Thomas, Dominique and Otto built ONAK, a full-fledged high-performance canoe. They launched on Kickstarter and raised €235,000, reaching the 157% of their goal. However, in this long process, they have confronted hundreds of obstacles building and marketing the product.
Hi Dominique, Otto and Thomas! What are your backgrounds, and what are you currently working on?
Hey Failories. We are an Engineer (Thomas), experienced outdoor sales manager (Dominique) and Designer (Otto) and we’re currently working to make the best collapsible canoe out there. ONAK is a full-fledged, extremely durable and high-performance canoe of 4m65 that can be folded from a compact trolley in 15 minutes. In compact form it measures 120 x 40 x 25 cm and weighs 17 kg, so it fits perfectly in your car, in an airplane, on the train, on the bus or behind your bicycle.
In the company Dominique is responsible for sales and operations, Otto for design and Thomas is CEO and CTO. We’re mainly selling the canoes direct to consumer through our website, but we do sell through retailers and have anambassador program as well.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Otto and I are longtime urban paddlers. We’ve been canoeing in the waters of Ghent, Belgium for more than 10 years, every week, after work. Storing a canoe in the city proved quite a challenge though, and after years, you tend to have seen all there is to see in a city. Even in Ghent. We wanted to explore further.
So, our first intention was to buy a collapsible canoe already on the market. But in 2013, the options were really limited. We could only choose between inflatables, which have very bad performance on flat water, or skin-over frame canoes, which are expensive and take way too much time to assemble. We wanted to canoe after work, so we couldn’t waste time assembling.
Hence the idea to make our own canoe. Otto made the first drafts and paper models, allowing us to start an innovation project that was eventually funded by the state. With Thomas’ technical knowledge, those drafts could also be transformed into reality and thanks to Dominique, we are able to grow sales so we can continue improving the canoe and even start applying our origami technology to other products & industries.
Considering our backgrounds: both Otto and Dominique used to work in AS Adventure, the biggest outdoor store chain in Belgium. Otto as a salesman, Dominique as sales & outdoor manager. Both know the market very well and given Otto’s passion for product design and studies as a graphic designer, he did a very good job drafting & improving the canoe. Dominique, on the other hand, knows even more about sales and has managerial experience, which proved to be very handy.
Thomas is our technical guy. He studied Engineering Physics, worked as a Software engineer in a CAM business and successfully ran a web development company. He played an important role in bringing the canoe into reality, including the development of our patented origami material and technologies, and manages everything that has to do with Production, technology, IT and Legal within the business.
How did you build ONAK?
The process of making an idea that only exists in a creative’s mind into reality can be tricky. In our case, it took 4 years to deliver the first canoes to our clients.
Everything started with paper models, the first made in 2013. Soon after, we started developing the first prototypes by hand using material we got for free from manufacturers that believed in us. This allowed us to get far enough to apply for government funding (subsidy) allowing us to make a few prototypes of high enough quality to kickstart our crowdfunding campaign in July 2016. These were produced by industrial tools: we used custom extruded gunnels, made the material using our manufacturer’s laminator and applied the folding lines using a CNC-machine with some custom modifications we made especially for the task.
The initial prototype looked quite a bit smaller than the current canoe and was very unstable. A lot of the principles are still preserved through.
We never had any doubts about the technical feasibility. And we were never proven wrong. As every startup though, we did have financial doubts. We put in all our savings, but this was far from what we needed to develop this. Product development took longer than expected and finding our initial investors took time too. There certainly have been a few times where we didn’t see how we could continue funding the company, but somehow, we always managed.
We did love the process though. Building and doing completely new things is what makes startups great and drives us!
Considering the pricing of the product, you define a lower limit based on your estimated production costs & an upper cost based on the market.
We launched the product on Kickstarter, and that went better than expected. We raised more than € 235 000, 157% of our goal.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
We launched with a Kickstarter campaign during the summer of 2016. Timing is always a guess for the launching of a new product, but the season peaks in July. We had a lot of media attention thanks to the Bizidee prize we won in May and our promotional trip through Europe, which we could leverage to launch the product internationally. With this initial boost, a lot of work and the help of the marketing agencies Hyperstarter and FINN, we were able to reach 25% of our goal within one day.
Online social and press media were our main sales channels for the Kickstarter campaign, and given the visual character of our product, video worked especially well. In the end, we went absolutely viral with it and were featured in Business Insider Design where we reached more than a million views in one day. We even appeared in Time Magazine as well.
All of this was combined with being visible in real life. We were present at the Outdoor show during the middle of the campaign and won the Outdoor Award for the best startup there. This gave us extra attention and made it possible for people to see and feel our product.
Like with every Kickstarter the first few hours and days are very important. We quickly reached the magically 30% of our goal thanks to our campaign before the launch. Between 30% and 70%, backing slowed a little bit down. So, we worked very hard to get featured as much as possible. And then after the 70%, it was like a rocket. Orders came in so fast we even couldn’t follow.
What really worked for us was being 24/24 and 7/7 being involved with communication, answering questions, adapting the FAQ.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
As indicated before, the biggest challenge, in my opinion, was to fund the thing. There have always been technological challenges, but we’re pretty good at solving these. Hardware is expensive though, and your product needs to be finished before you can start selling.
So, the first challenge, in my opinion, was to fund the prototype development and marketing cost needed to launch our crowdfunding campaign. The second challenge was actually delivering in time, and here, you don’t have everything in hand. It’s hard to get from prototype to full-fledged product in a few months and to get everything produced in time. Especially when you’re the only one able to process your material. We were literally forced to start our own factory, with a special custom-made machine to produce the canoes. Doing that in 9 months proved pretty challenging, especially because one of our manufacturers was 4 months late and another one could not deliver on time at all and had to be replaced.
The last major challenge for ONAK itself is overcoming the fact that the product is very seasonal. Demand is high during summer, low in winter. This has its advantages and disadvantages, but the biggest problem for us here is that it means that you need a lot of time to see a growth pattern and the amount of stock needed is hard to predict the first years. That combined with the fact that many pieces need to be ordered months upfront and in big batches, the effect of this is not to be underestimated. Order too little material and you lose sales, order too much and you risk running out of money while having 100 thousands of euros laying in stock. This is one of the reasons why we try to work as much as possible with local manufacturers that can deliver quickly and in smaller amounts. We’re also working on less seasonal applications of our material.
In personal life, the financial burden of starting a startup, especially in the beginning, combined with the work pressure, can be quite hard. It is important to keep a good balance here and to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Which are your greatest disadvantages?
The biggest disadvantage of the founding team is clearly that none of us had any experience actually launching a new product or manufacturing it yourself.
The biggest disadvantages of the market are the facts that it is so seasonal, pretty conservative and slow in adopting changes. Also, Belgium is traditionally one of the worse places in the western world to sell canoes - so our home base is not ideal considering the market.
The main disadvantage of the ONAK canoe in comparison with your competitors is the entry curve. A lot of unusual concepts are used to make it possible, and these need to be learned. This means the first setup can be a little challenging and takes a while, especially for people who don’t like to read manuals.
During the process of building & growing ONAK, which were the worst mistakes you committed?
I think this was assuming that sales would automatically go as fast as during the crowdfunding once we could deliver for real and that we would not need retailers during the start. A lot of marketing is needed though, and people need to time and a place to touch / try the product before acquiring a high-priced leisure product like ours. So, we quickly reconsidered this and are actively working with retailers and distributors now.
We honestly also underestimated the difficulty of making the buildup process fool-proof. We’ve gotten a ton better than a year ago, but we’re still working on this and this is so important, especially when you start working with resellers.
Another mistake was putting too much trust in the wrong manufacturers. If you depend on one or more, check their track record and make sure they know what they’re doing and will be able to deliver in time. We had one manufacturer that offered to do a lot for us, which sounded awesomely simple, but wasn’t. This manufacturer was no specialist in many parts of what they offered to do, leading to a delay of 4 months! Choosing specialized manufacturers would have been a lot faster and cheaper.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I would mainly tell myself to use the classical sales model with retailers instead of trying to go all in on direct to consumer. Other than that I would share all the specific market knowledge we’ve acquired now of course. There are not many other things I would change though.
Apart from mistakes, what are other sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?