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Startup funds help students launch kayak rental business

Madie Merrill and her business partners, Michael Rapp, left, and Jared Barranco demonstrate the use of one of their kayaks on the Pend Oreille River in Newport, Wash., on Monday. (Kathy Plonka)
Madie Merrill and her business partners, Michael Rapp, left, and Jared Barranco demonstrate the use of one of their kayaks on the Pend Oreille River in Newport, Wash., on Monday. (Kathy Plonka) Buy this photo

A retired lawyer and a professional poker player made a pitch to a Newport High School marketing class: Come up with a viable business plan, and we’ll finance it.

Students Madie Merrill, Jared Barranco and Michael Rapp’s idea of a full-service kayak rental business – Bear Naked Adventures – was exactly what they had in mind. The business opened July 18 in Rotary Park in Oldtown, Idaho, near Newport, Wash., next to a boat launch for the Pend Oreille River.

“Everybody is really excited someone is utilizing the river (for a business),” said Barranco, one of the temporary business owners. “We’ve had some pretty good business, but we got a late start because the river was so high this year.”

The business was created and financed through the Pend Oreille Microenterprise Development Organization, a new nonprofit created by Barb Smith and Phil Gordon, who moved to Newport after living in San Francisco and Las Vegas. Smith spent most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., before joining Gordon, who has won millions in poker tournaments worldwide.

“My husband and I wanted to do something in the community that was working with kids and starting a new small business,” Smith said. “We started the nonprofit with the idea that if we do this right the first time, then maybe we could expand. We would finance it and provide mentoring, but they (the teens) needed to basically take over the business.”

The students meet with the nonprofit organization’s board about all aspects of the business. So there’s guidance, but the teens execute the ideas and run it.

Bear Naked Adventures cost about $12,000 to get up and running, which includes eight tandem kayaks, two singles, life jackets, a kiosk, a van and trailer to pick up the kayaks and the customers after they’ve reached one of four portages.

“The nonprofit basically loans the company money, then as the company becomes profitable, the loan will be paid back and that will be used to fund another microenterprise,” said Smith, who is also the Newport Chamber of Commerce president. “So the money can be used again and again.”

The nonprofit got most of the startup funds from a grant through the Public Utility District, which had money available for developing businesses focused around the Pend Oreille, one of 20 rivers in the nation that flow north.

Smith plans to keep its microenterprises focused on the river. For example, Smith said maybe down the road there could be another kayak rental business created in Cusick and run by high school students there.

Merrill and Rapp, Newport High School seniors, and Barranco, a Washington State University freshman, have signed a contract to stay with the business for two years.

Barranco said he will do more technical work since he’ll be in Pullman, such as managing the business’s website and Facebook page.

“It’s a lot more work than you think,” Barranco said.

“At first, we thought it would just be lots of fun. It’s a good wake-up call for what’s about to happen.”

Smith added, “I think they are doing a really good job. I think they had no idea of what running your own business meant; it’s a steep learning curve. They (the students) seem really enthusiastic about it. They are working really hard.”

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