A decade ago, few people had heard of stand up paddle boarding (SUP). Now it’s a common sight on beaches and rivers everywhere. The recent ‘stay home’ impact of the pandemic has encouraged even more people to give it a try, which in turn has sparked a wave of startups looking to cash in on the water sport’s growing popularity.

Standing out from the SUP crowd

Bluefin SUP started out specializing in kayaks. Founded in 2013 by water sports junkie Will Vaughan, one of the first products he launched was a rigid sit-on-top kayak. However, SUP was also becoming very popular and in 2017, CEO Vaughan launched Bluefin SUP, now one of Europe’s largest online SUP retailers.

He says: “We had to launch something that was unique, of the highest quality, and at an attractive price point in order to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. It was also important to educate customers before making a purchase, as they are buying a high-value product online without seeing or touching it.”

To do this the business taps into a network of affiliates, influencers, and ambassadors to grow brand awareness and demonstrate Bluefin SUP’s range and capabilities. “We have ambassador programs that reward loyalty and are focused on looking after our customers,” says Vaughan. “Sustainability is another key area for us, particularly in terms of offsetting our carbon footprint.”

The growing popularity of paddle boarding has extended its appeal to a wider customer base that ranges from young children to retired paddle boarders. Although the pandemic was not without its challenges, especially around supply chain management and increased demand, the company has seen huge growth over the last two years and doubled its team to 55.

“We have multiple NPD projects that will add best-in-class products to our range, and we plan to invest more resources in our sustainability efforts,” says Vaughan. “We also want to provide more education to the wider SUP community and attract more people to this wonderful sport.”

Staying warm – and ethical

As founder of leadership development business Engage Technique Mark Whybrow was well aware of the difficulties of building true saleable equity in a service business, and for the last 12 months had been looking for a startup idea in consumer products. His Eureka moment came while sitting on a beach in Perranporth, Cornwall, which led to the launch of watersports and activewear brand ddipp.

“I was watching a family, all wearing a leading beach changing robe, when it struck me there were no other innovative options around,” he says. “The market was dominated by one leading brand that had done a great job of defining a market. Most other products were ‘me too’, with very low innovation.”

Whybrow had also spotted growth in SUP and open water swimming, both of which required a similar solution to the challenge of staying warm and getting changed before and after. 

“Crucially, both user groups have a high priority of environmental concerns, alongside a need for good performance quality,” he says. “They also like to have the right brand and kit, and no brand at that time was focused clearly in this position.”

The big practical consideration was how to make this happen. His brother-in-law Matt was based in Hong Kong where he managed product sourcing for a major high street clothing retailer. He had the supply chain relationships, capability, and credibility. 

Sustainability is a key feature of the brand and the products are manufactured in one of China’s premier production facilities for outdoor clothing, using recycled or sustainable materials wherever possible.

A big downside of overseas production, however, is the time, the cost and the carbon footprint of shipping. “What should have been a $2,500 shipping bill became $14,000,” says Whybrow. “Delays at ports and with haulers in the U.K. have also extended the time to stock availability. We are exploring more local production options, particularly as we expand the range.”

Sales will initially be online and direct to consumers, before being extended to wider selling channels, Amazon, for example, and specialist online sports retailers.

Water sports and wellbeing

Camilla Todd launched her paddle boarding and wellbeing startup SUP & Soul during the first lockdown in 2020. Since then she has grown the business from one-woman mobile instructor in Brighton to having a dedicated base at Weir Wood Reservoir in East Sussex.

Todd first discovered SUP during a visit to Western Canada in 2014 and took the sport up when she returned to the U.K. She says: “When I was made redundant in 2018 I worked with a life coach to explore my next move, and everything was pointing at the water.”

She completed her outdoor first aid training and attended a five-day SUP instructor training course in Portugal with the Academy of Surfing Instructors (ASI). “These qualifications enabled me to teach people both on inland waterways and along the coast,” she says.

SUP & Soul began with a fleet of four boards and with Todd teaching friends and family to SUP. “This was a great way to build confidence, and gather videos and testimonials for the website and my social media channels,” she says. “Word spread and before long I was taking bookings from new clients. By the end of the 2020 Todd I’d taught almost 100 people to paddle board between Sussex and Hampshire.”

It is a seasonal business, particularly in the U.K. with demand for tuition mainly between Spring and Fall and peaking during the main summer holidays. Until now Todd has supplemented her business income by doing other jobs, which have impacted her ability to operate full time throughout the main season. However, she recently teamed up with Clare Osborn, a blue health coach, and fellow SUP instructor to launch a full-time, dedicated SUP and water wellness outfit, with the aim of becoming an approved ASI SUP school, for 2022 and beyond.