Steve Gurney – Founder of Paddle Polo

Plan for the worst case scenario but expect the best results.

Steve Gurney has quite a few ideas, but he is the first to admit most of them don’t make it to market or make any money at all. Paddle Polo is an idea that seems to have passed the test as a commercial venture, as well as combining Steve’s passion for Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) and outdoor sports. Steve hopes that his new product, which combines Lacrosse with paddle sports helps provide even more enjoyment and skill building to the rapidly growing pastime of Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP).

Steve was introduced to Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP)in 2012 by a fellow snowboard instructor Chris Higgins, at  Liberty Mountain Resort where Steve volunteers as a Certified Adaptive Snow Board Instructor with Blue Ridge Adaptive Snow Sports. Chris founded a Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) instruction school, Surf Reston and turned the operations over to Steve when he needed to relocate to Colorado. While working as a Certified SUP Instructor, Steve came up with the idea for Paddle Polo.

Steve’s first big idea came to him in 1989, when he founded Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook after witnessing the challenges his family faced in providing elder care to his grandfather. He sold the business to a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Washington Post where continues to serve as publisher.

Over the last ten years, Steve has developed a passion for creatively building intentional and inclusive communities. In addition to serving as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) School of Aging Studies, Steve co-founded Reston for a Lifetime a group designed to explore ways that residents of all ages and abilities can thrive in his community of Reston, Virginia.  Working closely with a variety of leaders and organizations, Steve helped coordinate the application for Reston to receive the Best Intergenerational Community Award in 2014.

Two other ideas that Steve is very proud of are living as a temporary resident in five senior living communities at 43 years old and helping coordinate professional athletes to find housing in senior living communities. Both of these ideas have helped Steve promote the concept of creative ways to enhance age-segregated housing options.

Where did the idea for Paddle Polo come from?

The part-time stand-up paddle board school I run supports an annual lake swim in our community every year by providing stand up paddle boards for the lifeguards. In 2012, I overheard a couple of the lifeguards talking about lacrosse, and I got the idea to strap a lacrosse stick to my paddle. I was blown away at how fun it was to throw around a tennis ball, but I couldn’t grip the paddle correctly with my rudimentary attachment. My dad, Jack Gurney is a retired engineer who came up with a brilliant design that enabled me to easily attach a stick and hold the paddle correctly. We prototyped the design for about a year using the 3D printer at the middle school where my dad volunteers and progressed to Nova Labs a local non-profit in our community. After dozens of modifications, we applied for a patent and sold our first units in April 2015 at Carolina Cup, one of the nation’s largest Stand Up Paddle Board races in Wrightsville Beach, NC. Since then sales have been doing very well through a growing network of youth camps, stand up paddle board rental and retailers, and connections with lacrosse teams and tournaments.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My primary job is running a publication I founded over 25 years ago, Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook. I am also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, in addition to managing Surf Reston, a stand-up paddle board school and Paddle Polo. It might sound like a lot, but I actually find that I am more productive when I have a variety of interesting and engaging projects on my plate. Working on one project can stimulate and idea for another. Having multiple projects requires me to be more focused budgeting my time and maximizing results.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I am always thinking about new ideas and sharing them with others. I love engaging others in brainstorming conversations and seeing where the conversation goes. I am definitely a bootstrapper, so my next step is figuring out how I can test an idea for the least amount of money possible. There are lots of great ideas I have had over the years that customers didn’t want to pay for. It’s important to figure that out as quickly as possible. I take an approach of “ready, fire, aim” and “fail fast and cheap”.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I love how technology is making it possible for bootstrap entrepreneurs to thrive in business segments that previously had huge barriers to entry and required significant investment. I was able to start a magazine in the late 80s thanks to developments in “desktop publishing”. With Paddle Polo, I was able to develop a manufactured product thanks to the 3D printer. If I had tried to get into either segment just a few years earlier it would have required exponentially more investment capital.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have a steady stream of ideas and a track record of not being afraid to take them to the next level.

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

I was a busboy at a restaurant for one night when I was 18 years old. The job probably wasn’t that bad, I didn’t have any training and it never occurred to observe what a busboy did when I went to a restaurant. After that experience, I became much more aware of my surroundings and how things worked. I also was much more prepared in any job or activity whether I was offered training or not.

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

When I started my first business over 25 years ago I was accountable to no one but myself. I had paying customers and I was paying my bills and my rent, so things were good. Later, when I sold that business it grew exponentially because I was now fiscally accountable to someone else. If I had to start again, I would have shared my financial goals with an informal group of advisors. There is a lot of power in being fiscally accountable to someone else.

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

Plan for the worst case scenario but expect the best results.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Keeping an open channel of communication with your customers and making sure that they have ample opportunity to give you feedback. Making sure you are open to receive critical feedback and make necessary adaptations to your product or service to keep the customer satisfied.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In the early days I would discount my rates just to get a customer. Ultimately, I needed to raise those rates and many of those customers under valued the product or service. To overcome this I make it very clear why someone is getting a discounted rate and make sure they understand how long and when the discount will no longer be applied.

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

I would love to see someone combine a Charter School with a Senior Living Community for retired school teachers. The key element is not calling it a “retirement community”, it’s a school! Imagine the value that the children would have with that many teachers nearby and the purposeful life the residents could have by easily helping out when its convenient.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I am actually very impressed with what $100 in Facebook advertising can buy these days. For about $100 we received several thousand additional views to a video on Facebook which paid for itself in sales and additional postings.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

• Shopify and Shipstation – These two platforms combined make selling online and delivering a product very easy.
• Booking Bug – Scheduling software for Surf Reston, enables customers to schedule their sessions, sends reminders and follow up after sessions!
• Weebly – Very easy and affordable platform to create simple webpages and landing pages

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

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh This is not a business book, but it speaks to being an authentic leader. There are so many leaders who have not even attempted to walk in their customers or employees shoes. The television show “Undercover Boss” is a great example of how detached and ineffective this can make you.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Robert E. Simon – The 101 year old founder of Reston, Virginia the town I live in. He is truly a pioneer in building community. Best of all he founded Reston when he was 50 years old!
Dr. Bill Thomas – Pioneering Physician who has radically reinvented the traditional nursing home with the Greenhouse Model


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