APPRENTICE star Baroness Karren Brady of Knightsbridge CBE finds out more about a great British business.
Today she’s chatting to Pete Astles, 52, from Derbyshire. He has launched a charitable arm of his kayaking company, Peak UK, with the help of GoDaddy.
Karren discovers how a lifelong love of kayaking helped Pete launch a global business that’s now supplying Team GB with some revolutionary kit.
What inspired you to launch Peak UK?
“It all started 32 years ago, when I was a youngster living in the Lake District, training for canoe slalom competitions. When I was 18, a new whitewater course was built in Nottingham, so I excitedly headed off into the sunset with my kayak. I quickly got a job managing a kayaking shop, but then I fell ill with glandular fever, and couldn’t train.
Feeling restless, I realised that the products sold in the kayak shop weren’t that great, and decided I could do better. With the help of some friends who could sew, I started designing kayaking products such as life jackets, and made some prototypes.
At the time, all my friends were members of British kayaking teams, so I had a lot of interest in what I’d designed. I started Peak UK in a friend’s back room with a roll of fabric, some foam and a pair of scissors, and it just grew from there.”
How did your company grow into the business it is today?
“Within six months of starting the business, I had my own premises, and as I developed more products, I bought some sewing machines and taught myself how to use them. I had no money whatsoever, and reinvested every penny I made. We did trade shows, attended events, and went knocking on people’s doors to sell our products. It probably took 15 years for us to become established as a world-leading brand.
I think it worked because everything we designed, I initially made for myself. I started out making canoe slalom equipment, because that was my discipline at the time. Then I got into canoe polo, then freestyle kayaking and sea kayaking. And every time I changed disciplines, we developed products to suit my needs.
My wife Sally and I have two boys, Alfie and Harry. When they were born, we designed a life jacket for kids, which is now one of our bestsellers. We’ve followed our hearts, made products that we enjoy using ourselves, and the commercial successes have followed.”
How did you start supplying Team GB?
“I grew up in Nottingham with Paul Ratcliffe, who is now the performance director for British Canoeing, and we’ve supported the British canoe slalom team for about 30 years now – they’re like family.
For the London 2012 Olympics, we developed a new textile-printing system, so we could print Team GB’s colours on to stretchy, waterproof material. Then for Rio 2016, we worked on making the team’s life jackets thinner. The rules state they have to be able to float 6.12 kilos, so we developed a new product that’s a life jacket and spray deck – which covers the top of the kayak and keeps water out – all in one.
By taking half the buoyancy out of the jacket and putting it into the spray deck, we could stick to the rules while helping the team to run each course a bit faster. Joe Clarke won his gold medal in the kayak K1 wearing our product, which was a real boon for Team GB, and for us.
This year, to keep things fair, we’ve supplied our newest product to nearly every team at the Olympics – although, of course, we’ll be cheering on Team GB!”
What’s next for Peak UK?
“We’ve just launched a charity and community project called Paddle Peak, which involves cleaning and caring for the local environment, and enabling local kids to try canoeing, and hopefully take it up. Canoeing has turned my life and my friends’ lives into something meaningful, and I want this to be Peak UK’s legacy.
GoDaddy already hosts our domain names and email, so it’s come on board to help us by building our new Paddle Peak website. Its e-commerce system will hopefully help us raise funds, while its booking system – which is usually used for things like hairdressers’ appointments – will work really well for managing the kids’ kayaking sessions.
We’re hoping GoDaddy will turn out to be a long-term partner, because at the moment we’re funded by passion, and any support we can get is brilliant. We’re really excited to have the company on board and get something special set up.”
What’s your top tip for starting a business?
“I was always in trouble at school, and one lunchtime I had to write “Think before you act” 1,000 times. It sunk in, and it really works! When it comes to canoe slalom, you’ve got to be able to visualise exactly where to go, and what to do – every wave, every ripple, every stroke – and that applies to business, too. You have to think ahead.
I’d also say, “Never give up.” In our time, we’ve had to really fight our corner, and if I’d taken no for an answer, I wouldn’t be telling this story now.”
“Pete’s stellar career shows that following your passions when launching a new business can really boost your success. Being an entrepreneur is tough, so you need to put your heart and soul into everything you do. It’s also important to make the most of every opportunity – such as the partnership that Pete has established with a web hosting company – to help grow his business online. That level of passion can also help give you the patience you need to nurture a business and watch it slowly grow – success doesn’t always happen overnight.”