This episode is extra rad, if I do say so myself. Bear Walker is the Owner of Kodiak Boards, a maker of premium longboards headquartered in Fairhope, AL. I originally met Bear when I asked him to make a custom board for Blue Fish. We hit it off and we've stayed in touch since. It has been amazing to see the recognition he is getting in the industry for his innovative designs. He is a really genuine guy and it is my pleasure to be able to share this discussion with you. Make sure to follow Kodiak Boards on Facebook and Instagram. And check out the products on his website.
Bear: My name is Bear Walker, and I am owner, operator of Kodiak Boards.
Marcus: Awesome. Welcome to the podcast, Bear.
Bear: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
Marcus: It's a joy to get to sit with you and tell the story of Bear and Kodiak Boards. I've enjoyed getting to know you over the last couple of months.
Bear: Likewise, man.
Marcus: I'm excited to get some word out there to everybody about all the cool stuff that you've got going on.
Bear: Cool. Appreciate it.
Marcus: Yeah. This podcast is geared towards entrepreneurs, business owners or people that want to be entrepreneurs or business owners. I feel like the place where you're at, in your walk as a business owner, is a perspective that we've not, at least in this season thus far, have not really heard from.
Bear: All right.
Marcus: I'm excited about that. But, before we get started we always like to know a little bit about the person that we're listening to. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you grew up, what school did you go to, where'd you go to college? That kind of thing.
Bear: Got you. All right. I'm from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, originally. My dad had a construction company when I was growing up and always did all kinds of crazy, custom houses and furniture and all this kind of stuff. I was exposed to it at a pretty young age. When I was 10 he had me out there picking up debris and filling dumpsters and stuff like that. By the time I was 12 I was helping him with framing, and by the time I was 15 I was doing custom cabinetry, all that good stuff. Yeah, they started me young and ...
Marcus: Hold up your hands. Yes, folks, he has all of his fingers.
Marcus: He also, obviously, taught you safety.
Bear: Actually, I just got a pop up on Facebook that three years ago, I think it was a couple days ago I had nailed my fingers together building my first shop.
Marcus: Oh, no!
Bear: Yeah, with a ring shank, too, so they had to unscrew it out. Yeah, it was terrible.
Marcus: Oh, that sounds so horrible.
Bear: Yup. It was pretty bad.
Marcus: Pause for just a second. Jared actually pointed out to me that today, two years ago, was the very first day that we recorded the podcast.
Marcus: You are recording on our anniversary.
Bear: Yeah, your anniversary is way happier than mine.
Marcus: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Bear: I'm glad to be here. Yeah.
Marcus: Anyway, go ahead.
Bear: All right, cool. I actually woke up that day my middle finger was aching and I was wondering why. It had been three years. Yeah, did all that work with my dad. Vowed that I would never do manual labor.
Marcus: It's funny how those things come to bite you in the butt.
Bear: Yeah, I guess it's in the blood, I suppose. Yeah, I went to college for a graphics degree where I'd be sitting behind a desk. I love doing graphics. But, yeah, I went to Clemson University for five years, got that extra education. Then, when I graduated I sat behind a desk for a couple years doing graphics, which was awesome, but I had that itch to work with my hands and build things as well. I got a couple really cool jobs where I was the prop master at an events company. They would have an enchanted forest event or something and I would make a bunch of oak trees out of rebar and foam. Basically just make crazy stuff that looked real out of fake stuff, like crab racing tables, all kinds of weird stuff. That honed my custom side of things a little bit.
Then, I got a job at a sign shop where I was making really large, wooden and metal signs. I'd sandblast the designs out of it and I'd create this really, really crazy grip. I think that was where the first idea for one of my boards came from was sandblasting it and seeing the smooth top and the really rough interior of the design. From there I sandblasted my first longboard.
Marcus: Pause. I don't want to get into too much of that just yet because we're going to go there in just a minute.
Bear: Cool, cool.
Marcus: You grew up in Hilton Head, went to Clemson, studied design? Graphic design?
Marcus: Where does skateboarding come in?
Bear: Actually, when I was at Clemson my very last project was I had to come up with some kind of innovative printing technique. Basically about 10 years ago there was no way to use a spectrophotometer, like a color ... What's a word [inaudible 00:04:36].
Bear: Yeah, no, I'm trying to think of normal people words for this. There was no way of telling what color metallic inks were because it'd always reflect back into the spectrophotometer, which is an instrument you use to basically tell how much cyan, magenta, yellow is in a color. When you do that on metallic ink it would just reflect back, confuse the computer. I wanted to make a skateboard that was made out of metallic ink and make the first ICC color profile that could read metallic inks. I got rid of the diffusion from the light, all that kind of stuff. I went to design my first skateboard ever for this project and by the end of the weekend I had 40 skateboard designs because I was just like, "Oh, this would be cool and that would be cool and that would be cool." I just found out that I loved designing skateboards.
Marcus: That's cool.
Marcus: You weren't a skater growing up or anything?
Bear: I mostly surfed. I surfed a lot, and then I skateboarded a little bit, broke my elbow, my wrist a couple times. I was like, "Okay, surfing's where it's at."
Marcus: It's a little bit softer [crosstalk 00:05:39].
Bear: Yeah, yeah, a little softer.
Marcus: But there are big things in the Atlantic and Pacific that like to eat you.
Bear: Yeah. For sure. If you don't ... It's murky where, on the east coast.
Marcus: That makes it all the better.
Bear: Yeah. Until someone told me that sharks can't see you, so they got to nibble to see what you are. That freaked me out a little bit. Yeah, I much prefer getting thrashed in the water over road rash. I've actually grown to love longboarding and skateboarding a lot more since I've started making the boards.
Marcus: I would imagine there's a lot of similarities between the kind of boards that you're creating and surfing.
Bear: Of definitely.
Marcus: It's street surfing, yeah.
Bear: I think my, what is it? Naivety, or whatever, has actually been beneficial because I've always enjoyed more of a surf feel. My whole time designing these boards I've been trying to recreate what it feels like to surf. I think that's helped with the whole build process.
Marcus: Right. Okay, so now ...
Bear: I'm at Clemson.
Marcus: I mean tell us, I mean you gave us a glimpse into ... Well, you started designing skateboards as part of the spectrometer project that you had.
Marcus: Is that what kicked off where you are with Kodiak Boards? Or, where did that start?
Bear: Yeah, pretty much. Actually, when I made my first board I used one of those original designs that I made in college three years before. Yeah, it was all an experiment just trying to see what would work, what wouldn't work. It all came full circle just from me not being able to get a job out of college that I wanted to, and having to go on these side gigs and it all led me down this weird little path of creating strange things. It led to me actually making one of my college designs and led to my future career path.
Marcus: That is cool. Describe a Kodiak Board to the audience because they may not have seen any of your products.
Marcus: What's different about your board than a normal skateboard?
Bear: One of the biggest things I think people see right off the bat is that the design itself is carved into the top and that creates the grip. Most of the time there's design on the bottom and it's screen printed, or painted or whatever. But, yeah, we don't use any grip tape. We just carve out the design on the top, airbrush it for the color. Makes a really clean look, but it's more like the tread of a tire than sandpaper.
Marcus: You're using a CNC machine to actually engrave the design into the top of the board, right?
Bear: Yeah, and the other big difference is we use solid hardwoods. Most skateboards and longboards are made out of ply. But, I experimented with, luckily that's where my background in woodworking, all that came in. I experimented with a bunch of different hardwoods that I thought would work well, and then experimented with the thickness of the board itself. Landed on this solid sugar maple at five-eighths inch thick. It had the perfect amount of flex for what I was looking for. It was really solid as far as standing up to being a longboard and getting ridden all the time, running into things. And, it allowed me to carve the designs out with it. It was soft enough for me to carve the designs out, but still structurally intact enough for the design not to break apart.
Marcus: Right. As a 200-and [inaudible 00:09:13] pound man, I can say they hold up pretty well.
Bear: Oh, cool, cool. Yeah. I'm looking at his right now, it's still intact. It's still [crosstalk 00:09:20].
Marcus: Yeah, we had a couple of ... That's how Bear and I met was I had a couple of custom boards made for Blue Fish that have our logo on them and they have a fish theme. It's a modified, one of your modified Mariner boards, right?
Marcus: We did 36 inch board. If you're a business out there, and you're a lifestyle brand or something like that and you want to have a cool item to give away or something like that, definitely give him a holler because he does a great job.
Bear: Yeah, we love doing custom boards.
Bear: That's why I love working with you too, man. You started as a customer, so I know you actually like the product.
Marcus: Yeah, absolutely. Do you remember the first board that you created where you really thought, "Oh my gosh, I may be onto something here."?
Bear: It was actually the first one. I made it ... I had the idea, carving the signs out where it'd make good grip. I just wanted to make one for fun. I just liked making random stuff. I made one and airbrushed it, clear coated it, all that good stuff. It didn't look anything like they do now, but I was riding it around Charleston where I moved after college and everyone was asking me where I got it from.
Marcus: That's usually a good sign, folks.
Marcus: If you have a product and people are asking, "Man, where can I get one of those?"
Bear: Yeah, for sure. Then started off as a small thing where it's like those people that asked where I got it from I was like, "Oh, I can make you one, if you want." I started slowing making little one-offs. Then I was like, "This might actually be able to be a business."
Marcus: That's really cool.
Bear: It all just snowballed from there.
Marcus: How many years have you been at this? Not necessarily as Kodiak, but just in general making these boards.
Bear: Yeah, I made the first one in 2013. [crosstalk 00:11:09] like four years.
Marcus: At this point in time four years.
Marcus: What would you say, because you've been in business in one shape or form over those four years, what's something that you learned over the last four years that you were like, "Man, I just wish I had learned that a little bit sooner."?
Bear: Dude, that apparently the wood I use is pretty scarce.
Marcus: Supply chain, huh?
Bear: Yeah, the whole making one board and it turning out good was awesome. Making 1,000 of them was a completely different story. I mean, I've learned a lot over the last four years about pricing and making a quality board, but also making it affordable and having good materials, but also making sure that it skates right. It's definitely been a learning curve as opposed to making a sign, or something like that where it looks pretty and it lasts through the weather. This is something that's art, but it's also extremely functional.
I remember when I first started I did the solid maple one, I was like, "I want to step my game up and be like the other board companies." I started making them out of plywood. I made one out of plywood and it ... I'm trying not to cuss. It kicked butt. I made it for a client and he loved it. Apparently that one piece was a fluke, because then after that I made about 40 just for back stock and they all snapped the first time you stood on them. The one I happened to get just had the perfect fiber count, or structural integrity.
Bear: Yeah, that was a good lesson there, too, is a lot of R and D goes into our boards now just to make sure that first one's not the only one that's good. We've got to make sure the 100th board also is good.
Marcus: Yeah, absolutely. If you were talking to somebody that they had an idea and they were thinking of starting a business, maybe it's a business similar to yours. They're manufacturing something or something along those lines. What would be the one bit of wisdom that you might impart to them?
Bear: I'd say find someone doing something similar, but not exactly what you're doing. Like, back to the sign thing again, but find someone who's doing something close and make a mentor out of them. Pick their brain. Figure out what they've learned over their experience in the industry. You might have a great idea, and you could be good at it, but there is a lot of things you haven't thought of yet. Find someone that's a good mentor, good advisor and learn for at least a year or so. Which seems like a long time, but in the long run you're going to save yourself a lot of time and frustration, and maybe make a better product overall.
Marcus: Yeah, it's a shortcut, right? Learning from the experience somebody else has.
Marcus: That's why we love reading books [inaudible 00:14:03] ...
Marcus: ... reading books so much.
Bear: The cool thing, too, if it happens to be a handcrafted good, or some kind of art form, most of the time the people that you're going to be training under are really eager to give their knowledge. It's a really good community of people, usually, the craftsmen and the artists, that basically just want to see the craft move forward and go onto a younger generation.
Marcus: Yeah, because it's not a commodity at that level.
Marcus: Right? It's a spin off of something, and they may have their own spin.
Bear: Yeah, and they learned under someone else, so they're paying tribute to their mentor as well by training someone new and they can see in your craft little bits of their own. It's like they left their mark.
Marcus: Absolutely. You know how to read, you went to Clemson, so I have to assume you know how to read.
Bear: Yeah, I read good.
Marcus: Read good, golly.
Bear: He did just say that, folks.
Marcus: For those of you that don't know, it should be, "I read well." Right?
Bear: Yeah. I have immaculate diction.
Marcus: Do you read, and I don't know honestly, do you read business books at all? Or, is that something you have a whole lot of time for because I know you spend a lot of time in the shop.
Bear: Yeah, I read a lot of industry magazines, blogs, stuff like that. One of the biggest things is I follow a lot of people in my industry on Instagram like woodworkers and stuff like that. That's actually a good avenue because you can read a lot of books, which is never a bad thing, but this way I can be looking on Instagram and see a project that I think is awesome and it's just one little clip of it and then I can dive deep into what went into that certain project. You can scan over pages and pages of photographs and find something that maybe is suitable to you, or interests you and then dive deep into that specific thing.
Marcus: Yeah, it's a very visual thing. If you, I would imagine, we've talked before, I have a little bit of woodworking experience. Not nearly as much as you do, but if you see something oftentimes you can understand how that went together just from the visual aspect of that.
Marcus: There may be something that they've done that's slightly different or inspires [crosstalk 00:16:15].
Bear: And, it's cool because then you can see an end result first. It's like, "This is a really cool look." Then it's like, "How do I accomplish that?"
Bear: A lot of the things I've found too is I'll see something that looks really awesome, and it's like, "I'll try that out." I just go and make it and it does not turn out like it did in the picture. Then it's like, "Okay, maybe I should have done some research into it beforehand." But yeah, now, I try not to take as many shortcuts now.
Marcus: That's cool.
Marcus: You mentioned surfing. Do you get a chance to surf that much anymore?
Bear: Oh, yeah. I will say I appreciate the little toss up there. We just went to Costa Rica a couple weeks ago and probably did about a work week's worth of surfing in a week. Yeah, I did about 30 or 40 hours of surfing. I actually re-broke that finger that I shot three years ago.
Marcus: Come on, seriously?
Bear: Yeah, my middle finger is just destroyed.
Bear: Yeah. It was totally worth it. It was on the third day that I broke it.
Marcus: Who knew surfing was a full contact sport?
Bear: Yeah, well I grew up on the east coast on this little island and we had two foot waves. It wasn't anything great, but I learned how to surf there. I've always seen in these pictures on the west coast that under curl of a wave. I never really thought about it. I go to Costa Rica and surf on this first wave and I get thrashed and it's like, "Okay, that's fine." Then all of a sudden I get sucked into the underside of the wave and just had no idea what was going on. That's when I got thrown into the rocks and smashed a finger.
Bear: Yeah, but it's all a learning curve.
Marcus: Yeah. Do you have any other hobbies?
Bear: I basically just work a lot. Yeah, no, but I like to draw and paint. I play a lot of racquetball.
Marcus: Really? I did not know that.
Marcus: That's cool.
Bear: Thanks man. Yeah, I was actually number two in South Carolina in racquetball in 2002.
Marcus: Where do you play?
Bear: There's the Daphne Recreation Center.
Marcus: Yeah, we're totally down a rabbit hole here, but I used to play a little bit of racquetball myself.
Marcus: That might be fun, although I'm old now, so ...
Bear: Dude. I used to play competitions. I'd play the young guys and kick their butts and all that stuff, and then I'd play the old guys and be like, "This is going to be easy." They would just put it exactly where they wanted it to go.
Marcus: Yeah, exactly.
Bear: Yeah, you're running all over the place.
Marcus: My arm would probably fall off if I tried to play now.
Bear: I feel you.
Marcus: All right. Where can people find out more about Kodiak Boards?
Bear: We actually just relaunched our website. Thanks for that, Marcus. The guys over here at Blue Fish helped out on that. We relaunched the website at KodiakBoards.com. It's a lot cleaner looking. We've got new designs, new boards, new prices. It's pretty sweet. If you just want to check out our day to day thing, go to our Instagram for sure. It's KodiakBoards, one word. Yeah. We try to post every day, but we've got a lot of new pictures up from our Costa Rica trip that are pretty cool. Our new surfer line is being featured a lot on there right now. Yeah, KodiakBoards.com or KodiakBoards on Instagram.
Marcus: Very cool. It's been, I will say that I've not had a ... We don't sell widgets, right? We sell services as Blue Fish and it's been very interesting to walk through this with you to see how you've changed your product line and how you've reimagined the designs and stuff like that.
Bear: Thanks, man.
Marcus: It's been very cool to watch that over the course of the last, I don't know six months or eight months or something like that that we've known each other.
Bear: Yeah. We've actually only been open for, what? Yeah, seven months now, I think.
Bear: But, yeah, you were one of our first clients.
Marcus: Very cool, man. I did not know that.
Bear: Yeah, that's crazy. Yeah, that's been one of the fun things, too, is like you said, you saw a change in designs and all that. That's been an interesting thing for us to see. My favorite board when I first started it was the worst seller. I had to change my lineup a little bit, cater more to the client than myself.
Bear: I still make myself the occasional personal board.
Marcus: Well, you still got the design and the CNC machine, I'm sure.
Bear: Oh, yeah. I make all kinds of fun things.
Marcus: I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. To wrap up ...
Bear: Thank you, man.
Marcus: ... any final thoughts or comments you'd like to make.
Bear: Just, if you want a high quality, fun board to ride around on, or if you want anything custom we love making things that people will enjoy, so hit us up.
Marcus: And look, I am a 43 year old skate rat and have been known on quite a few occasions to ride my longboard around downtown. If you're getting up there in years just like I am, don't be afraid. These things are fun. It's a blast to get out there and ride again. Check them out, they're really cool. Anyway, Bear, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur.
Bear: Thank you for having me.
Marcus: It's been great talking with you, man.
Bear: Of course, man. I appreciate it.