The New Romantic
Interview by Hugh Wyllie
Hayden Cox On Turning Passion Into Success
Entering the Haydenshapes retail store the first thing that strikes you are the polygons. They’re everwhere. Sleek and modern six-sided designer furniture pieces befitting one of the most commercially successful surfboard designers in Australia today. However, the polygons don’t extend to the surfboards hanging from the walls, the standout being an immaculate 9’6’’ Pe’ahi gun, complete with yacht inspired hull and deep side cut tail, jet black from nose to tail. Hayden greets me with a smile and he’s got plenty to smile about. This is his vision come to life, an uncompromising blend of innovation and aesthetic that’s earned the 28-year-old success in a game notoriously difficult to crack. It’s a journey he’s now compelled to share in his first book New Wave Vision.
SW: There seems to be no limit to the ideas springing out of your factory. Where do you find your inspiration?
HC: I take a lot from outside surfing, and a lot from riding the boards and ideas myself. From snowboarding, yacht designs, or working with guys like Naval Architect Andy Dovell, or shaper Mick Mackie who put me onto side cuts. Then you bring some of those ideas into your own mind.
A book by a shaper at the top of his game is a rare treat, what were you hoping to share with New Wave Vision? I really wanted to show an honest account of being a young person in business. There aren’t too many books in this space. When you pick up the Richard Branson or Elon Musk style books, that huge top line vision isn’t always relatable to a small business owner or young creative. So I wanted to write a book about my experience over the past two decades. This book is not about money – surfboards are never going to be a billion dollar product – it’s about having a vision and a passion. For people who don’t know anything about surfboards the book is an opportunity to enlighten them about our industry. Beyond that, there are insights from Tony Hawk, Oakley and RED Digital cinema founder Jim Jannard, Vissla founder Paul Naude and Noel Gordon who co-founded Google Maps. These are real journeys that go into building something from the ground up.
What about mistakes and failures? How did those scenarios mold you? I was pretty naïve jumping into surfboard technologies at 24 years old, when I launched FutureFlex. I knew I had a unique product, and had the confidence to go at that with a business model and sell them at $895, while every other board was selling for $650 to $750, however our initial launch happened six months before the GFC hit and as a result, retailers were put off from investing in new surfboard technologies. That hit me hard and I had to adapt quickly. We decided to license out the FutureFlex technology to other brands like Lost, Chilli, Al Merrick, Rusty and soon all the major brands were building boards in FutureFlex. By then we had a broad network but it also meant I had to put my own brand on the back seat to provide a service with my technology under everyone’s feet. But in the long run this model wasn’t enough to sustain a brand and a business and I nearly went bankrupt.
At what point did you decide to have another crack at your own brand? We came through the GFC and retailers began to gain confidence. We scaled up, and setup a manufacturing partner over in Thailand, which proved to be a great challenge. When it’s your name on those boards, there’s no compromise, and sharing that vision and building trust with staff takes time. The first batch was not where I wanted it to be and I ended up snapping hundreds of boards in half. I flew out the next day to a tradeshow in Orlando with no boards except one Craig Hypto that he rode at Teahupoo for the Code Red swell. That was it. Me in a massive tradeshow booth meeting US retailers for the first time with just one board – and I didn’t stop talking for three days. Those were important conversations to have, like “Wow there’s some 27-year-old kid telling me he’s not showing any boards because he’s not happy with the quality.” I put 10 years of reputation on the line there.
After that I spent nearly 8 months ripping into the production line to get the quality to a two per cent variance, which is massive in our industry. Making boards is still very much a hands-on task, and the team at Cobra, over in Thailand, have been shaping, laminating and sanding for twenty plus years. They can replicate the world’s best designs over and over again and once they’re taught the process they get it down to a fine art.
You’ve dedicated New Wave Vision to young ideas. What do you expect shapers will take away from this book? I think that smaller shapers should really be more nimble and design unique customs which the bigger brands simply can’t replicate at their scale. There’s such an emotional connection to surfboards. I have that with my favourite boards, and consumers will always find that personal value in something that’s customised.
Do you see the bigger surfboard manufacturers moving in this direction? It’s tricky, we’re one of the few industries where the core product is not made by the leading brands like Billabong, Quiksilver or Volcom. Why can’t a surfboard company be as strong as those guys? The fundamental product for us has always been the surfboard, because without it we are no longer surfing. You might get a bit cold without your wetty, but you can still surf without one. In every other sport, whether it be car racing or golf, the core product is produced by the key players of their industry and I feel that shapers need to play a bigger role here.
Your book mentions resistance to change along the way. Resistance from who? You’ve got to accept the good and the bad because it’s actually a healthy thing. If you can’t accept criticism then you probably shouldn’t be in business. But sometimes this can really test you. Last year a shaper from the 80s copied a board of ours and hosted an event somewhere near New York so that he could chainsaw it as a public ‘sacrifice’ to a crowd of people – maybe 10 or so who showed up. I guess it was some sort of weird xenophobic protest to help him revive his own brand and get some attention. We’ve found this kind of adversity mostly comes from competitors who resist in seeing the industry progress, because they probably aren’t leading the change themselves and are threatened by it. For me, it’s about creating a better product.
Do you have a business philosophy? There’s always risk in business, and you’ve got to use the risk as a motivator. The cool thing about today’s world is that technology has enabled the craft businesses to enter the global marketplace more easily, and it’s put a lot of emphasis on creativity and aesthetics. People want that in their lives now. I feel like that’s a big reason why surfboard technologies are becoming more acceptable, it’s just pure timing of the Internet which has enabled small businesses to go global at a very low cost. Before the Internet, you had no idea what the guy up in Portland was building or the little trend that was happening up in Italy. Now you see everything.
You’ve got Craig, Creed and now Nate Tyler and Dylan Graves in your stable. That’s a dream team right there. How do you choose the right rider? And how integral is your team to the bigger picture? I like working with a tight crew of surfers who inspire me creatively. You don’t need a team of 50 pro-surfers to validate your brand. Craig Anderson was 15 years old when he joined the team, he was probably sitting 30th on the pro junior series but when I turned up at Merewether and saw him surf a wave, his style, and sense of approach completely floored me. One of the key marketing pillars for us is allowing the different personalities of our team to shine through.
The way that I work with Creed on a clip and his boards, is very different to how Craig works. It may look like they’re having a great time going on surf trips, but I can tell you now they are all crazy hard workers. They’ll stay in the water for ten hours a day just because they’re not happy with their clips. Craig is one of the most conscientious surfers out there in that regard. These guys respect what we’re trying to do as well, and we create these really good synergies from that relationship. That’s what matters to me with my riders. A lot of people throw out comments like “Oh the Hypto Krypto is only popular because of their marketing.” Which is interesting, because you’d say that the best form of marketing is winning World Titles on the WSL, but I don’t have World Title surfers on my team. Word of mouth drives our success more than anything else.
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