A new Australian surf business has learnt a lesson from surf brand Billabong's recent troubles: never turn your back on your main market: passionate surfers.
Ryan Mets, 26, one of the founders of Boardcave, an online marketplace for custom surfboards, says surf brands suffer dire consequences by drifting away from their core customer base.
"In these early stages we are aware of the importance of our core customers or 'image leaders', which are actually defined by Billabong's own researchers as board sport fanatics and board sport participants, who are the major influencers in the surf market," says Mets.
"A large percentage of our customers is made up of this core market and it's essential we stay relative to and in touch with these influencers as we broaden our product offering," he says.
Mets says surfers, who account for about 20 per cent of the big surfing brands' customers, drive the sales of the remaining 80 per cent of customers, who are lifestyle followers and "weekend warrior" surfers.
Boardcave, whose technology is patent pending, aims to put up a challenge to the factory-made boards flooding the Australian market. Surfers can order custom-made surfboards from Australian surfboard shapers through the site.
The website has recently gone live after two years of development, effectively taking a cottage industry into the digital world. Mets says the biggest challenge was systematising an industry with an infinite amount of variables: width, length, thickness, tail shape and number of fins are just some of the choices.
Initially, Mets and his business partner, Chris Greben, 24, developed a portal of information on a range of different surfboard manufacturers. "It started to get a bit of traction and I could see people were searching for boards online. The lightbulb moment happened when I started getting inquiries from people to buy boards," he says.
Manufacturers got behind the business when they saw the initial site was gaining attention from surfers. One well-known surfboard shaper on board is Maurice Cole from MC Surfboards, who is famous for developing the "reverse vee" surfboard design with Tom Curren in the early 1990s. It has a convex bottom, with the volume of the board towards the nose. Cole is one of big wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones' shapers.
Other shapers listed on the site include Matt Penn from Matt Penn Designs and Darren Handley from DHD Surfboards, who has shaped boards for world champions Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore.
"We haven't actively contacted manufacturers; they have come to us," says Mets.
Although he won't disclose figures, Mets says sales have been steady and the site has shipped boards around the country. NSW has emerged as the major market. Boardcave is also gearing up to sell accessories such as wax, fins, board bags and wetsuits.
Mets and Greben have largely funded the business themselves, although a $50,000 grant from Commercialisation Australia in February gave the enterprise some much-needed cash.
"We also have the opportunity to secure further funding from Commercialisation Australia. For this next round of funding, we are required to match the grant funding on a 50-50 basis," says Mets.
"We are extremely lucky to have the support of the industry and this government initiative," he says.
Both Mets and Greben, who went to school and uni together and are housemates, left corporate jobs 12 months ago to pursue Boardcave. Mets worked for online travel businesses Wotif and Lastminute.com and Greben is a software engineer who has previously worked for the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland and Suncorp.
The pair are passionate about surfing. "I started riding waves when I was 10," says Mets. "I actually started off as a belly basher [body boarder], but once I tried standing up, and felt the adrenalin rush of riding waves standing, I was hooked."
"I surf a range of different boards. Most surfers will know, you can never really have enough surfboards."
Says Greben: "Surfing has always been a great escape for me. I've always loved it, having grown up with a family house on North Stradbroke Island. I own many different surfboards."
The plan is to roll out the business model in Europe and the US.
"We're looking to partner with investors to take the business forward," says Mets.