III. The SURF ENTREPRENEUR
SKUNKWORKS co-founder RICKY MARTIN on broken boards, Bondi waves and his innovative surfboard design, manufactured in Northern Ireland.
"EVERYTHING doesn’t have to happen immediately,” announces a cheerful Ricky Martin. He’s referring more to the pace of life on the North Coast along with the importance of getting things right with his product design although with Skunkworks, his new surfboard company, things have definitely been happening fast. The company has already bagged up a series of business awards since its inception just over a year ago, most recently claiming victory of their category in Northern Ireland’s Invent 2015 and most notably, finalists of Virgin Media Business' Pitch to Rich 2015.
“It was a brilliant experience. Just awesome,” Ricky recalls, as we chat in the office of the purpose built HQ. “The most amazing thing we got was the support from the population. It was just incredible!
We worked tirelessly to get those votes - we really, really worked hard. We went into all the towns, into every office and all the shops, asking for their vote. By the time we got to Belfast, it was ‘oh you’re the surfer guys, I’ve heard of you.’ Everyone was so proud that a NI company was doing this. We were so close. We got £10,000 for the business, prizes, loads of PR and we got surf schools from the Caribbean, Australia and Canada getting in touch trying to order our boards - all just from that.”
Pitching to Richard Branson aside, consider that there was no such thing as a surf school when Ricky was a teenager growing up in Portrush. His is an interesting tale of synchronous events which have mapped out a global journey that has brought him back to the place where his surfing obsession began - home.
“In those days if you were gonna start surfing, your parents had to buy you a board and a wetsuit. I was a very strong swimmer but they were so scared of me being in the water by myself because they weren’t going in surfing with me obviously, so a totally different setup back then,” he grins broadly. “You’d have your mum, your dad sitting in the car watching you the whole time, making sure you weren’t getting pulled out to sea, but it was great!”
He and his brother Chris, Skunkworks’ co-founder, were part of a core group of bodyboarders on the North who would go surfing every chance they got. He talks of the brilliant sense of freedom that it gave to him as a 15 year old, travelling to all the competitions down the west coast of Ireland, to the surf spots of Sligo, Lahinch and Bundoran. Ricky, himself, competed at bodyboarding for Ireland, got picked for the European championships twice at junior level and while university at Glasgow effectively put a stop to all the competing, warmer waters beckoned.
“I went to Australia first for a year with my best friend Brian, another bodyboarder. I finished uni and went travelling for a year, basically on a round-the-world surf trip - Bali, Indonesia for a month, North America, Central America, but I really loved Australia.”
Back in Glasgow, Ricky found himself once again away from the surf and from surfing but here’s where the first twist in his story comes in.
“I used to do recruitment into investment banks. I hated it,” he says emphatically. “The week I was going to quit, I got offered a job doing the same thing for a company in Sydney.”
Bondi is Sydney’s most famous and busiest beach, renowned worldwide for its host of local and international events, a 1km crescent moon with a smattering of rocks at either end. Not only poles apart from the North geographically but in every way, warm temperatures, warm water, a massive surf scene and great surf. Or so many might assume.
“The waves here on the North Coast are better than they are in Sydney,” he says quite unexpectedly. “The waves on the West Coast of Ireland are as good, if not better than anywhere in the world. I lived in Bondi for most of the time I was there, so after work there’d maybe be 300 people trying to catch a fairly average wave. There can also be a level of, not aggression but... I don’t know what word I’d use for it... ” he pauses to consider briefly before continuing.
“There’s a real competitiveness in the water there that kinda took some of the enjoyment out of surfing for me. We’d go on surf trips a lot, go away camping and that was a totally different experience. You could easily go some place where there was no one else, but then there were sharks, and I never really got over that. So, I had the choice of either surfing a crowded wave, not get the enjoyment but if a shark attacks, it won’t be me - or at least a 1 in 300 chance,” he laughs. “Or I could go somewhere beautiful, have a really nice wave with maybe only six people in the water but where the whole time I was constantly thinking ‘am I going to get eaten by a shark? If a shark attacks me I’m three hours from anywhere... I’ve got to walk 45 minutes to get back to my car...’ I never really got fully into surfing that way. At the same time I adored living in Oz.”
With a permanent residency and no plans to return, Ricky spent five years in Australia but a visit home to see family would change that. Back in Portrush his friend Brian had started Alive, the first ever surf school in Northern Ireland, and asked him to run the surf school in his absence. As Ricky didn’t have a job, he accepted and went and got his surf instructor qualifications.
“You see after the first day? I was, ‘THIS is what I want to do for my job!!’" he says, and that joyful realisation seems to still be very vivid for him at this point in time.
“I loved my life in Australia but I hated my job, which is such a big part of your life,” he explains. “Every day in work I’d be thinking ‘when am I going to get out of this job??’ When I came back here, I was suddenly working in the sea and I was just seeing how happy people were. I was only meeting happy people! Those are the only people you meet when you’re doing a surfing lesson because they’re excited to be going surfing, they love doing it and they’re thrilled after they’ve finished.”
Brian decided to stay in England, Ricky eventually bought the surf school and has never been back to Australia since.
The North Coast now has a choice of some five surfing schools due to a considerable rise in surfing popularity. Skunkworks, however, came into being through Alive. It wasn’t a conscious business decision, he says, but one that just naturally evolved.
“Basically all my surf boards had fallen apart, all of them within a week of each other and I’d one really big lesson left before the end of the season. I’m not very handy at all, so I rang my brother, and said I needed to repair these. We were gluing them together, taping them up and Chris was asking why I hadn’t bought better boards? I had! I’ve tried every type of board there is and they all just do this, they all just fall apart and in exactly the same way. The more expensive ones might take slightly longer for it to happen than the cheaper ones but they will still fall apart in the same way.”
According to Ricky, Chris is the one who is the real entrepreneur. He decided that there had to be a better way to make a surfboard and the timing was such that he was available to investigate this idea further.
“At that conversation I would have gone, ‘yea totally’ and never thought about it again. But the next day Chris gets up and starts looking at all different foams and materials: what can we use to make a surf board? He worked out that the main problem with all the current boards was that the different parts were glued together and the glue will deteriorate.
"Surfboards are on a hot beach, in the cold water, being dragged along and they get real abuse, every aspect of their life is a disaster for them! They get stored on their tail, so they get stood upright, the weight of the board on itself collapses the tail, then the tail is no good. They get dragged along the beach so where the two parts meet starts to come away and the bottom delaminates. If you leave them in hot weather on the beach, the deck bubbles up because the glue deteriorates. When one board goes into the side of another one, the fins rip through it and then the whole deck comes off.
“We realised we had to eliminate glues and so Chris started looking at all these different foams and how you could heat-bond them together. It was a huge process. It took him about five months of sitting in the house all day, every day with hundreds of foams and a heat gun trying to see how he could get them bonded together. Eventually he came up with these potential ways of doing it, we decided to run with the idea and started applying for funding to try and get the first prototype built.”
" We realised that a lot of what we could potentially use was 100% recyclable, then we started focusing on trying our best to make those materials work for us."
An E-Synergy Proof Of Concept grant allowed them to go to Queens University Belfast and work with their engineers to build the prototype. “We called it the stealth bomber,” he laughs, waving his arms wide. “It was this huge, big black surfboard, it looked like a boat but although it looked ridiculous, it proved the idea worked.”
That idea saw off some fierce competition from super hi-tech companies for another business grant, one for which 89 companies would compete with only eight eligible. Skunkworks got the award and this allowed them to set up their current factory and get all the custom-built machinery they needed.
Ricky points out that they have been really fortunate that from the very outset, they have had what he describes as a phenomenal amount of support from the Northern Ireland Science Park who he credits with championing their cause. It’s testament, perhaps, to the validity of their innovation that NISP set them up with a mentor in Galway who had founded an engineering company in San Diego, a company that tested the Mars Rover and had received the highest award that NASA could give.
“He was down at our factory checking everything out. We had a conference call - myself, Chris, this guy Ronan and a NASA engineer in California who was going through all of our 3D drawings and processes to see if we were doing everything right, and we were. It’s Chris who really looks after all that side of things, I deal more with the business but Ronan was confident we were doing it right on all accounts.”
We discuss the 100% recyclable aspect of these boards and I ask him if their minimum environmental impact was also something that was important to him to factor into their radical innovation?
“Our original goal was to figure out if we could make more robust surfboards,” he states. "In essence, that in itself is more environmentally friendly because people aren’t throwing out boards every year, but every five years say, or however long before they want to replace them. But once we started looking into the materials and we realised that a lot of what we could potentially use was 100% recyclable and that that was actually a possibility, then we started focusing on trying our best to make those materials work for us, or find materials that we needed that were 100% recyclable.”
Nonetheless, this might add a global appeal to the boards’ selling point as more people are waking up to environmental issues these days, or at least prefer to deal with companies who display those kind of ethics.
“I had an interesting chat about that actually,” he says. “There’s a program called NISP Connect and they took us over to California last year. We met the most respected company in the world for making surfboards and they were really impressed by what we were doing. They were blown away by the materials and how we’d managed to bond them together.
“One of the things we were discussing was the recycling aspect. They were saying, that from what they have seen, the individual surfer actually doesn’t make a decision based on whether something is good for the environment, yet you think they would. If two boards are the same and one can be recycled, but it’s $50 more expensive, the vast majority will go for the cheaper board.
"What we have found from ringing around all the different surf schools and surf shops in the UK and Ireland is that the surf schools, they did hold weight to the environmental angle, because they’re possibly buying 40 at a time that they know they’re just going to be throwing into a big heap in 18 months, so they feel morally responsible to that. They have got a social responsibility. The individual surfer should as well, but maybe he’s buying a board that he intends to last for about 10 years.”
Most of their competitors’ boards are manufactured in China whereas all Skunkworks boards are made locally. Apart from materials, there are no huge shipping costs to rack up a high carbon footprint so their environmental credentials do go beyond the actual materials used.
“There are so many things that have appealed to our customers about our boards. One is the fact that they obviously don’t fall apart but everyone is so enthusiastic about supporting a local business, and when I say local, I mean the guys from the surf schools in Cornwall count us as local. They want to keep the money here rather than send it to China. At the moment we don’t spend a single pound outside of the British Isles.”
There are five different types of boards in the Skunkworks lineup but for the moment all concentration is on the 8ft stock standard size for surf schools and the 6ft boards which can be used by kids or competent surfers - “our small board will allow you to catch a wave much more easily than a standard surfboard so we think we can get into that market with those.”
" As soon as we have a new prototype, we get it in the surf school, we get it tested, we get feedback within days."
When it comes to testing the boards, where better than the North Coast with its challenging conditions, volatile heavy waves, reefs and rocks to put them through the mill?
“It’s a really good place to test them for their robustness,” Ricky agrees. “One of the things we are talking about with Ronan is getting our boards tested in these machines that can speed up to the equivalent of it being dragged along the beach a million times; the other is temperature testing because one of the big problems we can’t test well here is the temperature of our boards lying on a beach in 35C heat. We wish! We do have all the data sheets of our materials and they can go from -70C to +70C without losing their integrity but we want to put them into a machine-testing facility. Aside from the temperature, we’re perfectly placed to test everything else.
“There are so many advantages to what we’re doing. Everyone else is getting their surfboards made in China, shipped over, a variety of surf schools will buy them, use them and if they don’t work, they have to liaise with China to try and resolve that. We’ve got Alive. As soon as we have a new prototype, we get it in the surf school, we get it tested, we get feedback within days and then anything that’s not working, we react that day to solving that problem. We’re totally reactive, so it’s great.”
Running Alive Surf School has allowed Ricky to expand on the Skunkworks vision by identifying certain needs of his clients. They’re working closely with a paralympian to design a better board for wheelchair users. “It’s just a coincidence that this company has happened at the same time and once we get our boards ready we can start putting those things we’ve designed on those boards and start getting them out there.”
Coincidence or not, it’s evident that there is a genuine humanitarian at the heart of the business vision. Although the usual activity groups are catered for, Alive is openly marketed at people from disadvantaged backgrounds and autism. Were these choices Ricky specifically made within the surf school as he seems so very passionate about helping people?
“Oh yea. Massively so. It all came from when I started doing the surfing lessons, as I said to you about realising how happy everyone was. We started getting groups booking in kids from really disadvantaged areas of Belfast, Derry, Ballymena.
"While this was going on I had two children of my own and then I had these wee kids coming down from really rough areas, they’d go surfing and they’d come out going: ‘you know, that’s the best day of my life’. Kids, whose group leaders said that when they got home, their parents would not know or care about them being surfing. Even the so-called ‘bad’ kids, they come out of the surf and they’re not the bad kids for that moment, because someone showed them kindness and they did something awesome that they’d never ever done.
"The amount of kids that would come that had never been to the sea,” he shakes his head with a sense of sadness that this reality exists for so many. It's the first time in our conversation that the smile has left his face. I suggest that more than just an activity, he’s actually giving them hope in those few brief hours, a hope that will remain when they leave, and the cheer returns.
I believe the sea itself is very healing and Ricky has seen that evidence firsthand with these groups but, more specifically, with autistic children.
“I really wanted to start exploring this area a bit more. The tourist board were interested in introducing activity providers for people from a really wide range of minority backgrounds including those with mental or physical disabilities, so we did some work with MENCAP. We went to the Downs Syndrome Association of Belfast and we got taught how to do Makaton and kids’ sign language. We got autism training initially from Autism NI and then we formed a partnership with Autism Initiatives. As far as I know, we now run the largest autism surf programme in the UK.
“We’ve had parents break down on the beach regularly at the progress their kids have made. One said her kid had made more progress in one surf lesson than three years of going to a specialist. They like the feel of the wetsuits. It’s like giving them a hug,” he smiles. “With surfing there’s no pressure on you while you’re having a social interaction with everyone, as say in football, where if someone passes you a ball and you do a shit kick, everyone hates you for it. With surfing you catch a wave, you fall off, you can take a break. Or not.”
With both businesses it seems that Ricky has finally been able to take his corporate background and apply it to his passion. His no-nonsense attitude comes from an honesty that is refreshing and his enthusiasm is contagious. While it’s inevitable that living abroad carries its own influence on outlook and ideas, he dispels any potential accusation from naysayers that Skunkworks was born from notions picked up on his travels.
“I don’t totally agree with that. I think that NI is very afraid to just go, ‘you know what? we did this' rather than say we brought ideas from Australia - no, we didn’t. We came up with this ourselves. This is a Northern Ireland company, it was us who had the idea, it was us that brought that idea from where it was until now and we did that with the help of people from NI, we’ve done that with money from NI. We’re really, really proud of that. It’s OURS!!” he laughs loudly.
“I think the most exciting thing about the North Coast is that it’s now becoming known. I was the co-host of a programme for an American travel channel last summer. We spent the entire time on the North Coast and they were just blown away by it. I see it in the surf school, tourists from Germany, Japan, Canada, England, France, from all over the world, coming to here and it’s brilliant.
“NI has got this huge entrepreneurial spirit at the moment. What the North Coast lacks is employment, especially outside seasonal industries. What it needs now is to take advantage of what is happening in NI from a tourist point of view and from a business point of view. That makes me sound totally business focused - I’m not. I want people to live a nice life. There’s so much potential here but it needs to be done in a responsible way. What we don’t want is a surfer’s paradise where we’ve got high rises in front of our beaches. We want to keep the beauty of what we have here.”
2016 promises to be a busy year for Skunkworks and has already kicked off with another trip to California to meet with potential distributors. Then it’s a move to a new 15000sq ft factory where the production of the boards can begin in earnest. Perhaps he’s right, everything doesn’t have to happen immediately but when the timing is right and solid steps are taken to progress, this creates its own momentum. These trademark blue boards will no doubt be seen dotting the beaches of the North this summer, a sign of what is possible when hard work and self belief meets opportunity while working with the environment that sustains on so many levels. Ricky, as ever, keeps it real:
“We need to appreciate what we have and why people come here, why it’s so beautiful, they come here because it’s wild and rugged so we need to maintain all that beauty but build an economy around it.”