SUP ‘lessons’ aren’t just limited to what you learn on the water. SUP can teach us a lot about ourselves and life in general. Without getting too cliché, metaphorical and quote laden there’s a whole raft of things to glean from being outdoors, paddling and soaking up life. If you happen to work in the stand up paddle boarding industry – perhaps own a SUP brand – then these SUP life lessons are even greater. Mainly because you get a view from both sides. Of course, added to this is actually understanding and learning about what makes a stand up paddle boarding brand successful.
Some of you may be aware that Chris Houghton got involved with Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co in late 2020. His enthusiasm for restarting the mothballed business saw the iconic logo back in full view. But how’s it actually been on the ground, so to speak? Read on for more about Chris, Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co and those life lessons learned through SUP and being part of the stand up paddle boarding industry.
For the benefit of those that don’t know, give us a brief background of your previous endeavors.
Having spent much of my time at university studying witchcraft, the natural progression for me was accountancy. I spent 7 years in the City before moving into industry and specialising in utilities and making our energy system more sustainable. This culminated with 4 years at OVO Energy where I started as the numbers guy before taking on the CEO role.
However, at the end of 2018, I felt that the time was right to do something different. And so, for the last few years, I’ve focused on the dual track approach of both helping fast growing businesses to scale and also spending time with my own businesses in the premium sporting market.
Most notable on the advisory side is Teemill (www.teemill.com), a fantastic Isle of Wight technology platform business that helps establish and grow circular clothing brands that combat ‘fast fashion’ and focus on operating sustainably and reducing waste.
And, paddle boards aside, I also co-own Spoon Group (www.spooncustoms.com), the high end custom bike businesses of Spoon Customs and WyndyMilla and the paint studio, Gun Control Custom Paint. Unlike many high end cycling brands designing identikit bikes for World Tour riders, we make ‘your’ bike – fitted, fabricated and finished exactly as you want it for a fast, exhilarating ride every time.
How and when did you first come across Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co?
I used to come to the Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight for holidays as a child – as many generations of my family have done before me. About 8 years ago I ‘rediscovered’ the island and always feel so relaxed and at peace when I am here.
I would often see these amazing hard board SUPs on the water at the Bay and desperately wanted to get my hands on one. However, for various reasons, production had been discontinued and the Freshwater Bay brand had been mothballed. I liked them so much that I bought the assets of the business and, with the help and support of the original founder, Charlie Cripwell, restarted the business in October 2020.
What did (do) you like about the brand?
Without a doubt, it’s the hard boards that really stand out – our longboard style Classic surf SUPs. I love everything about them. The shape, the build quality and the vibrant colours deliver the performance and aesthetics, while its Island roots and the iconic Freshwater Bay logo – designed by very talented local artist Zoe Sadler – give it soul!
The Classic SUPs are the ‘hero’ product, the high performance sports car of the range, and what I think sets us apart from so many other brands in the space. It’s very difficult to create a great hard board that performs well in the surf and flat water, but the Classic really delivers.
And, that same mentality and methodology that delivers for our Classic SUPs, has been distilled and infused into our range of inflatable SUPs too – high quality materials and finishes that perform well and are built to last.
When and why did you decide to get involved?
To me, the brand and the Bay are so special that in summer 2020 I decided to help champion both. I was certain that there was a market for high quality products from a small UK brand if I could just get our name out there and in front of the right people.
By your own admission you weren’t a hardcore stand up paddler. So why take on a SUP business?
I like a challenge and I like being outside – whether that’s cycling, paddling or walking – getting out in the fresh air is good for your physical and mental health. I am also a great supporter of living a less disposable lifestyle; owning fewer, nicer things that are built to last and are a reflection of the life you want to live and the businesses you want to support. I also hoped that there would be some transferable skills and learnings from my years with high end bicycles.
In a nutshell how’s it been during your first year of SUP proper?
Tougher than I’d hoped, but largely as I’d expected. After a few years out of the market, it’s taken some time to re-establish and differentiate ourselves in what is now quite a crowded market of volume players.
We’ve had great engagement from our demo partners – many of whom we worked with originally and were excited to see us back in the space – and amazing support from Aaran at Earth, Wind and Water on the Island – but direct sales have lagged behind where I’d hoped they’d be in the first year. That said, we sold out of our first order completely and have just received our second repeat order, so it’s difficult to be too dissatisfied with that.
What’s the most notable thing you’ve learned since being part of the stand up paddle boarding industry?
Very few people know what they’re buying or why they’re buying it. No two SUP models are the same. Firstly, we all know that there’s a broad spectrum of quality on offer out there, but it is often very difficult for the customer to appreciate the important differences just by eye-balling the products. And, secondly, if they are convinced by the merits of investing in quality, the ride quality will vary tremendously depending on the shape of the board – a 10’6 is not a 10’6.
The best advice is not new advice – try as many boards as you can before making a decision for you and the type of riding you do. Don’t be unduly swayed by fashion or big brand marketing – take some test rides. That’s why we’ve invested so much in our demo network, to ensure customers can try our boards before they buy them.
Any achievements you’re proud of so far?
Achieving a clean sweep of highly positive reviews for all of our products last year. While our range remains largely unchanged from the brand’s original incarnation, we have made a number of tweaks to improve the rider’s experience. We believe in small iterations to timeless Classics that are built to last.
Talk us through the challenges of being a small, independent SUP brand.
The ongoing tactical challenges include the significant investment required to maintain appropriate stock levels; the current astronomical shipping costs and delays; the appropriate positioning of the products to achieve successful marketing cut-through; and the absence of reliable oversized couriers for hard board logistics.
From a more strategic point of view, there is the ongoing challenge around the best course for brand and product development. It’s a crowded space, so we’re clear that differentiation is required to be long term successful.
What’s the best advice you’d give to anyone considering a similar path?
If they’re looking to provide cheap, undifferentiated products to the mass market, I’d say don’t. It’s a space that’s overcrowded now and the recent bubble fuelled by pandemic staycations may already have burst.
However, I think there’s always a place for brands that can form a real connection with their community and offer competitively priced, quality items. In particular, I do think that hard boards will fare well as an upgrade option for those that have really embraced the sport over the last few years – especially those looking to take up SUP surfing, where the difference in experience between an inflatable and hardboard is truly night and day.
Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co are noted for their Classic hard SUP range. Are hard boards trickier to sell than inflatables?
Yes and no. The next level performance of a hard board sells itself – especially when it comes to the choppy stuff. So, if you’ve got somewhere to store one and a roof rack for your car, they’re often the obvious choice – not least because you save yourself the inflating and packing away each trip.
However, if you don’t have that flexibility and/or are hoping to travel further afield with your board, an iSUP can be the more practical and robust option.
Certainly from a logistics point of view, shipping iSUPs is significantly easier than hard boards.
Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co also have a SUP surfing pedigree. Is this something you’re keen on further promoting?
Yes, definitely. SUP surfing has always been the basis of the brand and its reason for being. Charlie established the brand because he couldn’t find a longboard style surf SUP that met his requirements, so he had his own manufactured for the job. The rest, as they say, is history.
We’re currently on the lookout for some further brand ambassadors in this space. So drop us a line if you like what we do and think we will too!
Adventure SUP goes hand in hand with surf (as there aren’t always waves). What work do you plan on doing here with the brand?
We have a few ‘secret squirrel’ plans on this front that are very exciting but a little too early to share. For most people, our 11’5 Compact Tourer is exactly what they need to travel fast and far in pursuit of the next adventure. An accomplished and capable touring setup.
However, we’re also looking to push boundaries for the few that really like to challenge themselves. So it’s likely that this will be an area where we see the most R&D development in the short term as we work with genuine experts in this field to develop the ultimate expedition craft.
It’s often tricky to convey a small brand message so how do you go about getting it out there?
I would say that this is very much still a work in progress. We’re a premium item in a crowded market of items that look visually similar to most people. There is no substitute for word of mouth recommendations and for test riding the boards yourself. That is why we’ve invested heavily in our demo centers. Thankfully our product reviews from SUP Mag UK and SUP International have all been very positive, so we’re hopeful that marketing will get easier as brand awareness increases.
What are your and FWBPC’s goals for the new SUP season?
I think this season is a year of consolidation. Building on last year’s effort, keeping the range the same, amplifying the messaging and planning for the future. We’ll be in a better position to judge the opportunities in front of us once we see what a post-pandemic summer season looks like I think.
Where would you like to see Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co heading as a company? An all round watersports brand or keeping it a smaller, specific SUP business for instance?
I think there’s no rush to diversify. I’m keen to maintain a period of stability before making any decisions on this front. That said, I see the future trending more to our roots in hard board development and possibly not just SUPs.
Any predictions as far as the wider stand up paddle boarding industry and sport goes?
In the short term I think shipping costs will force a wave of price increases. And it’s likely that a cooling of the market for inflatables will see a thinning out of the players especially at the cheaper end of the spectrum.
I see increasing interest in SUP surfing, touring, white water, expeditions and racing as those new to the sport find their niche. Equally, and for the same reasons, I expect to see a very buoyant market for quality second hand boards which I am fully supportive of.
Personally, do you have specifics you want to tick off with SUP?
I’d like to have some more time to paddle. In 2014 I thought I’d ride my bike more if I had a bike company – this is not the case! I am, it would seem, a slow learner in this respect, but I do hope to continue to develop as a rider of both two wheels and waves when opportunity allows.
Anything you can tell us about your other interests outside of SUP?
I’m a keen snowboarder (actually, there’s a thought…), cyclist and socialiser. I’m happiest working and spending time around small groups of people, making things happen and having fun!
Final thoughts on Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co and stand up paddling at large?
Only that it’s a great brand within a great sport – it deserves to be successful. Not for me, but for everyone that’s played their part in delivering something remarkable.
Anyone you’d like to thank and acknowledge?
So many – you know who you are.
But special mention to Charlie Cripwell, the founder and creator of the Freshwater Bay Paddleboard brand, without whom none of this would have existed. Zoe Sadler for our iconic logo that plants us firmly in the Bay. Adrift Visuals for producing such great brand content, Jason Swain for handling the tech and Aaron at Earth, Wind and Water and all our demo partners for representing and supporting the brand since day one.