Running Scared: Reflections on SIMA Surf Summit 5

By Jeff Harbaugh

I’m glad, I guess, that I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t feel completely compelled to take too much advantage of these “all-inclusive, drink as much as you want of anything for free” conference packages. Because if I were so inclined, I suspect all the worrying going on at SIMA Surf Summit 5 might have driven me to strong drink.

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I mean, here’re all these people who have been lucky enough to create a career and a life out of something they love and that’s fun. They have their industry conferences in Cabo San Lucas for god’s sake. Most people going to industry summits end up in Chicago in February.

But the surf industry is worried about skateboarding. And they’re worried about Hollister. And selling out (or not selling out). And being core (or not being core). Having to change would be really inconvenient. Being worried makes it harder.

I just got back from the National Ski Areas Association convention in New Orleans. They’re worried, too. About, oh, lots of shit. You know what I finally figured out? The problem is the worrying.

When industries succeed and get a little bigger, they become targets. When you’re in the fashion business, like surfing is, trends change. Recessions happen. This recent recession wasn’t officially a recession as I understand it, but after ten or so years of growth, we’re perhaps a bit spoiled, and softening sales — which occasionally and inevitably happen — caused to us worry even more. There’s not much in the way of barriers to entry. Companies come and go. That’s life. Don’t like all these challenges that come with success? Go find a job in another industry.

But you know what? That industry is going to have challenges, too. There will be lots of things to worry about over there as well. Guaranteed.

Where at the conference, by the way, was the discussion of actual surfboards and wetsuits? You may remember them. I seem to recall that surfing can be a lot easier, and a lot more comfortable, if you have them. We talked about selling boardshorts, shoes, and T-shirts, and which kinds of stores we should sell them in. Maybe if the surf industry was just the slightest bit hardgoods driven — like the skateboard industry — we wouldn’t have so many worries. I don’t think we grow the surf industry when we sell more shoes and shirts and shorts. We have to sell surfboards to surfers.

Still, I mostly see those worries are just snares and delusions. Look, we’re in business. Business is a risk. It’s a risk whether you sit on your ass and do nothing or go out and attack your market, taking some risks along the way. If you sit on your ass, you’ll get fat and you may get steamrollered out of the way anyway. We can all make up a list of companies and brands that have come and gone.

It will be great if the surf industry can find its Tony Hawk. It will be great if there’s suddenly an easy way to create surf parks in Kansas. But in the meantime, I hope nobody is waiting for all our problems — real and perceived — to be miraculously solved.

It’s up to you. Go out and take some well-thought-out risks. Some of them will blow up in your face. So what!? At least when you fail you’ll learn something and people will notice. You’ll be in control and you’ll be leading. You won’t be sitting on your ass waiting for the steamroller to skinny you up.

And some of your risks — if based on a good plan and knowledge of your customers — will succeed, and your company will be a leader instead of an ass sitter.

I just made this speech to the National Ski Areas Association. I just said the same thing to the skateboard industry for an upcoming TransWorld SKATEboarding Business article. You see, the skateboard industry has some issues and they’re worried — though not about the surf industry. Anybody catch the irony here?

I’d make the same speech to the snowboard industry, but it’s too late — it’s basically turned into the ski industrry already.

Next year, when we all gather again at SIMA Surf Summit 6 with purple armbands in place, I hope we find some time to talk about good ways in which each individual company can support surfing to its own benefit. Let’s go out of our way to avoid speeches and panels focused on things we’re worried about.

Jeff Harbaugh is a consultant who’s worked for the last twelve years with action-sports companies in transition. Have an opinion about this or another subject in the surf industry? E-mail sean@twsnet.com. Please put ?Out The Back? on the subject line.