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Catching the right wave

Terry van Rhyn, former surfer dude and founding director of Ashgrove Markets, muses on how success is all about learning, experience and great timing

Many moons ago, I was a surfer. So many moons ago, in fact, it was the time of longboards in the 1970s.

At the time I lived near one of the world’s most treasured surf spots, Jeffery’s Bay (or simply J-Bay), made famous by Bruce Brown’s 1966 documentary film Endless Summer that followed two friends as they surfed their way around the world.

From a very young age I practically lived on the water – and hats off to my dear parents who never complained about driving me down to my favourite surf spot in the Bay. Later, I could see the same point break from one of my lecture rooms at university which resulted in a few early departures to catch a ride between classes.

Looking out at a different – and chillier – sea recently, I was led to reflect on the analogies between surfing and business and marketing. This may seem an incongruous comparison to some of you but let’s see where this wave takes us!

Firstly, just as with a new or young business, you will need to test the water, bodysurfing a few smaller waves to get a feel for the experience. This teaches you about the power of a wave before and after it breaks, and how your body reacts to it. Your learnings help you understand your body position, and the optimum time and position to take and ride the wave.

At this stage, it’s not necessary to know how to do fancy tricks like on a surfboard. Now is the time to get the basics right by being out there catching every wave you can to learn how different weather conditions affect the wave. One day, you’ll know the time is right to finally upgrade to a board and step it up a level.

Going up a gear – just like expanding and evolving a business – will bring a different set of challenges, because the conditions are different and you will need to quickly adapt what you’ve learned on a metaphoric boogie board to what you are on now.

In this environment the stakes are higher: you may have to paddle further out to catch the right wave, sometimes in gnarly conditions. You now also have to contend with many other surfers out there trying to catch the same wave and you need to quickly learn the protocols of your position in the wave – and who to give way to and when you own the wave.

You will have to contend with a few rather colourful characters who are less tolerant of any newbie trying to “drop in” (a heinous crime by the way) on their wave – this is their turf and you need to earn the right to be there.

In addition, because you are now further out than you’ve been before you’re now also in riptide and shark territory – just something else to keep an eye out for.

The analogy is quite obvious: as your business grows there are many more aggressive competitors all trying to dominate or intimidate you. The tides and sharks are the macro factors that are outside your control but have an impact on your business, such as a pandemic, Brexit, a war, recession or depression.

Back in the surfing world, it all starts to come together when you’ve finally figured out how to stay on your board and position yourself in the water. You can now start carving the waves, doing bottom turns or cutbacks and aspiring to complete a barrel, if the conditions are right.

Now it’s all about performance and showing off the skills you have learned from experience. The waves will get bigger and the competition fiercer, but you now have more confidence and you’ve also figured out what you are really good at and what separates you from the other surfers.

As marketers, we use all this acquired knowledge from businesses to create campaigns and drive sales. But there is also the matter of timing to consider.

At sea, waves come in sets with the first few waves normally smaller, building up to about the seventh wave which typically is the bigger one before getting smaller again. Just as you wait for the right moment to ride the wave, you also need to wait for the right moment to launch your marketing campaign.

Unleash a campaign too early you and you may not get a long enough ride to get your story told. Even more depressingly, you may not be able to show off all your hard-earned abilities to your friends watching from the beach. Taking time to read the conditions and planning out the right response will optimise your chances of success – and also give you most bang for your buck.

Your marketing communications will improve as you get more skilled at riding waves and before you know it you will have different boards for different conditions, allowing you to experiment more and employ more or different communication channels to deliver your brand message.

As a young surfer, I learned that you will fall off and fail a lot, but there are many more waves in the set. So you always get back up on your board and catch the next one. Plus, if you don’t have the occasional wipe-out, you’re probably not really trying hard enough!