Every brand has a ‘face’ behind the scenes. In the case of McConks SUP that’d be Andy and wife Jen. To get more of an insight into the inner workings of this new kid on the SUP company block Andy was recently put on the Q&A grill to find out what makes him tick, what it takes to get new SUP products to market and where this fledgling company’s heading.
Tell us about your watersports background and when you first discovered SUP?
Jen and I have long been “outdoor adventure and recreation’’ devotees. I grew up in South Wales and spent many long hours in and on the South Wales coast, with my parents, with Scouts and with the South Wales Mountaineering Club. And with the valleys and Brecon Beacons close to hand there was rarely a weekend I wasn’t out in the Welsh countryside or at the coast.
Both Jen and I separately chose universities at the end of civilised world, close to wilderness and on the coast. Me at St Andrews in Scotland and Jen at Aberystwyth. We both studied courses that continued our passion for preserving the natural world and the environment, whilst still taking time to play in the amazing environs we had chosen.
As outdoor adventure activities generalists, it’s fair to say that neither Jen nor I are leaders or instructor level in any particular activity. Depending on the pastime, we’re either competent, or enthusiastic, rather than advanced. But between us we have many years of experience surfing, windsurfing, canoeing, sailing, outdoor swimming, mountain biking, climbing and exploring.
We first saw SUP when it was just breaking in the UK. As keen surfers then I remember looking out back at Rest Bay and seeing my first stand up paddle boarder. I was both jealous and enraged simultaneously. He was getting the best waves, he was getting back out back quickly, and he was able to get to new breaks even quicker. Jen, generally being less quick to jump to opinions and believe what you read in surf magazines (she’s the sensible one), saw the long term appeal. A single board that you can use to explore the coast, to catch some waves and to take you to the best waves; what’s not to like?
However, like many at the time, paddle boarding was just not something we could afford to do. We didn’t have a van, we lived in a small house in the middle of the country miles away from the sea, and we didn’t have much money. In fact, for many years we paddled using ‘old skool’ Mistral or BIC windsurf boards, and split kayak paddles at our sailing club in the Cotswold Water Park (Bowmoor Sailing Club).
[image of paddling an old windsurf board]
What appealed about stand up and what does it offer you personally?
Neither of who like beaches with hundreds of people, competitive localism or elitism. Therefore, a board that can get you away from other people, which you can use to explore the coast, find new beaches and discover new waves was attractive from the moment we first saw a SUP. It’s only in recent years, with our young family, that we’ve discovered how great SUP is for all. Whilst it might be fun for a toddler for a few minutes, watching mummy or daddy rip it up out back, what they really want to do is be part of it. And with very young kids this is only really possible with SUP or canoe. But what really sealed it for me is that the one board you use to take your little ones out on can also give you some serious fun without the kids. Whether that be SUP surfing, river surfing or long distance touring. No other board sport comes close to having that crossover appeal.
Why do you think the masses are attracted to the sport?
It really doesn’t take long to master simple balance and paddling. Compare that to windsurfing or surfing. There is an awful lot to learn before you first catch your first wave or first start planning, let alone before you learn to carve, or to gybe. Many people give up in frustration before they get that far. I know some see this tail off as a benefit because it makes sure that only ‘the right kind of people end up on our waves’. It also creates an endless supply of second hand equipment from people with more money than ability. Whilst I sympathise with these views, and if honest, may even have shared them in the past, I think SUP brings something quite unique. Easy entry as a beginner and then a gradual progression through to advanced rider. No big steps or barriers to development. As I’ve said before one board that can be used in so many different environments.
Another thing that appealed to us was that it’s an all-weather sport. We took up mountain biking after many years of travelling long distances for breaks and holidays to the coast, with cars heavily laden with boards and sails to find no wind or waves. I think we’re probably unique in having had several Easter camping holidays at Newgale and Gwithian without seeing a wave bigger than a foot, and no wind stronger than a little puff. I hate to image how much money we’ve spent on fuel transporting our kit for it not to be used!
And let’s be honest there are large numbers of people who are really attracted to the image of ‘extreme sports’ or the image of the surf lifestyle without really wanting to put themselves in harms way from the off. SUP is a non-threatening way into this lifestyle and image.
Talk us through the McConks story. When did you decide to set up stand up paddle boarding brand? What was the catalyst?
We’re newcomers to the show. Our first thoughts of setting up McConks only emerged in October 2015 after a camping holiday in Dorset. At this stage we were still paddling on old windsurf boards stored at the lake because we couldn’t afford hard boards and had no space at home. We’d heard about iSUPs of course by now, and we knew some people who had boards by the market leader, but their experience of them wasn’t great – they thought they were heavy, and didn’t perform anywhere near as well as rigid boards. But then we saw a mum in her late 20s take her toddler out for a paddle round Portland Harbour on a Naish One, we got thinking. When we looked at the inflatable paddle boards that were available, we were just plain confused. We didn’t feel that big brands ‘spoke’ to us. Even before kids we had become disillusioned with the upselling tactics used by the big windsurf brands and the traditional retailers. They weren’t talking in our target price range (except during the annual discount circus), and we clearly weren’t their target market.
And we realised after talking to the people we met on beaches and breaks, it became clear we weren’t the only ones who no longer felt a connection with these companies. We realised that the traditional methods of manufacturer to distributor to retailer to end-user puts distance between the brand and their customers, and increases prices. That was why we no longer felt affinity and warmth towards bigger brands. So we came up with a new business model that would break down the old-school way of doing things. We wanted to work with our customers, understand what they need and make those products. And this is important to us for lots of reasons, but probably the most important is for environmental reasons: By only selling stuff that ‘normal’ people need, rather than spending lots of money to persuade people that they need stuff, we’re also doing our bit to reduce the impact on the environment.
And why inflatables?
Because that was the board we were in the market for. If there’s a need and the brand/product doesn’t exist, then you create it, right? The obvious advantages of inflatables to our lifestyle meant they were the only choice. Something that is easy to chuck in the back of the car, that’s easy to get up and paddling, that’s indestructible for young kids and that’s easy to store.
And the other key reason is because we didn’t think that the existing iSUP offering was actually very good. There were some good boards by the big brands, with an eye watering price, and with some unacceptable compromises given the price; poor quality fixed fins and cheap aluminium/alloy paddles bundled in the package. If you’re spending the best part of £1k on a board surely you get at least a carbon paddle with it, and the ability to use different fins so you can use you board in different environments?
At the other end of the market there was a good variety of budget boards, but they weren’t particularly good quality. The SUP clubs and facebook groups are awash with real life stories of members being seduced by the latest ‘affordable’ brand that offers the very best quality at the lowest price. You know the ones. “Made in one of the top four factories in China, yet only £400 delivered.” It’s really not possible to manufacture and import a top quality iSUP board and paddle package for £400 unless you’re buying in quantities of thousands. So there’s only a couple of ways these smaller startup companies can do it. Either by compromising on quality, or by buying an off the shelf design and sticking their own brand label and colours on it. Have you ever noticed how many iSUP are the same shape? Brands try to pass this off as being due to plagiarism or because trial and error has ended up with coincident evolution of the same design. Which is a good marketing answer, but not necessarily a true one!
Any chance we might see McConks hard SUPs at some point?
We’ve considered it and have even got as far as knocking up a few designs. I know there’s still a lot of snobbery about hard boards vs inflatables. And this makes sense for those brands that focus on elite surf, downwind or race SUP. But with that elitism, those brands turn off most day to day to day recreational paddlers, both by failing to be inclusive, and with their price point.
It’s also true that there are many excellent quality, UK shaped/designed hard SUPs made in Chinese factories, made by great UK brands at the same price point we would be able to sell at. This just isn’t true with iSUP – no one else sells iSUP with the same attention to detail and design. And the UK has a really vibrant custom shaped scene, and that’s just not a market we want to play in.
So you might see us playing around with a few hard board prototypes in the future if we think we can truly innovate on price or design, or if friends as us to design a board for them, but rigid SUP aren’t a core part of our business for the time being.
When designing a board, paddle and/or accessories where do you start? Are you trying to answer specific ‘questions’ so to speak or just going with your instinct?
New products normally start with a frustration, a lightbulb moment or an idea from a friend or customer. Typically they start with an idea for a shape of a blade or board. And they always start with a sketch.
We then take these sketches to our small network of suppliers to see if our ideas are even possible. Although there are more than 30 iSUP manufacturers in South East Asia (and hundreds of paddle manufacturers) there are only a very small number who meet our exacting QA, environment and worker welfare requirements, who share our passion in innovation and improvement and who have the patience to work with us to constantly modify, tinker with and improve our products. Sometimes our sketch is impossible with current materials and techniques. It’s then back to the drawing board for tweaks and tinkering with the original sketch to make something that works.
Then it’s time for some computer work; 3D design and computer testing of that design with fin placement for example. At the same time we start to think about other parts of the package. Do we need to re-invent the wheel by re-designing a pump, or are off the shelf ones fit for purpose? Fin box type, fin placement and shape? What about the bag?
Once the blueprint is finalised we agree it with our suppliers, and have an agonising and frustrating wait for the prototype to arrive. Sometimes the design has to change during the proto manufacturing phase if it becomes apparent that something doesn’t quite work. We’ll work with our supplier to revise the final prototype design.
If we’ve done our homework right, then the next stage is just a few small changes with accessories or styling. But if we need to go back to drawing board again we will do so. Then it’s full production and another agonising wait whilst the kit is manufactured and shipped to our UK store. The whole process for a new design takes around four months and can take up to eight to finalise.
Any innovations coming from McConks in the near future? If so, are you able to tell us what they are?
iSUP technology hasn’t moved on significantly since 2016/17. Most quality manufacturers have now settled on a variant of enhanced drop stitch for double layer boards. There have been no significant innovations in valve type, deckpad or fin boxes (although we’re still working on the nirvana of low profile iSUP fin boxes flush to the bottom of the board, and a flexible hydrophobic coating that reduces the ‘suckiness’ of iSUP).
And really any brand that is hailing a massive step change between their 2017 and 2018 boards is either only just catching up with the rest of the industry, or using clever marketing!
Our innovations are more to do with our product range. We’ve been prototyping a surfSUP, a freeride windsurf board, and a white water board. None of these are necessarily innovative in terms of the materials used. But they each offer something very different to what’s already on the market. For example:
We’re also really pleased to be launching our clothing range in time for 2018. Ethical, sustainable, fair. No other watersports company clothing is organic, fairwear, environmentally friendly, and fun. Or as affordable as ours!
We’re still continuing discussions with some manufacturers about bringing the shaping of our paddles to the UK, and hopefully bringing the entire paddle manufacturing process to Europe within 12 months. But we need to know we can do this and it still be affordable for our customers!
How do you see the industry overall? What are your opinions on stand up paddling in general?
SUP is the fastest growing watersport in the world right? So you would expect a lot of positivity, camaraderie and a sense of team. We’ve built our reputation on being open, transparent and fair, but have taken some criticism for this. Apparently, sharing information and opinions, leading by example and suggesting other companies should be open and transparent and actually explain what lies behind the marketing spiel is ‘breaking the code’. We’ve even been banned from some facebook groups for being so unreasonable as to question what others have said in public.
The sport runs the risk of eating itself, and alienating all of those happy go lucky paddlers who just want to have fun. And that’s partly the reason why we’ve worked with some other SUP aficionados to set up SUPHUBUK. To provide an online home for SUP that’s independent of brands, governing bodies and training organisations. Admittedly McConks sponsors SUPHUB right now, but that’s because no-one else has stepped up to the plate. The intention is for SUPHUBUK to become self funded in the future, not needing sponsorship from McConks. And SUPHUBUK is managed by a team of 4 people, and we’re always looking for new team members, so if you think McConks funding is a conflict of interest, come and join the team to make sure it isn’t!
But in general, it is a really happy SUP world out there. Most paddlers just want to paddle and don’t get too involved in the discussions about whether SUP is a paddlesport or a surf sport, or care about inter brand shenanigans, or battles between training organisations and National Governing Bodies. And those of us involved in the industry would do well to remember that!
Where do you see the sport going?
I’m going to resist saying too much about foils, because foils and inflatable boards aren’t overly compatible, or desirable, but foils are here to stay for the time being. But probably not for most of McConks customers!
SUP will continue to grow unless the governing bodies and brands manage to price out or alienate the growing SUP community. Hopefully the governing bodies, training organisations and clubs that organise races will work together and start to act in the interests of the whole SUP community once the international courts have decided if SUP is a paddlesport or a surf sport. And even if they don’t, with such an accessible activity, I suspect it will continue to grow as both a sport (racing, technical competitions, endurance challenges), and as a recreational pastime. Much of the growth McConks has seen has been from ‘recreational paddlers’ who don’t see SUP as a competitive sport at all, but a way of life, or a recreational activity alongside the sports they already do.
This is a really brave, and possibly foolish thing to say, but we think the days of the all-round blunt nose iSUP are coming to end. All round boards may be a marketing success, but most paddlers, most of the time, would be better off with either a surf SUP or a touring SUP. We’re now selling more of our Go Explore board to real people than our all round boards. In fact, if it wasn’t for the demand for all round boards from instructors, rentals and schools, we probably wouldn’t be making them in 2018!
And I suspect that discipline specific iSUP boards will become more popular; whitewater boards, river surf boards, surfSUP, longer (15’ +) downwind boards, 14’ race boards, freeride windSUP, freestyle windSUP. And I could go on.
More and more paddlers are arranging themselves into clubs, which is great to see, and it’s a great way to develop the social side of SUP, and to develop SUP skills. And the very best groups are arranging all sorts of SUP trial events for their members – whitewater SUP, SUP yoga, SUP polo, surfSUP lessons, for example – and are entering club teams into race events – all very positive.
And McConks; what’s the overall aim here? Tell us your brand goals moving forwards.
We started the brand after an idea or two, some cash scraped from what limited savings two watersports and travel fans with two children can amass, and some lovely messages of good luck and goodwill from those with similar passions and frustrations as ours. Just over a year later our products have won plaudits from instructors, magazines, experts and customers alike for their design, function, quality and value. We’ll keep increasing our range if people keep asking, and we’ll keep improving what’s currently offer, if it can be improved. But we don’t do that whole annual update cycle in October November just to persuade customers to spend more money. There’s many years of experience that people disregard as clichés, and the one that springs to mind is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Of course, we want to grow and we want to be bigger and better than we are. But we want to always keep the little guy feel and principles. Only by doing so can we keep close to our customers.
How often do you manage to get out for a float?
If we get out twice a week we’re ecstatic. Once a week we’re happy. But we have a business to run and young boys to look after. If they don’t want to go for a paddle, then we’re not going to push them. Our family is still our priority and spending quality time with the smallest McConks members is all important.
Your local put in, tell us about that. Why is it good for SUPers?
We’re based in the Cotswolds, in the middle of the country, so we spend quite a fair bit of time driving to the south coast or to South Wales. However, we do have some great inland water options right on our doorstep, being on the very outskirts of the Cotswold Water Park. The park has over 70 lakes across an area of 40 hectares, and many paddleable rivers, including the River Thames. And when we say River Thames we’re not talking shopping trolleys and pollution. Our local stretch is a beautiful rural idyll with the added benefit of a lovely waterfront pub with campsite! It’s all flat water unless you can find the few river waves that exist, so perfect for beginners and for families. And with so much wetland and open water around it’s a nature lover’s paradise. Hop on your board and you may see water voles, otters, kingfishers and a whole menagerie of fowl.
Do your family paddle? Is it a group affair when you head for a float or do you end up solo?
Flat water paddling is typically a family affair. Our boys love coming paddling with us. Sat or lying on the front of the board, watching the ripples and colours on the water, pretend fishing and spotting wildlife, they have a whale of a time. And although our eldest is only 6 he’s already having a go at paddling, and is always keen to do things himself. And our new 9’ SurfSUP has been designed for two reasons – first and foremost it’s a highly manoeuvrable and fun surfstick. But secondly, it’s a great little kids board. And Toby has already staked his claim on the prototype for him to paddle in 2018!
If we’re ever testing boards in surf or in anything other than flat water we’ll normally lose the boys, or go solo. We’ve had fun in small waves with the boys, but it’s fair to say that they’re not budding surfers yet; recent cries from around our feet have been “too fast daddy” “no, no, no, that waves tooooo big” .
Who are your paddling heroes and why?
We don’t really do hero worship at McConks. Anyone who gets in the water to train at 6am on a winter’s morning; a mum who defeats her nerves and takes her little one on the water for the first time; the 55 year old who’s always had a passion for the ocean, but just missed the opportunities to do something about it, who gets on a SUP board for the first time.
What about life in general? Anyone inspire you to push on.
Anyone who measures their life success in terms of experiences lived rather than property or money acquired. And that’s a lot of the water sports community!
And Jen is my conscience and sanity checker. If ever McConks makes a mistake I’ll be to blame, not her.
Any final thoughts on SUP in general?
I think it was Laird Hamilton who said that SUP would become the bicycle of watersports. The analogy works well. It’s as easy to get on a SUP and paddle, as it is to get on a bike and ride, possibly even easier. But just because you can ride a bike doesn’t mean that you can throw yourself down a black single track in Morzine any more than you’re going to paddle SUP Serpents on the Dee. So just like cycling SUP has something for everyone, from the most gentle to the most extreme, and is a year round sport. And that’s probably why both SUP and cycling are still growing and show no signs of slowing down.