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Interview ONAK - Startup Summer

It all started with folding paper boats about three years ago. Otto Van De Steene wondered about the possibility of a foldable boat that could take you anywhere. Otto and his canoe partner Thomas Weyn lost their spot by the pier and they where looking for an alternative to store their canoe, because you just can’t put it under your bed.
That’s how the idea of a foldable canoe took shape with the requirement that it should have all the same sailing characteristics as a regular canoe. It had to be strong enough to bump up against rocks and the riverside. They looked around and saw alternatives but they where either strong enough but too heavy and expensieve or of inferior quality. They decided they could do better.

Thomas and Otto started experimenting with different types of materials. It was not easy to find the best composition so they developed a new kind of material which combined a honeycomb structure with the extreme strong ‘Curv’.
This innovation makes an ONAK so unique. The material is as strong as a regular canoe, it has almost the same shape and it is unsinkable. The stiffness is essential. A rubber canoe is not stiff which means you lose a lot of energy when paddling. By making the canoe foldable they immediately eliminated the problem of storage space. What’s more, an ONAK is hyper light and easy to carry around. This was another demand in the development process. With a canoe you are doomed to sail on open water where your car is parked or you have to make arrangements for a pick-up after your trip. With an ONAK you fold up and hop on public transportation. In Copenhagen they even strapped the ONAK on a cargo bike.

A revolutionary product but who are their customers? Not everyone is a die hard outdoor person. Even this part is well thought-out. ONAK focusses on urban exploring. They aim for people who come home after a stressful day at the office and want to release pressure on the water in their ONAK. “You don’t have to drive long-distance to get in touch with nature”, shares Van De Steene. “Even on the water in the city of Ghent you can see a heron fishing. In Europe the water quality of the rivers increases year after year. Now you can explore nature in your own city.” Relaxing on the water during rush hour, it sounds like the new yoga.

So their buyers are citizens unaware that sailing in a canoe is not only fun but above all totally relaxing. How will they reach those people? ONAK is going to work by the principle of ambassadors. A canoe is made for two or three persons and it’s very easy to pick up paddling. The ONAK ambassador will give potential customers there first ONAK experience to convince them on the spot. Social media is another important partner in crime. Currently the ONAK videos and photos are shared en masse. Their Instagram account has followers across the globe. All those people are waiting to buy, fold and paddle. The ultimate goal is an actual ONAK community. They took step one towards that community by launching a Kickstarter campaign in July 2016. The main purpose is to raise extra money to start the production process but also to test the market. Take a look at Kickstarter and maybe you will become the proud owner of an ONAK canoe!

Huge distributors and retailers are apparently not the way to go for the ONAK boys. That’s intentional because these often literally miss the boat of innovation. This statement is common in the startup world. “It’s absurd, in a large corporation you work 9 to 5, come home and enjoy your time off. Right now we are 100% focused on ONAK but we feel more free”, they say. Free to explore their boundaries, to innovate and set their own course.

They are going all in for a digital strategy to acquire customers. “We want to work tailor made” explains Weyn. Part of their plan is to customize the ONAK canoes. The ambassadors receive a unique boat and a bonus when they bring a new customer on board. Once again you notice their focus on building a community and the urge to distinguish ONAK from the existing brands.
The dream: a complete outdoor brand for adventures in the city. Going from new types of canoes over better paddles and even an innovation in the backpack area. We’ll keep an eye on the them, the ONAK team!

-Text: Kim Cnudde