Surfing Lessons for Startups: Board Knowledge for Business

A surfer with his surfboard at the beach-1.jpegAs an Outer Banks resident, I spend a lot of time near the water. Walking along the beach in Corolla, I always see surfers bobbing offshore. All day, every day, they are out there working the waves.

Once in awhile, my wife and I stop to watch. We watch them paddle out and ride back in, over and over again. Sometimes they catch something decent. Sometimes they fall on their face. But no matter what happens, they’re always out there… ready for whatever comes next.

You might have this idea of surfers as laid back and mellow, but the truth is that the great ones are driven by passion and persistence. They show up and they stick with it.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are wired the same way, so it makes sense that advice for surfers works just as well for startups. Whether you’re launching a new business or perfecting your technique in between swells, here are six solid lessons worth learning...


1. Master the basics of balance

“I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars — I look for 1-foot bars that I can step over.” - Warren Buffett

One of the first pieces of advice that a novice surfer hears is to “bend your knees and stay low.” Keeping a low center of gravity increases stability and helps build speed. After all, you can’t pull off a great ride if you can’t even stay on the board.

While some first-time entrepreneurs yearn for excitement over stability, mastering the basics of business balance is essential for success. It’s easy to get distracted by issues and ideas that have nothing to do with a company’s bottom line, but you should never lose sight of the horizon.

“Staying on the board” for a startup means keeping the focus on three things: what you do, who you do it for and how you make money. Period.

2. Find a good teacher

"It's a cakewalk, when you know how." - Gerry Lopez, pro surfer

The ocean can be a big, dangerous place, so novices should never rush into the water alone. Surfing lessons provide helpful instruction and valuable insights that can shorten your learning curve. Pairing up with more experienced surfers also adds extra layers of safety and a sense of community.

Even if your company’s goal is to build better a wheel, you shouldn’t waste time trying to reinvent it when it comes to getting started. Experienced business owners are usually more than happy to share their knowledge and connections. They can help you avoid mistakes they’ve made in the past.

The smartest, most successful new companies take full advantage of their local business community’s goodwill and generosity. Join local business groups, seek out mentors or simply reach out to another company or entrepreneur that you admire. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Accept the help.

rsz_julie-macey-70044.jpg3. Ride lots of waves

“Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” - Guy Kawasaki

Novice boarders often think that the only good wave is a monster wave. But more seasoned surfers understand that there’s value in every size. The more you ride, the faster you’ll learn. Perfect your technique on hundreds and thousands of smaller waves, and you’ll be more prepared when the “Big One” comes.

Similarly, starting a business is about building momentum. Don’t compare yourself to stories of overnight success and blockbuster IPOs. Grow slowly. Young companies shouldn’t worry about closing one big deal or landing a monster client. Take one step at a time, collect small victories and you’ll be much more confident when that big opportunity arrives.

pexels-photo-117430.jpeg4. Learn to LOVE the wipeout

"Wiping out is an underappreciated skill." - Laird Hamilton, pro surfer

Longtime surfers know that every wipeout is an opportunity to improve. Get knocked down, learn your lesson and get back on your board. Those who can’t overcome daily frustration or handle being beat up by rough surf won’t last long in the water.

Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Expecting failure and embracing it as a requirement for success gives you an advantage. You can read countless stories from leaders in every industry about the failures they endured and how those setbacks actually set them up to enjoy even greater success. Find the lesson when you fail and use it to move forward. 

5. Stay focused but flexible

“You jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down.” - Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder

In surfing, every step counts and every movement matters. Riding a wave requires a choreography of constant adjustment. You can’t just plant your feet on the board and expect the water to carry you safely to shore. You need to shift your weight and move your feet to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances.

The ocean never sits still, and neither does the business world.

As an entrepreneur, you’re also faced with thousands of decisions every day. Making the right choices requires equal parts rigidity and fluidity. Startups are smaller and more nimble, which can help when navigating challenges and obstacles. Use that size advantage as long as possible and give your business permission to evolve and grow.

Follow your vision—but not too blindly—because sometimes the wave (or the marketplace) has a better idea of where you need to go.

Rear view of a young blond in wet suit with surfboard at the beach.jpeg6. Think beyond the next wave

"Learn to read the ocean better. A big part of my success has been wave knowledge." - Kelly Slater, pro surfer

The best surfers in the world understand that life is much bigger than the next wave. Thousands of hours in the water have taught them about physics, wind and weather. They know that storms raging halfway across the world will affect conditions wherever they happen to be at the moment.

In much the same way, you need to understand that your business does not exist in a vacuum. Ultimately, your company is part of a local, regional, national, and perhaps, even a world economy. Figure out how the rest of the planet affects your bottom line from local politics and consumer trends to government regulations and global technology.

Stay informed and keep curious. It pays to think big picture, because everything is connected.

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