Fashion-savvy kayakers ride sport's upsurge

With a line of rakish helmets, they hope to supplant their competitors' clunky models
By Alessandra Bianchi

The death in January of Steve Smith, 26, an elite white-water kayaker from Atlanta, saddened his paddling buddies throughout the country. Perhaps the most rattled were Brian Robinson and Jason Aronson, boyhood friends and founders of Orosi LLC, a start-up in Marietta, Ga., that manufactures helmets and sunglasses for white-water kayakers. Smith had been wearing an Orosi helmet when an Ecuadoran river swept him to his death. Robinson and Aronson felt proud that a kayaker of Smith's standing had chosen the Orosi brand. But Smith's death caused not only personal grief but also soul-searching about the safety of the company's helmets.

Robinson and Aronson had launched Orosi in November 1995 to inject a flair into kayaking accessories and, they hoped, energize the sport the way hip imagery had energized the snowboarding business. Kayaking, Robinson recalls, suffered from a "lame image, with a big void of shapes and fashion." The partners sought to fill the void by emphasizing dash and style. They designed colorful, New Age helmets to challenge the clunky models produced by established, safety-first companies like Pro-tec and Prijon.

The timing of Orosi's launch couldn't have been better. Participation in paddle sports like kayaking, rafting, and canoeing has increased 58% since 1993, to almost 25 million enthusiasts. White-water kayaking leads the boom, according to Neal Wiesner-Hanks, executive director of the Trade Association of Paddle Sports, in Mequon, Wis. Furthermore, white-water rafting and kayaking are the most popular pursuits of "hard adventure" vacationers, claims the Travel Industry Association of America.

In the spring of 1995 Orosi's founders had been fifth-year seniors at the University of Alabama and were skipping school "to go kayaking whenever it rained," recounts Robinson. Intent on turning their passion into a business, they began importing Costa Rican paddles. Then came their lucky break: a North Carolina outfitter was seeking a buyer for its line of white-water helmets. Robinson and Aronson paid $2,500 from their savings for helmet molds and designs. They named the company after a favorite white-water kayaking destination, the Orosi River in Costa Rica.

Today, when they're not globe-trotting to white-water rivers, festivals, and trade shows, the two entrepreneurs, both 26, operate Orosi out of the basement of their house. They have two employees. The helmets are manufactured by a marine repair shop in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the shades are made by contractors in Italy and France. The company relies on independent distributors who cover 150 specialty outdoor and fashion retailers in the Southeast and the mountainous regions of the country, plus Japan, England, Canada, and Norway.

Unlike the Orosi brand, traditional kayak helmets resemble the motorcycle variety: domes in primary colors that envelop the ears. Orosi's helmets sit rakishly above the ears. They blaze with sprightly, metallic finishes or soothe with earth tones. They sport names like Hawg, Lizard, and Kool Khat. The company's eyewear is sleek, futuristic, and equally hip; various styles are called Flake, Splat, Boof, and Boogie-Woogie. "We're trying to add style to boaters," says Robinson, noting that kayaking is no longer about "hippies hanging out on rivers listening to the Grateful Dead." The pizzazz is apparently working. Orosi's revenues leaped from $30,000 in 1996 to $120,000 in 1997, and this year they are projected to hit $400,000, which would put the company in the black for the first time.

Still, some in the industry think that Orosi's helmet design may compromise safety. "The helmets get noticed here more than they get bought," notes Joel Mallett of Backwoods Mountain Sports, in Ketchum, Idaho, who estimates that traditional models outsell Orosi's helmets 20 to one at the outdoor retailer.

Even Orosi's founders acknowledge that there's room for improvement. "White-water lids have become fashion statements and, for that reason, some offer more protection than others," reads a disclaimer in Orosi's catalog. The company has hired engineers to advise on a "technical" upgrade, Robinson says, adding, "All I can do is put every dime we make back into making a better helmet."

Kayaking and Madison Avenue

One sign of kayaking's popularity is a burst of start-up companies cashing in on America's zeal for the sport. Another surefire sign that kayaking has arrived: Madison Avenue's embrace. Toyota and Subaru, for example, have built ad campaigns around kayaking imagery.

Why is kayaking catching on as today's hottest adventure sport? To get at the answer, Inc. asked both Toyota and Subaru why they were drawn to the kayak.

Toyota deferred to Saatchi & Saatchi, its ad agency. From its office in Los Angeles, the advertising behemoth faxed an excerpt from a strategy report on Toyota's sports utility vehicle, the 4Runner. Toyota pairs the 4Runner with activities like kayaking, the report says, to appeal to its "target audience"--people who drive off-road to enjoy the outdoors and participate in "rugged activities."

And Subaru? From its U.S. headquarters, in Cherry Hill, N.J., it sent an excerpt from a report about Subaru customers, describing them as "rugged individualists," including, no doubt, those who merely fancy themselves as such. Ads that tie Subaru to rugged individualists' activities, notably kayaking, reinforce the "brand's image," the report says.

Translation: In the United States today, rugged outdoors activities are in, and kayaking is very in, as far as Toyota and Subaru are concerned.

Head Count
Number of participants, in millions

1993 1996
Canoeing and kayaking 8.6 13.6
Mountain biking 7.4 9.9
Mountain and rock climbing 4.7 4.7
Snowboarding 2.2 3.2

Sources: 1996 National Sporting Goods Association Participation Survey and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association Sports Participation Trends Report.

What's hot and why

As the publisher of SNEWS, a monthly newsletter that covers the business of specialty outdoor sports, Bob Woodward has a close-up view of adventure sports. The trends he monitors are also encapsulated in his book series, What's New, What's Hot. In a recent interview with Inc., Woodward zeroed in on what's hot in adventure sports and why.

Q: When did the adventure-sports craze take off?

A: Five years ago the recognition really started to rise, inspired primarily by snowboarding.

Q: What's driving it?

A: Advances in equipment have flattened the learning curve of many of these sports, leading to a cumulative effect. Kids who got into one outdoor sport and excelled quickly have been inspired to get into others as well. So a kid who got into an urban sport like skateboarding or BMX bicycling added an element of thrill to it by bringing it to the rugged outdoors and turning it into snowboarding or mountain biking.

Q: What about the demographics?

A: It depends entirely on how you define adventure sports. The people doing extremely dangerous stuff--daredevil, scary, life-and-death, leading-edge sports--are mostly under age 25. But if you're talking about climbing and mountaineering, or something just a little bit out of the ordinary, then the demographics are all over the map. I don't have hard numbers, but you've probably got 1% to 2% of the population doing something.

Q: What's hot today?

A: White-water kayaking. It's always been a small sport for a young crowd. But thanks to advances in boat design--shorter kayaks, for example--the sport's becoming easier to learn. You can do a lot more with kayaks, amazing things, like huge drops from waterfalls. Sea kayaking is actually the fastest-growing paddle sport, but white-water is getting all the attention because it's exciting, exhilarating, and death defying.

Q: What's next?

A: Hard to say, but it will likely be combining elements from different sports (like climbing to a remote area in order to kayak, for instance). Or it could be derivations of an extreme sport, like skiboarding. Skiboards are the short, short skis--90 to 100 centimeters long--that you're beginning to see on the mountains. They have a lot of potential for kids, who can do lots of tricks with them or race with them.

Kayakers: A sampler

(Listed in the following order: Company, Location, Product, Year Started)

Driftwood Productions
Auburn, Calif.
Hair-raising films

Epic Paddles
Carbon-fiber paddles

Heritage Kayaks
Wellesley, Mass.
Open-deck kayaks

Khaya Kayaks
Longwood, Fla.
Seagoing kayaks

Rain and Snow Inc.
Friendsville, Md.
Kevlar helmets

San Diego

Labors of love--with mixed results

If kayaking is the adventure sport du jour, then its counterpart several years ago was rock climbing. In the late 1980s the craze inspired a host of start-up companies to market rock-climbing gear and related products. Many of the start-ups were fringe operations run by climbers determined to make a living in a business associated with the sport they loved, according to Michael Kennedy, editor of Climbing Magazine. As the number of climbing enthusiasts peaked in 1994 at 6.2 million, some large retailers shouldered their way into the market, heightening the competition. In the inevitable shakeout, not all the ardent pioneers survived.

Todd Bibler, of Park City, Utah, is an avid climber. (In the 1980s he ascended Himalayan peaks 11 times.) In 1977 he started his single-wall-tent proprietorship, a business that allowed him time to indulge his passion for climbing. In 1989 he expanded from strictly mail order to wholesale and tripled the number of his tent designs, to 12. But when large competitors like North Face, Marmot, and Sierra Designs came out with their own versions of lightweight tents for high-altitude climbers, Bibler sold his company to $20-million Black Diamond Equipment, in Salt Lake City, rather than compete with the giants. "Even though their tents weren't as good as mine, the other companies had a large marketing network that they could tap into right away, which I didn't have as a small business," notes Bibler, 46, who now designs tents for Black Diamond.

Another climber-turned-entrepreneur who encountered stiff competition is Peter Mayfield, 35. He quit high school 19 years ago to enlist as a climbing guide in California's Yosemite Valley. In 1990 he established the nation's first indoor climbing gym, City Rock, in Berkeley, Calif. But his investors and board members forced him to sell the business four years later, faulting him for a lack of management skill. "I'm a climbing artist," concedes Mayfield. "I never wanted to set up a mom-and-pop shop and be the pop."

One pop who made it is Christian Griffith, an elite rock climber and CEO of Verve, in Boulder, Colo. "It's been pretty incredible," he says of the changes he's seen in his industry since launching his climbing-apparel company out of the back of his car in 1990. (See " New Businesses," May 1992.) "When I started I had to justify the existence of the type of clothing we were making," he says. "Now, with even mainstream companies crossing over into our niche, we struggle to maintain our authentic climbing identity."

Griffith, 33, estimates that at least 10 companies have copied his signature product: loose-fitting cotton-Lycra pants. The Verve brand, however, still has cachet among serious climbers in an increasingly dog-eat-dog market--in part, says Griffith, because of his status as a world-class climber. He adds that Verve is "very profitable," with revenues growing by 15% annually.