Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
I’m David Dennis, I work for Microsoft in digital advertising, and I’m also the co-founder of Ventana Surfboards & Supplies.
Creating hollow, reclaimed wooden surfboards that are pieces of art and that perform well in the waves is at the core of what we do. And, we’ve created a line of apparel and surf supplies that match the boards and that fit with our brand values: Craftsmanship. Responsibility. Adventure. We give 5% of profits back to ocean conservation organizations.
We’re currently selling 10-12 boards a year at between $6000 and $9000 each to collectors and surfers alike. Our boards have tripled in value over the last three years, and we’re seeing success with our eco-apparel line and with products we’ve invented, like the Save-A-Surf Box.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My business partner, Martijn Stiphout, is our master craftsman. I photographed him for an exhibit I shot to raise money for the Surfrider Foundation Santa Cruz Chapter.
I was inspired by the surfboards he was building out of reclaimed and eco-friendly materials and suggested we join forces to launch an environmentally responsible surf company ... one that could set an example for the industry.
We both love to surf and to test our products in the waves with our friends and customers. Martijn and I have always been frustrated with how much surfers ignore the fact that the products and surfboards they use are highly polluting. Surfboards are mostly petroleum-based pieces of foam made with toxic resins, and clothing is generally made overseas with highly polluting processes … even surf wax often comes wrapped in plastic that can wind up in the ocean.
Just go for it, but be careful about leaving a steady job just because you’ve convinced yourself that your idea is amazing.
At the time that we started the business, I was working for Microsoft out of my house at the beach in Santa Cruz … I still am, in fact. I had always wanted to create a brand and to build on my business, product development, and marketing skills to do it.
Martijn was spending most of his time building these incredibly beautiful wooden surfboards and bodysurfing handplanes, but he didn’t have much interest in focusing on the business operations and sales side of things. That’s what’s made our partnership so powerful. We compliment each other very well. I’m his biggest fan, and he appreciates my skills on the sales and marketing side. He’d rather work with his hands, and I’m not allowed to touch the power tools so that I can keep mine from getting cut off.
We started the company with a very small personal investment from each of us. We agreed not to take on any debt and to build the company organically. We still have no debt, and we’ve been profitable from the start. We’re small, but we’d rather grow slowly and not overextend ourselves.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
We use different approaches for different products.
For instance, we invented a product called the Save-A-Surf Box out of necessity. We wanted a wooden box to keep our surf wax from melting in the car, and Martijn decided to add fin screws with an Allen wrench and a leash cord. He threw in a bar of wax and even a bottle opener and sundial.
We wanted to have everything we needed to prep for a surf session in one package. And, we challenged ourselves to make it out of reclaimed and upcycled materials … which we did. It took us a few design iterations to get it right, but it’s been a very successful niche product for us.
My partner, Martijn, is a self-taught woodworker. He did a lot of trial and error to finalize how our surfboards are constructed. Even so, he’s still learning new approaches to improve our shapes and designs and to make the building process more efficient.
Photo Credit: Christian Brandes
He leverages information from around the internet to master an approach that blends traditional methods with modern surfboard construction. Our boards use a wooden frame inside ⅛” veneer pieces of reclaimed wood. The rails or edges are made of cork. Add to that sheets of fiberglass and a modern, bio-based epoxy resin, and you have some of the most beautiful and sturdy surfboards in the world.
Martijn uses a mix of old and new tools, as well. The inner frames are cut using a laser to exact design specs using CAD software, but some of the hand tools he uses are over 100 years old! You can see much of the process in hyperlapse here.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
We started small and tested the concept at a pop-up store we created for a holiday craft fair here in Santa Cruz.
We invested in a limited run of products and showcased a few of our hollow wooden surfboards. We promoted the launch of the company, our online store, and our pop-up to happen all on the same day. We used social media and local press outreach to get the word out.
The Shopify store launch went smoothly. We used an inexpensive template, and I created all the product pages and content myself over the course of a couple of weeks. Getting our first sale online the day we launched was a big deal for us. That customer has since become one of our best. We’ve even gone camping up the coast with her and showcased her as part of our Ventana Adventurers program.
We realized quickly that being too overt about promoting products wasn’t working. Focus on compelling content and stories, and the sales will follow.
But, by the time we registered for the craft fair, there was no space left. They let us have the outside entryway, but we had to accept the risk of inclement weather. We set up our wares and stood out in the cold. Luckily, it didn’t rain, and all the shoppers had to line up in front of the entrance before they opened the doors. That gave us terrific exposure, but the products themselves needed to be compelling enough to drive sales. They were. We did close to $10K in revenue that day. That was when we knew we’d hit on a market position and a concept that would work.
I think our biggest lesson so far has been to never assume that something we think is cool will actually be a hit. We learned quickly not to create or source a lot of any one thing before testing to see if it would sell. We love the lean startup approach. Fail fast and go bigger only on the products we know will succeed. That allows us to minimize losses and maximize revenue.
Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?
Our search engine rankings are pretty good, as well, given all of the press links. We do a bit of keyword and social media advertising, but most of our reach is organic. One of our key learnings has been to focus on telling interesting stories and showcasing the process of creating surfboards and other Ventana products on social media.
People are fascinated by our craftsmanship. We realized quickly that being too overt about promoting products wasn’t working. Focus on compelling content and stories, and the sales will follow.
Early on, we also realized that local collaborations with other businesses … wine and beer makers, coffee companies, belt makers, bikini makers, artists, authors and the like ... and giving back to ocean conservation groups did a great deal to help keep our story fresh and our brand front and center in the minds of our audience.
We highly recommend working with other, complementary companies to create collaborative products, events, and stories. For Ventana, events are critical. We participate in craft fairs and such, but we also put on our own festivals and parties to drive sales in a fun environment that attracts new customers. We also include other vendors in those, and their participation fees have opened up a new revenue stream for us.
How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?
We are growing slowly and organically, and we plan to keep it that way. My business partner, Martijn, makes a living from Ventana, but I’m doing it for the experience and because I enjoy it. Perhaps someday I’ll take a salary. But, for now, my job in tech pays the bills … and I love my work there, too.
Our intention is to continue to create increasingly storied and beautiful wooden surfboards and bodysurfing handplanes along with other, surf-related products.
Our boards have increased in price 3X since we started, and we expect that to continue. We’ve also built a growing, wholesale eco apparel business that drafts off of the aesthetics of our surfboards.
We’d like to bring on a third partner at some point to grow that even more so that we can expand our reach outside of our local area. Wholesaling is very time consuming, and we’ll need help there in the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Our biggest learning has been around the value of social media marketing and of partnerships. We work with many local vendors and artists to create products and co-promote our businesses.
For instance, we have a local woman uses our wood scraps to create belt buckles. Not everyone can afford our surfboards, but some of our less expensive products created in collaboration with others allow a broader customer base to join the Ventana family.
We also learned early on that we need to continuously tell the larger story of our business through press, speaking engagements, and large-scale events. And, we realized quickly that telling micro-stories about Ventana every day on social media keeps our brand front and center in the minds of our audience.
We showcase each step of progress on every surfboard, post about new reclaimed wood partners, involve our fans in choosing shirt designs, feature our customers and their stories and the like. We’re constantly bringing people into our world and our lifestyle through technology.
What tools do you use for your business?
Most critical for us have been Shopify and Instagram, but the list of technology and services we use is incredibly long … surprisingly so for a company that, at its core, creates handmade wooden surfboards. I actually did a presentation on that topic recently.
We’re continuously testing new tools, marketing technology, online advertising approaches, Shopify apps, and the like.
We’ve seen the most revenue success through organic, unpaid Instagram posts. And, we also rely on MailChimp, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. We leverage Houzz, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Survey Monkey and a few smaller reach platforms, as well.
We also use Shopify Point of Sale, Etsy, Microsoft Windows, iPad, Android, iPhone, QuickBooks Online, Microsoft Office, OneDrive, Google Apps, Photoshop and other creative and productivity tools.
We integrate the Shopify store with Instagram and Facebook so that customers can shop from posts. Our success with that approach is ramping.
We’ve also leveraged a variety of Shopify apps. We use Facebook Chat by Beeketing, MailChimp for Shopify, HelpCenter for our FAQ, ShipStation, Plug in SEO and Minifier.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources for your business?
I love the books First Break All the Rules, the Cluetrain Manifesto and The Lean Startup. The lessons learned from those books about focusing on your strengths, remembering that markets are conversations, and that continuous iteration is the key to success have been instrumental.
I get a lot of value out of the Shopify Blog, as well as various business-related threads on Quora. I’ll also occasionally go back and watch my TEDx talk called “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” whenever I think about doing that!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Just go for it, but be careful about leaving a steady job just because you’ve convinced yourself that your idea is amazing.
Start small, test your concept, and iterate your way into success or failure before doing something drastic that could negatively impact your long-term financial health and happiness.
Making a 100 widgets and selling out quickly is better than manufacturing 10,000 and selling that same 100 count. Think through what the small steps are that you can take to make sure you’re on the right track before expanding.
Also, be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and partner or hire people who can fill those gaps. And, if you’re not sure what your weaknesses are, ask people you trust to be honest with you. If you’re great at sales, focus there. If you’re terrible at marketing, hire!
Where can we go to learn more?
Our website is ventanasurfboards.com.