Bellyak – Revolutionizing the Kayak, Leading the future of Whitewater Sports
Founder Interview Series – Adam Masters, Bellyak
The best ideas can hit at the strangest of times, and when they do, it is then an entrepreneur’s calling to fully explore the possibilities that they bring. Adam Masters, Founder of Bellyak Kayaks is a perfect example of an entrepreneur who explored and developed his idea until it became not only a successful product, but even the makings of a new sport.
Several years ago, Masters watched a Western North Carolina creek fill to the brink during a hurricane. The creek was surrounded by rhododendrons, creating a tunnel over the fast moving water. An avid whitewater enthusiast, Masters knew this was a rapid he could not miss out on, but realized he would not fit upright in his kayak. That’s when it hit him. Masters laid belly down on his kayak and paddled the rapids with his hands.
“The sensation of speed and connection to the water on such a small creek was exhilarating,” Masters explained. He thought of the name “bellyak” while paddling down the creek, and recognized that this was an idea that could increase the thrill of kayaking without increasing the risk, enhancing the way people experience the water.
Adam was hooked.
The first step Masters took in creating the Bellyak was to cut up a kayak and create a prototype. Although it wasn’t perfect, he ran down section nine of the French Broad river and thought, “HOLY CRAP, this is fun!” The Bellyak made familiar water completely new again.
Adam is a firm believer that “you just have to build something and go for it, and not be afraid of what it looks like. Once you have a prototype, it’s then all about improving the design. But you just have to start.”
A few years later, Masters had a friend who wanted to learn to paddle whitewater, but had trouble mastering the eskimo roll. Wondering if there was a way to help him experience the river without the fear of flipping over, Adam had his friend test his Bellyak. Watching how quickly his friend was able to learn the basics of whitewater paddling, he was instantly inspired to create a new and improved prototype. Masters saw his prototype as a way to increase participation in paddlesports by making the experience more about the thrill and connection of paddling whitewater and less about overcoming the fear of learning how to roll.
CRAFTING THE IDEAL PRODUCT
Masters often reminds entrepreneurs, “you are your first customer and number one investor.” Investing time and resources in prototype design is essential in product development. At first, he designed a boat called “The Everyman” in an attempt to accommodate for everyone’s needs, but it just didn’t work the way he wanted it to. That’s when Adam realized that instead, he needed to develop the product for himself first. By focusing only on developing an ideal product which he personally enjoyed, Adam was in turn generating a deeper knowledge of how the kayak should work, and an intimate awareness of how it could be improved. Specially designing the Bellyak for Masters’ experience gave him a better foundation of his product, which enabled him to later accommodate features for a wider market.
After cutting up kayak after kayak and spending tons of time working with foam and fiberglass, Masters knew there must be a more effective way to develop his invention. That’s when he decided it was time to pick up the phone and reach out to specialists to help him iterate on the next phase of his product.
Fortunately, Adam was raised in the world of watersports and is undeniably well-connected in the industry. His father, Bill Masters, is widely known as the “Father of Modern Kayaking” and is the trailblazing engineer and founder behind Perception Kayaks. Having grown up on the floor of the warehouse, surrounded by the world’s leading designers and athletes, Adam leveraged his knowledge and network to immerse himself in the process of construction.
Finding an expert in Computer Aided Design (CAD) to help him model the Bellyak was one of the first partnerships Masters formed. Adam also worked with several kayak designers who understood the tricks of the trade which helped him save significant time. He went through an extensive and picky process of finding the best partners to manufacture his product, including his current production relationship with WNC’s own Liquid Logic, to ensure his finished product was lightweight and as high quality as possible.
Passionate in his belief that you have to take all the time you need to develop your product to its fullest potential, Masters leaned on his lifetime of experience to continue refining the concept. Adam believes that “your product should fire you up, and if it doesn’t, it’s not worth your time. You just aren’t going to have what it takes to make it.” Eventually, after several iterations, he was able to patent his invention as the first craft made specifically for whitewater prone paddling, mostly on his own schematics and sweat equity.
REINVENTING THE SPORT
Although Masters initially built the Bellyak for a demographic that was representative of him, the boat ended up resonating with several different markets than what he had anticipated. One of the defining moments of his company was when Masters was called by a recreational therapist to buy a few Bellyaks for veterans who struggled with PTSD or amputations. With its unique ergonomic design, Bellyak ended up being an incredible way for veterans to connect with the water and experience the independence, mobility, and exercise that paddlesports offer.
After this happenstance validation, Masters then began receiving calls and purchases of Bellyaks for young adults with disabilities. Consequently, Masters adjusted and adapted his design to see what a difference the Bellyak can make in countless people’s lives. After making a few modifications, Bellyak is now one of the leading water crafts for individuals with a disability.
The future of Bellyak is an exciting one. As Masters works to develop the quickly growing business, he is simultaneously working to develop a whole new category sport for the unique boat. He is currently writing a book of curriculum about the sport, and developing online resources as well. Presently, Masters has eight instructors who are certified in educating others about the Bellyak, and he expects this number to expand with the sport.
At the inaugural Outdoor Business Pitch Competition in Asheville, hosted on September 19th in conjunction with the 2018 Western Carolina University Outdoor Economy Conference, Adam presented the winning Pitch to take home the $5,000 cash prize. The prize funding will help him accomplish his goal of entering the recreational paddlesports market by introducing a lower price point Bellyak for kids. He is eager to connect with the mass market and spread the joy of prone paddling with the masses.
Years after paddling down an overflowing creek in a duct taped kayak, the Bellyak is now a product that has revolutionized the way people experience water, and is poised to change the industry forever. Master’s key advice to entrepreneurs in the process of product development? “Get out and do it, make sure it fires you up, and don’t quit!”
Aryelle Jacobsen is currently a freshmen at UNC Asheville with an intention of double majoring in sociology and political science. She has a fierce passion for activism, as she was the head organizer of March for Our Lives Asheville (2018) and currently serves as the leader of Students Demand Action Asheville. Aryelle was the lead teen trainer at a summer camp for young girls interested in entrepreneurship called Camp Girl Boss, and is the author of “A is for Awkward: A Guide to Surviving Middle School.” She is currently working on developing programs and writing curriculum to work with middle schoolers on gaining good self-esteem. Aryelle truly believes in the strength of youth empowerment as well as standing up for what you believe in.