Floating works of art: the hobby to profession journey of a Petoskey-based custom paddleboard maker
Little Bay Boards, a custom stand up paddleboard shop in Petoskey, is known for their beautiful, locally-grown wooden boards. Jason Thelen, the company’s founder and owner, shared what it took to grow the business from a solo project in his parents’ garage to the operation it is today.
Crafting a one-of-a-kind board
Thelen is rightfully proud of his boards’ unique build and designs.
“My boards are known for their looks. Obviously, if anybody gets a chance to look at the website, it's mind blowing some of the designs. And I'm not trying to brag about myself. They're just really cool boards and I have really good board builders,” he said.
The board's construction is a modern take on the hollow-wood structure that surfboard builders had previously abandoned for being too bulky and heavy. Thelen’s mentor, Paul Jensen, invented the design. Thelen also credits his parents and father-in-law for inspiring him to focus on keeping his work environmentally-friendly.
“I've been a hippie my whole life,” he said. “My parents are hippies, and always cared about the environment. And if you want to do something positive in the world, it should be something that reflects the generations to come, not just what you're doing.”
For two decades Thelen worked under his father-in-law, who was a “green, sustainable home builder too, long before it was a cool thing.”
“So I've always been instilled to pay attention to what you do environmentally-wise,” Thelen said.
The first stand up paddleboard Thelen built was a gift to his daughter. After realizing he couldn’t afford to buy a decent fiberglass board, Thelen attempted to make one of his own. Those early days of experimentation, Thelen said, were a challenge.
“Because you can't afford the tools that you need to actually do it right,” he said. “So you have to reinvent how to do it with the things that you have, which was actually a blessing for me. I was very lucky to have so much wood knowledge, and tool knowledge, and the ability to make things work the way that I could afford them, and actually ended up making better products.”
Balancing work and family
Before Little Bay Board became a reality, Thelen was balancing a full-time-job in carpentry with a side job of building boards.
“It was awful. No joke,” he said. “There's a lot of risk in starting your own business. You know, there's a lot of unforeseen and unknowns. And I'm not a business savvy person in any way whatsoever. I’m a high school drop out and just know how to work really hard”
For the first couple years, Thelen said, it was fun to build boards as a side hobby. But as the boards grew in popularity, he struggled to keep up with orders. For about nine months, he found himself working up to 100 hours each week.
“So that meant that I went to work at 4:00 in the morning and didn't get home till 11:00 at night. And then I'd be exhausted on the weekends, and [it was] pretty much pointless for me to be around my family,” Thelen said.
He continued to power through the work, until one late night, he came home to find his wife waiting for him at the kitchen table. In front of her were two beers, and a toy doll.
“And it was like this little papier mâché doll, this raggedy head of yarn. And I asked what it was. And it was Shawni, my now oldest daughter, she's the one I first built a board for, and it was how she'd say good night to me at night because I was never home. It was her little daddy doll,” Thelen said.
In that moment, Thelen decided to quit his carpentry job to fully pursue building boards.
“And as there was that was the moment of, ‘I’ve got to stop what I'm doing, or I need to commit 100% to what I'm doing for everything - for my family, my children, being a father, being a husband, and everything else,’” he said.
Building a business
Even after taking the leap, Thelen struggled to make his small business a reality. While working out of the woodshop in his parents garage, he could build about three boards a month. With such a small output, he had a hard time supporting his family financially. When demand for the boards grew, the new challenge became keeping up with orders.
Thelen eventually moved into a facility where he could build about five boards each month, but even then, he was faced with Michigan’s slow season.
“You'd have times where you just didn't get any orders, and there's just no money coming in. And luckily, I was still a carpenter and I can go back and go do a flooring job or a roofing job for my father-in-law to make ends meet, and then just try to figure out the rhyme and reason of why I wasn't getting orders,” he said. “So I was no, it wasn't like a giant rainbows, butterflies until this last year.”
Little Bay Boards moved into a 10,800 square foot facility earlier this year and started building boards there in March.
“I mean, I love what I'm doing, but as far as business goes, it's a struggle to make those things actually happen,” Thelen said. “I'm blessed to do what I do. And the boards are amazing. And I'm thankful every day that I wake up to go to work and build what I build.”