Kelly Slater didn’t consider product market fit

On May 5th, 2018, The World Surf League (WSL) held a tournament in a peculiar place. Landlocked and over 100 miles from the sea, the top competitors in the world gathered in Lemoore, California for what would go on to create a unique surfing-only type notation system. Since I haven’t seen anyone else coin this phrase, I’m going to make it my own: B.K.E – Before Kelly’s Era.

Kelly Slater is undoubtedly the king of surfing. He’s both the youngest and oldest person to win a world title, amassing an astounding 11 world championships. It’s safe to say his bald head has seen a lot. Kelly is a polarizing figure in the world of surfing – he’s been the driver behind much of surfing’s recent comeback, as well as the sports commercialization and prior downturn. Like Kelly, there are two sides to everything. Surfing is no different. With the advent of high-priced surfing technologies in the form of boards that make wave riding easier, wetsuits that keep surfers warmer for longer, and even earplugs that offset surfers’ ear, technology is segmenting the surfing population.

Traditionalists believe in an old-school view of a wave-riding hierarchy where those who’ve surfed the mush should have priority over visitors when the stars align. To them, surfing is a holistic, spell-binding ritual where surfers interact with an ever-changing wave that evolves with the ocean floor and wind. The boards they ride come from shapers who spend hours meticulously crafting every inch of the foam.

On the other hand, contemporary surfers, believe in almost nothing. There’s no rhythm or rhyme to when someone is supposed to drop-in. Beaches are littered with massively produced assembly-line boards with Go-Pro cameras stapled to the nose. There are meme pages associated with novice contemporary surfer. Often times you’ll see the newest Rip Curl wetsuit on someone holding a board with the fins on backward. It seems like surfers of today resemble a cutout of what technology has done to much of America.

There’s nothing wrong with either segmentation. Often times, traditionalists are assholes and contemporary surfers are dangerously ignorant just trying to have fun. The main point is that technology is impacting surfing in an unprecedented way. However, the debate among surfers as to where they should buy their boards from, or whether or not they were tough enough to last in the cold ocean is over. The new debate is no longer man vs. man, but instead, man vs. machine.

Flashback to December 5th, 2015 when Kelly unveiled his ten-year-long experiment to the world. A video was released showing him surfing a perfectly shaped artificial wave being ridden in none other than Lenmoore, California. The quest for the worlds perfect wave has ended. It’s not in Tavarua or Teahupoo, but in Lemoore California, and it could be coming to your backyard.

When Kelly unleashed the video back in 2015, the world flipped on its axis. The traditionalists condemned it – the contemporaries loved it – but everyone wanted to try it.

Here’s how the wave works. 

  1. A 100-ton hydrofoil – named “The Vehicle” – run down a track with the help of more than 150 truck tires and at around 18 miles per hour (30 kilometers per hour);
  2. When the swell hits specific areas of the lake’s bottom, the wave starts to break thanks to the influence of the contour reefs
  3. Giant lateral gutters mitigate the bounce-back effect that occurs on the pool walls forming the wave
  4. It takes three minutes for the surf pool water to calm down and return to a completely static state

Today, the wave pool costs about $9,500/hour, plus an additional $288 booking fee. A high price for retail, but this is just the beginning. Have the stars all of a sudden aligned for surfings newest innovation? Or was it strategically positioned for global distribution? The 2020 Olympics will be held in Japan, and with surfing on the docket for the first time as an Olympic event, Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool technology is ripe for the masses. 

Normally, surfers head to event locations weeks in advance to prepare for the upcoming tournament. Similarly, tournaments could last weeks at a time because of the sports unpredictable X factor – the waves. In surfing, scoring is subjective and with each wave, rides are incomparable – up until now.

Now, surfers can be scrutinized on a fair playing field, one in which every rider has the same course. Along with its technical predictability for unadjusted scoring, the artificial wave comes with a massive pool – one that’s ~700 meters long and 100 meters wide. At the recent WSL event, spectators came to what could be easily confused as a soccer stadium with big screen televisions publicizing every angle of the event.

Still, the International Olympic Committee, International Surfing Association and Tokyo 2020 maintain that surfing’s debut will take place in the ocean.

Despite being acquired by WSL Holdings in 2016 for an undisclosed price, kswaveco was an arduous project to undergo. It took $30M, ten years, and multiple iterations. Kelly brought the passion, and Adam Fincham, Associate Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Southern California brought the brains. There were no feedback loops, UAT, or product market fit analyses. It’s now up to the consumers to decide whether or not this is something that will complement ocean surfing, or disrupt it. There will either be kswaveco country clubs, or just the infamous one. 

Surfing in the digital era

This time last year I was surfing Southeast Asian waves, simultaneously searching for some shade and sunscreen. It goes without saying that I had it pretty great then, but I can’t discount the waves we received this past fall. There were multiple swells with glassy head high hollow waves. This was the first fall in a long time I was able to really take advantage of hurricane season.

Unfortunately, winter was a different story. I never wrote about it, but I had a great surf this past Christmas. A few days afterwards, I separated my AC joint frivolously racing my friend down an icey mountain while skiing. 

After a few miserable months and a few pounds, I started exercising and am feeling strong enough to get back in the water. I write this on the train going back to my surf storage facility (hi Mom and Dad).

When it comes to surfing New York, it’s all peaks and valleys. Most people don’t even know there are waves on this side of the Rockies let alone overhead monsters. The best time to surf is roughly September – February with the worst time being this very moment (May – August). However, the water is warm, my friends are home, and I don’t have to wear 5 millimeters of rubber. 

The reason for this post isn’t to announce my return back to mediocre surfing, but to comment on the way I get my swell info (punny, you’ll see). Over the years I’ve learned the ins and outs of picking the right spot and paddling out, but without the internet, I don’t know if I ever would. In NY, there are a bunch of ways to check the waves, and they include:

1. Going to the beach and praying
2. Checking the newspaper for wave heights and wind direction
3. Surfline
4. Swell Info

Surfline and Swell Info are websites that track both buoys and wind patterns to forecast surf. I’ve been using both for years, but recently I noticed something interesting. A ton of companies were redesigning their UX on websites and platforms ranging from Reddit, and Instagram, all the way to Swell Info and Surfline.

I usually check each SwellInfo to get a basic understanding of what waves are shaping up to form, and as the swell approaches I navigate to Surfline for a more detailed report.

Previously, when I visited SwellInfo I’d see this homepage:


A few weeks ago, I saw this update:

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Similarly, this was the old Surfline: 


And then this beautiful image appeared:

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It’s amazing to see an iconoclast culture like surfing catering to the global consumer. I used to think both these websites were fairly easy to run and maintain. It was simple, license out the buoys, track everything through offshore buoys and make forecasts based on that. Now, Surfline has transformed into a hub of surf information with live streaming, Op-eds, news, and so much more.

Historically, one of the most iconoclast industry’s undergoing to a digital transformation goes to show you that if you don’t invest in an experience, you might as well quit now. There’s no question about which is more valuable, but SwellInfo will always have a special place in my heart.

Hopefully I’m not a total rusty kook tomorrow morning.

Johnny Tsunami, the ultimate sell out

I’d like to think surfing is mysterious considering the epistemological nature of the act. In practice, a reclusive sport, surfing is undergoing a steadfast transformation towards total commercialization despite failing surf companies charging outrageous prices for goods.

Living in NYC, my water time has significantly diminished from what it once was. No more dawn patrols, or evening sessions. Now, I have to maximize my efficiency while in the water. Aside from the rhythmic oscillation of the oceans current and soothing affects surfing has on me, I am there to ride waves! I can’t ride every wave, but nothing infuriates a surfer more than getting cutoff.

More often than not, I am being cut off by people in bright colored wetsuits with an off the rack surfboard sized way too big. There is nothing wrong with being a beginner as everyone once was, but surfing has an unwritten code of ethics. Similar to how you respect someone else’s shot on the golf course, you do not go for a wave with someone else on it.

Travel somewhere with a relatively consistent break on the east coast and you’ll get some ill humored words and some even worse looks if you resemble anything like the character depicted above. Being moderately experienced, this past hurricane season I was surfing a new spot where there were perfect head high waves. I just exited a fun left (I’m goofy i.e. left foot back when my belly faces the wave) and paddled back over the break. Immediately after I stopped paddling, I was approached by a guy who said something along the lines of ripping my arms out of their sockets for paddling near him. He then proceeded to splash water at me. The point is, surfing isn’t all smiles and rainbows the way Johnny Tsunami made it out to be.

The surf community isn’t as bleak as I’m portraying. Despite everyone being a wave hungry iconoclast, people look out for one another. Like the time I was in Phuket and a local gave me the leash off his board when mine ripped. Or, when I was surfing in Tel Aviv and some local’s invited me and my friends to go north with them to Bat Galim for the upcoming swell.

With no brand logo or flashy color schemes, the surf company needESSENTIALS encapsulates what contemporary surfing should be. Founded by two ex-Quiksilver executives, NEED supplies everyday surfers with quality gear free of obnoxious designs and designer price tags. They’re looking out for the everyday surfer by producing premium quality goods at a fair price.

“The whole idea behind needESSENTIALS came from not wanting to over consume, it’s about not wasting resources on what is not important. It’s about trying to make the best premium products for surfers more accessible. The concept is to have less, to have only what is well made, what is premium, what is timeless, what is useful rather than useless. What surfers can save by only buying what is needed in a product they can spend on what is important in their own lives.”

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While large entities like Quiksilver and Billabong have gone bankrupt selling flashy ostentatcious apparel to commercialize the sport, it’s refreshing to know there’s a company pushing quality products for everyday surfing needs, not logos. With no marketing or sales team, NEED is completely advertised through word of mouth.

Despite big money having commercialized surfing, thus making it harder for me to catch solo waves, I’m fascinated by the direction the surf industry is going. Whether it be new-comers like HaydenShapes or revitalized companies like Quiksilver and Billabong backed by PE money, surfing is trending up. The total market cap for surfing is estimated to be $11B by 2022, contributing almost $50B to the world economy. Hopefully NEED and other new businesses can get a chunk of it.