How Instagram Brings Ventana Surfboards a Wave of Sales
by Felix Thea Podcasts Dec 10, 2019 39 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
David Dennis was showing some of his photography for a fundraiser when he discovered the complexities of ocean conservation and how surfboards can be made more sustainably. Together with partner Martijn Stiphout, David runs Ventana Surfboards, maker of boards handcrafted from up-cycled and reclaimed material.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear how David Dennis balances his career at Microsoft while running Ventana Surfboards, the key components of running an impactful sustainable business, and how Instagram drives most of their sales.
We’ve sold $15,000 surfboard when someone just saw a post on Instagram.
Key Learnings shared by David Dennis:
Evaluate different sides of any environmental issue. While a product’s feature might be sustainable in one way it can cause other issues. David points out how upcycled fabrics from plastic bottles might reduce our plastic waste but it actually leads to microfibers polluting our oceans. The Ventana’s team is now exploring how to incorporate sustainable organic cotton into their business.
Connect to customers by sharing more of your process. David highlights how Instagram posts that showcase their crafting process in forms of videos and time-lapses shows transparency and allows them to highlight their craftsmanship.
Host events to expose your brand. Despite the time and finances involved to participate and host events, David enjoys the face-to-face interactions that allow him to raise more awareness for their sustainability efforts, meet customers face to face, and interact with other makers within the community.
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Store: Ventana SurfboardsSocial Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram Recommendations: Shopify, Shopify POS, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Quickbooks, ShipStation, SurveyMonkey
Felix: Today I’m joined by David Dennis from Ventana Surfboards and Supplies which sells hollow reclaimed wooden surfboards, body surfing, hand planes, eco apparel, and sustainable surf supplies, based out of Santa Cruz, California. Welcome, David.
David: Thank you.
Felix: Yeah, so you mentioned to us was that most of your products, especially the wooden surfboards are made from the “trash of others”, very unique materials. Where did the idea come from?
David: Well you know I did a photo exhibit a while back to raise money for the Surfrider Foundation and while I was photographing surfboard shapers in our area I realized how toxic the materials were that surfboard shapers were using, did a little more research, realized that wetsuits are made out of petroleum. Basically, we talk a good game as surfers about loving the ocean, but our behavior doesn’t match with. So we decided we wanted to start something different. I partnered with my partner Martijn Stiphout who makes hollow wooden surfboards and we launched a company together about six years ago to focus on environmental responsibility for surfers.
Felix: Awesome. What’s your background? You mentioned that you’re a photographer?
David: Well I do photography exhibits to raise money for nonprofits on the side. My real job’s actually at Microsoft. I’m on the Outlook team. I’ve done a lot of things for Microsoft over the years. I’ve been there for more than 18 years. So my background is actually in tech product development.
Felix: Got it. So you have some experience at developing products. Was this the first physical product that you worked on?
David: Yeah, absolutely.
Felix: Got it. Okay, so you had this idea. How did you find your partner to work with on this business idea?
David: Well my partner had been building wooden surfboards for, god it’s going on more than 10 years now, and he had been using reclaimed materials more out of necessity. Right, so the cost was a lot lower when he could get materials that were donated or wood that was reclaimed from say floorboards from the house or something like that. And so it fit with the responsibility value that we wanted for the company, or that I wanted, and so I asked him if he wanted to restart what he was doing with a slightly new name, with a set a brand values that focused on a high-end craftsmanship, environmental and social responsibility, and creating products for real surfers out in the world.
Felix: Got it. So this was already a product that your partner was creating, you wanted to work with him to take it to essentially the next level and take it to the next stage.
David: That’s right.
Felix: And you mentioned a couple of things here, brand values, high-end craftsmanship. What made you recognize that these valued adds that bring the two of you together could create?
David: Well so Martijn, my partner, is this incredible artist and the boards that he creates are incredible, they’re gorgeous, they surf really well. He doesn’t have the marketing and sales background and tech background. And I can’t cut a straight line on a saw to save my life, so it was just a good partnership. We wanted to expand the brand. We do clothing. We invented some products for surfers. We do artist collaborations. We’ve done surfboard, hand planes now for body surfing. And so it was a good marriage of my skillset and his skillset because he really wants to go and create amazing surfboards and other wooden products and I like to do the sales, marketing, and tech side of things.
Felix: Right, yeah. I think that’s a great combination that I’ve seen succeed over and over again which is that sales and marketing side partner that is combined with the product expert and the creator of the product itself. When you look back on the last five, six years you’ve been working together, what do you think makes a partnership strong when you want to combine those two kinds of forces together?
David: I think it’s mutual respect. I’ve got tremendous respect for the work that he does. I’m probably his biggest fan. The things he’s able to do with wood and other materials just blow my mind. And he’s respectful of the skills that I bring to the table that he either isn’t good at or doesn’t want to learn. And so I think we equally value each other’s work and respect it. And that I think is what’s made it work for so long.
Felix: Okay so you knew that you both should work together, decided that hey let’s take this thing to the next stage, next level. What were the first steps?
David: The first steps for us were, we used a sort of a lean startup model similar to a tech company where we start with a very small run of products. And so what we first did was we sat down, we incorporated, we did all the legal things. But then we decided on a very, very small subset of products of the ones that we maybe could create. You know we thought we could do a huge clothing line and we could do a whole huge run of surfboards and all sorts of things. We sat down and we said let’s do a limited run of this, this, this, and this. It was a very small number of things. We had a coffee collaboration and we had some T-shirts and we had some sweatshirts and we had a few other products and a couple of surfboards.
David: We found a craft fair, a holiday craft fair to attend to test out whether or not people in our local area liked what we created and that it would resonate with them. And so we set up our booth and we sat out in the cold outside near the beach in Santa Cruz, California at this holiday event and we were blown away. I think we did almost $10,000 in our first day just in a few hours. So that was how we knew we had the right thing. We’ve just been iterating on products ever since.
Felix: That’s amazing. That’s certainly enough validation for pretty much anybody to say hey let’s dive a little bit deeper into this. So 10,000 on the first day. I’m sure you’ve kind of iterated over time the brand, the products, and everything, but on that first day what do you think was about you guys or the products that made people want to spend this kind of money with you for like a brand new company on the first day?
David: I mean the products have to stand on their own. They have to be cool whether or not they have a great story behind them. And so we have cool designs, the surfboards are beautiful. We had really neat local collaborations that resonated with people. But I think for all the time we’ve been doing it, it’s the brand values. Artisanship, responsibility, adventure. And we just continue to hammer those with every single thing we do. Everything we create, whenever we’re telling our story, when I’m talking to you today, high-end quality products that are good for the environment that are useful and last in the wild for people that are out there doing adventure. And those things just seem to be resonating with people. Plus they like to be able to meet the people who are designing and making their products. And that local connection that we have to our customer base has really been valuable.
David: And now we’ve been able to expand that globally. We connect with people on the web and through social media and tell that same story, and it works even beyond our local area.
Felix: So for anyone out there that wants to take this same approach where they are taking this MVP kind of lean startup model where they just put a product out there, get into these like a fair, like for you guys at a holiday craft fair. If that’s your value proposition is the brand values and you want to put that out front, how do you communicate that in a fair environment?
David: When someone comes to take a peek at what we’re doing, and we do the same thing online, but let’s just talk about it in the physical world. Somebody walks by a booth that we have set up or wanders through and asks us a question about something. We always tell stories. So it’s not, “Hey, can I help you?” Or, “Are you looking for something special?” It’s, “Have you heard the story of that,” and that is whatever they’re looking at. So if they happen to be looking at a T-shirt, say, “Oh, that’s made of recycled plastic bottles and organic cotton. Can I tell you the story of the design on the front?”
David: And people love hearing stories. So for us, a lot of what we’ve done in the physical world, as well as in the online world, have been just storytelling. People will stop and listen for half an hour sometimes for us to tell the story of all of our products and how they all connect and the amazing backstories of the woods in our surfboards and things like that. So for us, it’s just storytelling.
Felix: I’m not sure if you can distill this down into ways to do it, but if someone out there doesn’t have experience telling stories and they haven’t thought about this way of marketing where you are just telling stories rather than just talking about your product. I guess what’s the difference and how do you make sure that you are actually in storytelling mode rather than I guess direct selling mode?
David: Yeah, I don’t know. When I’ve talked to other entrepreneurs I always work with them to say okay tell me about your products and then we work on the story. I think it’s different for every single product. But for us, it often starts with the surfboards. So somebody will come by and they’ll say, “Wow, that surfboard’s gorgeous. Is it hollow?” And then that will be the trigger that will allow us to start telling the rest of the story. So, yes, it’s hollow, we don’t use foam. Foam’s bad for the environment. Let me show you this piece of wood. This piece of wood comes from the boat that John Steinbeck sailed into the Sea of Cortez in 1940. And this piece of wood is floorboards from the 1800’s. And the design that we have on this board matches this T-shirt over here that’s made from responsible materials. Everything we do is environmentally responsible.
David: So we’re just constantly trying to create unique products and then connect them all together through a storyline. And I think anybody can do that. If all you’re doing is just reselling the same widget that everybody else has, it’s harder to do. But figure out a way that you can create a story that goes along with that. And so sometimes it’s as simple as you donate some of your profits to a local cause. If you can say, “Hey, this product is terrific. Yes, we all know it may be similar to the one down the street, but we donate 5% of our profits to women’s health issues,” or something like that. And so sometimes doing the right thing for the society is also a way to tell a better story for your brand.
Felix: So your story is kind of built into the product from the beginning. But you’re saying that you can still create a story around a product, even if it was not necessarily an afterthought, but you haven’t gotten a chance to create the story yet. You’re saying that you can start with any product and still find ways to either create a story using a product as is or institute something into your business like giving things away or some kind of charitable aspect to generate a story even though it wasn’t kind of built from the ground up.
David: Yeah. It can be a charitable story. And it shouldn’t be stories, right. I keep saying the word story, but they also have to be authentic, right. You don’t want to just donate money to an important cause just to make a buck. But if it’s something you’re passionate about and it’s something that connects with your brand in a meaningful way, then by all means tell that story. The story can also be about you as an individual. Right, we like to tell the story about my partner and I, how we met. We met through a photography exhibit where we were working on giving back money to the Surfrider Foundation to help the ocean. People have interesting backstories about themselves that connect with other people.
David: So find whatever that secret sauce is about you, about your products, about the way that you treat others, around your giving back that is unique that can help differentiate you from others.
Felix: Got it. Okay, I want to talk about the lean startup model that you’re talking about. For anyone out there that doesn’t know it, can you kind of give like a high-level overview of what is the lean startup model, and particularly how did you apply it towards physical eCommerce products.
David: Yeah. I think people can get online and look it up lean startup and go much deeper than I can. But the short version of it is start small and iterate. And so create in the tech world what we call a minimum viable product. So what’s the least amount of effort you need to put into something to create a concept, a product, a piece of software, an app, whatever that you can get out into the world quickly and validate that you’re on the right track. And then iterate on that based on what’s selling or what feedback you’re getting from customers or how people are using your product, or what they’re telling you about it.
David: And so that’s basically what we’ve done. In our first shirt line, instead of creating 1000 of them assuming they would sell, we created 24 of them and went and saw if they sold. And so start small and don’t overextend yourself, and then go bigger once you know that what you’ve created is resonating and working for your customers.
Felix: And the reason why you want to do this is just so that you derisk yourself or it makes you more agile.
David: Yeah, I mean the crass reason is because you’re going to save money. You’re not going to put a bunch of money into something that doesn’t work. The other thing is is that you’re going to be able to hone what you’ve created to be exactly what your customers want. I’ll give you an example. We did our first shirt was on a cream color with a dark ink and people hated it. They just didn’t want a light color shirt. And so we went back to the drawing board, we did a bunch of survey work, we iterated on a few other designs and a few colors and we’ve landed on people like dark grays and dark blues. Had we decided to buy 1000 cream color T-shirts we’d still be holding on to them right now, we would’ve wasted a lot of money. And we didn’t have a lot of money when we started.
Felix: Did you create an MVP with the apparel only, or did you also do this with the more flagship product, the surfboards?
David: To be clear, we’re still very, very small. There are only two of us and we’re pretty limited in the runs that we do of everything. The surfboards are very exclusive. So those will always be limited. What we’ve done is we’ve iterated on features. So we’ve tried different features of the surfboards and we’ve kept those if they work and if they didn’t resonate with people they might go by the wayside. But the surfboards we do maybe 10, maybe 12 a year, they’re between eight and $15,000 each. So those are things that are always going to be limited and exclusive.
David: When I’m talking about iteration I’m talking about things like our apparel, something we invented called the Save-A-Surf Box. We did a mini version of it that didn’t sell very well and then we actually added a bunch of features and people loved it. So things like that. More the smaller things as opposed to the larger ones. In addition, the collaborations we do. So we’ve collaborated with beer companies and wine companies and a knife maker and a coffee maker and a hot chocolate maker and a person that makes belts and salts and soaps. We’ve created all these really interesting cobranded products, and the ones that sell we do more and the ones that don’t we stop buying.
Felix: I feel like this is a battle a lot of times with entrepreneurs which is deciding if they’re spending too much time working on something before testing on the market versus spending too little time and it’s just not ready at all. How do you decide if something should go in as part of that MVP, the very first release that you’re testing out versus something that you guys are going to table and maybe put on the list of a backlog of ideas to test later?
David: Some of it comes down to whether we have the time to do it. Some of it comes down to just intuition. And it’s not intuition probably, it’s really understanding the market, researching what other people are doing, what we’re seeing people wandering around the streets with, doing surveys with our customers, asking people for feedback on is it this or is it that on say Instagram. It usually starts though with a spark and an idea that we have. Hey, this would be really cool to work with this artist on this shirt with this color. Or, wow, we should really try beanies or something like that. We see a lot of people wandering around with beanies when they’re checking the surf breaks. So it’ll start with sort of some thoughts and some intuition and a little bit of research and kind of eyes open seeing what’s out in the world, and then we test out products from there.
Felix: What’s your I guess success rate right off the bat? Do you go into these very first MVP tests in the market knowing that it’s probably not going to work yet first? Or do you usually find out that it works at first?
David: Yeah, I mean we usually launch new products at a big event. We just did something for example called The Capitola Art and Wine Fair. There are thousands and thousands of people that come to that. So usually we’ll start with a product at a big event where we can really talk to hundreds of customers and see what’s selling and see what they think. If it’s a cobranded salt we get them to taste them and see which ones they like best and things like that. So I think our success rate, I don’t know. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to measure success. Some of the time we’ll launch a new product and we’ll do it just for marketing purposes. We’re telling some really interesting stories that’ll attract a bunch of people to our brand, but we don’t expect to sell a lot of it. But I’d say probably, I don’t know if I had to put a raw number on it, 70% of what we create or what we work on with others does fairly well and 30% falls by the wayside.
Felix: Okay so you mentioned that you have, is it called Save The Surfboard box and then you also mentioned the apparel that you’re selling at first was not a hit and required some iterations. Now when you do face this where you are, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s go back to the drawing board.” How do you know what to change before retesting?
David: You know I think it comes back to that intuition again. But it’s intuition based on looking at sales numbers and talking to people. So the intuition part comes with okay well they may not have liked this product that we created as much as we thought they would, but they’re not necessarily able to tell us exactly what they would want to do differently. We just know they said, “Well, it seems a little expensive,” or, “That thing seems like it could break easily,” or something like that. Okay, what do we do next to take this thing to the next level because we think there’s potential. Or do we just kill it and move on? And that just sometimes comes from discussion.
David: The Save-A-Surf Box is an interesting one. It’s a product that’s made from the trash of four different companies. So it’s a wooden box that’s made with leftovers from usually Santa Cruz Guitar Company, their wooden leftovers, and different exotic woods from cabinet shop offcuts. And it’s a box to hold your wax, your surf wax so that your surf wax doesn’t melt in the car or when it’s out in the sun. But we add a whole bunch of things to it. So we know that when you’re surfing you always need screws for your fins. So we put different types of screws embedded into the box. You need a wrench for those, so we have a wrench embedded into the lid. The lid is also what we call a wax comb and a scraper, which is a tool that all surfers need. We have a leash cord to connect your leash to your surfboard that comes from the leftovers of a product made by another company called Khordz Mugs. We put a bottle opener on that. And we also decided to put a sundial in the lid that you create using the wrench and that’s calibrated for where we live, but we calibrate those for all over the world.
David: So on that product, the original version of it was just the lid. All it was was a wax comb and scraper with a leash cord on it. And they were almost 20 bucks. But you can get something like that for about $3 made from China out of plastic. And so when the first version of it sold okay, we went back and said, you know every surfer needs a tool, but what other problems can we solve that no one else has solved before? And my partner came back with this incredible box that has all these features, it’s almost like the Swiss Army knife for surfers, and no one’s ever seen anything like it. And that one’s now going for $50 each and we’re selling them all over the world with custom engraving and custom sundial calibration and things like that. That one just came down to we knew that there was a need in the market and rather than kill the first iteration we decided to just try something even cooler. And it worked.
Felix: Okay so when you do see that you can make tweaks to enhance the product or maybe the first time you put it out there it wasn’t successful but you still feel like there’s something there, you go back to the drawing board, figure out what tweaks to make.
Felix: Now how do you relaunch? Like what is the, I guess, second coming-out party like?
David: Everything we do is on social media in terms of the stories that we’re telling. Obviously, when we’re doing an event with real people we can tell the story there. People come up and say, “Oh, what is this thing?” And we can tell the story easily. But most of our initial storytelling and product launch is in things like that. And again I want to reiterate, this is all small scale stuff, right. I think a lot of the lessons work for bigger brands as well, but we’ll do very limited runs still of most of our products. Sometimes we’ll try and do pre-sales. Pre-sales can help you determine if you’re actually going to have something that’s successful or not. I know people use Kickstarter in that way as well. But most of what we do is we tease. We tease, “Hey, we’re creating something new. Here’s a sneak peek,” and we’ll put it all on social media. Most of our product launch happens there.
Felix: Got it. So if it’s not a hit though, do you have issues with explaining to the audience like, “Hey this is different than the first time, we’ve done things a little bit differently.” Is that an issue of how to communicate that it is not the same thing as what was launched previously?
David: No, not really. You know we’ll say, “Hey, still using that same cool design, but check out this new color.” It hasn’t been an issue.
Felix: Got it. Makes sense. Okay so let’s talk about this approach that you’ve taken with social media. You mentioned that you spend a lot of time on there as well kind of involving the customers, your audience, in the process of building this entire business and the product sale. So tell us about your strategy there. What is it that you like to do on social media to build your following?
David: So again it’s storytelling. So we post, or I post because I’m responsible for the social media as well as a number of other things, almost every day on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Probably weekly on Reddit. Occasionally on YouTube, a bunch of other social networks that people may never have heard of. Anytime there’s something new I always try it out. But we’re just trying to tell a story of what we’re working on, a board that we might be creating, some new concept that we thought of, some new shirt design, some new retailer that’s selling our products. So every day it’s just a new story, a new story, a new story. To get more reach we’re usually using a series of hashtags that works to help get Instagram, for example, for their algorithms to kick in and get the message spread a little more broadly beyond our followers.
David: The other thing that we do is we do collaborations a lot. And so as an example we have something we create called a bodysurfing hand plane, which is almost like a mini surfboard you wear on one hand that helps you body surf. We created 11 blank ones, just wooden ones that had nothing on them, and we promoted on our social media, an application process for artists all over the country to apply to put their art, painting, drawing, wood burning, whatever, on our hand planes. We were just overwhelmed with response. We picked 11 artists and then they documented the process of creating the art on our hand planes, they put it on their social media. We would then repost or post their work on our social media. And so we had this network of artists all over the country promoting us while we were promoting them. And we’ve done lots of different things like that where we get collaborators to promote for us and vice versa. And so again storytelling and collaborations for us have been huge on social media.
Felix: Yeah, so you mentioned these collaborations with artists. What are they working with you on creating?
David: Yeah so in this specific case, we went wooden blank hand planes to these artists and they put their art, they drew or painted or wood burned or whatever. We have an artist doing glass blowing that’s going to put glass in it. We had a resin artist do resin work on one. And so they created whatever they wanted that was ocean-related and then mailed them back to us. My partner created the hand planes, he’s the one that’s putting the fiberglass on them now and I’m the one that markets them, tells the stories, and does the sales. So in terms of product development for that kind of product, in this case it was the artists with my partner.
David: When it comes to things like T-shirts, I’m the one that’s working with artists to create the designs and do the contracts and source the materials for the clothing and that sort of thing. So it really depends on what the product is.
Felix: Makes sense. How do you find the collaborators?
David: Most of what we found is either locally. Sometimes we’ll meet people at our events. But in large part it’s on social media. So one of the things that I like to do is look for artists that have a huge following, much bigger than ours, and either ask to do a collaboration where it’s sort of quid pro quo where we promote each other. Or I might pay an artist to create say a new shirt design and then they’ll promote our brand and the new T-shirt and we’ll promote their art. So if I can find a really, really high-quality artist that has say 200,000, 250,000 followers it’s worth contracting with that person, one, because the art’s beautiful, but also because we get more reach for our brand because part of what contract with them is that they’ll promote what we’re doing through their channels as well.
Felix: Got it. Business-wise the goal is to bring over the audience from that collaborator that you worked with and maybe eventually they will also become customers of your company as well by checking out your other products and buying other products. What is that process like? Let’s say you identify a collaborator that you want to work with, how long does this … I guess what’s involved in going from first reaching out to them and they agree to work with you all the way to having a product on your website and ready for purchases?
David: It doesn’t often take that long. I mean a lot of times I’ll find an artist that I just think is amazing and it’ll just pop up in my feed or somebody will have sent it to me or I’ll have seen it go viral on YouTube or Reddit or something like that. And I’ll just DM the person usually through Instagram and say, and this is in the example of a shirt. I could talk about the beer, the wine, the other things we’ve done. Everyone’s a little bit different. But in the case of working with artists, I’ll just DM them and say, “Hey would you be interested in doing a collaboration. We’d love to have some of your artwork custom created that matches our brand on a new hoodie or a new T-shirt or something like that.”
David: And we just iterate back and forth. Sometimes within 48 hours, we can get the terms of an agreement together and sometimes we’ll do a full contract. Sometimes I’ll just be done over email and we just agree on basic terms, even sometimes over DM on Instagram. And then we set a timeframe and I source all the blanks that we’re going to need to print on, which I can usually get in a couple of weeks. Sometimes it can go from I found the person on Instagram to a new design in six weeks.
Felix: Wow, that’s pretty quick and straightforward. I was thinking that a lot of these artists that you might reach out to might not be as serious as you are and ready to go. I was imaging that a lot of people might say that they’re interested, they want to do it, but then either don’t follow through or kind of drag their feet. You don’t experience that or like how much kind of pushing to do you do on your end to get collaboration to take off?
David: Yeah, sometimes. I mean artists tend to be, and this is a stereotype and a total overgeneralization, but artists tend to be creative types. They’re not necessarily focused on project management and deadlines and things like that. So occasionally they’ll be a couple day delay here or there. But if I’m reaching out to a very professional artist who’s cultivated an incredible community on Instagram, let’s say, or on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, they’re usually pretty driven and pretty professional and that hasn’t been an issue. Occasionally we’ll reach out to somebody and they won’t get back to us because they’re not really paying attention. Occasionally we’ll reach out to somebody and their fee is so exorbitantly high that we can’t afford it. But generally speaking it’s a pretty smooth process.
David: It’s different if we’re doing … We’ve done two beers with Humble Sea Brewing Company, a local brewer. And that process is totally different because it takes a while to brew beer and then they create a beer label and we then create the T-shirt from that label and we iterate on the design for the beer and all that sort of stuff. So sometimes it’s a little more complicated. But the collaborations are really, really fun and they’re usually pretty smooth.
Felix: So you’re basically saying if they have a large enough following they probably … you’re probably not the first person to reach out to them so they probably have some understanding of how to collaborate or work with someone else. That makes sense.
Felix: So what’s the pitch to the artists? Like what does the artist typically care the most about? What’s important to them?
David: A couple things. Sometimes it’s tapping into a new audience. So we’ve got a huge audience of surfers, especially in California, but also all over the world. So maybe an artist that wants to create something that’s ocean specific that they’ve never done before to tap into a new market, a new audience in terms of what we have. Sometimes it’s just doing something fun and cool and different that they’re really interested. And sometimes it’s partly, it can be about extra money. We’re going to pay the artist usually to do some work for us and that may be a good reason.
David: In the case of the hand planes, the way it worked was we created these blank wooden hand planes, they did the art, we took them back. We now market them and we split revenue with the artist. So it wasn’t any money upfront, but it’s a co-marketing engagement so the artist is promoting us, we’re promoting them. We try and sell their work and then we split money with them. And so for them it was both a marketing thing and a revenue thing, but it wasn’t money that we had to pay upfront. It was money that only gets paid to the artist and to us if it sells.
Felix: Is that the ideal set up for the business side?
David: I think so in the case of these kinds of collaborations, absolutely. I think when it comes down to say a T-shirt, we found that it’s difficult … there’s challenges with tracking sales. What I found it doesn’t work is a cut of revenue for say apparel. And that’s because sometimes we’ll discount something and sometimes we’ll sell above bulk in wholesale to a retailer. Sometimes we’ll sell our own and we may not be great about tracking inventory sometimes. And so it’s really difficult to track like a revenue on a cut of the sale. What’s easier for us to do is just to pay a flat fee to the artist to use their art for a specific period of time or indefinitely and leave it at that.
Felix: It requires less kind of management after the agreement is done.
David: Yeah, that’s right. And I do all that kind of stuff.
Felix: Got it. Okay so are you looking for a collaborator usually that have followings on Instagram? What’s the platform that works the best in terms of working with the collaborator?
David: Instagram’s best for us. Facebook’s okay. We’ve closed a few sales for larger products through Facebook. It kind of blows me away. Instagram, we’ll sell some of our smaller products that way. Generally our smaller products do better when we’re in person at an event or something. But we’ve sold $15,000 surfboard when someone just saw a post on Instagram. And so I think we’ve probably done, gosh, 80, $100,000 in surfboards just over the last couple of years from people seeing posts on Instagram about our surfboards. Which blows me away. It’s such a high-end purchase it seems to me to be the kind of thing where you’d want to iterate with us and look at what we’ve got and spend some time talking to us. A lot of times it just, “Oh I want that and ship it to me next week.” It’s wild.
Felix: That’s amazing, yeah. I think you mentioned that by showcasing that surfboard building process through photos, time-lapse videos, and short clips of how you work on Instagram has closed these high ticket sales. Why is it that by showing the kind of behind the scenes has led to selling $15,000 surfboards?
David: I think people want something that’s unique. They love the stories. Every piece of wood, every splinter has a really interesting story behind it that’s totally unique given that everything’s reclaimed from interesting sources. In a world where you’ve just got mass-manufactured products that don’t have a soul, people are longing to know where their products came from, to know a little bit about the person who created them. In our case sometimes we’ll have people fly out and actually be a part of the building process. They want to get their hands dirty, they want to feel the wood, they want to put the resin on the board. They want to know where this product came from and feel really deeply connected to it in a way that’s not possible if you just buy a widget on Amazon.
Felix: So you mentioned a couple of other platforms. Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Facebook. Do you change the type of content that you post on these platforms? How do you decide what goes where?
David: It’s less about changing the content and it’s more about tweaking the message a little bit. So as an example, we posted I think yesterday a video of a teenager helping build a surfboard with us that was given as a surprise to his father at his father’s wedding by his new wife. And the son helped build the board. And so we created a video and bunch of photos around that whole process. But what I did was I posted a video of the kid, and his name is Alessi, putting resin on the surfboard for his father and then told that story and tagged all the people, all the sources of the wood and talked about the wedding and talked about the surprise and talked about how he was helping with this amazing board. And then just tailored the message for each platform.
David: So on Facebook, I’ll rewrite the post so that I’ll be able to tag people correctly, not just have it populate directly from Instagram and have all the tags break and things like that. Sometimes I’ll create a shorter post on Facebook potentially with just a link, a URL that goes straight to the web page that explains the surfboard in more detail because you can’t put URLs in an Instagram post. Twitter obviously I’ll get it down to a short, pithy message that’s 280 characters or less. And then on YouTube, if I’m posting there I’ll usually just let the video speak for itself with a very small description because that’s mostly a visual medium. So it’s not about changing the media asset as much as it’s about tweaking the message so that it works correctly on the platform in question.
Felix: Got it. So the story is always the same, but you just have to customize the post of the video, whatever it is to match the restrictions of the platform in different cases.
David: Correct. Yep.
Felix: Okay. So you mentioned that how you kicked this off first with a pop-up event, but it sounds like you still do these pop-up events today too to sell products in person.
David: The surfboard sales are going pretty well and so we don’t have quite as much time. My partner and I do the events together and he’s heads down just building surfboards right now and other products that have been custom ordered, surfboard fins, things like that. But we usually do four or five events a year. And we’ve been also creating our own events. So we’ll put on a huge craft fair of environmentally responsible artisans from California and we’ll find a venue. And I’ll go out and find all the different artists and artisans that I want. We’ll have an application process. There’s a small fee. There’s a percentage of sales that gets donated back to us for the marketing effort and for paying off the venue and that sort of thing. So sometimes we’ll just tack on to somebody else’s event and sometimes we’ll create our own event, which frankly is also a source of revenue for us because we’re then taking a cut off everybody’s sales.
Felix: I like that, having your own event that you put together. What have you learned throughout this process? Because this sounds like it’s almost like it’s own business that you have to run to create events?
David: That’s right.
Felix: So what are some of the challenges of putting on your own event?
David: There’s a lot of logistics. We usually will partner with another company do to the event so that we can share some of the responsibilities. But if there’s going to be alcohol there’s licensing for that. You got to think about waste disposal. We always try to have zero waste events where everything can be recycled or composted. So you’ve got to think about making sure that … simple things like just who’s going to be there to make sure the trash gets separated. We’ve got coordinating timelines when people can set up. Every little detail. This is why we don’t do them that often because there’s so much work to do. If you’ve got 30 vendors, what order are they going to show up in so that they’re not all driving in at the same time and stepping on each other’s toes and things like that.
David: If we’re going to have food, we try and time it such that there’s a lunch rush and a dinner rush so that the food vendors can make sure that they maximize their revenue, which helps us maximize our revenue. There’s lots and lots and lots of details. Generally, it’s just easier for us to kind of glom on to somebody else’s event. But sometimes we’ll do one on our own, especially if we want to be very, very focused on picking just the right vendors that we think are new and unique and that fit with our brand values.
Felix: Yeah, I was going to ask that next. What is the application process like? What kind of questions are you asking to get the right vendors in?
David: The basic ones. Name, Instagram account, that kind of stuff. We will go back and look in how well are they marketing their own business because that’s part of what we want is that these companies are out there promoting on social media and things like that. How big is their email list? Things like that. We also ask questions about their brand values. What is your commitment to environmental responsibility? Explain that. Can you commit at this event to not using any single-use plastics? Things like that. So when we’re doing our own event, we’re much more control in terms of who we select relative to the degree to which they match our brand values.
Felix: Now how do you market the event to get vendors to start applying?
David: A lot of times we’ll just start promoting it on social media and on our email list and we’ll ask people to spread the word. So tag a vendor who you think would make sense. A lot of it we have our user base spread virally the message. And then a lot of time I’ll find vendors who I think are a fit and I’ll reach out to them on email or on Instagram or on Facebook and say, “Hey, we think you’d be a great fit for this event. Can you apply?”
Felix: What’s the breakdown between these inbounds that come and apply themselves versus ones that you actively reach out to?
David: I think the last event we did like this it was probably 60% was me and 40% was them finding us.
Felix: I can imagine when you first started it was probably like 99% you hustling to get vendors. For anyone out there that’s trying to do this from scratch that is versus people finding out about you. In that case, when you are spending your time kind of pitching vendors, what do they care about?
David: They care about reaching a new audience and making sure that the audience that’s going to be attending is big enough and is the right kind of audience for the products they sell.
Felix: When you’re doing this for the first time, in your case when you did it for the first time, anyone out there that’s also doing it for the first time, when you don’t have any kind of track record yet, I guess how do you solve this chicken/egg problem where they want to know about who’s going to show up and you’re like well I’ve never done this before. How do you reconcile that?
David: You’re just honest. You say here are all the things that we’re going to do to promote it and we’re hoping for this many people, but we’re not sure. There’s certainly a risk if you come that it’s going to be a big flop. But here’s why we think it won’t be and we’d love you to be a part of the journey with us. And if they say sure, we’ll try it, no risk, it’s fine. At a minimum we’ll get to come to the beach and hang out for a few hours, that’s great. Sometimes they’ll say sorry it’s not worth the risk. But we’re just super honest and transparent with people.
Felix: Makes sense. Let’s talk about the other side of it. How do you market the event to the event-goers itself?
David: Wow. A lot of press outreach. A lot of we pay for promotion. I don’t use Facebook advertising that much, but we do when it comes to event promotion. We’ll pay for sponsored posts and sponsored promotions on Facebook and a bit on Instagram to promote the event to the right audience in the right geography. So usually within 50 miles of where we live if it’s a physical event in Santa Cruz. We’ve got a pretty good email list. We’ll send out the email list. We’ll post it on all the public event calendars, in the newspaper event calendars in the Monterey Bay area, in the San Jose Bay area. So just a lot of outreach. We usually try to have a few interesting stories that go along with it that we’ll reach out to the press with press releases or short emails. We did the first zero-waste event in Santa Cruz County, for example, and so we reached out to the press about that and that was the storyline they went with when then wrote about it. Things like that.
Felix: So for your first-time event, or for anyone out there that is looking to put on their first-time event, how much time do you think you need to do it successfully without I guess pulling out your hair and stressing out about it?
David: I wish I tracked my hours. You’re probably looking at I would say 100 hours worth of work and probably you want to start maybe three months in advance. That’s probably a good rule. I don’t know. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love. I don’t think of it sometimes as work because it’s fun. I’m getting to meet new people and meet new artists and new vendors and learn something new about marketing and meeting new people in the press that I can tap into later. So I always think of it as kind of fun. But I know for some people it may be stressful.
David: It’s stressful for me too, but I find it a fun kind of stress.
Felix: Got it.
David: We’ve started small. So when we first did this, and this is an interesting tip for people, especially for those that are selling online that don’t have brick and mortar. We’ve rented spaces that were vacant in high foot traffic areas. So in our downtown, there are always a couple of vacant retail spaces that may be between leases or something like that. So we did one event where we rented a brick and mortar for a three-day weekend and then we subleased booth space inside that store to three or four other vendors that were local and friends of ours. So we were able to split the costs of the rental for the weekend. We put on this huge craft sale event and then we had a huge night party where we released a beer with Humble Sea Brewing Company, the brewing company I talked about, hired a band, had a big Saturday night event for the middle of the weekend.
David: So we started small where we just rented a brick and mortar space from a local landlord. We had a few other vendors and we had a big night party. Again back to the minimum viable product, that was sort of the minimum viable product of an event that we put on and we realized that we could do it and so then the next one we did was much bigger.
Felix: You said that this was you’re basically renting very prime real estate for discounts since they’re in between leases or just vacant.
David: Yeah. Yeah, I think that was one 500, so this is an interesting story. This one I think was $500 a day. They charged us $1500 for a weekend, which is a little expensive. But then when we had the other vendors join us, they each paid I think 250 to us, so that offset the cost to us. We took the bulk of it, we also took the bulk of the square footage. But that was a way to share in the cost. But then the owner of the building came to the party that we threw and fell in love with one of our surfboards that was I think a little over $8000 and bought it.
Felix: That’s hilarious.
David: So it wound up being super lucrative. Not to mention the fact that it was very successful. We did make a bunch of money. We had hundreds of people come to this night party with a band and the Ventana beer we created with Humble Sea sold out in a few hours and they did really well from a revenue perspective. So it’s just a great event for everybody.
Felix: That’s awesome. When you look back on your own events that you’ve run so far, what do you think is the single most important thing to get right about an event?
David: I think it’s getting the right vendors and making sure that you’re marketing it correctly and broadly. A lot of people think that they’ve created something really cool and everyone’s just going to flock to it. But what they don’t see is just all of the leg work that has to happen to get the word out about a new product, about an event, about something new that you’re working on. A new store opening, whatever. There’s so much that has to go on around just marketing it online, constantly all day long telling the story. We created a Facebook event early and every couple of days we’re posting some new things. God, got this great new vendor. This vendor is going to unveil this cool new product. Or we’ve created this new surfboard, check out some of the work in progress videos. We’re just constantly telling the story over and over and over of everything we’re doing.
David: In the case of an event it’s everything leading up to that event. And so it’s just constant storytelling until the day of. Then when you’re there, we’re constantly telling stories too. Look at this cool vendor, come out, you know we’re doing a story on Instagram of all these cool people that are here. Just iterating on the story over and over and over until it just sinks into everybody that we want to be there.
Felix: Once the event is over, it sounds like well that’s done, let’s move on. You’re like using the stories that come out of that. Maybe photos and videos that come out of it.
Felix: You’re extending the event past the actual I guess runtime of the event.
David: Yeah and we always donate at least 5% of profits to a local ocean conservation group. So we use that as a way to get people to come because they feel like they’re doing something good, and they are. But then we also talk after the event about how much money we raised and where that money’s going to go and the great work that the nonprofit’s doing. And so, yeah, we do extend that story in a bunch of interesting ways.
Felix: Got it. So I want to talk about some of the talks that you’ve given, particularly the one around how to build a business focused on sustainability. If anyone out there that is on this path already or is thinking about starting a business that’s focused on sustainability, what do they have to look forward to? Like what is like the most rewarding part about this so far for you?
David: For us, and we may be unique in some ways, but for us, it’s building products out of other people’s trash. And doing it in a way that we create things that are higher quality and better in a lot of ways than anything you could get from new materials. And so, for example, our surfboards, our handplanes, a few of the other things we’ve created, some of the surfboard fins we’ve done, often use redwood as one of the elements. And we get old-growth redwood that’s been salvaged from different places. So we have redwood floorboards from the 1800s for example. And that’s an old-growth, clear grain redwood that you can’t harvest anymore. You’re not allowed to rip down old-growth redwood anymore. It’s incredibly beautiful wood that’s very, very high quality that you can’t actually get new. You can’t buy it. We get it all donated to us and we’re able to get, in that case, some of the best material in the world for free that’s better than anything you can get new.
David: So we’re always challenging ourselves to find really, really interesting materials. And not just wood. We use recycled material on a lot of different things. That’s better than what you can buy new, that has a better story behind, and that’s higher quality. And so for us, sustainability has been really, really good for the business. Both because it’s the right thing to do, people love it from a story perspective, but also it’s helped us to get some of the best materials in the world.
Felix: Makes sense. Now what about on the other hand, what challenges would you warn anyone out there that is looking to build a business around sustainability, what do they have to look out for?
David: Greenwashing. Greenwashing is when you’re telling people you’re doing the right thing for the environment, but the reality is you’re not. And we see that a lot. Some big corporation will say you know, “Oh, this is recycled material,” and then you’ll look at it and it’s 2% recycled. They’re tapping into this trend around sustainability for the bottom line, when in reality they’re not doing much. And we’re guilty of that too in some ways, right. We have shirts that are made from, as I said earlier, recycled plastic bottles and organic cotton. But you can’t get good fabrics in the United States. The shirts are manufactured for us in the United States, but the fabric itself is made overseas. And there’s a lot of concern right now about polyester, which is recycled plastic bottles, they basically make it into polyester. The polyester sheds fibers into the water which ultimately winds up as microplastics in the ocean.
David: And so we’re honest about the fact that there’s a concern there and even though people love the story of the recycled bottles we’re thinking about moving away from that and going 100% organic cotton because we’re concerned about the environmental impact. So nothing you can do is perfect. And you should just be honest about that. But we’re always trying to push ourselves and encourage others to push themselves to be as sustainable as possible. And to give back money to conservation organizations that are helping with climate change or with ocean conservation.
Felix: Yeah, that sounds like as long as you’re upfront and honest about it, it sounds like it’s kind of the best path forward that works for you and I think could work for a lot of people.
David: That’s right.
Felix: Now in terms of running the business itself, what are some of the apps or tools or services or resources that you and the business rely on to keep it running?
David: Shopify’s huge. That’s the core of everything we do. Our blog, our website, our eCommerce, our point of sale at events. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told to use Shopify. For us, it’s just been absolutely phenomenal. I have some tech background, but even for people who don’t, it’s really, really easy to use. And it’s pretty. The template we got was fairly inexpensive. I think it was like $70 and we’ve got a pretty nice looking website that’s very easy to manage. And I manage it remotely too. Like I can take pictures of a surfboard on my mobile phone, create the product, upload the photos, and have a product ready for sale as we’re photographing it on the beach, or something like that. Shopify’s been the core for us.
David: Social media, I’ve talked a lot about Instagram and Facebook, a little bit about Twitter, Reddit, YouTube. Those have been critical for our business as well. And then some of the small business back end tools. QuickBooks, for example, has been really important for us. ShipStation, Survey Monkey, tools like that.
Felix: Awesome. So I’ll leave you this last question. What would you say has happened this year for you to consider the year a success?
David: I think for this year, ending this year again profitable. I don’t actually do this for money. I don’t think I mentioned that earlier. Like I said earlier, I think I told you I work at Microsoft and that’s my day job. So I do this for fun. My business partner does it 100% of the time. This is how he makes his living. So I think ending the year again profitably and to create probably at least 12 custom wooden surfboards for high-end customers I think would be great. And we’d love to do a few more collaborations with artists on some of our apparel and maybe some of our hand plane products as well. I think that would be a successful year for us.
Felix: Awesome. So Ventanasurfboards.com. V-E-N-T-A-N-Asurfboards.com. Thank you so much for your time, David.
David: Felix, thanks a ton for talking.
About the author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.