In the latest edition of SUP Company Spotlight, we caught up with FatStick founder, Reuben May. A British Brand that was created in 2012, FatStick’s vision is to provide top quality stand up paddle boards and surfboards at affordable prices…
How were you initially introduced to the sport of stand up paddleboarding?
Back in 2006 I was away on a surf trip in France, prone surfing an outer reef in a small fishing village on the South West coast. It was a very long paddle out on my shortboard and I was tired from the previous nights red wine and camping – suddenly a big French bear of a man with a bushy beard paddled past me standing on what looked to be a very big longboard with a paddle in his hand.
What was even better was the fact he had his short board perched on the nose his paddleboard! He then proceeded to tie his paddleboard to a buoy out back and start surfing the reef on his shortboard. After a while he switched boards and after tying up his shortboard to the buoy he then started surfing his paddelboard on the reef catching every big fat set wave that came through and cruising a few hundred meters onto the inside.
I was amused and thought to myself “what a great tool to have in your quiver”.
I went traveling and surfing around Central America for quite a long period of time and when I came back to the UK 7 years ago I saw a fair few of these ‘paddleboards things’ about. I chuckled to myself – the strange thing I saw in France all those years ago was catching on! I had a pretty nasty chronic back injury at the time and couldn’t prone surf so got into paddleboarding to aid my back to recovery. Additionally getting myself back into the water on a paddleboard was great therapy for the depression I had gained from feeling like a man caged in a box due to the fact I wasn’t able to do the one thing I loved most – surfing.
What ignited the spark in you to get involved in the industry?
A total accident really. I didn’t sit down staring at a developing market and then make a huge business plan leaping into the industry to make money. Instead I wanted a paddleboard for my wife and I but couldn’t afford one! Back in 2006 there wasn’t really an affordable SUP focused brand out there, so I decided to go directly to a factory and got the boards made for me.
I had to buy ten boards to make it worthwhile due to the import costs so thought I would keep two and sell the rest. It turned out the boards attracted a lot of attention and were snapped up. People loved them! I was at University at the time studying to become an Occupational Therapist, so I needed an extra income as I also had a child on the way.
I decided to buy a few more and see if they would sell – they did! I repeated this pattern as the brand grew and decided to name the company ‘FatStick’. The name ‘FatStick’ derived from my surfing days as surfers would, at times, refer to their boards as ‘sticks’.
My thinking was – paddlebords are generally large versions of surfboards therefore ‘FatStick’ worked.
How important have good employees been to your success?
For the first 5 years I didn’t have any. I couldn’t even afford to pay myself let alone employees. The reason being, as the brand grew I was constantly having to invest in larger volumes of stock. Also Tax is a is a pain in the butt as we all know! Currently I have a fantastic group of Team Riders who support me when required and promote the brand with their skills and great shots. I have a team rider turned generally all out supporter who has been an incredible asset to the brand and a great friend too. I also now have a chap to help with Social Media, Marketing and networking – he has been a great. He goes above and beyond his call of duty.
If you had a chance to start your company over again, what would you do differently?
Get someone to make me a decent website from the start. I built my own website with no experience, it worked but wasn’t good. When the brand grew it held me back. I was (and still sometimes am) pretty naive and laid back with business – I’ve had to learn to be a little bit more assertive with dealing with certain situations.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
Wow! Now we are getting deep! Great question and I know the answer – Sometimes I had been busy and my communication hadn’t been good enough, this led to issues with suppliers and issues with people working around me, probably even upsetting some people if they felt I maybe didn’t appreciate them – this wasn’t the case, I was just doing too much on my own.
As a laid back ‘practical’ bloke my organisation at times probably wasn’t as good as it should be, though I’ve learnt how to help things run smoothly and I get a fair amount of positive feedback from customers about my customer service.
When you have a passion for something, you focus hard on it! I love being on the water and I want to get people on boards and give them the chance to have that feeling that I have when on the boards. The business is important to me, but making people smile gives me a real thrill.
How many hours a day do you work on average, and what does your typical day look like?
I look after my son two days a week and run the business at the same time – it could almost be classed as multi-tasking…almost. The other days probably 7-8 hours a day with Sundays generally off unless there’s a customer desperate for board, then I’ll do what I can to get it to them, no matter what day it is. If the surf looks good then I will charge into the water for a quick surf and then start calling everyone back who’s calls I’ve missed. I think our customers understand the situation and are glad they are buying from someone who is a regular paddler and is still actively looking to improve our boards.
A standard day doesn’t really exist running your own business, so it’s hard to say (one reason why I love having my own business). I’m basically trying to be ‘all things to all people’. Dealing with sales, packing boards, developing new products…the list goes on!
What motivates you, and who has been your greatest inspiration?
Firstly, it’s not all about money, I’m in the wrong industry for that! However, being able to sustain myself and my family from something I cultivated myself to start with, is very satisfying, I’m not going to lie! I never get up in the morning and have the dreaded feeling of having to go to work and I’m so lucky to have that. It’s so nice seeing something grow, develop and sustain/support others also.
Inspiration? In terms of my own paddling I look up to the top guys on the surfing side of things. I often dribble over YouTube videos and try to break their surf manoeuvres down in my head to replicate myself with some success and lots of fails! In terms of business inspiration, I guess I watch Dragons Den (UK Reality Show based on new business) and The Apprentice. Lord Sugar has it all sussed out compared to me! I’m still learning day by day.
How do you define success?
Being happy, loved and healthy – without those three things you have nothing in my opinion and experience.
What do you enjoy most about being involved in the SUP industry?
I love designing new kit and looking for the next tweak on a board to make it that little bit better. I get a great deal of satisfaction from engaging with my team riders and supporting them – to be honest, they are a real hard-working bunch and I’m very lucky to have them. FatStick brought me a great friend whom I respect greatly and he has been there for me throughout our growth and without FatStick and the SUP industry, I may never have crossed paths with Nick Kingston. There’s a lot to say about helping newbies get involved in this amazing sport and to see them actually understand what it’s all about. SUPing isn’t about ego, it’s about inclusivity – we can all do it, just at differing levels, but no matter what board you’re on or what your skill set, ultimately, we’re a family.
I try to transpose this ethos in my day to day. FatStick is here and those that are around us have a good time. You’ll never meet an aggressive sales person, an ego on a board or a demanding owner, it’s just not what we’re about. Receiving that picture, mail or review that thanks me for making someone happy is worth it’s weight in gold. Trite or not, it’s a fact. If you don’t love making folks happy when selling the things you love, it’s time to move on.
I also engage with a few charities to give a little back, but of course I could and should do more.
Where do you see the paddleboarding industry in 10 years? 20 years?
Many people tell me to ‘ride the wave’ and move onto the next thing in business. I explain to them that paddleboarding is no fad and it’s here to stay. I’m doing this because it’s a genuine passion. If I was just after money I would start selling electrical goods to a mass market or something similar – something with high margins that are small/easy to ship! In terms of the sport itself, who knows? Maybe foils will be the next thing, though in my opinion with over-crowed line ups in this country it’s going to be hard to learn this new concept. Additionally, as with prone surfing, many people seem fascinated with trying to paddle surf tiny boards – and who’s to blame them after watching the top dogs ripping on world class waves. But maybe there will be more of an interest in paddle surfing slightly larger boards or even integrating more of the “soulful” longboard style of prone surfing into paddle surfing?
Who knows? Let’s see what happens and just enjoy the ride.
In terms of the SUP industry in general, hopefully it will continue to grow, and I believe it will. There is now so much competition and conflicting interests out there compared with when I founded FatStick years ago. I would be telling a lie if I said I didn’t sometimes worry.