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Alumnus foregoes career in financial services to turn hobby into successful, full time business
by Mary Denny
"I really enjoy putting myself in situations where I am constantly learning new things and having new experiences," says Tony Smith, the Austin-based financial services executive turned craftsman/entrepreneur. Thus, it is no surprise that he would be drawn to a how-to book for building an old-time wooden canoe when he happened upon one in a bookstore. Intrigued by the concept, he spent an entire summer working nights and weekends on the canoe in his garage. The result? "Not only did it float, but it looked amazing," he beams.
Buoyed by the success of his canoe, the former Houstonian and Trinity track star—he still holds Trinity's 200-meter record—who had been bitten by the surfing and paddle-boarding bug after college, decided to try his hand at building a wooden, stand-up paddle board—basically an oversized surfboard that can be used on the ocean as well as inland waterways for fitness paddling, yoga, fishing, and other activities. According to Tony, paddle boarding is one of the fastest growing water sports because of its relative ease for novice paddlers to enjoy.
He began making paddle boards as a hobby and occasionally selling them. As they improved significantly over time, he began exploring the reality of turning his hobby into an actual business. "I knew that if I wanted to have a chance as a company, I would need to bring my costs down and design them in a way that didn't rely on my specific skills to build them," he explains. He studied automation and learned 3D design and industrial processes. Before long, Tony's garage was bursting with automated saws, robotic tooling, and he had perfected a "pretty good product and workflow."
Meanwhile, he was holding down a job at Dimensional Fund Advisors, where he oversaw global risk and compliance operations for a $400 billion asset manager, a position that required him to be up and on the trading floor by 7 a.m. Making use of every spare minute, Tony worked on his boards until midnight most evenings and spent lunch hours in the office parking lot building the website for what he would launch as Jarvis Boards. (Jarvis is Tony's middle name)"From the beginning, it wasn't easy," he says, mentioning setbacks, roadblocks, and dead ends along the way, but, "I knew the time had come to choose between Jarvis Boards and my day job when I walked in one day and someone asked, ‘Why do you have sawdust on your suit?'"
Nor was it an easy decision to walk away from a lucrative career to build paddle boards full time. But early this year, he gave notice and "I don't regret it for one second." Happily he discovered that as he made more of a commitment to Jarvis Boards, he began to reap rewards in the form of media attention. Indeed, the weekend after he quit his job, several national and international magazines contacted him about featuring Jarvis Boards in their publications. Most recently, the Discovery Channel filmed a segment on Jarvis Boards, and he reports "sales have really taken off."
Obviously driven, innovative, and competitive by nature, Tony says, "I can't fathom my career being as rewarding as it has been without my experience at Trinity. I credit my ability to tackle a wide range of seemingly disparate responsibilities to the interdisciplinary curriculum. Trinity provided both the environment that required deep critical thinking as well as a multidisciplinary foundation that has served as a base for me to be successful in a wide range of areas."
And there could be more on the horizon. "I have about a million future goals," he says enthusiastically, and sums them up into broad themes: "spending more time learning new things, traveling to far flung corners of the globe, growing Jarvis Boards into "the brand I know it can become, inspiring people to go for "it," whatever their "it" may be." "Lastly, I hope to be in a position where I can help others and give back to the community in a meaningful way."
Tony lives in central Austin with his wife, Andrea Ramos Smith '05, whom he met at Trinity and married in Parker Chapel in 2010, and their two-year-old son, Adam. Owning a growing business and chasing a toddler doesn't leave much time for other hobbies, but as a family they make time to travel abroad and so far have explored Turkey, Australia, Western Europe, and Central America. Notes Tony, "I always return having learned something new and changed for the better."
You can contact Tony at support [at] Jarvisboards.com