Boisean Jeff Banks — a banker by day — and his partner turned passion into a business that’s making waves.
Jeff Banks and his business partner Ken Driscoll couldn’t have been more energized as they pulled into that southern California industrial park.
They were there to pick up the first batch of standup paddle boards for Glide, the company they’d formed just a few months earlier. They had watched as the momentum of the standup paddleboard industry built quickly, and so adopted a strategy to come to market quickly with a board custom designed for the rigors of lakes and rivers.
They planned to pick up the boards from their contract manufacturer and head east to officially launch their company at Outdoor Retailer, the nation’s largest outdoor industry trade show, but found the boards unfinished. So like any self-respecting entrepreneurs, they got to work putting on the fins, deck pads and other features themselves.
They were learning everything as they went along. After all, neither had experience building stand-up paddleboards before founding Glide. They just loved rivers, and wanted to find more ways to play in them. The thing is, the traditional “glassing” method of surfboards are great in the ocean, but these surfboard-style SUPs could not handle rocks, branches and other obstacles found in rivers and lakes. One bad ding from a river rock, and the board is ruined.
Banks’ and Driscoll’s vision for Glide was that it would be one of the first true inland standup paddleboards. Sleek and paddle-true, but rugged.
In order to make them tough, Glide boards would be coated in a special protective coating. But the textured surface coating left them looking uneven and made it impossible for the company’s logo stickers to adhere.
“They were ugly, but they were ours.”
Having already forked over $5,000 for their demonstration booth, the pair wiped down their less-than-perfect “concept” boards and drove east.
Once in Salt Lake City, they set up their booth (a white Costco tent without even so much as a banner with their logo), their boards (your choice of color as long as the choice was yellow) and made new logo stickers (courtesy of Kinko’s, they would peel off within minutes of getting wet).
“When I look back, we had a home-school project and we were sitting there next to these well-funded, multi-million dollar companies. It was embarrassing. But we didn’t even know enough to be embarrassed,” Banks says.
In a stroke of luck, the young company’s booth was placed next to kayak industry veteran Jackson Kayak, who had invested heavily in attracting people to their booth.
“Our boards were ugly, but people could see the purpose of them. Our sales pitch was simple. I’d pick up the board and throw it 10 feet in the air, letting it land on the rocks. They were tough.”
Show attendees took notice.
Independent sales representatives approached Glide about selling their product. Larger companies asked the new entrepreneurs about buying their boards directly from their booth (they declined). Excitement was high.
A few in the industry took offense to Driscoll’s and Banks’ contention that the existing surfboard-style boards didn’t cut it for inland SUPing needs. Someone was even spotted wearing a “Fuck Jeff Banks” t-shirt at a later tradeshow.
“I remember at one point somebody from one of the major companies saying we were the talk of the show. I didn’t believe him. I told him we were just a small little company getting started. He said, ‘You may be small, but look whose booth everybody is in.”
Glide was on its way. They had orders, but not a finished product and nowhere near the working capital it would take to keep up with them. Banks, an experienced commercial banker, dug deep into his own resources. First his income, then his savings account, and eventually credit cards.
“I knew this was a great opportunity, so I went all in,” Banks says.
While Banks and Driscoll — long-time friends who had met more than 20 years before playing kayak polo — had business experience, neither had launched a company of this type before. Banks said the process made him a better banker.
“I now understand better than ever the challenges entrepreneurs face in managing both their time and their money.”
There was a lot to do. The two set to work, establishing a dealer network and handling late nights on conference calls with suppliers from China. They set up manufacturing relationships here in the United States. They hosted events, taught classes and filmed their own adventures, posting them on social media. All while holding down day jobs. It was exhilarating, but not sustainable.
“After a couple of years, we were making great progress, but I had just told my wife that I didn’t think we should write another check.”
A couple weeks later, Banks found himself chaperoning his sons’ soccer camp in the mountain resort town of McCall, just north of Boise. “I’d get a break while the kids were practicing and go paddle on Payette Lake.”
At that time, standup paddleboards were still not a common sight, so Banks drew the attention of another visitor to McCall.
By the time he had showed her the basics, she was a fan.
This new SUP enthusiast mentioned to Banks that her former bosses, who had just sold their last company, might be interested in getting involved in a company like Glide. “I gave her a card, but I was sort of bummed because I knew we were likely going to be shutting down since I wasn’t going to be funding anymore.”
A week or so later, Banks got a call from the Bay Area businessmen. Several more calls followed. Then an in-person visit. And ultimately an investment.
“I was able to get my money back, plus we could invest in things like sales and marketing. Ken ended up going full-time while I maintained my position at the bank.”
Today, the company continues to grow, expanding its board selection from just inland boards to include boards for surf, yoga and more. And while the company had to locate its manufacturing facility in Salt Lake City in order to be closer to the foam manufacturers and other suppliers, Banks still pays homage to its roots on the rivers and lakes surrounding Boise.
“If there’s a book written about the history of SUP, I’m confident there will be a little mention of Glide. We were these crazy guys who showed up at (Outdoor Retailer) using all new materials and changed they way people think about the sport,” Banks says with a wry smile. “I’m proud of that.
Note: You can find Glide standup paddle boards at glidesup.com or Idaho River Sports in Boise.
Photography by Mike Kerby