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Talking story – McConks’ Q&A part one

Every brand has a ‘face’ behind the scenes. In the case of McConks SUP that’d be Andy and wife Jen. To get more of an insight into the inner workings of this new kid on the SUP company block Andy was recently put on the Q&A grill to find out what makes him tick, what it takes to get new SUP products to market and where this fledgling company’s heading. Check out part one of the interview and stay tuned for the second chapter appearing soon.

Tell us about your watersports background and when you first discovered SUP?
Jen and I have long been “outdoor adventure and recreation’’ devotees. I grew up in South Wales and spent many long hours in and on the South Wales coast, with my parents, with Scouts and with the South Wales Mountaineering Club. And with the valleys and Brecon Beacons close to hand there was rarely a weekend I wasn’t out in the Welsh countryside or at the coast.

Both Jen and I separately chose universities at the end of civilised world, close to wilderness and on the coast. Me at St Andrews and Jen at Aberystwyth. We both studied courses that continued our passion for preserving the natural world and the environment, whilst still taking time to play in the amazing environs we had chosen.
As outdoor adventure activities generalists, it’s fair to say that neither Jen nor I are leaders or instructor level in any particular activity. Depending on the pastime, we’re either competent, or enthusiastic, rather than advanced. But between us we have many years of experience surfing, windsurfing, canoeing, sailing, outdoor swimming, mountain biking, climbing and exploring.

We first saw SUP when it was just breaking in the UK. As keen surfers then I remember looking out back at Rest Bay and seeing my first stand up paddle boarder. I was both jealous and enraged simultaneously. He was getting the best waves, he was getting back out back quickly, and he was able to get to new breaks even quicker. Jen, generally being less quick to jump to opinions and believe what you read in surf magazines (she’s the sensible one), saw the long term appeal. A single board that you can use to explore the coast, to catch some waves and to take you to the best waves; what’s not to like? However, like many at the time, paddle boarding was just not something we could afford to do. We didn’t have a van, we lived in a small house in the middle of the country miles away from the sea, and we didn’t have much money.

In fact, for many years we paddled using ‘old skool’ Mistral or BIC windsurf boards, and split kayak paddles at our sailing club in the Cotswold Water Park (Bowmoor Sailing Club).

What appealed about stand up and what does it offer you personally?
I alluded to this just now. We’re not a family who likes beaches with hundreds of people, or competitive localism. Therefore, a board that can get you away from other people, which you can use to explore the coast, find new beaches and discover new waves was attractive from the moment we first saw a SUP. It’s only in recent years, with our young family, that we’ve discovered how great SUP is for all. Whilst it might be fun for a toddler for a few minutes, watching mummy or daddy rip it up out back, what they really want to do is be part of it. And with very young kids this is only really possible with SUP or canoe. But what really sealed it for me is that the one board you use to take your little ones out on can also give you some serious fun without the kids. Whether that be SUP surfing, river surfing or long distance touring. No other board sport comes close to having that balance.

Why do you think the masses are attracted to the sport?
It really doesn’t take long to master simple balance and paddling. Compare that to windsurfing or surfing. There is an awful lot to learn before you first catch your first wave or fist start planing. Many people give up in frustration before they get that far. I know some see this tail off as a benefit because it makes sure that only ‘the right kind of people end up on our waves’. It also creates an endless supply of second hand equipment from people with more money than ability. Whilst I sympathise with these views, and if honest, may even have shared them in the past, I think SUP brings something quite unique. Easy entry as a beginner and then gradual transition through to advanced rider. As I’ve said before one board that can be used in so many different environments.

One thing that appealed to us was that it’s an all-weather sport. We took up mountain biking after many years of travelling long distances for breaks and holidays to the coast, with cars heavily laden with boards and sails to find no wind or waves. I think we’re probably unique in having had several Easter camping holidays at Newgale without seeing a wave bigger than a foot, and wind stronger than a little puff. I hate to image how much money we’ve spent on fuel transporting our kit for it not to be used!

And let’s be honest there are large numbers of people who are really attracted to the idea of ‘extreme sports’. For many SUP is a non-threatening way into this.

Talk us through the McConks story. When did you decide to set up stand up paddle boarding brand? What was the catalyst?
We’re newcomers to the show. We only decided to set up the brand in October 2015 after a camping holiday in Dorset. I’d heard on the grapevine that a few members of our sailing club had purchased inflatable paddleboards, but hadn’t seen them in use. And at this stage we were still paddling on old windsurf boards stored at the lake because we couldn’t afford hard boards and had no space at home. When we saw a mum in her late 20s take her toddler out for a paddle round Portland Harbour we were immediately interested. But when we looked at inflatable paddle boards we were just plain confused. We didn’t feel that big brands ‘spoke’ to us. They weren’t talking in the same price range, and we clearly weren’t their target market. Even before kids we had become disillusioned with upselling tactics. After talking to the people we met it became clear we weren’t the only ones who no longer felt a connection with these companies.
We realised that the traditional methods of manufacturer to distributor to retailer to end-user puts distance between the brand and their customers, and increases prices. That was why we no longer felt affinity and warmth towards bigger brands. So we designed a new business model that would break down the old-school way of doing things. We wanted to work with our customers, understand what they need and make those products. By only selling stuff that ‘normal’ people need, rather than spending lots of money to persuade people that they need stuff, we’re also doing our bit to reduce the impact on the environment.

And why inflatables?
Because that was the board we were in the market for. If there’s a need and the brand/product doesn’t exist, then you create it, right?
The obvious advantages of inflatables to our lifestyle meant they were the only choice. Something that is easy to chuck in the back of the car, that’s easy to get up and running, that’s indestructible for young kids and that’s easy to store.
And before anyone comments, we know there are many benefits to hard boards. If we had the space and money for dedicated surf SUPs, dedicated race boards and dedicated touring boards (for example), we would probably have those as well. However, the way that inflatable SUP technology is developing, I think it’s only a matter of time before they become as good as hard shell boards.

Any chance we might see McConks hard SUPs at some point?
We’ve considered it and have even got as far as knocking up a few designs. I know there’s still a lot of snobbery about hard boards vs inflatables. And I get this for those brands that focus on elite and surf SUP (which seems to be nearly all of them). But with that elitism, those brands turn off most day to day to day recreational paddlers, both by failing to be inclusive, and with their price point. So we’re focusing on inflatables right now. The simple answer is probably not in the immediate future. And maybe never.

When designing a board, paddle and/or accessories where do you start? Are you trying to answer specific ‘questions’ so to speak or just going with your instinct?
New products normally start with a frustration, a lightbulb moment or an idea from a friend or customer. Typically they start with an idea for a shape of a blade or board. And they always start with a sketch.

We then take these sketches to our small network of suppliers. Although there are more than 30 iSUP manufacturers in South East Asia (and hundreds of paddle manufacturers) there are only a very small number who meet our exacting QA, environment and worker welfare requirements, who share our passion in innovation and improvement and who have the patience to work with us to constantly modify, tinker with and improve our products. Sometimes our sketch is impossible with current materials and techniques. It’s then back to the drawing board for tweaks and tinkering with the original sketch to make something that works.
Then it’s time for some computer work; 3D design and computer testing of that design with fin placement for example. At the same time starting to think about other parts of the package. Do we need to re-invent the wheel by re-designing a pump, or are off the shelf ones fit for purpose? Fin composition? What about the bag?

Once the blueprint is finalised we agree it with our suppliers, and have an agonising and frustrating wait for the prototype to arrive. Sometimes the design has to change during the proto manufacturing phase if it becomes apparent that something doesn’t quite work. We’ll work with our supplier to revise the final prototype design.
If we’ve done our homework right, then the next stage is just a few small changes with accessories or styling. But if we need to go back to drawing board again we will do so. Then it’s full production and another agonising wait whilst the kit is manufactured and shipped to our UK store. The whole process for a new design takes around four months and can take up to eight to finalise.

Any innovations coming from McConks in the near future? If so, are you able to tell us what they are?
Absolutely. Our 2017 line up, available from mid-Feb onwards, sees some real innovations on the board front.
We’ve adopted a new manufacturing process where the outer layer of PVC is fused to the inner Dropstitch material significantly reducing the amount of glue and other raw material wastage. It also cuts the weight by several kilos and increases rigidity. We’re also using a different technique for the rail finish than most other brands. Even compared to the very big, very well-known inflatable manufacturers, our rail finish is cleaner and more resilient with less wrinkles. The glue binding our boards is UV resistant and a new and improved deckpad, which is more comfortable to stand on for long distances without sacrificing any of the grip, will appear. This is also more resistant to UV fade than ever before.
The central fin system will be adjustable US centre box and FCS for the side bites. The fins that we’re providing with the FCS boxes are flexy enough to withstand some abuse from bumps and rocks, but strong enough to give decent bite in surf. And they can be replaced with standard FCS fins if paddlers need. Although they are click fit boxes, they also have predrilled holes for standard FCS screws.
We’ve got a new mount on the front of every board for your waterproof camera, and we’ve revisited the rocker on our 10’6 and 10’8 boards to give a better all round performance. Carry/pull bags is now provided with paddle storage is now inside.
And because it’s the little details that matter, we’ve made our D-rings stronger than ever before, added non-slip strips under the storage areas on our round nose boards and improved the paddle clamps on our adjustable paddles. A new stringer on the fibreglass/nylon paddle helps increase the power of the blade without reducing its durability and robustness.

How do you see the industry overall? What are your opinions on stand up paddling in general?
It’s a mixed bag at the moment; some good some bad.
Too much of the industry focus is still on surf SUP, particularly with new entrants to the market. Most new, smaller SUP companies have come from a surf background rather than from a paddlesports background. And so much of their expertise and hence development is focused on the surf component. Being inland we naturally have more of a focus on the paddlesports component and we’re seeing a big increase in interest from the paddlesports community.

The oft repeated mantra that SUP is the fastest growing water sport in the world may have been true for a few years, but that’s because it was new and a large % growth of a small market is easy to achieve.

There are many new entrants to the market hoping to make a quick buck on the back of this promise of perpetual growth. And so the market is flooded with a large number of low quality boards at a range of prices. Some of the stuff you can pick up on eBay or Amazon at £300 is obviously poor quality at that price. Customers would almost always be better off buying a second hand board from a decent brand than spending £300 on a new board from a cheap brand. Buy cheap, buy twice as they say.

But what always surprises me is the number of mid-market inflatable boards at £500+ that all have the same shape, the same fins, and only differ by having different colours or different logos on them. Design costs money and it seems that a lot of brands have decided to take an off the shelf generic product from a Chinese factory rather than spend trying to craft an iSUP board.

But despite the promise of SUP rivers paved with Jasmine, I think growth will slow in the near future for two key reasons:
Firstly, there is a lot that can be learned from the rise and fall of windsurfing. But I’m not sure that all of the lessons have been learned by the industry. The focus on elite athletes and top shelf sales, and the desire to get bigger audiences for sponsored races rather than get more people on the water are symptomatic of an industry that hasn’t faced up to the lessons of the decline of windsurfing.
Secondly, the uncertainties brought about by Brexit and the predicted increase in inflation will have an impact. This is compounded by most of the industry inflating their product prices by between 10 and 20% for 2017 lines on the back of the weak pound. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on SUP sales in 2017. McConks has been able to maintain 2016 prices into 2017, working closely with suppliers to manage costs whilst improving quality, and buying at the right time. Unlike other brands, we don’t need to service debt or give dividends and continuous short term growth to investors. And we don’t have expensive teams to maintain or a large marketing budget. So we can provide a great product at a great price.

Because good design costs money, the big brands often focus their design and innovation on top shelf high performance products with the biggest margins. Perhaps understandably. However, we know that most people don’t aspire to be Laird Hamilton or Kai Lenny. No more than the average driver aspires to be Lewis Hamilton, or the average baker aspires to be Mary Berry. So the focus on top shelf sales and elite performance doesn’t appeal to an awful lot of people. I think that thanks to the new upstarts like McConks, the big brands are now tuned in to this and trying to respond. Red Paddle Co’s recent ‘a bag full of’ initiative for example is one such example of a big brand reaching back out to customers. And we know that for most people, purchasing a SUP is a very big deal, not many of us can afford to spend that amount of money without wanting to be sure we’ve made a sound choice. So we design our kit with the most advanced features possible for the price. We’re not about upsells or yearly upgrades. We want you to buy your SUP package from us, be proud of it, be pleased you’ve made the right choice, and not need to come back to us for many years. Unless of course you’re buying for a family member. For that reason we don’t have cheap, standard and elite ranges and lots of different colours. We have just one range of products that offer the very best quality at the very best price.

Where do you see the sport going?
This year has been all about the foil and improvements in inflatable technology. I think interest in foil will continue for the top shelf kit, but will fail to penetrate the mass market, and this is probably a good thing. A load of beginners trying to hoot around on foils is just simply dangerous, and will do nothing to improve the atmosphere at crowded breaks.

At the back end of last year, we identified the biggest gains that could be made with iSUP design was improved rails and fin boxes flush with the board. And what RRD have done this year with their prototype WindSUP with hard rails and low profile fins is amazing, and this tech will eventually cross over. We’ve started some initial research into ways in which fin boxes can be flush with the board, and how rails can be improved at the start of this year. Early days yet however, and nothing in the pipeline.

The marketing machine has done a pretty good job at persuading people that they need round nose inflatable boards for all round multi-purpose fun. But the bulk of new entrants to SUP spend most of their time on flat water cruising, with ambitions to surf SUP. Awareness is gradually growing that for most people, most of the time, a longer ‘pointy-nose’ board would be more appropriate. I don’t think this switch will happen quickly, but by making a good quality touring board available with decent fins and at a good price, I’d like to think that McConks will help support that switch. Which will improve the experience for beginners.

It’s been surprising this year how many die hard white water kayakers, sea kayakers and BCU instructors have started showing much more of an interest in SUP, and some of our strongest brand friends this year have been from the paddlesports community. I think that crossover will continue, and predict there will be increase in interest in the niche paddlesports components; primarily white water, river surf and downwind, but also a continued growth in SUP challenges and expeditions.

Brands have previously tried to persuade consumers that group and maxi boards are a must have, with limited success to date. It will be interesting to see whether Red Paddle Co’s Dragon World series stimulates more interest. It certainly has the potential to do so as the team sport equivalent of the N1sco series.

And McConks; what’s the overall aim here? Tell us your brand goals moving forwards.
We started the brand after an idea or two, some cash scraped from what limited savings two watersports and travel fans with two children can amass, and some lovely messages of good luck and goodwill from those with similar passions and frustrations as ours. Just over a year later our products have won plaudits from instructors, magazines, experts and customers alike for their design, function, quality and value. We’ve been put up against the big boys who’ve been in the game a lot longer than we have, and who have much deeper pockets, and we’re holding our own. And with our new range launching Mid Feb 2017, we’re confident we’ll come out on top in 2017. We won’t sell the most boards, we won’t make the most money or have the biggest turnover, we won’t win the most competitions and we won’t have the youngest and prettiest models modelling our kit. But that’s OK, because we will have the best reviews, the most satisfied and engaged customers and have made lots more friends. We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. But we’re still learning and we’re still the little guy. And no doubt we’ll still make mistakes!

Of course, we want to grow and we want to be bigger and better than we are. But we want to always keep the little guy feel and principles. Only by doing so can we keep close to our customers.

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