Saskatchewan-born Nolin Veillard, 44, is founder and director of TRAK Kayaks, in Airdrie, Alta. Formerly a chartered accountant, he returned to Canada from San Francisco in late 2002 and met two kayak enthusiasts trying to design a boat that would fold into the size of a suitcase. Today, TRAK kayaks are sold in nearly 50 countries.
I was down in Seattle off and on, and in San Francisco doing an acquisition as the controller of a desktop-video marketing company. So I started to do a little paddling. In 2002, I moved back to Saskatchewan … and started what I called Veillard Consulting. My vision was to help entrepreneurs and inventors and people who have really cool ideas and help them bring them to market.
I ended up getting referred to the inventors of the kayak who had this backyard project they’d been working on for more than a decade. They had a prototype of this kayak that goes into a travel bag and you can take anywhere in the world. I wasn’t an avid kayaker when I got into this but I loved the experience, and when I met these two guys who had the prototype, some dots connected.
In 2009-2010, the two original inventors had a falling out, and then, a couple of years later, the other founder walked away. Basically, I was left with the company. I worked with their investor group to restructure the company and since 2009 it’s been mine solely.
Building a market is what really intrigues me and gets me excited about my job. We’re getting these products out there that are having an impact. I get chills when I hear these stories from people from all corners of the globe. That’s what does it for me.
I like to run the company in a very collaborative way. I love people; that’s what really drives me. I believe in people and their capabilities. I tend to attract people who have bigger aspirations for themselves and who have a passion for doing something for people – serving kayakers and paddlers – and doing their job well.
Our market is people commonly aged 45 to 70, usually professionals. We also tend to get plumbers and electricians, people who have a trade. But really, it’s people who are quite successful in their own way and find this activity grounds them. You can do kayaking from the time you are quite young, but we have customers who are still paddling into their 80s.
Having a financial background and being a chartered accountant – and particularly early in my career as an articling chartered account – you learn a lot about different businesses. I think that’s the biggest value I got from my original career was some maturity and perspective on how businesses work.
For an entrepreneur building a business, having a strong financial background obviously helps with credibility when you’re working with investors and partners. And looking at a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, looking at campaigns and doing financial analysis, it helps ground the ideas.
The latest marketing thrust we did has been very successful in the realm of crowdsourcing. What really did it for us was getting our own TRAK paddlers – we call them our owners/ambassadors or pilots – who have had a lot of experience with our boats. Getting key people in the market involved in the development process was super helpful and successful.
They’ve led us down the path to realizing that [we need to] engage kayakers and paddlers – what they’re looking for and what really drives their passion. I think we will continue to do initiatives like that. Our pilot program is the key pillar of our business. It’s a worldwide thing. There are no borders.
A lot of people have ideas, but you have to be very clear that what you bring to the world is something you are deeply connected to, because it’s not for the weak of heart. [A startup] is a series of roller-coaster rides; if you don’t have a clear commitment or vision, it won’t necessarily be fun.
There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing your dream come to fruition. It’s a really creative process and it’s good for the soul when it’s working. It’s very validating because it’s something you’ve had to build yourself and there is no clear path, no formula.
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