Stephan Aarstol – CEO and Founder of Tower Paddle Boards

[quote style=”boxed”] So what I would do differently is internalize this reality and adapt. I would have not wasted time on any business that required funding. I’d focus only on what I could start without cash.[/quote]

Stephan Aarstol is the CEO and founder of Tower Paddle Boards, an online, manufacturer-direct brand in stand up paddle boarding. Tower Paddle Boards was invested in by Mark Cuban on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and was named one of the top 10 success stories in the history of the show by Entrepreneur Magazine. Stephan is an entrepreneurial thought leader and online marketing expert, and he welcomes anyone to reach out to him on Google+.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently focused on building Tower Paddle Boards, an up-and-coming brand in stand up paddle boarding, which I founded in summer 2010. We’re on a rapid growth trajectory, thanks in part to attracting billionaire investor Mark Cuban on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” which aired in March 2012.

Where did the idea for your current business come from?

I had an existing direct-to-consumer ecommerce company called, which sold high-end poker chips worldwide. I founded it in 2003, and its growth had leveled off. It was a one-man operation and it only took about 10 to 15 hours per week of my time, so I was always keeping an eye out for new business opportunities.

I was about six months into developing a portal for the green energy industry when a friend visited San Diego and invited me to try paddle surfing. He had rented a board for the week and was going out every morning. It took me about an hour to get the balance down. There was a 65-year-old out-of-shape guy out there with us who was catching waves left and right, and I asked him how long he had been at it. He said it was only his fifth day. “Apparently, anyone can do this,” I thought. I started catching a few waves, and then got stung by a stingray. I was hooked nonetheless. I bought a board a few weeks later; my 5-year-old son was riding on the front with me and, pretty soon, doing it all by himself. It suddenly dawned on me how broad the target market was.

What does your typical day look like?

For about the first year, I ran Tower Paddle Boards as a one-man show. Once it gained a little traction, I brought in my first employee. She was fresh out of college; I made it clear that there was really no budget to hire her, but I was going to give it a six-month test to see if she could cash flow herself. She was game. Within a few weeks, we got a call from a producer at “Shark Tank.” Six weeks later, we were pitching to the Sharks at the Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles.

Since then, I’ve added two employees. I’ve got one employee managing the warehouse operations, one employee focusing on marketing and business development, and another doing social media and customer service. This means I focus my time on business development, and I work with my staff whenever necessary. There’s really no typical day, but it’s an 8 or 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. day, typically. When I don’t have my son, I’m usually working weekends as well.

How do you bring ideas to life?

As any fellow entrepreneur can attest, I’ve trained myself to see the world a little differently than most. Your head is constantly swiveling to take in what’s around you, and what that says about what’s around the corner. You can look back and see what you were correct about — and what you were way off on. Over time, you kind of learn to see around corners.

I’ve pursued a number of these ideas, failing at many and succeeding at a few. The ones that succeeded were the ones where I’d proven demand upfront. An idea is fairly worthless, regardless of how great you may think it is — but when you can prove demand upfront and meet that demand, you have a business.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Ever since I did a three-month backpacking trip through Australia, I’ve been intrigued by international youth travel — specifically, how it’s done at completely different levels of maturity in different countries. You can basically go into the future in a lot of industries by simply traveling to another country, and youth travel is no exception.

Extended international youth travel has been trending for the past 30 years, I believe, and I think there are a number of current things going on that will accelerate that growth. Information is becoming more accessible. People are becoming more connected. Flights are getting cheaper. College is getting more expensive. People are getting married later. These factors combine to make international youth travel more exciting and more accessible.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I went to live in Hawaii for six months in the middle of my junior year with some friends. It was a working vacation, and we didn’t bring a lot of money. I ended up working as a busser/waiter on a cruise ship that went through the Hawaiian Islands. It was seven days a week, 70 to 80 hours on your feet. My feet were literally bleeding after a few days, so I’d bandage them up in the morning. It was like being in jail with a chance of drowning. I thought about making a grand exit by running off the back pool patio and diving to freedom, just as we were leaving port.

Not everything that looks glamorous is. Having a good life is about having a healthy, sustainable work/life balance. If you don’t keep an eye on keeping things balanced, it’s a bit like imprisoning yourself. Life is short, and you have a choice in how you spend it.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Coming out of business school, no one makes it clear that funding doesn’t really exist. There’s this perpetuated fantasy that you can just develop a great business plan and start pitching it to investors. For all practical purposes, funding doesn’t exist unless you have it already in the form of cash in the bank, credit cards you can draw on, or a family member who will cut you a check. So what I would do differently is internalize this reality and adapt. I would have not wasted time on any business that required funding. I’d focus only on what I could start without cash.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I try to introduce myself to as many new things as possible, whether they’re ideas, trends, or experiences. I primarily do this by traveling to foreign countries and reading magazines like Wired, Fast Company, and Inc. If you don’t actively introduce yourself to new ideas, you slowly lose your ability to see around corners, which is critical for entrepreneurs.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I inquired with the show office at a tradeshow about renting a table for our booth. It was $60 for the table. Want a cover? That’s another $30. Want a skirt? That’s $40 more. It was well over $100 for a basic table. Since we had inflatable paddle boards, we just used one as our table, spread across two stands. The next day, I registered the URL They roll up into a little pack, and you could customize the graphics on them. To sell them, you simply buy visitor admission to any tradeshow and pitch it to the hundreds of booth owners who are faced with the same table rental extortion fee.

Tell us a secret.

Contrary to popular belief, Colombia is not a dangerous country. You can paddle the mighty Amazon with piranhas one day, trek through the jungle the next, wine and dine in the colonial walled city of Cartagena after that, and sunbathe on a pristine Caribbean beach the following.

What are your three favorite online tools and what do you love about them?

PayTrust does automatic bill pay, and they’ve been at it since before banks started doing it. They still do it better. They open all your bills and scan them, and then you can pay those that use electronic funds transfer; for the rest, they will literally write and mail a check for you.

Panjiva is a service that allows you to spy on your competitors’ overseas sourcing, size market share, and source suppliers. It aggregates all Homeland Security data of anything that comes through U.S. customs. For example, you can search “golf clubs” and identify any manufacturer that imports them into the U.S., how much they import, and to whom.

Pandora, as everyone knows, makes it easy to find new music and artists similar to ones you already like.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

“The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferris is one I recommend to all my entrepreneurial buddies.

What’s on your playlist?

If Kid Cudi would make songs without swearing, he’d be one of the biggest musicians in the world.

If you weren’t working on your current business, what would you be doing?

I’d be working on one of the three business plans I’ve got sitting in my drawer.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

@wired — Some publications are more interesting than people!
@theonion — Ditto.
@mcuban — I obviously think he’s a pretty intelligent guy.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I laughed out loud last week while I was watching Showtime’s “Shameless.”

Who is your hero?

Frank Gallagher’s my hero — just kidding!

If you were an entrepreneur advising Congress, how would you recommend they help fix the U.S. economy?

We need to create something called the American Dream Fund. We need a financial infrastructure that matches and motivates the best entrepreneurs with merit-based equity investments in their startups. The U.S. government would basically act as a VC, focused squarely on seed capital.

We’d get the word out that 30,000 U.S.-based startups must get funded each year, which changes the collective entrepreneur mindset from “What can I do without money?” to “If I create solid ideas, seed funding is there.” It fuels the competitive nature. Overnight, the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs start innovating, benefiting the whole country.

Banks won’t touch companies less than 2 years old. The American Dream isn’t being nurtured. We won’t fend off China with our next aircraft carrier, but they don’t have a prayer if we unleash 30,000 of the world’s brightest new entrepreneurs, and repeat that every year for eternity.

What’s the one thing you would recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Take a few months to follow the backpacker circuit in a foreign country, where you’ll be traveling amongst fellow explorers from all corners of the globe. It will open your eyes and inspire you to do more.


Stephan Aarstol on Twitter: @StephanAarstol
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Tower Paddle Boards on Twitter: @TowerPB