Rural Innovation Exchange

Thanks to Luke Ferris from Rural Innovation Exchange for this write-up on Little Bay Boards.

Little Bay Boards makes a splash in Michigan and beyond

wood paddle board

Jason Thelen built his first eco-friendly, hollow-core wooden paddleboard because of his inability to say “no” to his eldest daughter, Shawni. In the summer of 2013, Shawni asked for a stand-up paddleboard, and instead of purchasing one, Thelen learned how to build a sustainable wood board from scratch. 

Nine years and over 400 custom-built boards later, Shawni now works alongside her father at Little Bay Boards as an epoxy specialist. 

“I was told it was impossible to have a surfboard company in northern Michigan,” Thelen said. “And that’s all the motivation I needed to do it.” 

After starting in his garage making one board at a time, Thelen now leads a team of board builders in a new 11,000-square-foot facility in Petoskey. Little Bay Boards also distributes its custom boards at Boyne Country Sports locations, 355 NORTH in Petoskey, Indian River Sports Center in Indian River, and Sobe Surf and Paddle in Florida. 

How the company began: Thelen built his daughter’s first 10-foot board in the summer of 2013, and the design immediately drew attention at beaches across northern Michigan. “People were literally standing outside of the grocery store asking, ‘Where’d you get that board?'”

Thelen’s wife encouraged him to make another board, and he sold it. That’s when Little Bay Boards became more than a hobby. Thelen spent the next two years building boards in the mornings and evenings in his garage around his day job as a master carpenter.

In 2015, before his wife gave birth to their second child, Thelen had a carpentry job in Grand Rapids that would keep him away from his family. So he decided to stay close to home and go all-in making boards. It was “now or never” for Thelen, so he moved into a 2,500-square-foot workshop and started working full-time on Little Bay Boards.

How the company expanded: Little Bay Boards’ popularity grew to the point where the boards were on backorder for over six months. So Thelen hired his first employee – but the board requests didn’t slow down. In 2020, he connected with some investors who shared a passion for Thelen’s mission to bring sustainable and eco-friendly paddleboards to the masses, and for Thelen, it was the perfect time to get partners that knew how to scale a business. 

wood paddle board

“I’m better off with my head facing the table building what I build,” Thelen says. Last year, Little Bay Boards moved into its new facility, a former Kilwin’s distribution center, and hired more team members to scale production.  “That was the whole plan, to build as fast as we could and as best as we could,” he says. Currently, the company has 120 boards in stock at its facility, with more housed at  dealers in Michigan and Florida. Because of the new facility, the company has been able to almost triple yearly production. 

What resources helped the company grow: Little Bay Boards uses reclaimed or recycled wood instead of foam and plastics used in standard production boards. Because of this, Thelen says the company rarely fills its dumpster. “That’s something that I take home every day and feel good about, doing something better for the environment,” he says. 

Little Bay uses local wood and products in all its production processes. “Why try to use everything that we possibly can from Michigan,” Thelen says. “There’s so much here, just collaborations alone.” 

From graphic design done by a family friend, to creating a custom board for the bar at Beard’s Brewery in Petoskey the local business community has been integral to Little Bay’s success, Thelen says.

The company worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to create a promotional video, but its most prominent driver for growth has been the awareness from social media. “For a little artist in a little tiny town of Petoskey, Michigan to be able to reach globally was only because of Facebook, Instagram, and Google.” 

What issues did they face: Scaling from a garage with one craftsperson to a facility with multiple board builders was a difficult challenge for Thelen – but that’s what he’s used to. “Every part of this business has been a little more than I can chew off at times,” he says. Fortunately, Thelen’s customized model came out of necessity while trying to squeeze board building in the evenings and early mornings when he first started. “I always tell my employees that I’m lazy,” Thelen says. “Building a paddleboard is already hard. I figured out how to create a process the easiest way.” Each board builder has a 90-day trial period, with the first 30 days focused on cultural fit. Then Thelen coaches them in his incremental process methods until they can work independently. 

What’s next: Little Bay Board’s next step is to create a master design that makes the boards more affordable. The main challenge is the cost of shipping a board that can weigh up to 30 pounds. That’s why the company plans to work with more dealers in paddle boarding hotspots in Colorado, California, and Texas. Thelen’s long-term vision is to franchise his board-building model across the country using kits to reduce price and expand customization. No matter what body of water the next Little Bay paddle board shows up on, expect Thelen to keep his hands close to the craft. “I lucked out being able to do what I do for a living because I love it,” Thelen says. “I always encourage anybody to try and chase what they want to do.”