Chris Martin and his brother Ricky founded surfboard manufacturer Skunkworks Surf Co with no prior experience. Here, Chris explains how the business became an award winner and why it’s next stop California.
Sunkwork’s mission is to create the most robust, high performance soft surfboards and stand-up paddleboards in the world. The founders, brothers Ricky and Chris Martin, are designing, sourcing and producing what they describe as the “next generation” of surfboards at Skunkworks’ HQ in Coleraine, Northern Ireland.
It’s all about performance on the waves and making the industry more sustainable. Born out of frustration with learner surfboards, which typically last a short time before they fall apart, the two brothers considered: “there must be a better way?”
Skunkworks was inspired by a deep connection to the sea and a dislike of toxic resins glues and fibreglass. The brothers explored alternative options, which in turn led them to make a version that is 100% recyclable, using no glues, adhesives, or resins.
An indication of the commercial potential of Skunkworks is the Invent 2015 Award they recently picked up for best engineering. The team were recently runners-up in the Virgin Media BusinessPitch to Rich 2015 competition in the “New Things” category with their concept for its 8’ board. It netted them £10,000 investment to perfect the model.
Minutehack spoke to Chris Martin:
1. How did Skunkworks come to life?
SkunkWorks started with my brother Ricky calling me up and asking if I could come over and help him fix up all the surfboards he uses in his surf school. I was immediately shocked at how terrible every brand of board was. He used 9 different brands and every single one had the same problems.
They were made of packaging grade polystyrene like your washing machine comes covered in, all stuck together with the cheapest glue money can buy. It was crazy!
After five minutes I said there has got to be a better way to make soft surfboards. That was it. What we now know as SkunkWorks Surf Co was born.
What followed next was 8 months of sitting at a computer learning about foam, plastic and polymers, how they can be bonded and why they are good or bad. By far the most boring time in my life but by the end we had materials never used or even heard of in the surf industry that have since created the best soft surfboards in the world.
What really launched the name, brand and profile of the company was entering Virgin Media Business Pitch to Rich. This nationwide competition gave us massive coverage across the U.K and Ireland and helped us gain an incredibly supportive and loyal following.
One of our two new investors followed our progress on Pitch to Rich then got in touch to offer potential investment. It took a lot of work and dedication to get to the final and pitch to Richard Branson but it remains one of the most worthwhile things we have done to promote the company.
2. You started Skunkworks with Ricky, your older brother. How is it working together?
Working with your brother is just as you would imagine. Most of the time we get on great and work really well together and a tiny bit of the time we want to strap each other to one of our boards and send that baby out to sea.
The great thing is, we are good at different things. I am head of product design and production, with Ricky heading up sales and marketing. This clear distinction between roles is essential and the fact we are both pretty good in our own areas means the business has benefited.
We both really enjoy what we do, so each of us have a lot going on at any one time. That keeps us busy and focused on what we need to be doing to push the business and put simply, it makes us happy.
3. It must be fun testing your boards but with no engineering background, how do you ensure the boards are robust?
Well I watch a lot of “How It’s Made” and “How Do They Do That” so I claimed that as engineering experience at the beginning!
Years of work has gone into the research, design and development of our boards. If you set out to make a better product than the competition you start by finding out every single problem with current boards and how that problem has come to be.
Once you know every problem you keep it simple. Work out every possible solution and get into the detail. Why will that make it better? What potential issues could arise from the change you want to make?
Be incredibly practical when you are problem solving and don’t limit yourself to what the industry has set as its standard. This approach keeps your mind open to all the possibilities available to you.
This process meant that by the time we got to building our first prototypes we already knew the boards materials were stronger than our competitors and our heat bonding process meant every join in our board was a molecular join – meaning it was the strongest bond it could possibly be.
We also had all of our materials and cross sections of our boards tested using the most up to date material testing lab in the country and we compared this to materials and cross sections from our competitors.
The best thing about our job is the final prototype testing, better known as going for a surf! We treat the boards like dirt and see how they stand up. Ricky has been a surf instructor for 7 years so he tells us how to treat them as bad as possible.
4. How did you originally get in to surfing?
Ricky started surfing when he was 13. At that time there was a really solid group of young guys just starting to get into surfing. I suppose that was the second generation of surfers from the Causeway Coast with the first generation being made up of about 7 or 8 guys who had inspired the local kids.
When I reached 13 almost 4 years later, I started surfing too. As anybody who has ever tried surfing knows, once you start, that’s it, you are a surfer for life!
We love surfing. Everything about it is great, just surfing a wave and the feeling that gives you. Then you move on to bigger more critical waves plus surf trips in new countries and new cultures. I could go on all day about why every part of surfing is so awesome! But I won’t, don’t worry.
5. Can a business from Ireland give California’s surfing industry a run for their money?
Absolutely it can!
Ireland has some of the best waves on the planet. Over the past 10 years several big wave spots have been heavily covered by the world surfing press, leading to Ireland being the number 1 surf destination for many global surfers.
The new found fame of Ireland gives us immediate credibility so we are capitalising on the positive vibes. We know our boards are incredibly high quality and experience has shown all we need to do is put one down in front of any potential customer and they sell themselves.
Because we didn’t rush to market but instead spent years of R&D and prototype testing, we have total and complete confidence in the shape, design and quality of our boards.
We are heading out to California at the end of January to meet potential distributors as well as some other very well known companies that we can’t quite mention yet.
Rest assured, when we decide to launch SkunkWorks in the states, the entire surf world is going to hear about it and we are confident the American market is going to go nuts for our boards.
6. What makes a successful modern entrepreneur?
I think entrepreneurs have always and will always, be the same.
There are many different types of people out there and many different types of entrepreneur but there are some key ways an entrepreneur thinks that separate them from everybody else.
They have unshakable self belief, will work until they quite literally can’t keep their eyes open and every time they get knocked down they pick themselves back up and keep on going.
I think this last point is key when discussing the psychology of entrepreneurs, modern or otherwise. Coming up with an idea is one thing but turning it into a reality is a massive undertaking that, until you try it, you will never be able to comprehend the sheer amount of work involved.
It is this ability to simply keep going that makes a true entrepreneur. When you have no energy left, everything is going wrong, things are against you every way you look at it and you should give up but you don’t. You wake up the next day and keep on fighting for your dream.
The beauty about the modern world is opportunity. There are more potential opportunities out there right now than any other time in history and this means a golden era for the 21st century entrepreneur.
7. What does your company mean to people in Northern Ireland?
It is pretty mad going from growing up with the army on the streets to what we have here now. Most of the trouble is over with and 99% of people here just want to get along and have a happy life and that is what we are all about.
The people of Northern Ireland have supported us like nowhere else in the world. One major bonus about the personality of people here is that most peoples first question is “How can I help you guys?”. They don’t want a thing, they just want to help because if you can, why wouldn’t you?
This is a mentality seldom found elsewhere these days and we are really proud to come from a country where these, perhaps, old fashioned ideas still prevail.
We are hire staff from all backgrounds and we all work very effectively and happily together. We will continue to do all we can to help boost the N.Ireland economy and show that we are a wee country with great ambition. People from here have always been entrepreneurs and we will support that entrepreneurial spirit as much as we can.
8. What’s next for Skunkworks in 2016?
2016 is the year it all starts for us. It has been R&D and prototype testing up till now so we are ready to shake up the global surf industry. We just received significant investment and have two new partners who have brought a vast wealth of experience and contacts.
We are moving into a new 15,000 sq ft factory, we have simplified and updated our manufacturing process meaning we can make up to 12 times as many boards in a week as we currently do. This in turn brings our price of production down so we can make all our boards for the world right here at home in Northern Ireland.
We are hiring new staff and Ricky and I will be spending a lot of time on planes, trains and automobiles. We do best meeting people face to face and that’s what we intend to do.
We can’t wait! The entire team has worked so hard for years so 2016 is going to be our year, we can feel it.
Minutehack. 14 January, 2016.