Making Waves: Hiring and Running a Business the Oru Kayak Way

by Anne Bouleanu
- Oct 9 2013 - 4 min read
Oru Kayak

In 2012, Anton Willis launched a Kickstarter campaign that would change the way he did business and the way people think about kayaking.

Willis, the developer of Oru, the Origami Kayak, first came up with the idea for a collapsible kayak after moving into a small apartment in San Francisco, where he had to put his standard kayak in storage after each trip out on the water. After reading an article at the time about developments in origami, Willis started thinking about how he could apply the principles of the Japanese art to kayaking.

oru kayak
Moving from Mendocino County to a studio apartment, with no car, kayaking became a challenge for Willis (here, in the Oru offices).

After years of development and several prototypes, Willis produced the Origami Kayak. Made from a single sheet of corrugated plastic and weighing just 25 pounds, the one-person kayak can fold into a case measuring 33 inches by 29 inches by 10 inches, making it easy to carry around and store in practically any car or apartment. Willis then took the design to Kickstarter for funding, where he thought he would find a positive response. What he didn’t expect was that the project would meet its funding goals within just five hours.

Now, less than one year after the success of the Kickstarter startup financing campaign, Oru Kayak continues to receive plenty of buzz and sustained levels of excitement. During the past several years, Willis has learned plenty about operating a small business firsthand, from developing the perfect small-business marketing strategy to bringing talented people together to form a strong staff. Here, Willis offers some insights on hiring and collaborating at Oru.

From the Ground Up

Before jumping into the Kickstarter campaign, Willis said he was careful to work with people he trusted who were experts in their field to cover all his bases, from product design to sales marketing and customer service.

oru kayak
Origami-style assembly of the Oru Kayak

Willis currently has just a handful of employees—four, including himself—and says the company has made a “conscious decision to grow organically,” rather than making arbitrary hires.”I found the people I work with through the general maker/startup community in the Bay Area,” Willis says. “My finance and operations co-founder had recently finished his MBA and was looking for a design-led startup”—a great combination for Oru.

As for Oru’s chief commercial officer, Willis was able to find someone who had a background in kayaking, making him a smart choice for that particular role. “Our chief commercial officer was a former professional kayaker who was looking for a tech startup job, but saw an opportunity to combine both,” Willis says.

Oru hasn’t had to rely on any outside funding since the Kickstarter initiative, which speaks to the financial success of the campaign. A company can’t run off a single online initiative forever, though, which is why Willis says it’s important to “really get this one product completely figured out before diving headfirst into marketing and team building.”

Down the road, however, Willis is hoping to add more staff members, particularly in marketing and design to help to launch new products, namely more kayaks and accessories.

oru kayak
From sketches to prototypes, designed in Autodesk Fusion 360

The Dating Game

As any small-business owner knows—and some learn the hard way—it’s critical to choose the right people to work with. Business partners and employees can make or break a company, and Willis, who says he works with a team he now knows and trusts, says learning how individuals work took some time.

“The one thing that surprised me a little bit is how much time it takes to get to know someone you’re working with, even if they’re fully committed and all in,” he says. “It just takes some time to figure out how you work together and what makes you both happiest. It’s a little bit like dating, but I suppose in this case you tend to get married a lot faster.”

Whether team members can function together successfully is critical to organizational success, and for some companies, the learning curve can be steep. That’s why, with both his finance and operations co-founder and his chief commercial officer, the team decided to test the waters before diving into a partnership.

oru kayak
The Merced River in Yosemite Valley

“We worked together on a trial contract basis for a while before committing to a full partnership, so that we could test the fit on both sides,” Willis says.

This trial period apparently produced positive results, as the Oru team seems to have struck a balance in their working styles, and Willis says he hopes staffing will change over the coming months and years. Right now, Willis says his operations manager is practically living at work, making sure every element of production is going off without a hitch. If things go according to plan, operations will be able to take a step back and relax to make room for more streamlined marketing strategies to continue company success.

After successfully working with a core group of partners and employees, Willis says his biggest piece of advice for hiring at small businesses is to get ahead of the game and develop a team quickly.

“Start talking to people before you think you need them, because it can help you both define better what you need and to get things rolling before it’s an emergency,” Willis says. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of not having enough time to bring someone else on or up to speed—being a little bit ahead of the game is always important.”

Are you an entrepreneur or designer with an idea for a business, but need help getting it off the ground? For more tips on hiring, check out 10 Essential Tips for Building Your Small Biz Team.

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