Getting on Board
Written by Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Tony Smith grew up building things with his hands. And like any young man who loves to tinker with classic cars, Tony went to Trinity University and ended up in ... finance?
Maybe it's not the most predictable avenue for someone like Tony, but nonetheless, that's where his story began. For about a decade, he was drifting around in private banking, while spending less time adventuring outdoors and even less time creating or building. He was in a fog, out of touch with that mechanical urge that drove him before becoming a stock broker. On a whim, Tony went to a bookstore and impulsively bought a how-to-manual for building wooden canoes. "I bought it, and over the course of many hours, I built the canoe." It was pretty much over for Tony, then. He was hooked and couldn't wait to build something else. "Hindsight is a crazy thing," says Tony. "My wife snapped this crazy photo of me in the canoe with one of those early iPhones. You can see about five
people paddling in the background who are staring at my canoe and pointing at it. That wasn't intentional, right? She just happened to snap that picture. The organic genesis to continue from canoe to paddle board came from that enthusiasm whenever I would go paddle my wooden canoe around. And it helps that I love paddle boarding and surfing, so it was a natural transition."
If you've ever driven over Town Lake on a sunny Saturday, you've certainly seen the surface of
the water sprinkled with dozens of Austinites rowing or paddling. Unlike canoes or kayaks, stand up paddle boards, or SUPs, are surf-style boards propelled by a long paddle. These are the boards that Tony started to make in his garage, just trial-and-error iterating the early prototypes. Immediately after he began, people walking by his garage would ask him what he was doing, or folks would see him paddling down the river and float by for a closer look. From there, people started asking to buy them, and Tony started selling them out of his two-car garage, all while working his day job.
Eventually, the demand outgrew his garage, and he was renting out space, backlogged with orders. "I didn't even know I was going to be a company," says Tony. "But that's probably a good thing because then I might have experienced paralysis by analysis. It mostly just happened, and I was in it with clients lined up, so I didn't have to struggle to make the decision to leave my day job in order to make the leap."
Maybe not through the most traditional route, Jarvis Boards came into being. The boards themselves are visually striking, harkening back to the nostalgia of wooden watercraft and surfboards, but there's a lot more that goes into it beyond just the aesthetic. The wood is actually functional and each board requires less toxic components since its made of wood. Each model of board that Jarvis has designed is named after Texas rivers. They're handcrafted right here in Austin, so they also offer customization options.
Tony's hobby-turned-business was the result of a collision between passion and boredom, but it also came from a deeper place. "Part of it is just feeling like I had a whole lot more that I could be doing," he says. "This was my first entrepreneurial endeavor and I think I'm addicted now. And if anyone sitting at home has the bug too, take the shot. This was a crazy long shot for me. The math shouldn't have worked out, but I just tried stuff and when I saw the chance, I stepped on the gas and went for it."
All that said, Tony wasn't completely immune to doubt. "I climbed a mountain of self-doubt. There were countless latenight 'what-on-earth-am-I-doing' moments. Even other people will overload you and bog you down with 'you-know-whatyou-ought-to-do's. I don't want to sugarcoat my story and act like it wasn't hard, or that there still aren't days that suck. can be lonely, almost, to be at the helm, solely responsible for my employees, unable to ask my boss for help with the big questions."
But ultimately, it was completely worth it. "I haven't tied a tie in so long. I'm wearing flip flops. I work more hours, but it feels like less," Tony says. "And it's ironic how it has evolved. I started this just to tap back into my creative self, to build things, and now I've got so many overarching responsibilities that I don't build nearly as much. Of course, I still get to try out new materials and evolve the designs, but my creativity has stretched beyond just the fabrication that I initially set out to do."
Check out the full line of SUPs available online at jarvisboards.com.