Tahoe City Kayak owner overcomes July 4 fire from decade ago to enjoy a big splash of success
Special to the Sun
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — It’s quiet on Lake Tahoe. The only sound within earshot is the rippling splash of a paddle slicing through the glassy surface of the water as twilight sets in, darkening the deep lake from turquoise to inky-blue.
A convoy of kayakers glides rhythmically over gentle ripples that flow from the pacesetter — the kayak-guiding guru on Lake Tahoe known as Andrew Laughlin.
“I do this all the time, so sometimes, I lose sight of how special it really is,” said Laughlin, owner of Tahoe City Kayak, Sand Harbor Rentals and Zephyr Cove Adventures. “It’s easy to get caught up on the business side of things, but I still love to guide, and it’s good to get out there and remind myself how important it is to share this experience with people.”
With his trifecta of kayak and paddleboard locations, Laughlin arguably works three-times as hard as the average business owner.
Sill, he has reserves left over to explore Lake Tahoe by kayak, paddleboard, mountain bike and, most recently, musical brigade.
“There’s not a lot of time left for sleep, but that’s what the off-season is for,” Laughlin joked.
DROWNING ON DRY LAND
A waterman for most of his adult life, the Ohio native switched gears after completing his undergrad in Syracuse, N.Y., paddling full speed into the corporate world, where the paychecks were sizable, but the cubicles were not.
“Before I got into corporate world, I was looking at jobs in the outdoor world, but I found that most paid a sort-of hand-to-mouth existence,” Laughlin said.
Fresh out of college, Laughlin was recruited by a headhunter, who landed him a job with Lockheed Martin as a human resources manager — a position that required him to obtain an all-expenses-paid MBA in leadership and management from Boston College.
“After a while, I really didn’t like the corporate life … it wasn’t what I wanted out of life, and it was killing me,” Laughlin said. “I kept thinking about the times I was most happy, which was when I ran a kayak rental joint in Essex (County), New York.”
JUST ADD WATER
Rippling away from the corporate world, Laughlin circled back to his former gig slanging kayaks on Lake Placid, but this time, he approached the seasonal job with a long-term goal in mind.
“I called up my old boss and told him I wanted to work for one more summer as an intern for him to see how he ran the business and to go to all the trade shows,” Laughlin said. “I didn’t even care if I got paid, I just wanted to learn from him.”
By fall, Laughlin found his sea legs in the kayak and paddleboard world, setting his entrepreneur sights on North Lake Tahoe.
“During my first winter here, I worked as a ski instructor while trying to figure out where to open my shop,” Laughlin said. “I was in the process of sussing out the area when I ran into the owners of Tahoe City Kayak, and it just so happened they were looking to get out of the business.”
OFF TO A BLAZING START
Laughlin spent his first summer in Tahoe putting his leadership and management skills to the test, and by the summer of 2005, Tahoe City Kayak reopened under his new ownership.
But it wasn’t long before calm waters turned into turbulent rapids, threatening to throw Laughlin off course.
“Two months after taking over the shop, it was robbed and then burned to the ground on the Fourth of July, and I lost everything times 10,” Laughlin said. “It’s not fun losing six figures worth of equipment and money when first starting a business.”
With an inventory well sucked dry and the coals still simmering at Tahoe City Kayak’s former location, Laughlin knew he had two choices: sink or swim.
TURNING THE TIDE
Thanks to a solid track record established by the former owners of Tahoe City Kayak, Laughlin was able to ride out the wave with the help of his vendors.
They restocked his fleet of non-motorized vessels at a new location in downtown Tahoe City, where he’s remained afloat for 10 years
“I’m the opposite of a control freak, and maybe that’s one of the benefits of that fire, in that it forced me to see how little control we have in life, and how important it is to set people up for success by giving them the tools they need rather than trying to control it all myself,” Laughlin said.
A kayak guide and swashbuckling entrepreneur by day, Laughlin often transforms into a funky saxophonist by night, performing with the Tahoe City-based jam-band, the Space Heaters.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in a band that’s rocking a ski town, and with that happening now, I guess you could say that overall, my life is going really, really, really well,” he said.
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.