Sports are fantastic for so many reasons: they help us feel healthy and confident, they give us a hobby, they help us grow and explore new places and people. Oftentimes people have to create that community for themselves and they struggle to find brands that resonate in a meaningful way. Yes, there are the Nikes of the world encouraging you to “Just Do It”, but they do not have a meaningful community that feels personal for most of their customers. Enter Aquabatics. This Calgary-based business has grown from being a simple retail provider of watersports equipment to a global tour-de-force of paddling. Simon Coward, Director of Aquabatics, sat down with our Founder, Lisa Genovese, to talk breaking free, selling without sales and connecting a global community of paddlers from Kenya to Scotland.

And Now For Something Completely Different

When Simon purchased the Aquabatics store from its previous owner, he was a little in over his head. We asked what one of the biggest obstacles were that he had to overcome, and he laughed, “Buying a retail store and not ever having done one day of retail work.” His background was primarily construction, but as an avid kayaker he wanted to do something in the industry. “I was just pressing on like… ‘how about a kayak school? How about a kayak school?’ and she’s [the previous owner] like, ‘No, you can buy the whole thing though.’” So, he bought the whole thing, despite not having a clear understanding of the retail industry and what it actually entails. Despite not having any real formal training in retail, Simon’s passion for kayaking, coupled with his desire to build good and do good in his community and beyond, have made Aquabatics a unique brand. But building a successful business is never done completely alone, or without some road blocks, and Aquabatics is no exception. When we asked what lessons, he would share with somebody else starting in the industry, Simon had some great advice:“I think the thing to do first, and I didn’t do it, is to look within industries because people are going to give you information in the same industry to go out and have a really actionable strategy moving into it. We spent the first three or four years being completely reactive […] it creates undue stress because you don’t know what the next step is. You don’t know what and where the next punch is going to come from, and so now, looking forward into future opportunities, I’m doing a lot more groundwork, a lot more legwork, leading up to the decision.”

Creating Impact Creatively

By staying informed and getting as much information as possible about the market, and his competitors, Simon was able to create an actionable plan to have a great sense of where Aquabatics is going and how to adapt as things change. Simon doesn’t just want his business to be successful for his own gain, he genuinely wants to create a community around kayaking and watersports and generate a positive impact on a global scale. But how can a one-off retail shop in a small corner of the world do that? Well, thanks to the internet, we are more connected than ever before. Simon understands that video is a powerful marketing tool. In fact, according to a study by Hubspot and Wyzowl, 81% of consumers have been convinced to purchase a product or service by watching a brand’s video and 72% of consumers would rather use video to learn about a product or service. Simon understands this and leveraged a YouTube channel as part of the Aquabatics marketing campaign to great success: “I think the thing that’s been the most popular are educational videos. Once people get into the sport, they [the videos] are really valuable, because they can take a course and they have this resource to refer back to. We’ve [also] done these buyer’s guides, but not in a salesy way.

We break down – if you want to get into white-water paddling, what are you going to be on the hook for? Whether you buy from us or someone else, it doesn’t matter. It’s just to demystify that whole process, because you can go into a shop and you feel “ I need this, I need that”; but we break it down into what you need, what you might want, and – as you progress in the sport – some of the things that you might require.” Not only does Simon want to educate potential buyers about the equipment for the sport, and provide additional training video resources to those already in the sport, Aquabatics also has a video series on watersports in general. These videos touch on everything from white-water kayaking to kayak fishing and have generated quite a bit of buzz on a global scale. “I had this conversation with this [kid], I found he’s a really cheeky kid, he’s from Scotland and it turns out that he’s 15 and he comments on every video that we put out. We posted a kayak fishing video and [his] response was [cheeky], “Ooohhh, kayak fishing” and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?!’ So I [wrote] him back and we posted another, and I got into a conversation with him. He said, ‘I’m a 15-year-old kid in Scotland and I’ve got nothing better to do, I just want to comment on these great videos!’ so now I’ve got this relationship with this kid in Scotland.” By creating a meaningful one-on-one relationship between the Aquabatics brand and the global audience, Simon is able to create greater trust and thought leadership for Aquabatics. Perhaps the kid in Scotland will even purchase his kayaking gear from Aquabatics, thanks to their online store and shipping. This global community isn’t limited to YouTube commenters and watchers. Aquabatics has begun crowd-sourcing to help develop an app to benefit the kayaking and watersports community. One of the challenges of the sport is the location it takes place – often in remote areas without wifi or data, paddlers have to pre-plan their trips to work around that. The trip planning takes a lot of effort, which is difficult for busy paddlers. The app mimics a mountain biking app called Trail Fox, which is a popular route planning crowdsourced app for cyclists. Through the Aquabatics community, they have close to 300 rivers and lakes across Canada and a few different countries. They have 30 regional moderators in different regions, so someone can add a lake or river, along with relevant information, which sends a message to the moderator. All they have to do is review the content and say, “Yep, this looks good”, approve it, and the information becomes available for everyone to use. The next phase of the app is to create downloadable paddling maps as a GPS file, allowing offline access, creating a safe, accessible and indispensable resource. Aquabatics has reached countries like New Zealand and Kenya with this app, allowing paddlers around the world to have key information at their fingertips.

Change Is Good, Change Marketing Is Better

Aquabatics has created a valuable brand through the educational videos, and an attachable brand through the global community generated with the app and online. But without a higher purpose, a company can feel flat. But Simon has created a higher purpose for the paddling community through his support of Breaking Free. We asked him about this program:“Ben Clark is a guy who has been a paddler, a very well recognized character and paddler in our community here, and I’ve known him since I first got here in 2004. Ben’s gone through a bunch of addiction problems and mental health issues. He just turned 41 this year so he’s doing a project which is paddling 41 rivers in 41 days for his 41st year on the planet. It’s all in a drive to help create awareness for mental health and depression, and addictions, and so on. It’s something that we’ve been working on with Ben for a while now through his League of Beautiful Minds work. That is basically a help group, in some ways for people who are struggling, and using the outdoors as a venue to help heal and cure people.”Cause marketing is a business strategy, not philanthropy, but it carries the benefits of philanthropy for its customers. The stats speak for themselves: when choosing between two brands, 90% of shoppers are likely to switch to a cause supported product. However, just supporting a cause isn’t enough. 64% of shoppers say simply giving money away isn’t enough; they want businesses to integrate social impact directly into their business models. By supporting Breaking Free, and creating a community of connected paddlers, Aquabatics is generating change at home and abroad.Do you know of a business creating positive change in your community? We would love to hear about them. We are always seeking new businesses to feature in our ongoing series. You can nominate them here.

Watch the full interview below: