BRINGING INNOVATION TO MARKET

A New Market for Surf Boards?

Two entrepreneurs are trying to distribute surf boards cheap enough for kids to own two or three. Is Bender Boards Warby Parker for surfers?
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"My ideal customer is a kid walking off the beach into a surf shop with his parent or grandparent and seeing a Bender surfboard and saying, 'I want that!'" says Bill Brennan, co-founder of surfboard start-up Bender Boards. "Then the adult looks at the price tag and says, 'Yeah, OK, we can do that'."

Bender Boards, a surfboard start-up from Imperial Beach, California, wants to make surfing more affordable to kids and teens, the way Warby Parker is making stylish eyeglasses accessible to millennials.

The company's co-founders are Brennan, a process engineer who grew up surfing on the Jersey Shore, and Brett Bender, a custom surfboard shaper and lifetime California surfer. The company used the Toy Fair in New York City earlier this year to introduce a line of three short boards that are made from a mixture of foam and wood and carry suggested retail prices between $189 and $289. The boards are meant to be a middle step for kids who have outgrown cheap boogie boards but can't persuade their parents to part with $650 or more for an unwieldy fiberglass long board. 

The surfboard industry.

The original surfboards were made of wood, of course, and you still see custom wood boards occasionally. But all-wood boards are heavy and not conducive to mass production. At the other extreme, all-foam boards are highly buoyant and cheap but not versatile; even young surfers outgrow them quickly. By wrapping the foam in mahogany, Bender has taken some of the weight out of wooden boards while still offering a good surfing experience. The short, finless Bender boards are highly maneuverable (they fit easily in the back of a car) and the wood gives them an appealing retro look. Importantly, because of the foam center, they can be mass-produced, which allows the company to make the price appealing to parents, or teens who buy their own.  

"It's a market that hasn't been explored: a child who wants a board he can stand up on, but isn't ready to invest in a regular surfboard," says Chris Clark, a former surfboard maker who now owns Shaper Studios, where people learn to make their own surfboards, in San Diego. "I can also see it appealing to teens as an inexpensive way to buy a second or third board and try something different."

He continues, "The low price point will be a factor in opening up that market for [Bender]. The challenge will be getting it into the hands of the consumer, into the surf shops."

How Bender Boards distributes.

Brennan says that Bender just started selling a board through a national distributor he met at the Toy Fair, and has another board for sale on Amazon. Both of these distributors can help the two-man shop quickly increase visibility. That said, Brennan expects business to take root at mom-and-pop shops in Southern California, where his first handful of sales were, and then hopefully spread along both coasts and eventually to "every good surfing spot on the planet--any beach where kids want to surf, but can't afford the usual options."           

Reaching out to a lot of small retailers efficiently is what the Toy Fair was all about. Some 1,100 companies--225 appearing for the first time--exhibited more than 100,000 toys, games and gadgets to thousands of buyers and journalists (no kids). Bender Boards spent nearly $10,000 buying admission to the February fair and having its boards and stands shipped to New York. But it would have taken Brennan more than a year and a much bigger travel budget to generate the contacts and sales nibbles he gained by standing in the basement of Jacob Javits Center for four days.

He talked to shop owners from all over the East Coast and as far away as Australia and in the weeks following the show sent samples to potential buyers from Canada to Costa Rica. 

Iterating the whole way.

Brennan also took in a lot of valuable feedback and questions. One thing that kept coming up was a request for a paddleboard. So he set Bender to work designing one as soon as he got back.

The company, which filed its LLC and and got its California sellers license in December, is so far running on Brennan's own $45,000 investment. He still has his day job and Bender still works in his custom board shaping business. When Brennan got back from the Toy Fair in February, his sales goal for the year was 10,000 boards, which he later realized was too aggressive. I wound up "behind the curve with potentially large customers for this year's summer season," he says.

He now has his sights set on summer 2013. 

Brennan won't say what his margins are but he does say they are well short of the "three to four times cost a lot of toy companies work on." His strategy he says "is to keep margins low to make the boards affordable and go for volume." 

If only young surfers catch his wave.

IMAGE: Bill Brennan
Last updated: Aug 14, 2012




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