>> STORIES <<
people + places | eats + things
While a college student at then-Augusta State University, management major Cole Watkins took a class that challenged him to create a business. Inspired by past times he’d taken his friends out kayaking, he conceptualized Cole Watkins Tours — now rated the No. 4 thing to do in Evans, Georgia, on TripAdvisor.
At the time Cole Watkins Tours was in development, there was an outdoors store already in Evans that offered kayak rentals, but Watkins saw a need with his model and decided to fill it.
“If you were done kayaking when Escape Outdoors closed, you had to bring it back the next day,” he said, adding that for some folks, that was fine, but it could be an inconvenience or deterrent to others.
“With my company I didn’t want to have a storefront because that was going to cost money. I didn’t have money. What I wanted to do was start slowly building my inventory of kayaks,” Watkins said.
When he started, Watkins had three kayaks in inventory — so he could take a husband and wife on a tour, but if they had a kid, one of the three had to sit out.
“Now I’m up to 19 kayaks. I don’t want to get any more than that,” he said.
now. I’m going to start it and I’m going to start making money year one,’” he said. “I didn’t show her up but like, why borrow if my plan doesn’t need it?”
His plan was voted top in the class, and several classmates were assigned to his team to put together the official business plan. That was about the time Watkins got serious about the potential Cole Watkins Tours had.
“I thought we could really make money with this. I got on Vistaprint to get business cards. When I tallied it up, it was $20. I was like, I don’t know if I want to spend $20. … For $20, I could get three or four drinks tonight at the bar. If I spend $20, will I make it back? So — ugh, click,” he said. “Then my first phone call came.”
Watkins’ first tour earned him $90. A portion of his profits went back into building up his kayak inventory, first getting to seven, then eight, then finally the 19 he has now.
In addition to the exercise benefits of kayaking, getting out on the water is a good way to de-stress and explore the Augusta area. The routes offered by Cole Watkins Tours take paddlers through Savannah River tributary Betty’s Branch, down the Augusta Canal, to visit wild donkeys at Stallings Island or to a close-up visit to the J. Strom Thurmond Dam.
“We’ve had kids as young as 1 in the kayaks with their parents and as old as, I didn’t ask, but upper 70s, maybe 80s. It’s not a hard thing to do. Augusta is a great spot to learn because there’s no crazy rapids. Most of the routes we offer are still or float downstream, like a lazy river,” Watkins said.
types. Girls are way more balanced at kayaking. Their center of gravity is in their hips. Guys, especially muscled-up guys, are a little more wobbly,” Watkins said. “I was thinking [my first customer] was going to be fine in this kayak, and he fell in on a very cold 8 a.m. morning. My very first person I slid in tipped over.”
Since then, he’s only had five or six paddlers take unintended dips in the water.
One of the plus-sides of business ownership is that at times when Watkins needed the extra income, he could make the decision and give himself a raise.
“2016 is when I found out my son was coming, so I worked my butt off and had my best year yet. That’s all side money on the weekend,” Watkins said. “I put in a lot more hours. I was getting a lot more progressive at using money on Facebook to do group tours, even on weeknights. Normally when I got off work I go home. That year I was doing every Tuesday and Thursday [on the water], even Fridays. Anything I got, I accepted, and tried to make it work.”
Now that he’s both a husband and a father, and soon a father of two, Watkins dialed back how much he’s out on the water so he can spend more time with his family. He focuses a lot on rentals and tries to capitalize on having three waves of kayakers out each weekend day the business is open, and he reserves time to go on family vacations twice a year or so.
Since he is more selective now than in previous years, Watkins will refer kayakers to his competitors if the situation calls for it.
kayaks out on the water with an individual he only sort-of knew. “I took him out there and he gave me $25 each. I was like, ‘Shoot, I just made $50, which was a lot of money for me when I was 21. I didn’t have to do anything but pick it up. So my whole plan changed.”
Today, about 66 percent of his business comes from kayak rentals.
“That was a thing that made me uncomfortable, but wound up being the best thing for this model,” he said.