Why I Got Out of the Sea Kayak Guiding Business

According to a study published in APS journal Psychological Science, after receiving an unappealing prize for hard work, a six-year-old kid will hold on to it. Whereas a four-year-old kid who works hard for an unappealing reward will detach themselves from that reward by giving it away. The six-year-old, says the study, “tend to employ a cognitive strategy to accommodate the knowledge that they worked hard to earn an unattractive reward.” They revalue the reward based on how difficult it was to earn it. The four-year-old doesn’t perform that metal jump and sees the prize as it is: not worth it. In this way, six-year-old kids function more like adults, and for the three years I ran a sea kayak guiding business I was like the six-year-old.

It was the perfect job. The second summer I lived in Grand Marais, I got a job guiding sea kayaking. I would wake up in the morning, head to work, haul kayaks to the beach, give a quick lesson to 8 to 10 people and then we’d go out paddling. We’d either explore small sea caves and go to a rock that looked like George Washington’s profile or we’d paddle to a replica, albeit tiny, Statue of Liberty. After landing on the beach, I’d clean the wetsuits, haul kayaks up to the racks and call the day.

a kayaker doing the paddle float rescueDuring that time, I earned my ACA Level 2 Coast Kayaking Instructor Certification. The company I worked for only paid for Level 1, but the Instructor Trainer recognized that my skills were higher than that and said he would have liked to give me a Level 3, but he couldn’t because the course wasn’t long enough. Of course, this was before there were levels in the ACA system.

I paddled five days a week for work and then paddled on days off. When the surf was up, we’d cancel trips and head to the river mouth at the resort for some surfing. We called it “professional development.” It felt more like fun when trying paddlefloat rescues in 3-foot surf and catching waves. We had many adventures, such as when the 11-year-old girl, whose parents lied about her age shouted at the top of her lungs, “Daddy. Daddy. My legs are asleep make me a doctors appointment.” We had “epic” fun such as when on a two-guide tour with 10 boats on the water, we had four capsizes all at once, then a tow and a capsized tow. We got to watch yard-sale surf landings. We met many people who said the highlight of their trips was kayaking on Lake Superior. We also encouraged people to take up kayaking. One of my students eventually became an instructor. For years, my summers were perfect. I wasn’t earning much money guiding (and the tips at the resort which gave away the trips to their guest for free were absolutely pathetic — I made much, much more guiding trips when people paid for their trips), but I also wasn’t 100% dependent on a guiding job for income so the lack of good pay didn’t detract from the experience and fun.

Eventually, after leaving for an expedition, I realized that maybe I needed to make more money and the resort and I couldn’t come up with a good salary for me, so I left. I got a job offer to set up a new store in town, took it and then quit after the owner yelled at me for not doing someone else’s job in his other business while pounding his fist and saying, “I pay your checks.” I told him to shove his check up his ass. Later, he was arrested for prostitution, so I was glad to have left when I did. After that I figured I was out of the sea kayaking business for good. It had been 15 years either selling sea kayaks and outdoor gear or guiding trips. I figured that was a good run.

But, I had this idea floating around in my head from years back that I should start a sea kayaking business that was trailer based, operated by meeting the paddlers at the destination’s launch point, and maybe had beach space in the harbor. Low overhead. Low work. High fun! A year later, I started my own sea kayak guiding company.

With only $250 spent on advertisement and equipment bought with money from my savings account (actually made over several years from affiliate links and advertising on this website, so thanks!), I launched the season. I rented beach space and had a good season. I paid off the equipment and ended the season with more money in the bank that I had put into the business. I didn’t really need a paycheck because photography was paying my bills, so I didn’t draw any money.

The next year, I sold off the unstable boats, bought new equipment, an extra trailer and hired two contract employees — and good friends. We had a good year. I paid off all the equipment, had money left over in the bank, paid my contractors and and significantly expanded the business while only spending $100 on advertisement. On a personal level, I felt my skills grow and mature. And I earned my ACA L4 Open Water Coastal Kayaking Instructor certification.

hansel_bryan_140712-201Year three started off with a bang. I hired one of my contractors as a full-time employee. She guided almost five days a week and I guided almost five days a week. And my better half helped out when we needed her to. We had two trailers and were always running trips. Some of the trips were large, but I had purchased a bunch of tandems to handle the expected increase. Each trailer could handle 8 participants and I rented kayaks from a friendly outfitter in town when I needed more. Money was pouring in, things were paid off and there was money in the bank. I still hadn’t taken a draw because I didn’t need it.

At the end of that summer, I was exhausted and wanted nothing to do with sea kayaking. The business was growing and for the fourth year could have supported two full-time employees plus myself. I’d need to buy a new vehicle and trailer and more kayaks to meet the expected demand. And it seemed like our multi-day trips were about to take off based on the number of emails I fielded, so I’d need to find a person who could take off to guide week-long trips.

But, there were downsides. The work was extremely hard. I was routinely working 12 to 14 hour days, 7 days a week. The reservations were ringing the phone off the hook, so if I guided a tour, I’d have five or so calls to return at the end of the day. Cleaning and organizing equipment fell on my shoulders, and because we were trying to get by with one vehicle (two now and then), I’d have to move the trailer for the other guide before doing my trip and haul it off the beach at the end of the day. And don’t get me started on the accounting and payroll paperwork. Even though I used an online payroll service, keeping track of everything that the government(s) required and wanted and the surveys they send out randomly was overwhelming for someone trying to do it on his own. Paperwork was calf high and piling up. There would have been enough money to hire an accounting company the following year, but that was taking a cut. And while there was money to spare, I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. I’m not even going to mention all the harassment I received from my old boss. I never knew what my former boss was going to pull next, so it was stressful.

I spent the winter between year three and what would be year four debating whether or not to continue. But, I had worked so hard that I decided I should soldier on. And I almost did…

But I decided to get out of the business.

Cave of Waves, Tettegouche State Park KayakingAfter I got out of the business, people would ask me why, and I’d say because my photography business was making more money (which it was), that I lost money in photography because of the kayaking (which I did), that I could increase my photography business by more than I would lose from getting rid of the kayaking business (which was true), that I had a house to remodel (which I still do), that I wanted to spend time with my newly born kid (and I’m so glad that I have the extra time with him while he grows up). All were 100% true, but I had a realization that made me get out of the business.

I realized that holding on to something only because I had worked so hard at it in the past made no sense for the future when the overall reward wasn’t high. While there were plenty of great times, the work was disproportionate to the reward, and it seemed that the more the company grew and the more money it made, the less rewarding it was to me. And what reward was there wasn’t all that desirable. Before I gave it up, I was like the six-year-old in the cited study. I was hanging on to something with little value only because I had put so much work into building it.

Luckily, I had an easy way out. If I wasn’t a photographer, I would have had to continue on with the sea kayaking business. I have a friend who did that even when it didn’t seem enjoyable to him. He eventually went bankrupt and is now enjoying life.

If the reward isn’t worthwhile even though it took hard work to get it, it’s best to think like a four-year-old and get out.

And now I get to paddle solely for fun again. It has been a blast!

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  • Enjoyed the article. I read half way through without knowing who wrote it, until I began to wonder if it was written by Bryan Hansel. Sure enough, should have known but didn’t pay much attention to what I’d just clicked on to get here. I’ve been a fan of your adventures, writing and photography.

    • That’s funny that you put two and two together without knowing that there was a two. I’ll still be writing, adventuring (hopefully more) and taking pictures. I imagine that this blog will be updated more often.

  • Insightful. Amazing how often you should be wary of the things you think you want.

  • I certainly understand, but somehow I feel the world of kayaking is loosing ground by your decision. I gave up a practice because I got too old to keep running night and day to get new clients. I wanted to do some things for myself. The old sport-lifestyle of sea kayaking is being taken over by cheap boats purchased at the box stores and the true old salts are getting fewer in numbers. I will miss you tales and keen lessons that we all enjoyed because of your experiences. Take care of yourself.

    • I’m still going to be kayaking and writing about kayaking. And this blog-a-zine isn’t going away. It’s just that I’m not going to guide kayaking anymore. I may still teach it at symposiums, but I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to bother with keeping my certifications. That’s still up in the air. I feel like I need a full year away from it before I make any decisions.

  • Interesting enough I’m just beginning my journey with kayak rentals. I am going to be offering small guided tours. It would be great to pick your brain some time Bryan.

  • My business is about to have it’s eleventh birthday. Nothing to do with kayaking but lots of simliarities business wise to the things you right about. Your article has me thinking that perhaps I should have got out after year three too. Thanks for some thought provoking stuff.

  • Several of your comments hit close to home for me.

    Past experience has shown me that people generally don’t value something they get for free, like the kayak lessons that the resort you worked for gave away. This always struck me a weird, since the amount of money someone paid or didn’t pay has nothing to do with the value of the kayak lessons. It’s all about perception.

    I wonder if you had not tried to grow the business, would things have worked out differently. I met a local restaurant owner. He has a small dining room and bar space. He has an elite staff of seasoned waitresses and cooks. His business is only open in the evening six days a week. The menu is varied, but not extensive. Every dish is excellent. I asked him why he didn’t expand his business. Surely, there’s more money to be made. He patiently explained to me that a bigger dining room meant more overhead and financing. A bigger dining room would never operate at the efficiency that his small dining room can. To make up for the loss of efficiency he would need to expand his hours. Expanded hours would mean hiring more staff, which brings with it a lot more headaches. Right now, he can “cherry pick” his staff because most of the best local restaurant workforce desire his limited hours and chance to make great tips. He explained that expanding his menu would also be nescessary if he wanted to grow the business and that expanding the menu would also cause many headaches. Quality control would get more difficult as everything grew. By limiting the size of his dining room, his menu, and his business hours, he has created a somewhat exclusive dining experience. It also gives him the ability to have great service and outstanding food, which people value and are willing to pay a premium for ( all be it a small premium ).

    I also worked for a small trucking company some time ago. My boss at the trucking company shared with me that his business could also grow, but he too wanted to keep his business small enough for him to retain complete control and still be profitable enough to provide a good living for him and his family. This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but they have both made it work.

    I’m not sure if I think kayak outfitters/instructors undervalue their services or if the customers do, but just like my boss at the trucking company taught me, if the job doesn’t pay enough…don’t do it.

    • Ya, maybe. But, it needed to grow to reach the point of sustainability. From a money point-of-view, I ended up with a good paycheck after I closed out the accounts. It was much higher than I would have made “working for the man” for three summers. I wasn’t really doing it for the money though. I got back all my investment and then some after selling off the gear. Year four would have been a big payoff year. With two full time guides and myself and one person to run extended camping trips when needed, it would have made enough to hit that point where further growth wasn’t needed. The guides would have been among the highest paid sea kayaking guides on the north shore, and I would have been making enough to live off of. Of course, about $20,000 of investment needed to be made with the purchase of a 2nd vehicle, third trailer and boats and gear to run the third trailer. An actual building close to the harbor wouldn’t have hurt either.

      You’re right about the headaches involved with growth though. And on top of those headaches, they’re magnified when running a business in a small town, such as Grand Marais. There just aren’t enough people here to fill the jobs, and the rental housing market is nonexistent especially now that people are turning their houses into vacation rentals. Most of the tourism industry here imports foreign summer help, because there aren’t enough locals to fill the jobs and Americans don’t want these jobs. For the guiding jobs, it’s hard to get someone to come here for the summer when there is no place for them to live.

      For people starting a guiding business and trying to get a take-away from this, I’d say the following:

      1. Grand Marais isn’t the place to start a business that’s going to easily grow or sustain you. The land prices are too high. The tourism season is too short. It only runs from mid-June to Labor Day. And the tourism coming to GM is a fraction of Duluth or Two Harbors. You’d be better off starting an adventure company in Duluth or Two Harbors. Two Harbors is ripe for a sea kayaking guiding business. Land is cheap, lots of visitors and no competition and a great harbor. It’s also close to great destinations such as Split Rock. You’d run into labor problems in TH, but, at least, there are rentals. Duluth has UMD’s recreation program, so you could get guides from there. Plus, it’s a college town so there are rentals in the summer.

      2. If there would have been a business that I could have outsourced reservations to, it would have been huge. I think someone could start that business and answer phones for local guides when they were guiding trips and book reservations. This would have been a huge relief for me. If someone is looking to start a 1-person business, it would be worthwhile researching this and drawing up a business plan. I would have paid $5 per person that was booked for this service, and it would have been around $3,500 a summer for the reservation business. I would have just raised my prices to cover the cost.

      p.s. the funny thing about the resort I worked at is that they charged an activity fee separate of the room rate to every person who stayed there even if they didn’t use the activity service. So, the people were actually paying for the kayaking even though they might not have known it. The activity fee was buried in the bill with taxes and other service fees.

  • The Sunk Cost Fallacy, ( that’s what they call it in Economics.

    Interesting reading about your business and decision making. My wife and I have been running our small kayaking business for 15 years and early on made the decision to try to only employ ourselves ( I got my feet wet setting up and running a kayak program at a resort in Nova Scotia). We decided there would be less headaches, hassles, etc. if we just employed ourselves We have seen three other kayak business set up and close down in our local area over the 15 years.

    Life is about trying things and seeing what works for you and sounds like you have got the balance right , nice. As we get ready to head into our southern hemisphere summer I wonder how many more times I want to be lifting/cleaning/dragging a sea kayak for pay…..

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