Riding the wave with Hala Gear founder Peter Hall
From the editor: The following is excerpted from the Summer 2018 issue of Steamboat Living magazine, highlighting locals’ top adventures from 2017.
It’s 3 p.m. on a June afternoon, and Hala Gear founder Peter Hall is in his “office,” pumping his new Milligram stand-up paddleboard on the Yampa River’s newly designed A-wave.
While he’s just a Frisbee’s throw away from his new, real office on Yampa Street, the wave might as well be his workplace. That’s where his ideas originate and where the impetus for his growing company began. When a rogue surge threatens to flush him downstream, he adjusts, pumps, throws in a contorted, behind-the-back brace and balances his way back on.
It’s an apt analogy to how, in seven short years, he’s quietly grown Hala Gear into one of Steamboat’s, and the SUP industry’s, most successful outdoor businesses. He adjusts on the fly, changes course when needed and paddles his way forward when things get rough.
This article is from the summer issue of Steamboat Living magazine.
Combine the Professor on Gilligan’s Island and Hawaiian SUP pioneer Laird Hamilton, with a dose of big-haired mountain man Jeremiah Johnson, and you get Hall, who — with 10 full-time employees, a new 3,200-square-foot office on Yampa Street, an 1,800-square-foot warehouse off Elk River Road, and a third-party fulfillment service out of Denver — has seen his company grow from a fledgling, borrow-money-from-mom, one-man shop into a business that now sells its wares in 10 countries. In addition to building Hala into a frontrunner in the inflatable stand-up paddleboard market, he’s helped pioneer the sport’s growth, especially when it comes to supping on rivers.
As with his pumping on the A-wave, he’s had to work at it. And like finding the wave’s sweet spot, it didn’t happen overnight.
In 2006, Hall moved to Steamboat from Denver, where he settled after graduating from Vermont’s Middlebury College with a degree in environmental studies and Spanish.
“I was in Denver for three months and started looking around for work,” he said. “Then I took a vocational test, and one option it suggested was to become a ski instructor.”
So he headed to Steamboat, where he also landed a job teaching Spanish and world history at the Lowell Whiteman School. After three years there, where he led school trips to such places as Peru and Argentina, he moved on, this time to a brief stint selling radio advertising and a side gig playing harmonica in the bluegrass band Missed the Boat.
“When I was 16, I impulsively bought a book at REI on how to play the harmonica,” he said. “But I never tried to make it a full-time gig.”
Instead, he went from the harp to the idea of founding Hala. Hall spent his first college semester in Australia, where an $800 car and $400 surfboard got him hooked on waves.
“I had no idea stand-up paddling even existed,” he said. “Every single vacation I took was to go surfing.”
In Steamboat, his attention turned to the waves outside his door.
“I had learned how to kayak at Middlebury but stopped for a while,” he said. “I just wanted to surf.”
He remembers hitting his head on a rock once kayaking (“but it was a smooth rock,” he said), which could explain some things. But it got him thinking there had to be a better, above-water way. So he began taking his surfboards out on the river. “When you fall off a board, your head is still above water,” he said.
He admits, however, to getting worked doing that, as well. Then at Costco one day, he saw a cheapo inflatable surfboard.
“It was just a glorified pool toy, but I took it down Brown’s Canyon of the Arkansas,” he said. “I got worked and broke all the fins off, but I had a great time. And I realized that if the board was better, it would be fun. I wasn’t trying to start a business; I just wanted a new way to run the river.”
While in Buena Vista, playing at a music festival with Missed the Boat, he was sitting in an eddy when Earl Richmond, owner of retailer Colorado Kayak Supply, floated by. That’s when the notion took hold; he later showed him his design idea for a better board and a SUP paddle with two blades (which would eventually be called the Butterknife), and Richmond seemed stoked.
That was the impetus for Hall to begin launching Hala in 2011, targeting the niche of whitewater-specific inflatable SUPs.
He hand-drew a few designs, had his wife, Anna, do the art, and found a Chinese manufacturer through Alibaba. Then he started getting samples, much to his chagrin.
“I found out that’s a really good way to lose money,” he said, adding the best-looking websites ended up being the worst options. “The first batch was pretty bad.”
He flew over to pick up the first batch of 100 boards, leaving 80 of them over there.
“Everything was all wrong,” he said. “They came in crooked. They were also the wrong color, but I didn’t care about that. I just wanted function.”
While the manufacturer sold them back on Alibaba under the Hala brand (leading Hall to pursue an official Chinese trademark), they weren’t quite up to his supping snuff.
“That first year, I got smoked, but we were able to scramble and make enough boards with other manufacturers to prove there was a true demand,” he said. “But that was all my money.”
So he got a loan from his mom (“She owned her house until I started a SUP company,” he said.) and then sent his designs to five manufacturers, testing them all beforehand. That’s when he realized the idea might have potential.
“I went from, ‘I want a better toy, to holy shit this could be a viable business,’” he said, likening his foray into the SUP business to a fancy lemonade stand. “I was trying to be profitable, but more importantly make something viable for the river market that didn’t exist.”
In 2012, he “rolled three seasons into one” producing small-batch runs with two different manufacturers. Finding one he liked, he learned to use Adobe Illustrator to get precise with his designs. The result: Hala became the first SUP manufacturer pushing high-volume — 6-inch-thick and 35-inches-wide — inflatable boards.
“For the river, you need more volume,” he said. “Fresh water isn’t as buoyant as salt water. Thinner models are floppy and harder to control.”
Like a jam session with his band, his designs started evolving. And he learned as he went.
“A big takeaway I learned is that if you don’t make a certain choice about something, the manufacturer will make it for you,” he said. “Which isn’t always good.”
With that, he hit the ground standing, evangelizing the world of river SUP. He left a handful of boards with outfitter Stand Up Paddle Colorado in Rancho del Rio on the Colorado River, and they added them to their rental quiver. He competed in such events as Vail’s GoPro Games, manned booths at river festivals and took sponsored athletes to places like Japan to hone design ideas and spread the word.
Growing the sport
In the time since, sales have increased about 100 percent per year, jumping in units from 120 boards in Year One to more than 5,000 annually today. Recently moving from his original headquarters on Twentymile Road into his new 3,200-square-foot Gear Space offices on Yampa Street, he has a cadre of 10 full-time employees, which swells to 18 in summer, and two outsourced reps. He takes them on team-building floats down the Colorado, and the team makes regular forays onto the Yampa.
His work-hard, play-hard management style — “In winter, I don’t schedule meetings before noon. Powder’s too ephemeral for that.” — rubs off on his employees.
“He’s awesome to work for. He understands the work-life balance,” operations manager Jimmy Hostetler said. “He doesn’t rule with an iron fist. He’s hands-on but not overbearing. He turns everyone loose and lets them be creative.
“But his wheels are always turning,” Hostetler said. “He’s never taken the reasonable, rational slow path. He’s always going a million miles per hour and moving onto the next thing. It’s tough to keep up with. But that’s what’s gotten us this far, and it’s up to everyone else to keep up.”
To further spread the SUP love, three fully stocked vans travel the country introducing the sport to newcomers.
“That’s how to grow the sport — putting people on boards,” he said, touting the company’s first board, the gargantuan, uber-stable HOSS, as still its best seller. “When we started, there were maybe 11 people who thought it was fun (to paddle whitewater). The key was to set people up to be successful. Our products allowed people to progress.”
He relates SUPing to playing the harmonica in the band.
“They both require responding to the currents and working with them,” he said. “With the harmonica, it’s finding the flow and rhythms of the other musicians. And when you get it right, it’s epic, just like SUPing.”
Spreading that love has helped spawn a booming industry. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reports SUP participation increasing by 120 percent in the past three years — more than other fast-growing sports such as adventure racing, MMA, rugby and BMX — with 2.4 million participants in the U.S. alone. Inflatables, it adds, represent the sport’s fastest-growing sector.
Still, Hala’s roots are on the river, with Colorado commanding its top market share.
“The sport’s exploding like kayaking did in the ’90s, and he’s a big part of that here,” said Peter Van de Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports, which retails and rents Halas. “He has a great entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m psyched to encourage and support that. And it’s great that he’s helping people get out on the river, which increases its stewardship.”
A former board member of nonprofit Friends of the Yampa, Hall also helped champion the Colorado Water Trust’s purchase to boost river flows during drought years.
“Plastics,” Mr. McGuire told enamored, college-graduate Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, in 1967’s “The Graduate.” If Hoffman was Hall, who kind of resembles the iconic actor, and was running Hala Gear instead of romancing Hollywood, that word to heed might well be carbon.
That’s what Hall is off and running with, pioneering a new process called “inflatable carbon construction,” which creates boards measuring three times more rigid than conventional non-carbon inflatable sups. Hall has employed the technology in several of his offerings, from stringers embedded into the board’s top to a prototype of his newest Hala Playita, the entire bottom of which employs a sheet of “rollable” carbon. He recently returned from a spring break “field-testing” trip to Mexico’s Punta Mita surf break and came back drooling.
“It’s a game changer,” he said. “It surfs just like a hard board. I was holding an edge down the entire line.”
Hala now has a lineup of 20 boards in three constructions — Core, Fusion and his newest Carbon — as well as eight paddles and a large line of accessories. A big focus, he said, is his all-around boards, all of which have secondary uses.
“We have an all-around-meets yoga, all-around-meets-river and all-around-meets-surf,” he said, the latter a plug for the popular Hala Atcha.
Joining his carbon advancements, he’s also pioneered the StompBox, a spring-loaded fin that retracts inside the board upon rock contact, and the Butterknife, a double-bladed sup/kayak paddle combo. In the process, he’s also accrued three patents: one for his Double Stack rail-shaping technology that allows thinner rails for carving, another for the Butterknife and a notice of allowance for the StompBox.
If all this has benefited the sport and his business, it’s done the same for Steamboat.
“Steamboat has a strong outdoor ethos and companies like Hala benefit and magnify that,” local economic analyst Scott Ford said. “They also strengthen the economy through job diversification and household income.”
Adds Chamber CEO Kara Stoller: “Steamboat’s outdoor companies can test products right outside their office here, which is hard to compete with. As well as providing local jobs, they expand interest in our town and add another layer of character to our community.”
For the hyper-energetic Hall, that character comes with a capital C. If he had his druthers, he’d spend all his time paddling and designing, not running a business. Like surfing the river at low water, he admits that as a small business, there are limits on what he can accomplish, his growth curtailed by what he has in the bank. But he’s working through that, just as he does a river’s currents. He recently consolidated the company’s debt into a line of credit from the Bank of San Juans and has received over $600,000 from equity partners with hopes of raising $2.5 million in Small Business Association debt to take the company to the next level.
“Running a business isn’t what I set out to do,” he said, adding that the company has been profitable every year except that dismal first and in 2017, when operational and foundational investments were made to get the company to scale. “What I love is making product better. Whether someone buys us out in the long run or I run it for another 20 years, they’re both great outcomes.”
Later, Hall’s having a beer at Mountain Tap, next door to his new office, with his new designer and engineer, Driy Wybaczynsky, who moved here from Park City. Wybaczynsky (even Hall can’t spell it) is full of even more ideas, sketching out their latest project on a napkin.
In keeping with their catchy model names, this one’s called the Hala Bit and marks yet another foray into new territory. It consists of two pontoons supporting a third drop-stitch platform on top. It’s the fastest and most stable SUP they’ve designed yet, ideal for the fishing crowd.
“It’s a totally new design for us, and it was Jimmy’s brainchild,” said Hall, who originally was going to call it the Cat Sup. “And it’s faster than hell. We tried to surf a wave on it and completely overshot it, shooting way upstream.”
It’s expected to launch in late summer.
If Hall’s work life is busy, his home life borders on hectic. He and his wife, Anna, just finished renovating their downtown house from a three-bedroom, two-bath into a four-bedroom, three-bath.
He’s home early tonight — by 5:30 p.m. instead of his customary 8 — and shows me around, pointing out where they moved the stairs, excavated dirt for the yard and added a room. Upstairs in the open living room and kitchen, he proudly points out a “live roof” over the entryway, sporting a variety of shrubs and grasses, still in their infancy.
The roof isn’t the only thing growing around here. The house is a maelstrom of energy, with daughter Stella, 3, leading the charge and her sister, Hiland (“Landy”), 9 months, commanding constant attention. Their dog, Riva, dutifully vacuums up Stella’s crackers, which she gets admonished for multi-dipping into various sauces.
Mobiles, toy bins and a pony stick lie scattered against various walls, and Stella’s artwork, a bunch of green smears, adorns the fridge. Stella hops on a bumble bee scooter and careens around the kitchen.
“It was definitely some heavy lifting this past year — 2017 was pretty crazy,” said Hall, bouncing Landy. “It wasn’t the best timing at all for all of this.”
Indeed, a burgeoning business, house renovation and newborn might get the better of most people. Infants, contractors and a payroll of nearly a half million dollars a year does that. But Hall, with his infectious energy, seems to thrive on it.
That demeanor, as well as his engaging eyes and mountain-man looks, is what drew Anna to him in 2006.
“I was working at Ski Haus, saw him come through the door, and said to myself, that’s the man I’m going to marry,” she said.
Hall was smitten also. He later called to ask if the store had a certain Lonely Planet book. When he learned they didn’t, he came in to look for it, the guise allowing him to linger around Anna and ask her out. She beat him to it, asking him to a pumpkin-carving party. They got married a few years later and now — with two kids, a house and a business — they’re living the Steamboat dream, albeit one as frazzled as Hall’s hair.
Looking to the future
Things could well go even bigger. Hall’s working on another concept that could potentially change the way all inflatable SUPs are made. If that pans out, he said, with licensing agreements it could be a $50 million idea.
Meanwhile, he’s hoping a $2.5 million SBA loan will tide things over for the near term.
“I’m trying to get out of the cycle of chasing cash,” he said. “If that comes through, I can run it for another five years or so without new funding.”
This summer, he’s testing four new prototypes of the popular Hala Peño and Hala Luya, both employing his Double Stack technology, and is launching a crowdfunding campaign for the Hala Bit.
When he steps over to the kitchen to lend a hand with dinner, I entertain Stella, who Anna says has a whirlwind blend of both parents’ energy. I read her a story from Highlights magazine about kids kicking a soccer ball into a tree, which gets rescued by squirrels. The squirrels’ scampering fits Hall’s business and home life.
Stella runs through the kitchen sans pants with toothbrush in hand. Hall chases her around the kitchen island a few times before ushering her off to bed. When the kids are finally down, we sit down for a dinner of chicken, rice and asparagus — a rare calm and quiet time in the household and Hall’s day-to-day life.
“Honestly, I never expected it to get this big,” he said, getting fancy sipping a glass of pinot noir instead of his usual Mexican beer. “We’re at Hala 2.0 now. We used to have a team where everyone was a ninja who did everything. Now it’s evolved into a compartmentalized, systematic business.”
I ask him about the company’s growth, and he pulls out his calculator and starts punching numbers. He doesn’t know it off the top of his head.
“Let’s see, that’s new over original minus original,” he said, furrowing his thick eyebrows. “Forty-five percent. We’ll be up even more this year.”
After a while, Anna excuses herself to shuffle off to bed. As with Hala’s sales, the baby will be up shortly, as well.
To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatToday.com
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