Champion Kayaker "EJ" Jackson on Personal And Professional Success

by Joe Greek on June 13, 2011

Jackson Kayak is an internationally-known manufacturer of whitewater kayaks that was started in 2003 in Rock Island, Tenn. by co-founders Tony Lunt and Eric “EJ” Jackson, a world champion freestyle kayaker and Olympian. Recently, Jackson shared some insight with the Intuit Small Business Blog on building a priority list for personal and professional happiness, dealing with rapid growth, and how the biggest rewards of success come from having a positive impact on others.

ISBB: What do you take from your time on the water — choices or skills — and use in running a successful business?

Jackson: My competition training/skills are mostly self-taught and developed from “breaking free of norms” and trying to find better ways. This has transferred over to my business very effectively. Jackson Kayak was started under unique circumstances and, today, is run very uniquely. I am remote and don’t have an office at the factory, never did. I am on the road 6 months a year, training and competing and developing demand at the customer level, while also developing ideas for the next products. We eliminated sales reps, advertising, and trade show expenses — 10 percent of sales in expenses — with this sales and marketing approach.

What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of running a business?

Being profitable while managing rapid growth has been our biggest challenge. With 50 percent growth last year and the same this year, we have to be very flexible with staffing, production, and issues related to the growth. We have failed to manage it well in the past, but with the intense focus of key personnel, such as Dave Olson (our CFO), we have turned the corner and are operating at a 23 percent EBITDA this year so far, with 46 percent growth! Working remotely has its challenges as well, but we are so used to it after eight years that I don’t consider it to be an issue any more.

What is the most rewarding part of running the business?

The positive impact on our staff, customers, market, and my family. First off it is the positive impact on the great people who work for us and watching that number grow. We started with just eight people and grow each year, now up to 120-plus. In the marketplace we watched as VCs purchased kayak companies and turned them into commodity type of businesses, and the industry lost focus.

Jackson Kayak is putting our energy and money into growing the industry and supporting our partners (dealers, kayak schools, camps, etc.) and watching our positive impact has been very rewarding. My entire family works at Jackson Kayak and are integral parts of the business. My wife, daughter, son, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law all work full-time for us. Watching my kids grow up and become such incredibly positive influences on the business and come into their own is a dream come true.

As a family man, professional athlete, and business owner, how do you manage your time?

The real question is how do you find time for your business? My life’s priority list is: Kristine (wife), kids (Emily, Dane, KC), my kayaking and athletic career, and then my business. I call it “life without compromise.” My daily actions and decisions are run through my filter which must go in the order of, “Is this the best thing for my relationship with Kristine, and then the kids, and will this be good for my paddling, and, finally, how will it affect my business? What this way of living has allowed me to do is to create mutually beneficial situations for my life and my priorities. I don’t have an office at the factory so I can spend all day, every day with my wife.

What advice do you have for individuals looking to start a business?

Don’t listen to too many people’s advice as they’ll set you up for a business that enslaves you before you even start. Make your own priority list for your life and spend as much time as needed to create a plan that supports that list. Only after you are able to do that should you start your business. If you take a shortcut or follow the lead of people who are only giving you advice, you will likely be jumping from the frying pan into the fire in terms of your own personal happiness. The time challenges and mental challenges of running your own business is rewarding only if you are doing it your way and feel in control of your destiny.