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The Extreme Sports Entrepreneurs

Words by Jojo Cook

THE HOLISTIC CHICKS

After a hard day’s surfing on an all-girl trip in Hawaii, Elenice Senn, 36, and Stephanie Tufts, 32, joked about leaving their day jobs to open a place where you could get a massage and a gourmet dinner apres-surf. Seven years on, their female-only surf and spa retreat called Kelea (named after an ancient legend of a Hawaiian surfer girl) runs from the beautiful beach breaks of Hawaii and Costa Rica.

The beginning: ‘We both invested equal amounts of our personal savings – I contributed almost everything I had,’ says Stephanie. ‘It was a big risk, but I just knew I had to try it. I remember my Dad saying, “honey, are you sure?”, but he was behind me no matter what. ‘

Ellie too believed they were onto a winner with Kelea. ‘Surfing was becoming a mainstream sport and more grown women wanted to give it a try without feeling intimidated,’ says Ellie. ‘Kelea was the perfect package for women who wanted to learn to surf without feeling pressured. I kept telling myself, if it doesn’t work out at least we had a great idea and followed through with it.’

After finding the perfect house on the beach close to Puaena Point, a beginner break on the north shore, the girls grappled with the practicalities.

‘Ellie had experience running a surf camp and I have a background in marketing, so our skills complemented each other and in the first year we did everything from the cooking to the surf instruction ourselves (now we have a chef, yoga instructors and full staff),’ says Stephanie. ‘I remember when we got our first email inquiring about Kelea – we were so excited we answered the email together, checking every word.’

The hard work: ‘The toughest challenge we faced was a few years ago when the Hawaiian government started to require strict certification for the surf instructors teaching in Oahu,’ remembers Stephanie. ‘We had to pass written tests about water safety, a gruelling physical test and become certified as a lifeguard and a professional CPR rescuer. It was tough, but worth it, I’m glad they have those requirements and I’m sure the students are too!’

The pay-off: ‘I love the freedom of it, being able to travel and meet amazing new people all the time,’ grins Stephanie. ‘I love being able to make a decision and not have it approved by 10 other people before anything gets done and thinking of new ideas, putting them into action and seeing the immediate response.

‘But the biggest high is to help someone catch and ride their first wave and see the expression on their face – it’s something that words cannot describe. Surfing can become a life-changing experience for some of these ladies. Some quit their jobs and move to the beach, and some change their lifestyles and get in shape and surf every day.’

‘It is great to know when you have a positive effect on someone else’s life,’ adds Ellie. ‘I remember one woman in particular who had been through a messy divorce. She was really shy and told me she’d just watch from the shore, as she wasn’t very athletic. After the first hour we convinced her to get out there, and she turned out to be the best surfer of the week! She left with her head held higher and a new-found attitude and confidence. To inspire that in someone is an amazing high!’

Lessons learned: ‘To have patience, both in and of the water,’ says Stephanie. ‘I’ve learned to really listen to the needs of our clients, because they have a great perspective.’

You can do it: ‘Write a business plan, have a clear vision of what you want to do and put it into writing. Make sure your name and your website and anything to do with the look and feel of your business is consistent. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice – just because you are starting your own company doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.’

www.keleasurfspa.com

THE MOUNTAIN GIRL

Rosie Goolden, 27, discovered a passion for the great outdoors when her mum sent her on a kayak weekend course aged 14. She developed a life-long love for climbing and went on to train as a mountaineering instructor. Noticing a gap in the market for female only-outdoors events, she set up Chicks Unleashed in 2003, the UK’s first climbing and mountaineering courses run by women, for women.

The beginning: ‘So many girls would tell me they’d have more fun learning with other women, so I decided to have a one-off weekend meet to see if it was true,’ explains Rosie. ‘I provided instruction, talks, free gear and as much fun as possible. .At that first event, I employed every one of Britain’s top qualified female climbing instructors and the atmosphere was incredible. When you’ve spent over a year organising an event and putting so much energy into it, when it actually happens and everyone is there it’s just the most tremendous buzz. Every girl was just so passionate and inspired and a lot of lifelong friendships were forged that day and I’m still in contact with all the original chicks.

‘The feedback from the chicks, the professionals and everyone else said made me realise I had a full time job to fill, so I got the Chicks Unleashed website online as quickly as I could. I kept costs low and still owe lots of favours for all the free help I got that first year. I sent press releases to all the climbing magazines and websites and within a matter of days interest was flooding in. It was such a funny feeling to overhear people talking about it at climbing venues, and I couldn’t help but listen. I’d normally pretend I was nothing to do with it, just to hear what other people say. It made me feel very proud that I’d created something successful.’

The hard work: ‘I do this job full-time and love it, but it’s physically and mentally exhausting, especially in winter,’ says Rosie. ‘In the winter months I’m normally only at home for five weeks. I miss my family and my home comforts and sometimes when I’m cold and tired halfway up a mountain I have dreams about working in a bakery – but I never would! I work incredibly hard to keep myself fit and healthy and it’s difficult doing all that and developing a new business.

‘I like trying to improve everything. I look at where the gaps are and try to fill them. I’m offering a really exciting expedition to an unexplored area in Greenland next year, we have an ice climbing festival in Norway each winter and now offer a year round programme for women of all experiences and aspirations in walking, mountaineering and climbing.’

The pay-off: ‘I love the independence, creativity and the fact that everything that happens is down to me to some extent. When I get a glowing feedback form or letter of thanks, I feel proud. And, because climbing and mountaineering are things that people do out of a love for them, I get immediate feedback and it’s fantastically rewarding.

‘I remember one woman who used to be very active and then had two kids. She hadn’t done any sport for 10 years, then came to one of our meets and rediscovered her passion for it! I meet an incredible range of people and have learnt so much about how to teach and how to make people feel safe and happy.’

You can do it: ‘In my experience, if you feel you have a brilliant idea, then follow it through. But remember, if you’re not enjoying the process then don’t bother. Try to put as much effort in to your friendships as you do your ideas, make sure that you pin your ears back for all the advice that people give you before making your own decision after removing your ego.’

www.chicks-unleashed.co.uk

THE PR GURUS

Lorna Cairns, 34, set up Radiator PR almost 10 years ago. Now, having formed a sister agency Radar PR in Germany with Monika Bocian, 32, they boast more than 20 high profile clients, including etnies, Billabong, Fosters, Nike and Stussy.

The beginning: ‘I was working in the industry as a PR and marketing manager and was often asked to do freelance work for action sports brands as there weren’t many public relations people in the industry back then,’ says ,’ says Lorna. ‘I was never any good at skating, snowboarding or surfing, but I was great at the social side and loved their lifestyle and fashions. I rented a small room from another company, and with the help of some action sports industry friends I picked up the Ride snowboard and etnies accounts.’

When a mutual friend introduced the pair to each other, they instantly clicked and Lorna invited Monika (who had been hooked on skateboarding since age 11) to do an internship. ‘We quickly became close friends,’ smiles Lorna. ‘I felt like I could instantly trust her, we had all the same interests, ambition and drive, so I suggested she set up our Berlin office.’

The hard work: ‘It has been a lot of fun and that makes the bitter taste of hard work even more sweet,’ says Monika. ‘We’ve travelled the world together – sales meetings in LA, trade shows in Paris and skateboard events in the mountains of Austria. Sometimes we’d sit in the office for days and nights on end!’

‘It took blood sweat and tears, and many flights to Scotland to get some TLC from my family,’ adds Lorna. ‘Work took over my life but Monika helped make it fun – having her there to pick me up and tell me we were doing great when I doubted it, was a life-saver. She has great vision and doesn’t get as swept up in the emotion as I do, so that really helped.’

The girls’ toughest challenge was getting clients to see beyond their small size. ‘There was still the attitude that bigger companies could provide better service and I believe the opposite is true,’ says Monika. ‘Also, we were both young and there was just us and a student work placement, so we weren’t exactly a global force!’

As the girls accepted work without payment to prove themselves, the debt started piling up. ‘I remember not having enough money to pay myself or anyone else,’ adds Lorna. ‘Sometimes I just wanted to pack it in and move back to Scotland, but pride always got the better of me!’

The pay-off: ‘The thrill is succeeding and continually evolving,’ says Lorna. ‘No day is ever the same. I have grown in confidence and feel a sense of achievement every month when I can pay 15 salaries and know that we can all enjoy life through working on something we are passionate about. Winning business is always a high, also the flexibility of being able to work from home, which is always a bonus with a two year-old daughter and husband (Ali Cairns, professional skateboarder) with a broken leg. And finally, being able to stay in a slightly nicer hotel than you would do normally!’

Monika gets a buzz from having international friends all over the world. ‘We all come together at tradeshows or skateboard contests and most of the people stay the same – it feels like a never-ending circus traveling down the road! I also love seeing the kids who come to watch the events. Face-to-face with their idols, I see how happy they are, and I know why I’m doing it.’

Lessons learned: ‘It takes time, but if you work hard and prove yourself, you will be rewarded,’ says Lorna. ‘Always believe in your proposition and stay true to your growth plan (the green eyed monster can easily sway your judgment). And remember that you can never do enough networking – well, that’s the industry term, but really I call it partying with friends!’

You can do it: ‘It takes three years to see the fruits of your labour,’ says Lorna. ‘It takes long hours, so surround yourself with like-minded people and make sure you have some fun – otherwise what’s the point?’

www.radiatorpr.com

THE SUNGLASSES SIRENS

Back in 2003, Julie Vergez, 20, spotted a gap in the sports-sunglasses market, believing there wasn’t a brand making stylish eyewear exclusively for girls. With a little help from her father, and the support of her long time confidante, Laurie Guiraud, 28, they formed Jee Vice, ‘Eyewear for True Girls’. In just three years, Jee Vice has expanded from the French Southern Alps to global distribution.

The beginning: ‘I was still studying and also working in a communications agency and Laurie was working for a snowboard magazine selling ads,’ says Julie. ‘ We’d both been snowboarding with guys for more than 10 years and I think we were looking to express our femininity!

‘We came up with the idea of starting a brand of eyewear for girl riders. When we checked out the new eyewear collections, not a lot excited us. There only seemed to be three choices: sporty shades that weren’t really stylish; good designs but which were a bit old school and masculine; or luxury brands that were far too expensive.

‘The concept came easily, but the idea of starting a brand in such a competitive market was almost enough to put me off. I spoke to my father about it and asked for his advice (he had worked at Arnette for 10 years). He was convinced that I had a good idea and should give it a go.

‘Although neither of us had a background in design, we were both very interested in art and product design and began to design the collection, make a marketing strategy and sourcing a manufacturer. When we got some cash together, we registered the company and the rest happened quickly. In November 2003 we had our first samples and premiered them at the boardsports trade show, ISPO winter, in 2004 to the public and buyers.’

The hard work: ‘Even though we had the advantage of having a unique concept, we knew we had to invest in a serious marketing campaign to get our message out,’ says Julie. ‘We began by launching in the south-west Alps as this is where we thought the majority of winter sports brands and trends originate. We then expanded the distribution through the rest of France, and throughout Europe. Now Jee Vice is distributed throughout most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and Japan.

‘It was tough at the beginning and getting the product we’d imagined manufactured was a challenge. But the biggest obstacle that we faced was finding a sales force and distribution network – finding motivated people who were as excited and passionate about Jee Vice as us!

‘When we showed our first range and started to get support and orders we realised we were onto something. But I would say it won’t be until we make it to the end of this, our third year, that we’ll feel like we’ve actually made it. If it all goes well with the new collections, and our launch in the USA, then a long and beautiful adventure will really have begun.’

The pay-off: I’m so happy to work in an industry that I love,’ says Julie. ‘I’ve been surfing and snowboarding ever since I was young and I just couldn’t imagine any other way of life. All my friends are involved in the industry in one way or another. Of course, I have less time to snowboard these days but I’m not going to complain and I love it when I go snowboarding and call it work!

Lessons learned: ‘Never regret anything, because in life you learn by the mistakes you make. Yes, we question stuff sometimes, but you can’t rewind time and actually mistakes make you stronger. It takes blood, sweat and tears. ‘Laurie is like my big sister and and we know each other inside out,’ adds Julie. ‘Our personality differences compliment each other’s and make it perfect for working together. We do have our differences, but it never lasts for very long. You need a good team, time and patience.’

You can do it: ‘Believe in your idea and your dreams. But don’t try to rush things. Launching a new brand takes a lot of thought, research and a good knowledge of your market. It’s going to be tough at the start, a lot of brands don’t make it past their first year, but if your idea is strong enough and you’ve got a good team, go for it and follow your dream.’

www.jeevice.com

Top 10 tips for budding entrepreneurs

  • 1) Have patience and be prepared for hard work
  • 2) Write a business plan
  • 3) Learn about credit management
  • 4) Try to keep your costs low
  • 5) Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
  • 6) Go into business with someone you like – you’ll be spending a lot of time together!
  • 7) Put in long hours
  • 8) Research your market
  • 9) Keep your branding and messages consistent
  • 10) Be prepared to be poor in the beginning – you won’t get rich overnight!

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