How Instagram Brings Ventana Surfboards a Wave of Sales

Surfer holds Ventana Surfboards over his head while wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt.

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.  

Don't miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.
  

Show Notes

Transcript 

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.

David: Correct.

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 i