5 things surfing taught me about running an agency

5 things surfing taught me about running an agency

I’m one of those people fortunate enough to enjoy what I do. That’s going to be tough for some of you to read, particularly if you’ve come to the Firebrand Blog looking for advice on how to get out of your current job because you aren’t one of those people.

So I want to qualify that first statement: I don’t enjoy everything about what I do. In the main, however, growing a business and running an agency is fun, it’s creative and it feels way better than clocking in at someone else’s business, generating wealth for somebody’s holding company. Before you accuse me of wearing rose-tinted aviator shades, let me acknowledge that it’s also frustrating, exhausting and risky.

For these reasons and more, running an agency reminds me of one of the other things I really enjoy doing: paddling out for a surf. Being in the water has, in its own way, given me plenty of perspective on why my role as an agency co-founder keeps getting me out of bed in the morning. I’ve also found more parallels than I expected, which means the lessons learned in the line-up have given me a few shortcuts in business. And now I give them to you:

1. There’s always someone better than you

There was a moment, once, when I was the best surfer in the water. It lasted about 15 minutes. The local tradies pulled up and showed me how to really surf that peak. Then the school kids turned up and surfed circles around the tradies. Then a bunch of sponnos turned up and, well, you get the picture. If I was only worried about surfing better than other people, I’d be pretty depressed most of the time. Even the best in the world get beaten. What I try and focus on is surfing better than me.

Same in business. There are other agencies growing faster. Some have nicer offices, more staff, better margins. Yes, I want that for our business and our team, but the way to get there is to focus on being a better agency than we were yesterday. We try and do that every day.

2. You can never tell when you’re going to get a break

Getting ‘out the back’ on a big day is a daunting exercise, with an extra serve of exercise. You watch the swell from the beach for a while, pick a spot to paddle out and go for it. But once you’re in the water, duck-diving and paddling on an endless ‘rinse and repeat’ cycle, you can lose perspective pretty quickly. You’re not sure if you’re making any progress. You don’t know how many more set waves are behind the next wall of foam. So many times, just at the point where I’m about to give up and go back to shore, I’ve ducked under one last wave only to find myself, all of a sudden, past the breakers.

Business often feels the same. It’s hard to predict when your new business efforts are going to pay off, or when your client will green-light your big idea. So keep going. The only thing that is certain is that if you stop paddling, you definitely won’t make it out the back. Another thing that’s certain: once you’ve made it to the take off spot on a big day, the real work has only just started. Get ready to really paddle.

3. Buy the equipment that makes you happy

I used to surf my boards until they were dead. As boards get old, they take on water, start to go brown and get a bit dull — both to look at and to ride. They lose their magic. That’s a problem. If there’s no magic, there’s no joy. And no joy generally means no performance.

It may feel like you’re saving a few bucks with your battered old laptop, or a scuffed backpack, or a phone with a crack in the corner of the screen, but what you’re really telling yourself is “this’ll do.” I’m here to tell you it won’t. No one is paying you for a “this’ll do” result. In an industry where image and reputation are what we’re selling, we should at least be able to recognise that our own image is important, too. As soon as we were able, we started to invest in our workspace and our equipment at Wordsearch agency (I even wrote about it here) and it’s paid off immediately. We like our space and it makes us want to do our best work. That’s why I’m telling my wife that I don’t want a new board next Xmas — I need one.

4. Lead with your head

I’ll never be a great surfer. I won’t even be a relatively good one, for that matter. I love it, but I’m aware enough to know that I took it up too late in life and I don’t put enough time into it for me to ever become truly skilled at it. Perhaps the real reason is that I just get out there and do it. I don’t work at it and I don’t really analyse it. I talk about getting some coaching, but it’s rare that I get some structured, qualified advice on improving this aspect of my life. That’s madness.

It’s a mistake I’m determined not to repeat with running a business, which is an entirely learned skill. And anything that can be learned can be taught. So get yourself some mentoring, some professional advice or even some coaching. Take classes, attend events and read the industry journals. If your heart is in it, that’s great. But it’s also not enough. Get your head into it as well.

5. Don’t forget to make new friends along the way

Surfing is a great way to travel. It takes you to places no sane tourist would consider visiting (I’m looking at you, Indonesian port town of Padang). It also connects you to people you might otherwise never consider spending time with. Play golf and you’ll probably spend time with fat old white guys. Get into cycling and you’ll be surrounded by skinnier old, white guys with a fetish for lycra. I’m not claiming surfing as the ultimate crucible of racial, gender and class harmony (it over-indexes on old white guys, too), but I have met people in the water and on the boats and in the carpark that I absolutely wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you keep your eyes open, you should find that business does the same. In fact, if you’re recruiting well, it should practically be your MO. At Wordsearch agency, we demand our people have interest in and experience with property and development but, beyond that, we’re trying to cast the net wider to ensure we’ve got plenty of variation in our line-up. Sometimes the people you never thought you’d meet become the people you can’t do without.

After coming home from a surf at a break I don’t get to very often, with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, I found writing this post much more fun than I expected. I hope your work and your business are doing the same for you.


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