The original garage workshop
The Story Behind Idol Surf
“Anything worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” -Hunter S. Thompson
It was about 7 years ago when some friends and I were sanding away at insulation foam with whatever tools were laying around when I dropped my sanding block and muttered those words in ambitious frustration. You see, we wanted to build our own wake surfboards, but we were lacking the tools and materials to do it properly. Fortunately, I had budgeted about $1,200 to buy myself two new surfboards for an upcoming surf trip to Central America. I had been researching what it takes to build surfboards, and realized I had enough money to either buy two new top-of-the-line shortboards or purchase the tools and materials to build about 6 boards. So there I was, a recent college grad with a bachelors degree in economics doing some cost/benefit analysis. You have $1,200 in your pocket. What is better: 2 surfboards or 6 surfboards? The choice was easy, so I started purchasing tools, foam, fiberglass, epoxy, and fin boxes.
I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into, but at the same time I knew exactly what I was doing – I had a dream, and it was one worth pursuing. I had an office job doing Business Development for The Brost Clinic, my family’s chiropractic clinic, right out of university. I tied my tie neatly every morning, arrived at my desk each day with coffee in hand, spent most my time in front of a computer, liked the people I worked with, and did good for the clinic. During my time there, the patient base doubled, and in order to accommodate the increased patient load, I led the project of building out a new facility that was double the square footage of the clinic I first clocked into – one of my mother’s dreams which I was proud to help make a reality. It was new and exciting. I was learning and accomplishing. It was fulfilling for some time. However, it was not my dream nor my passion to work at The Brost Clinic. If it was, I would have likely gone to chiropractic school like my mom, dad, sister, step-dad, and brother-in-law all did.
My passions happened outside of work – If I wasn’t wake surfing with my friends, I was in the garage working on boards or spending my evenings searching websites like wannasurf.com for my next surf travel destination.
If you want to be successful, find something you love and get really good at it.”
If you have followed this blog at all, you have probably noticed I love quotes. I think the title of this blog may be my favorite quote to which I do my best to abide, but there is another quote I hold closer to my heart. It’s something my mother said to me during my adolescent years, “If you want to be successful, find something you love and get really good at it.” Surfboard design is something I love. I don’t mean to gloat, but over the years I have gotten really good at it (feedback and performance from riders tells me this is true). I can spend hours going through the relationship of rocker, rail shape, bottom contour, and fin placement in my head, the shaping bay, or on shaping software. Wake surfing lends itself perfectly to the mad-scientist/surfboard shaper in me – it is effectively the most controlled environment in which to experiment with different surfboard design concepts. I can put the board under my feet and feel subtle changes I put into the boards as the wave remains the same, and I can watch closely for hours from the back of the boat while my friends/lab rats test a design, analyzing how water flows and refracts around the board and fins.
Where was I going with this? There was a point to all this… Oh yeah
“Anything worth doing, its worth doing right.”
Remember that $1,200 that I spent building my first 6 boards? It didn’t take long before that turned into about $20,000 of debt building a couple hundred boards over the next several years. By that time, idol surfboards was functioning as a business, just not a profitable one. And there was a big problem: as demand and production quantity increased, quality suffered, and so did my free time. It got to the point where I spend most my summers sanding away in the workshop, and I was forced to sacrifice nearly all of my surf time for the time-consuming build process. In the summers the company would do ok, but my personal life would suffer. In the winter/off-season things would slow to a crawl and idol would sink deeper in debt (but hey I got to go surfing!). Something had to change about business operations.
I made the decision to take production to another factory in hopes that the surfboard company could continue to operate in a financially sustainable manner. I went to Surf Expo, the world’s largest surf trade-show, in September 2013 with a specific mission in mind – find the highest quality surfboards and find out where they were made. I would then find the best factory that fit my build criteria, and begin production on a 2014 line of surfboards. The criteria fit the motto which founded idol – “Anything worth doing, its worth doing right.”:
- Quality: First and foremost I want to be building boards of the highest quality construction and shapes. I want to do it right.
- Integrity: Fair and safe labor practices were prerequisite: Since I first learned what child labor was, I have forever opposed this practice – Children are meant to play and learn, not work in factories. There would be zero tolerance for child labor, unsafe, or unfair labor practice.
- Profitability: The price had to be right – It was time to turn this passion of mine into a legitimate business venture.
My first Surf Expo was a fun Surf Expo… in fact, every surf expo is fun! It was my first one, so I had a bit of a honeymoon while I was there. I partied hard and worked harder. I made a lot of friends, but I also got a lot of flack as I went to every surfboard booth on site and dug my thumb into boards and scratched at pin lines to check construction quality (After building boards long enough, I am able to apply pressure to the fiberglass of a surfboard and safely estimate the amount and quality of fiberglass and foam density used for construction). I would strike up conversations with manufacturer reps and eventually drop the question: “Do you feel like sharing which factory you use with a young wake surfboard builder looking for a new manufacturer?” Most of them would laugh and give me a polite version of “hell no.” However, most of them would go on bragging about how their factory was superior to the competition, and then go on to list the factories their competition used. I took notes and cross-analyzed everyone’s responses, and in doing so I was able to figure out which factories most major suppliers used (most people use multiple factories for various reasons).
My initial thought was that I would use a domestic factory – Factories in the US have the advantage of knowing the material quality is high and labor laws are strict and fair. However, I quickly realized by checking prices that a domestic factory was out of the question, as the prices were too high to allow manufacturer AND dealer distribution profit margins. After the first day I knew I would need to source boards abroad where cost of materials and labor are cheaper (you may be thinking the idea of cheap and fair labor is contradictory, but there here is a link to a previous post titled “Fair Labor Practices From my Surfboard Factory in China” which touches on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and its effect on material and labor costs).
Like I said, I looked at every board at surf expo. Surprisingly, the brand that I found to have the best traditional foam/fiberglass construction quality was a small SUP company from the East Coast of the US with a very simple 10×10 display, the smallest booth space available for vendors at Surf Expo. On the first day, I complimented the owner on the incredibly quality of his boards. Then I asked the golden question, “Which factory do you use?”
He laughed at me, “Sorry I’m not going to share that information.” I understood and carried about my business.
On the second day of Surf Expo I returned and told him, “I’ve looked at every surfboard here, and congratulations, I think you have the highest quality product at Surf Expo. You sure you don’t want to tell me where these things are made?”
“Sorry bud, not happening.”
On the third and final day of Surf Expo I stopped by his booth again near the end of the day, well into happy hour when the kegs come out and people begin to drink. “Seriously, I’ve checked every board twice, and you have the highest quality construction of any board here…”
Before I could ask the golden question he interrupted me with a, “You know what, I like you.” I could tell that his happy hour had started well before most. He was drunk. ‘This is good’ I thought. “I really shouldn’t do this, but I like you.” he reinforced as he picked up one of his brochures and began to write something on one of the inside pages. I wasn’t about to interrupt him as he handed me the brochure and said, “Do not share this information with anyone, and don’t tell anyone you got it from me.” I opened the brochure, and saw a word I didn’t recognize and an email address. “That’s the contact info for the factory I use. Like I said, don’t share it with anyone, and don’t tell anyone you got it from me.”
I had my golden ticket.
I was in shock. I did not know how to respond. All I could do was smile and say, “thank you,” as I scurried away before he could change his mind and take my golden ticket from me.
The next day I was emailing the factory, getting price quotes, and asking if they would be OK with me visiting the factory to check labor and production quality. The prices were a bit higher than most in China, but the quality was worth it. The person with whom I was communicating, we’ll call him Mr. T, ensured me that I would be welcome at the factory any time I wanted to come. “Sweet!” I didn’t know it, but it turns out Mr. T was the owner of the factory, and better yet I would come to find he is the same age as me (28 at the time) and would eventually become a good friend of mine… but that’s a whole story on its own.
I added up the numbers on what it would take to fill a shipping container, necessary to keep the freight price per board down, and quickly realized I would need a bank loan. I went to my community bank where I had a savings account since the age of 11 and my grandmother served on the board or directors (Remember kids, “it’s not always what you know but who you know”). They moved things along quickly as I was in a hurry to get into production. The day they approved my bank loan, I booked a flight to china, and on the day after thanksgiving 2013, I boarded an airplane to China and traveled to Asia for the first time in my life.
I had done my homework, but I couldn’t help but be nervous as I soared across the Pacific Ocean en route to China. I was risking a lot on this dream, but there was a certain serendipity to it all that helped to calm my nerves.
I was headed directly to my first factory choice, but I had this fear that I would walk into a factory full of child laborers. If that was the case, I would move production to one of the more well-know backup factories that I had lined up. Fortunately, that was not the case, and I was able to use this factory which fit and exceeded all my standards. I arrived to China and caught a connecting flight to the airport nearest the factory. Mr. T and some new friends greeted me with smiles as I exited the baggage claim area. They took me to lunch, then we made the 1.5 hour drive to the factory town.
That evening, we stopped by the factory although it was closed for the evening and had tea in the office, like I would countless times thereafter. I had made it. I was standing at the threshold of a dream coming true, tired from jet-lag, yet euphoric; there I stood at the threshold of my dream.
You see, when I was a child, I was often asked, like any child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“International businessman,” was always my reply. I’m not sure I even knew what that meant throughout most my childhood. I was gutted when I went to college and learned that “International Business” was not a choice of major, and in fact, I don’t think I considered myself an international business person when I walked into that factory for the first time. I was just a guy chasing a dream of owning a surfboard company, and this smallish factory in China is where that had led me (I think this proves that Lao Tzu quote to be true). How many kids grow up to be the thing that they said they wanted to be all their life? And how many of them are able to combine it with a dream they had in their adult life? I don’t think many, but holy shit I did it!?
I spent the following two months in the factory over-seeing production. I wanted to make sure that the proper processes wouldn’t be switched out as soon as I left (a common issue in outsourced manufacturing), but I watched my boards get produced alongside several other brands, and the standard processes and materials never changed. My trust in Mr. T and his factory grew quickly.
I thought I was going there to teach them how to do it the “right way.” That was a naive thought to say the least. Their practices, though very similar to those I was used to doing myself, were so dialed there was almost nothing I could say or do to improve them. I can count on one hand how many times I have taught them something they didn’t already know. Instead, I became the student, not just in terms of surfboard construction, but in terms of every aspect of being and ‘international business person’ working with china. Its amazing how much I have learned in the last few years. I’m not trying to brag – I’m trying to inform you, so that if any of my friends out there have any questions about foreign production, shipping, etc etc, feel free to ask. Well… except the golden question which is, “what factory do you use?” ;-p (*Disclaimer – I do offer private label production, but it goes in under my order ticket to increase my volume discount)
Once my work was done at the factory, it was time to fulfill the heart of this dream – go surfing! For those who are less familiar with ocean surfing, you may not know that Asia is scattered with world-class surf destinations. The Mecca for many surfers is Bali, Indonesia. Bali attracts long-fetch southern hemisphere swell. Waves travel un-interrupted from storm systems that originate anywhere between the tip of South America to Western Australia. Bali is littered with reef passes and beaches. The combination of open ocean swell and some of the most exposed coastline in the world make it the ideal location to catch consistent waves year-round.
So this has become my fall and winter routine. I go to the factory for production, then head off to Bali to score waves in a tropical paradise. Last year and this year, instead of spending months at a time in the factory, I spend a few weeks initiating the production, head to Bali and surf, then check back in to do some quality control (QC) checks when I need to.
Right now I’m writing this post because I have some free time in the office, as I just finished submitting my final board designs. The only thing left for me to do this week is approve a few skim board shapes that are being machined as I type. Then, I’m delighted to say, I ship off to Bali with two brand new surfboards on Monday. I know in my head and my heart I am doing this right, and I will continue to live by that mantra. When you buy my surfboards, you can be assured there are no moral concessions in the name of increased profits – I found a way to turn profit but not sacrifice integrity. It’s a lot more work than I let, but sometimes doing it the right way is a lot of work.
So here I find myself typing away in a surfboard factory office in China thinking about how, when I was a child telling people I wanted to be an ‘international businessman,’ I pictured myself in a suit and tie shaking hands with foreign people and having important business meetings in big glass high-rises in major cities. That is not my reality. Instead I’m sitting here in flip-flops and board shorts, and my most important meetings take place over beers or cups of Chinese tea (and a lot of emails). Somehow, my dream came true, and it is even better than the dream I dreamt as a child. For this I am ever-grateful to all my family and friends who helped, encouraged or just believed in me along the way. Thank you to all of you, my noble helpers along the way.