By Douglas Karlson
Mike Morrison didn’t set out to own what is likely the most successful kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) company on Cape Cod. The Sandwich native, who went through the local school system where his parents were teachers and who majored in criminal justice at St. Anselm’s College, began his career as a security analyst at Fidelity Investments in Boston.
That lasted about three years.
“I realized I wasn’t a city person,” says Morrison, who had what he describes as a “quarter-life crisis” at age 25. He left Fidelity and, after a three-month backpacking trip in Europe, found himself back on the Upper Cape wondering what to do with his career, and how, if possible, to make a living on Cape Cod.
Attracted to the idea of being his own boss, he observed that Cape Cod wasn’t known as the adventure-friendly vacation destination that it could be, that visitors weren’t taking full advantage of its many recreational waterways.
Ten years ago, when he saw that someone was selling six kayaks and a trailer on Craig’s List, the fledgling entrepreneur pounced, and his fledgling business, RideAway Kayaks, was born.
“That was the scariest part by far. Because it wasn’t a concept anymore. I had to commit,” he says.
Three ideas guided Morrison’s decision to start a kayak rental business: he wanted to work outdoors, he loved kayaking, and he knew Scorton Creek in East Sandwich like the back of his hand.
“I wanted to highlight the nature and ecosystem of Sandwich,” says Morrison, who wrote a business plan with projections of both five and ten years.
The first season, which was abbreviated because it began in mid-July, wasn’t profitable. But it was a learning experience. To support himself and his newborn enterprise, Morrison worked in construction and as a substitute teacher during the shoulder season. In the winter, he as a ski instructor at Vail.
The second season, he rented a small barn off Route 6A in Sandwich from which to operate, and the business began to grow. They were 16-hour days, with Morrison running all aspects of the operation.
Originally, the business was limited to renting kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. It soon expanded to guided tours. Morrison also started a camp for children, working with the Town of Sandwich.
“Being a trusted part of the community was important,” he says of the kids camp.
By year three he hired his first employee to answer the phones. The company now has 30 employees, 11 of whom are American Canoe Association (ACA) certified guides. A second location opened in Mashpee in year four.
At first, Morrison says he couldn’t give the SUP’s away. Suddenly, their popularity surged and RideAway saw a spike in revenue. He credits the expert guides and lessons as a strategic advantage they offered over competing rental companies, many of which have since closed down.
Since those early years, the business has continued to grow. Last summer Morrison did something that wasn’t in his business plan when he bought the assets of a Mashpee bike rental company that was closing.
“That was a big curve ball,” he says. But it was a good move, as bike rentals fit well with the company’s strengths: customer service and rental operations. At the end of every season, the company sells its bikes, kayaks and SUP’s. That way the company starts the next season with new equipment.
“We run the company as if I were a customer,” explains Morrison of his decision to offer the newest and best equipment.
Morrison no longer has time to be a ski instructor during the winter, but he credits his experience at Vail with teaching him about world-class customer service, business systems, and logistics related to the tourism industry.
As the business continues to grow, it changed its name from RideAway Kayaks to RideAway Adventures, and will offer year-round adventure travel opportunities. It recently launched the first such adventure: a surf and yoga retreat in Costa Rica.
To attract his many loyal customers, Morrison says he doesn’t do much paid advertising or Google Adwords. Instead he relies on word of mouth, organic search optimization, and an email list that has grown over the years. He also credits the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce as a major source of help in promoting his business.
“They’re a huge benefit. We take full advantage of their services,” he says.
Morrison’s success has allowed his company to meet another important goal of his business plan: giving back to his community and creating a philanthropic networking community.
RideAway Adventures donates gift certificates to worthy causes, hosts events to raise money for charities, and supports the For Kids Sake Foundation, which helps children who have been diagnosed with cancer. The company also organizes on-the-water tours for children in need.
His advice for other entrepreneurs? Learn to delegate, and understand the importance of representing your business personally and networking even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s critically important to do this because it gives a face, or personality, to your business.
“You need to self-promote, so people trust the company. That was a huge lesson,” says Morrison.
Perhaps his most important advice: write a comprehensive business plan to test your business on paper before you do anything else.
Says Morrison of both his business operations and charity work, “We’re doing the cool stuff that I wrote up in the plan.”