How Surfing Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

Ten years ago I had it all, on paper.  I was a young vice president at a multinational corporation with a clear and secure career path ahead of me.  Then, inexplicably to everyone around me, I decided to take the road less traveled.

During my exit interview the CEO asked what I was going to do next, and I said, “I want to build something from nothing.” The only problem was I had absolutely no idea what that “something” would be.

My colleagues smiled and wished me the best of luck with clear doubt in their eyes, and I had plenty of doubt in my head.  Those first few weeks cut off cold turkey from e-mails and phone calls were completely angst ridden, it felt like I had ceased to exist.

In an effort to clear my head I flew to Japan, where I had started my career, thinking that the contrast and memories would stir up some ideas.  For the next month I walked the streets of Tokyo going into small shops, meeting with local brand owners in apparel and accessories, eating too much ramen, drinking a few too many beers, and singing way too much karaoke.  I came very close to becoming the US distributor of a Japanese denim brand during a 2am izakaya meeting, but the grease stained business plan / napkin just didn’t look as good to me the next morning.  In the end I flew back with nothing really accomplished except for a vastly improved karaoke game.

Back home I took a hard look at my skill set and overall motivation. I was receiving calls from recruiters but had no desire to take another corporate job.   The reality was that I needed to start bringing in some revenue, and I was also getting a bit stir crazy.

After a lot of thought I came to the realization that, ultimately, I wanted to have my own brand.  However the weight of that idea was way out of my comfort zone at the time.  So it came down to deciding what I could do now to start down that path.  Thanks to my last company I knew the watch business backwards and forward, was organized, and good at strategic planning.   Surely I could help some watch company looking to expand or turn around their business.

So with no meetings scheduled I boarded a flight to Switzerland to attend the annual Basel watch fair.  Four days later I came out back with a consulting contract, and my first business, Nomi Branding, was born.

Fast-forward a few years.  My consulting business is growing and I’m enjoying what I am doing, but the dream of owning my own brand still loops in my head.   One afternoon I decide to take off early and play a round of golf by myself.  It’s hot and the course is empty, but I love the golden hour solitude of summer in Miami.

I pull up to the first tee box and there is another guy about to tee off.  I then proceed to do something that I never, ever do. I ask the guy if he wants to play a round together.  He looks at me, pauses before answering and then says, “Sure”.

As it turns out the guy on the course that day was Abe Allouche, a hard-core surfer and founder of his own surf apparel company, Island Daze.  What neither of us knew then was that five years later we would start AULTA together, a direct-to-consumer watch brand built around the surf lifestyle.

Abe and I hit it off immediately and start playing golf together pretty often.  One day I call him up to play a round and he says, “Not today, there are waves.  Come surf, you can borrow one of my boards.”  I have been active my whole life, so my first thought was “How hard can it be?”

Well that first surf session was an eye opener in so many ways.   Twenty minutes in found me sitting on the beach completely winded with shoulder muscles that felt like jelly.  I had yet to even stand up on the board but was completely hooked.

So I keep at it and spend the next year focused on improving my surfing.  I start to recognize the physical changes from the constant paddling, and my surfing is improving, but another transformation is happening as well: my overall outlook towards business is changing.

People ask me the biggest difference between having a corporate job and working for yourself.  The work is equally challenging, but for me it is the highs and lows of being a self-funded entrepreneur that required a significant mental shift. It is literally life without a safety net, and in the beginning that reality was overwhelming to me.

At corporate, I relied heavily on being the most prepared person in the room, but I simply wasn’t great at improvising on the spot.  Consequentially, I did not relish taking many risks or stepping out of my comfort zone, which means that I wasn’t growing professionally as much as I should have been.

Which brings me to the ocean, literally.   It has been said that the cure for anything can be found in salt water, coming in the form of sweat, tears, or the sea.  The first lesson I learned in the ocean was that I had been using preparation as a crutch. But I soon realized that surfing was teaching me other hard facts as well, lessons that continue to shape me as an entrepreneur and more well rounded person.

Preparation is important, but it will only take you so far

As with work, my drive to prepare was a plus in my initial approach to surfing.   The paddling required to simply be in the water is physically taxing and training is absolutely important.  But once you get past the basic preparation, nothing is more important than the ability to adapt on the spot.  There is no such thing as a static situation in the ocean where the conditions are changing by the minute.  Running your own business is very similar.  The plan looks great until that moment it doesn’t.  Then having the ability to adapt is absolutely critical.

Your comfort zone feels good for a reason

There is no growth to be found in any endeavor worth pursuing without some measure of discomfort.  Surfing made me confront this reality in a very physical way, which in turn helped me step out of my comfort zone as a professional.   For any surfer there are days when the waves are bigger than they are used to handling, and this often results in being tossed around a bit, or even held down underwater.  But for certain, you will have more confidence the next time out because of that experience.  The hard days are the best learning days.

Don’t panic when things go wrong, they will

My first surf trip to the North Shore of Oahu was a massive learning experience.  I asked my other business partner at AULTA, Pancho Sullivan (a former pro-surfer), what to do if a wave held me down, and he told me to just let my body go limp and the wave would eventually let me go.   Struggling just uses up oxygen and makes everything worse.  Sure enough the second day of the trip found me being ragdolled underwater two hundred yards from shore, but and I closed my eyes and took his advice.  And yes, the wave let go when it was finished with me, not the other way around.  Sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing.  Business meetings have never felt the same since.

All work and no play isn’t healthy or sustainable

When we started AULTA the main idea behind the brand was that lifestyle matters. We all need some sort of counterbalance to a hard day’s work.  Burnout becomes a reality if you don’t refuel somehow.  I love what I do but work exacts a daily toll, and balance is key.  The ocean is that place I go to recharge the engines.  Each person has his or her own charging station; the trick is to make time to go there.

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