Born in Paris, but raised in the U.S., John Jacobs, owner of The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, spent the first 12 years of his life living at different Air Force bases. Following his father’s last duty station in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1968, the family drove south in search of warmer weather and new opportunities.
They ended up in Central Florida; where Jacobs graduated from high school and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Florida State University, along with a Master’s degree from Florida Atlantic University. After college, he spent over 20 years in the fields of psychology, human capital and modeling and simulation around workforce training. When an opportunity arose six years ago to start a business, unlike anything he’d ever done before, Jacobs knew it was a chance to build something special.
“I dated a girl in St. Cloud for some years, so I was familiar with the area,” he said. “Shingle Creek Regional Park used to have an airboat ride, but the county got rid of it and put up a new structure designed for a kayak and canoe business to operate out of. When I found out they were taking bids on running the operation, I hooked up with a buddy of mine, who happens to be an avid kayaker, and went down Shingle Creek to check it out. It blew me away. It’s one of the few places in Florida with old-growth Cypress Trees, which makes it very unique. It’s also 10 minutes from all the attractions.”
Jacobs put in a bid – and won it. His next move was to acquire the boats needed to run the business. He visited similar operations in St. Pete and Tampa Bay to check out their boats. Once he had an idea of what he wanted, he purchased enough canoes and single and tandem kayaks to meet the minimum requirements set by the county. By August, 2014, after hiring staff and completing the “insurmountable” mountain of workers’ compensation paperwork, he was officially open for business.
“The first five months in business were a little rough,” he said. “We had almost zero revenue coming in. I had to dip into my IRA to meet payroll. I tried a lot of different things to bring in new business, including advertising in hotel racks. I ended up buying 18,000 rack cards to distribute to various hotels. I even developed relationships with different hotel concierges to encourage them to send their guests our way. Unfortunately, nothing came out of those efforts. It wasn’t until I hired a consultant and focused nearly all of our attention on online advertising when business started to pick up.”
Jacobs continued, “Since then, we’ve been growing our inventory of boats and equipment and pushing hard into the eco-tour environment. In fact, we’ve turned into one of the top eco tour providers in Central Florida – with several top notch tour guides leading our groups. I’m also proud that we’re all American Canoe Association Level 1 Qualified and Certified Trainers. We don’t just focus on tours and renting boats, we train people how to kayak – and we do so with safety in mind.”
According to Jacobs, the business was buzzing along until the pandemic hit. On March 18th, despite dozens of reservations and locals and tourists still wanting to rent boats, he made the decision, for the safety of his staff and customers, to shut things down. Fortunately for Jacobs, his ‘fail your way to success’ mentality will undoubtedly carry him through these uncertain times.
When it comes to what he enjoys most about owning and running The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, Jacobs is quick to point how the experience often changes people’s lives. “You wouldn’t believe how many folks come in not really knowing what to expect,” he said. “When we take them out and introduce them to the real Florida, they’re amazed. It’s also great to see a kid in a kayak. They suddenly become masters of their universe.”
Looking ahead, Jacobs is concentrating his efforts on doing more business with corporations and conventions. He’s actively pursuing relationships to encourage these folks to skip long bus rides to the coast for similar excursions and instead, take the 10 minute drive to his location. His long-term goal is to eventually retire from his day job to focus exclusively on his business.
What advice does Jacobs have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “First of all, you got to have plenty of capital,” he said. “In fact, you need enough capital to survive the first two years. It’s also crucial to remain committed and to fail your way to success. It’s rare to step into something that blossoms into something super successful. Most of the time, you have to keep trying and meeting new people and making sure you’re working at it every day. Lastly, take a hard look at the landscape of your business. Understand the risk factors, don’t discount them and have contingencies for when things don’t go as planned.”