Sept. 15, 2017

Paddle Station entrepreneur makes waves with Bow River boat rental business

Haskayne MBA student Ravi Thaker takes away paddlers’ pain points with self-serve kayak stations

Outdoors enthusiasts in Calgary know how much fun it is float down the Bow River in summer — but also know the hassles: vehicle drop-offs; renting a kayak or raft and life-jackets; hoisting the boat to the top of a vehicle; finding a place to park; dragging the boat to shore.

That takes some of the fun out of what should be a relaxing time with friends and family, Ravi Thaker discovered, after he bought kayaks for the family a couple of years ago. The second-year Haskayne MBA student purchased kayaks in Calgary to enjoy with his wife and two children. But the inconvenience of transporting them, the stress of wondering if they’d fall off during the drive, and a fluttering strap that nearly hit his son in the eye made Thaker question his purchase.

The experience gave the self-described “serial entrepreneur” the seeds of a business idea called Paddle Station, which he introduced this summer. He hopes to one day to expand across the province and country — but with self-serve kayak stations. It would be comparable to a car share, but for kayaks.

“I wanted to take these pain points away for people,” says Thaker, who moved from Zimbabwe to Calgary 10 years ago.  

He’s now launching a high-tech prototype with the province to deliver the service on provincial land, including parks. The idea is to book a kayak and/or a camp kit with an app or online, and retrieve it at your reservation time from the respective self-serve locker, hassle-free, at multiple locations in Alberta parks campsites.

Though there are several Bow River boat rental operations in Calgary, Paddle Station offers something different: two stations along the waterway — at Shouldice and St. Patrick’s Island. Unlike competitors, it provides kayaks and rafts for a self-guided paddle or float and a drop-off point for vessels. An optional shuttle service is also available. 

At 41, Thaker was motivated to pursue his MBA after losing his job at the Calgary Food Bank two years ago. He focused on entrepreneurship and innovation. He floated his Paddle Station idea in December 2016 to professor Derek Hassay, who teaches entrepreneurial thinking at the Haskayne School of Business. Hassay told Thaker the idea was interesting but too complicated. He suggested Thaker flesh out the logistics and pursue funding.

Thaker kept at it, doing market research, social media outreach, and contacting all levels of government. And, “just as the idea was starting to fall apart,” Thaker says, an angel investor stepped in — his father-in-law. “He didn’t want me to give up on the idea,” he says.

With the money, Thaker launched his business in Calgary in May, buying about 100 vessels. After an initial wave of success, he was set back by unforeseen circumstances, including river boating advisories in June. Thaker sees the setbacks as just part of the pain of growing a new business: “To get to the honey, you have to get stung.” 

By Canada Day weekend, the tide started to turn and his company began garnering dozens of positive reviews on Trip Advisor and favourable local media coverage, not to mention 200 to 600 users per day on weekends. He also organized a Pride float the weekend of Aug. 25 that attracted more than 800 people, with some of the money going to an LGBTQ support group. 

“That’s the thing I love about Ravi; he does exactly what we want people to do,” says Hassay. “He's not afraid to pick up the phone and call The City and say, ‘I'd like to put kayaks around the city.'"

Thaker hopes to convince the province to allow him to place his boats on its land by summer 2018. He is also negotiating with the province to place camping kits at provincial campgrounds. He has some advice for budding entrepreneurs: “Start with a core business and make it sustainable, then get the fancy bits later.”

Hassay says Thaker’s progress "shows we can teach entrepreneurial thinking, and people like Ravi are taking that to the next level.”