Handboards are bursting on to the water recreation sports market, and the sole commercial producer is a company that created the very first of its kind: Slyde. You may remember the water sport startup from their appearance on the hit show, Shark Tank, and how the passionate owners managed to wrangle an investment from both Mark Cuban and Ashton Kutcher.
Slyde Handboards has gained a lot of press after the investments from Cuban and Kutcher. However, this company has been putting in dirty work and grinding since the very beginning. The retailer had originally projected sales to exceed $300,000 by the end of 2015, but Cuban saw much higher potential for the company.
I spoke with Steve Watts, who co-founded Slyde with his wife, Angela, about the reasons behind his company’s success, the contributions made by the Shark investors, and their plans for the future:
- Your company is the first to make these handboards, and you’re the only ones that sell and distribute them commercially. How did you first get the idea?
The act of using an object on your hand to get your body higher out the water and to propel you further and faster down the wave has been around in one shape or another for a very long time. In fact, I have seen old photos of Polynesian kids using palm fronds and pieces of wood the same way we used frisbees to get a little more out of the wave allowing you to ride the wave longer and faster. So I can’t take credit for the idea, but since I had so much fun handboarding with my makeshift handboards as a kid, I knew other people would too. As a kid, I realized there wasn’t a brand connected to the sport and I wanted to create a global brand for it.
- The handboard seems like a cool toy for anyone who wants to have some water fun, but how did you first start selling them for a profit? Was it just an interesting thing that friends wanted, or did you immediately start selling?
Handboards are really fun and a great way for beginners to learn about the ocean and how to ride waves without the constraints of a bigger standup surfboard which can be prohibitive to a beginner. In fact bodysurfing and handboarding is almost, or should be a right of passage for anyone learning the ocean and surfing. It’s very important to understand how the waves work and the ocean moves around you. I think it’s something that gets lost when you go straight to learning on a big board—I taught surf lessons in Venice Beach when I first moved to the U.S.
I used to make handboards when I was a kid, mostly for myself. I would break open my old surfboards and repurpose the foam inside into handbags. As kids, we had always looked for different ways to ride waves. I grew up on a beach in Cape Town where my brother and I would literally use anything we could find to ride waves, from pieces of driftwood and old Frisbees to flip flops. As it evolved, we would borrow lunch trays either from home or a local fast food restaurant.
The food trays had the biggest flat surface area of any object, but being a rectangle it still lacked the aqua dynamics we were looking for, which is why I then started to look for a better shaped design that would help you go even further along the wave. And that’s where the first primitive prototypes come from—the beginning of the Slyde brand. I didn’t start selling until 2010 when the company was founded, but we had been doing what I like to call extensive product testing.
Between 1998 and 2005, I traveled extensively around the world. Everywhere I took my handboard out, from Australia to Hawaii, I got the same response from other travelers and surfers.
“I remember using McDonald’s trays or making my own headboard when I was a kid.”
It evoked a certain sense of nostalgia for anyone who saw it, especially those who grew up surfing. What astounded me is that no one had made a real effort to create a desirable brand associated with a sport that already had such a passionate following.
- It’s one thing to just sell these handboards on the side, but what convinced you that this business was worth going full time?
I decided when I was 16 that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, or at least I remember thinking that. Of course, with most delusions of grandeur at 16, it didn’t quite happen then. But my love for surfing and the ocean took me around the world with a backpack, a surfboard and a handbag stuffed in there somewhere.
I traveled to around 40 different countries. You get some strange looks walking through the center of Rome with a surfboard. Yet the desire to start a brand that was centered on handboarding never left me. I was always testing and trying new ideas. To be honest, I was positive that someone would come up with a cool brand and start selling these. Even back in 2 005, when I was at university in San Francisco for product design, I was doing the patent research for the boards. I couldn’t find anything even remotely similar to what I had in my drawings—to say nothing of my primitive prototype.
Regardless, it wasn’t until I finished university and moved to Venice beach where I worked part time as a Surf instructor that I met Russell, who was a student. He loved the board and the idea just as much as I did. With his initial help, we launched the company in November of 2010.
- You have managed to take a simple product and actually turned it into a profitable company. What techniques and strategies did you use to make your business model a vehicle for success?
I think that is the beauty of this product. It is so simple, and it just works, that is what has made it so successful. To answer your question, there are no specific techniques or strategies that we undertook, especially in the beginning. This was about finding something that I loved to do. Seeing the joy and smiles it gave others fueled the desire to create a brand that would be able to, as we say, “spread the stoke,” and allow others the opportunity to experience the ocean in such a unique and unbelievable way.
I’ll be the first to admit, I knew nothing about running a successful company. I was a designer, and everything was fuelled on pure passion.
In the beginning, we made so many mistakes it’s hard to count them all.
But one thing I knew was this was going to work as soon as people tried it they would be hooked. As we are in our sixth year of business, we are a lot more focused on techniques and strategies. It is really important for us to be good at what we do and to offer the best possible product we can.
We focus a lot of our efforts on our community of people—for instance, spotlighting them on social media and on our website. This is why we created our ambassador program. Through our family of ambassadors, we have people on the beaches spreading awareness for us and helping us build the sport.
- Of course, getting an investment from Ashton Kutcher and Mark Cuban has helped your company get into the public eye. But what else has their cooperation with your company done for you and your product?
Mark, Ashton and obviously the Shark Tank show airing have been extremely important in the growth of the company. The biggest issue we faced before was education. Educating people on an entirely new sport is extremely difficult. With Shark tank, we were able to show 8-million people there is an unbelievably fun and easy way to ride waves that they had never heard of before.
After all the action from the show died down, Mark and Ashton have been phenomenal in their support, and of course their contacts. Just having these two involved has opened so many doors that would have been closed to us. They are both very busy, but always take the time to answer any questions and give advice about anything. Most investors really don’t offer that much after an initial investment, but both have given us way more than we could have hoped for and are way more valuable than just an investment.
- So moving forward, what is your vision for Slyde?
We have a lot of very cool stuff planned for the coming year and beyond. We want to continue to concentrate on our core business, which is designing innovative and beautiful products, and we are working on a very cool new product for beginners that will be debuting just in time for summer. We feel that we want to be able to get as many kids out in the water to experience the ocean as we can.
Watts and his wife have been through countless struggles—struggles that come with the entrepreneurial life. But Slyde is a prime example of a unique product getting a big break. Handboarding is a brand new concept, but the Watts’ homemade company has established it as a powerful source for financial success.
We cannot overlook the tremendous importance that Shark Tank’s exposure and the Cuban-Kutcher tandem offering experienced support, but Slyde is working off of pure passion and grit to reach the top.