Landing A $200K Shark Tank Investment and Growing to $80k/mo

Published: June 6th, 2018
Angela Watts
Founder, Slyde Handboards
Slyde Handboards
from San Clemente, California, USA
started October 2010
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

My name is Steve Watts, I am the founder and co-owner of Slyde Handboards with my wife Angela. Slyde is based of out of San Clemente, California. Handboards are little surfboards that strap to your hand that give you more lift, speed and control when bodysurfing.

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Handboards have been around for centuries, nobody is quite sure where or when they started, but there is evidence of the ancient polynesians using palm fronds or drift wood placed on their hands to get more speed, distance and lift when bodysurfing. A handboard is the perfect ocean toy, which allows anybody no matter their age or skill level the ability to ride a wave like a pro. Handboards are the most portable and lightweight wave riding equipment, which means you don't have to be the local pack mule when going down to the beach It is a sport that is super easy to learn and safe for kids to get comfortable in the ocean, without having the worry of a big board. As with any awesome sport it’s fun to master, plus it’s perfect for getting barreled. Our handboards allow you to take your ocean fun to the next level. We also have pro-models that are ridden by the very best bodysurfers in the world at some of the best surf breaks, like Pipeline and Waimea in Hawaii to Australia, Brazil, and beyond.

Since we LLC’d the company in late 2010, Slyde has grown. We’re doubling in revenue every year. We were on Season 7 Episode 24 of Shark Tank, where we were fortunate enough to land a deal with Mark Cuban and Ashton Kutcher, who are still both very much involved in the company.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The Idea of Slyde Handboards started back on the beaches of Cape Town South Africa where I grew up. My Mother would take me and my brother down to the beach a lot to get us out the house. We spent most of the time bodyboarding or bodysurfing. We used to find all sorts of objects that we would use as a planning device to get us a little more speed and lift on the wave from frisbees to flip flops, some worked well others not so much. It wasn't until my teens that I decided to break open an old surfboard and re-use the foam to shape into a mini handheld board that would later become the very first prototypes for Slyde.

I figured we were the only ones doing this, but It wasn't until I went travel surfing around the world and met other surfers and water men and women and heard their stories of growing up using all sorts of found objects like lunch trays or even making boards themselves. It was then I realized there was a possible opportunity to create a brand around this awesome growing watersport movement, as no other company was doing this.

There is definitely a defined problem that we solve, in that a handboard is easy to learn, hassle free and fun to take to the beach. The idea was really born from simple enjoyment that I was having using one. It felt almost selfish to not share it with the world. It turns out I wasn't wrong, because almost immediately we started to form a community and movement as more and more people started to find out about us either online or through friends.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

I have a degree in Product Design so my strength lies in the creative design side of the business, from the start that has been my focus. I also grew up immersed in surf culture and it was always my dream to own a surf related company. Prototyping was obviously a huge part of this company. By the time I decided to launch it, I had been prototyping for 16 years and knew exactly which shape board we were going create.

We live in a very connected world these days and finding manufacturers in general was not a problem. Finding the right manufacturer was a little more tricky and we have been through 5 or 6 Manufacturers since launch. We found that in many cases the small size of the boards was actually a problem. All the equipment was designed and made for bigger surfboards and our boards are no more than 19 inches. A full length surfboard can reach 12 feet. Also, I had always had the dream to be able to create boards with beautiful graphics, but at the time the cost was very prohibitive. This forced us to look at other manufacturing capabilities. In about year 4 we stumbled on a manufacturer that made snowboards and we figured out a way to mix the manufacturing process of a snowboard with a manufacturing process of a surfboard. It took a bit of tweaking, but the result was a board with the strength and durability of a snowboard and stunning graphics. This is why we offer a lifetime warranty on all our high-end boards.

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My advice for finding a good manufacturer is to do your research well and inspect prototypes thoroughly for quality. Beyond that make a point to meet face to face and make sure they understand your vision for the product. Watch out for manufacturers that look like they are in it for the short term.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Starting Slyde in 2010 was a little different than it is now. Shopify was small, Facebook was still very new and Instagram had just started the month before.I knew online was the only way to go, so I taught myself basic code and we started our initial website on Big Cartel and had to patch in a cart. We then moved over to Squarespace, finally in 2013 we moved to Shopify where we never looked back.

At the time of starting Slyde I was teaching surfing in Venice Beach. I had just received my green card to stay in the country and that also allowed me to legally start a business. While teaching a student, I told him all about this awesome company I was trying to start. About 2 months later we met for dinner. He loved the concept so much that he decided to invest right there and then, without even seeing a handboard. Russell is still involved and we are good friends 8 years later.

In 2011 Russell and I bought a Dodge van and made our way across the country from California to Florida to our first Surf Expo. On the way I had a lot of free time and I wrote a lot of tutorial articles and taught myself SEO and those articles, to this day have, been a huge source of free traffic for the website.

I would advise anyone starting out to start creating content as soon as they possibly can.

For a lean startup (apart from your time) it’s a great way to get free traffic until you can afford to pay for traffic later on. Also building valuable content for your customers is really important in creating engaged visitors to your site.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Our biggest driver of revenue has been our onsite content. We now have about a thousand blog posts and around 20 long form tutorial type articles. These have helped us grow as we are in many cases the first position in Google and Bing for most of the relevant keywords.

We have also become very efficient at getting press and have been featured in New York Times, Los angeles Times, Forbes, Huffington Post and Business insider. Shark Tank was also a massive boost for us that has helped put our story on steroids.

There is no substitute for relationships when it comes to getting articles written and it’s really important to nurture meaningful relationships with bloggers and journalists.

Getting a really good story written about your company takes more than an email requesting a feature, it takes (in some cases) months and even years of back and forth. It’s important to know what is important to the writer in terms of if your story fits their narrative. Remember these are people that want to write articles that will further their blog or career, so its important to do your research and cater towards their requirements to get the most articles published

We also started using AdWords pretty soon, initially using a fairly modest budget to cover all the keywords that the organic traffic missed. Another core ingredient, has been collecting emails. We have a very solid subscription base that we segment to filter the best possible content into the right place of the customer's email life cycle.

What are some of the metrics of the business?

The sport of handboarding has grown exponentially since we launched in 2010. There are now competitions across the globe in Hawaii, Brazil, Peru, United Kingdom, Chile, Japan and Australia. We have now sold boards to over 40 countries and growing every month. We have 500k visitors a year to our website. We just got our first order from Dicks Sporting Goods this month.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Starting and running a company teaches you so much on a regular basis it's hard to list them all. I think above all it teaches you a lot about yourself and what you are capable of achieving.

For me I found something I was passionate about and was willing to put my head down and work harder than I ever had before and love doing it.

Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson once said that the hardest thing he has ever done was to start his business.

As for mistakes, we have been pretty fortunate that we haven't made any really big mistakes or I guess I wouldn't be writing this. Very early on learned the lesson of gross profit margin. It was kind of a funny "Aha" moment that was also the turning point for the company to becoming more profitable. I am sure we have missed some opportunities but none I can recall as very memorable. I prefer to work hard and always be looking for the next opportunity than thinking about the one that could have been. I think in general we have been very good at taking advantage of the opportunities we have been given.

I really like the concept of 80/20. I try to focus on the 20% that are going to get the most return every day. It can get tricky when you have a lot of opportunities but generally it is obvious what is going to reap the most reward for the business in the end.

The best decision I made was to bring on my, then girlfriend, now wife Angela, who was instrumental in helping to take the company to the next level by getting all sorts of awesome press, including Shark Tank. Bringing her on allowed me to spend more time on the design, marketing and branding.

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What platform/tools do you use for your business?

  • We have been using Shopify for around 4 or 5 years now

  • We use Klaviyo for email marketing which I can't recommend enough if you want to take your list to the next level.

  • We use Yotpo for reviews which are great however for the starter they are a little expensive

  • We use a few of the Bold Apps on shopify for cross selling and easy sale set up

  • We use Sumome for email gathering

One of the biggest opportunities was given to us by Mark Cuban. He offered help with optimizing our Amazon and since that, we have continued to grow exponentially on that platform.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

For product design and development I would recommend any of Tom Kelley books particularly "The Ten Faces of Innovation". I would also recommend In the “In the Bubble” by John Thackara.

For good business advice "The Immutable Laws of Branding" by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Also I really enjoyed "Story Brand" by Donald Miller.

My favorite podcast are "Master of Scale" with Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman and the NPR show “I built this“with Guy Raz.

For Practical Facebook Marketing advice look no further than "Perpetual Traffic“.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Starting a company is not for everyone. Being an entrepreneur seems to be a buzzword these day. The media glorifies the very few billion dollar exits and CEO’s that it almost seems easy. In reality it takes an enormous toll on you and is exceptionally hard. Don't take the idea to start a company lightly for the most part it isn't glamorous and it's downright hard work. However, if you are willing work hard for a very long time and put everything into it the rewards are amazing.

My advice for anyone starting a company is to find your "why". What makes you keep on working when any sane person would have quit. That special something that fuels your passion and drives you to never ever give up no matter how hard it is.

Another one is: Keep on learning. As a small business owner you need to be the jack of all trades. If it doesn't work, find a way to make it work by teaching yourself. Google is an incredible tool. We didn't know gross margin till 2 years in so go figure.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Anybody who has experience with Facebook Ads, Google AdWords and email marketing on Klaviyo.

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Where can we go to learn more?