Third, there’s the part about schlepping all those boards down to the water in
your compact car.

SipaBoards offer innovative solutions to these three
challenges. All their boards (both the Air and Drive models) fold up into
small, easily-storable (and drivable) packages, and self-inflate when you get
to the water. Some of the boards (the Drive collection) include
built-in engines as well, while others (the Air collection) deliver the
self-inflating technology without the engine – at a lower price point.

Introducing the Powered
Paddleboard

You might think that these superboards would pretty
much sell themselves – but starting a new business is always tricky. Even the soon-to-be-CEO
of SipaBoards had to be convinced. “I wasn’t that interested in SUPs at first,” he
admits. “I underestimated paddleboarding. But when I tried it, I had to
admit that I liked it very much. It’s very good for your core muscles. The
whole body works, it’s a very safe workout, you’re out in nature…”

Fortunately for the start-up, once Sitar was sold
on the boards he was able to bring a lot of business experience to the table.
Even before his aha moment (when his wife and kids nearly floated away on their
un-powered paddleboards) he had been a successful sports shop owner. Starting
as a ski competitor himself, he ran his store happily until things got too
hectic. “Too many things to do,” he laughs.

The
biggest challenge for Sitar and his colleagues was simply to introduce the idea
of a powered paddleboard to friends, colleagues, and people that they knew.
“If you want to start something new, especially if it’s an innovation, you
can’t be shy,” he notes. “You have to tell the world what you have.
And you have to ask for a fair answer.”

So
Sitar and friends built a prototype board very early in the development process

partly
to see if it actually worked, and partly so they could go out and ask people
what they thought. They did promotions, they got feedback, and the reactions
were super. Even professional SUP guys liked it.

“This
is totally unique technology,” Sitar points out. “Our advantage is
that the engine is integrated in the body of the board. So if you don’t start
the engine it doesn’t make any drag.”

Maybe
that’s one reason SipaBoards’ Kickstarter campaigns (Drive and Air) were so successful. And
then in 2015 they won a prestigious Red Dot Design international
product
design award – Best of the Best!

Shipping
from Slovenia

Selling large, heavy items like paddleboards on-line
is not totally intuitive, but SipaBoards knows how to make it work. To some
extent they have to: 80 percent of their sales are in the mainland United
States.

Shipping from Slovenia to the States? No problem!
Yes, it costs between $80 and $100, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing sales. Perhaps
that’s because the customer service is so good.

Someone from Customer Support is on-line almost all the
time. At least one full-time staffer is totally dedicated to customer service.
The idea is to get answers back to customers as quickly as possible. Some
problems can be solved by phone, or by email. If there’s a problem that can’t
be solved from a distance SipaBoards sends replacement parts directly. It’s
rare for customers to have to return the board.

Market Leader

SipaBoards
has established itself as a market leader in its own special niche – but
financing is still a problem. “Especially in Europe,” Sitar notes,
“and specifically here in Slovenia. This is a major challenge for us. We
have plans, of course. We are in contact with companies, with investors, but
it’s a long process. Still, we can’t give up. We have to prepare for the mass
production of the new, self-inflating Air systems.”