After moving to a small San Francisco apartment, architect Anton Willis was sadly forced to put his fiberglass kayak into storage. Aiming to solve the problem of kayak ownership in an urban environment for himself and many others like him, Willis set off on creating a city-friendly kayak design that was sensitive to the needs of modern-day apartment storage situations.
The design sessions were kicked off after Willis found an article that described the recent advances in the age-old Japanese craft of origami. From here, he began sketching a variety of collapsible kayak designs that eventually went from 2D sketches to 3D origami paper models to over 25 full-scale prototypes that were eventually tested in various Bay Area waterways.
Finally, after months in development (and surely a few sunken prototypes), Willis launched the final, proven concept as the Oru Kayak on Kickstarter in 2012.
With the support of over 700 Kickstarter supporters, Willis was able to raise over $440,000 during the duration of the campaign – even hitting his campaign goal of $80,000 within the first few hours of launching. After the Kickstarter campaign was over, Willis put together a team and a local manufacturing facility to fulfill all of the orders and establish a sustainable brand. Today, the company is now shipping Oru Kayaks to kayakers all around the world and has sold thousands.
While the original Oru Bay Kayak was aimed at redefining how urban dwellers access the outdoors, Willis is back with a new Kickstarter campaign that aims to make adventure more portable for those in the outdoor community with the new Oru Coast and Oru Coast+ foldable kayak designs:
Inspired by traditional Arctic kayaks and designed for long days on choppy seas, the Coast Collection of kayaks takes everything that was great about the original Bay kayak – including a 10-minutes or less assembly process – and adds pro-level performance qualities to it including improved speed and handling capabilities.
SolidSmack had the chance to catch up with Willis and find out more about how he developed the original Oru Kayak, what he learned from his first Kickstarter campaign and what he thinks others can do to ensure their own Kickstarter success.
SS: Nice to meet you Anton! First – where can we find the best ice cream cone in SF and what flavor is it?
AW: Lots of controversy here- but my vote is the salted caramel at BiRite Creamery.
SS: What is your product design background? Subsequently, how did the idea for a kayak come about?
AW: I’m an architect by training. I started designing Oru Kayaks as a hobby, after I moved to a small SF apartment and had to put my kayak in storage. At the same time I read a magazine article on origami which inspired me to start folding paper kayaks, and then full scale prototypes.
“Figure out your manufacturing and costs as soon as possible- don’t even think of launching until you’ve found a manufacturer and have hard quotes in hand.”
SS: And how did you know that there was going to be a market for the first Oru?
AW: At first I was making kayaks for fun, and would take them out with friends on weekends. A lot of strangers started asking if they were for sale and where they could get them.
SS: How did you even begin to go about designing and prototyping a foldable kayak? What tools and materials did you use?
AW: I began in a friend’s garage, using stock corrugated plastic sheets from a sign shop, and folding all the creases by hand. Later on, I joined Tech Shop, a fantastic prototyping space in San Francisco with all kinds of amazing tools, including CNC and 3d printing equipment.
SS: What were some of the challenges of manufacturing the original Oru?
AW: Too many to list! We were designing a product without any clear analogues, so every little thing needed to be figured out from scratch. Our manufacturer had previously specialized in making boxes, so building kayaks was a learning curve for everyone.
SS: How is the new design different from the original one?
AW: It’s 4 feet (1.2 meters) longer. This makes it 20-25% faster than the first model- you can really feel the difference in the water, in terms of speed, energy and efficiency. It can also store plenty of gear for long camping trips. The Coast+, our premium model, has a bunch of additional features which make it suitable for real expeditions.
SS: What do you plan on working on from here?
AW: We have a lot of plans in the works…but some of it is still top secret! I will say that we’ll continue to balance products that are simple, beginner-friendly and accessible, with those that are more high-performance and expedition-grade.
SS: Any advice for people considering their own Kickstarter campaign for a product design idea?
AW: Figure out your manufacturing and costs as soon as possible- don’t even think of launching until you’ve found a manufacturer and have hard quotes in hand. Even then, things will change daily. As far as marketing the campaign, make sure you’re telling your own story and sharing your passion- it shouldn’t feel like an advertisement for an anonymous product churned out by a giant company.
The Coast Series kayaks start at $1,775 for a limited time with various package options available at different backing tiers. With over three weeks left to go in his campaign, Willis has already raised over $120,000 with an original goal of just $40,000. Those who opt to purchase one can expect a shipment in late summer 2015.