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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Big-Wave Surfers


What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Big-Wave Surfers

By: Steve Sadler, CEO, Allegiancy

December 16, 2015

If you had the opportunity to speak with my wife, or one of my five daughters, I can assure you they would identify me as an entrepreneur and a businessman. And, very recently, a beginner in the sport of surfing. While you might think business guys are boring, as an entrepreneur, I am learning all the time — something new every time I turn around. As a surfer I am enthusiastic, but the learning has barely begun.

The other night we sat down as a family to watch a movie the girls had selected called, “Chasing Mavericks.” I highly recommend it. It’s a great story with a lot to commend it and a lot of lessons for entrepreneurs and everyone else.

Bigger is Better, if you are ready

Sometime this winter, a handful of the world’s most accomplished — and fearless — surfers will gather in northern California’s Half Moon Bay to ride the renowned monster waves known as Maverick’s.

The cauldron of Maverick’s is a place of extreme danger — it’s claimed the lives of prominent professional surfers over the years — where waves can reach the height of a four-story building. Maverick’s is a rare confluence of natural forces and conditions both hidden and visible that in the surfing world is matched with its big waves by just a few locations around the globe.

It’s not a place for amateurs. Nor is it even a place for accomplished surfers. It’s reserved for the elite fraternity of fearless surfers who are at the very top of the surfing profession and whose knowledge and skill are matched by a quantifiable psychological edge.

They are, in a sense, the specialist’s specialist of the surfing world. The best of the best.

Maverick’s surfers and the very top entrepreneurs in the business world are, in many ways, very similar. They’re both rare — both exciting and a bit dangerous. Like Maverick’s, the business world can chew up those unprepared and ill-equipped for its forces. It requires a special talent, focus, desire, drive and skill to succeed at the top levels of the business world.

Preparation, planning and commitment are all essential to success at Maverick’s. Even then, the waves at Maverick’s draw no distinction between the surfers’ education, their past performance, their future plans and even ability.

In surfing, millions of people around the globe surf, just like millions of people launch businesses. It’s not too hard to get started surfing. Even a middle-aged bald guy like me can surf a wave. It may not be pretty — just ask my surfing daughters! — but it still counts.

But how do you survive the Maverick’s? How do you survive in business? That’s where specialization, preparation, fearlessness and intense drive comes in. Read on and with every word about surfing and waves, think about how it relates to you and your business. The metaphor is powerful. As powerful as the waves themselves.

Ocean WaveWaves Of Change – Drawing the Metaphorical Connection

When it comes to being an entrepreneur, there are two kinds of changes you will encounter and Maverick’s illuminates either of the potential outcomes.

There’s the change you look for and recognize, and hopefully recognize it early, and you get yourself in position to win. Change in the business and entrepreneurial worlds can be an enormously powerful and dangerous wave, but one you can ride in a good way, just like the surfers at Maverick’s. Assuming you are prepared, focused and specialized.

The other kind of change is the one that surprises you. You’re unprepared, or not paying attention, or in most cases paying attention — but to something else. You’re probably very busy tending to current business, but not paying attention to the change that’s coming, not reading the conditions around you like the surfers at Maverick’s. It’s the kind of change that rolls over you, crushes you and maybe you’re trying to get away but you can’t outrun the wave. This is the guy you don’t want to be.

Making Maverick’s

The monster waves at Maverick’s are created through a unique combination of natural forces. Winter storms that churn in the Gulf of Alaska produce a phenomenon called the “wave factory.” Birthed often by powerful El Nino conditions way out in the Pacific Ocean, the roiling waves push south to pound America’s Pacific coastline.

Accentuating the ferocity of the storms and accompanying waves is the unrelenting wind. The wind’s speed, or velocity, is a key ingredient. As is the wind’s fetch, or how much surface water the wind is blowing over, plus the duration that the wind howls over the sea.

In the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the winds gather force with nothing in the way to stop them. When wind speed, fetch and duration is combined, powerful waves are hurled toward the West Coast. When these waves are timed for when the tide is moving from high to low, wave heights rise as the wave energy goes to the sea floor and the wave is forced up. But just as soon as you understand the scene, conditions change. And they change fast. Surfers, like business people, can get hurt if they are unprepared or unaware of coming changes.

What sets Maverick’s apart from other locations along the West Coast is a unique underwater topography unlike anywhere else along the Pacific coast. The ocean floor at Maverick’s is a long gradual upward slope marked by deep troughs on either side of the “ramp.” The seafloor geography creates the high, steep wave faces that differentiates Maverick’s from other surfing hotspots. Sometimes, as in this case, it is the things you cannot see that set the stage for success or failure.

So now that you know about what goes into making killer surfing waves at Maverick’s, are you ready to climb onto a surfboard and try them out? I didn’t think so. Information alone is not sufficient. Just because you know some facts about Maverick’s doesn’t prepare you to ride the waves. It’s just data and without context and preparation, but it certainly doesn’t make you an expert in Maverick’s, right?

Let’s give you some additional information. Maybe that will help.

Making Danger Dangerous

The conditions at Maverick’s add to the challenge of riding the monster waves. Most big wave locations around the world have water temperatures of 80 degrees or higher. But the water at Maverick’s, located about 25 miles south of San Francisco, is regularly in the low 50s. In order to surf, you need to wear a thick wetsuit that can cause a restriction of movements, make breathing challenging and presents other physical challenges.

Not only that, but it’s often foggy, making it hard to tell if you’re in the right location for catching a wave, not to mention the currents and winds that mean surfers are continuously paddling to be in the right spot and find it difficult to stay balanced on the surfboard.

Oh, and one other thing. Some of the highest concentrations of great white sharks are right around Maverick’s. Which is also home to “The Boneyard,” where a pile of jagged rocks stick up to 30 feet above the surface. So in summation, it’s cold, windy and foggy and if you don’t get eaten by sharks you might be launched onto jagged rocks. Sounds like good clean fun, eh?

Now that you know about the dangers present at Maverick’s and are properly prepared, are you ready to tackle the waves on a long surfboard?

No? Oh, that’s right. We need to make sure you have the right frame of mind. Tackling Maverick’s requires the proper mindset. Don’t worry. We’ll get back to the business metaphor more directly.

mavericksMind Over Maverick’s

In a 2014 article in The Sport Psychologist, Dr. Lenny D. Wiersma, a professor at California State University—Fullerton, the mindset of Maverick’s surfers is described in detail. Wiersma interviewed in depth seven Maverick’s surfers to explore the psychology of the athletes in an extreme environment.

Wiersma describes how the surfers prepare mentally, beginning days in advance when they are monitoring buoy readings, checking weather maps and taking in wind and wave forecasts. They are preparing equipment and even studying videos of surfing at Maverick’s while also doing visualization exercises and exorcising doubts.

When they are in the water and “in the lineup” to catch waves, they focus on a multitude of factors. What I found so interesting in reading Wiersma’s article is the emphasis on their intense focus and years and even decades of experience.

The surfers are required to be acutely aware of their surroundings — triangulating their positioning in the water based on landmarks and other features while also keeping an eye on other surfers and the conditions — understanding how critical it is to be in the right position or else they put themselves at risk.

Wiersma writes, “Several physiological and emotional sensations accompany being in the lineup at Maverick’s. Many surfers described a mix of fear and excitement that translated into, for one, a `heightened sense of everything. You’re pushing up against a really radical sense of self-preservation that you have to overcome to go for these waves.’”

When the surfers are riding a wave, they have to be prepared to drop 30 feet down the wave in seconds. Once that drop is successfully negotiated, split-second decisions on navigating the wave have to be made.

Wiersma describes “attentional focus cues” that include what’s immediately in front of them to help maneuver through the wave while also being keenly aware of what’s going on just over their back shoulder. Interestingly, the surfers use sound recognition to calculate what the wave is doing behind them so they can quickly react accordingly.

When Bad Things Happen

Inevitably, the surfers will have to deal with a wipeout. It often comes with severe consequences. Wiersma describes the types of injuries that are not uncommon at Maverick’s, when surfers can be shoved 30 feet to the bottom and unable to surface: facial fractures, concussions, shoulder dislocations, eardrum damage, lacerations from the fin of the board, back and knee injuries and drowning.

“Surfers deal with the wipeout in a variety of ways,” Wiersma writes, “including accepting the possibility of it happening and not letting the anticipation of a wipeout distract them from doing what they need to do to successfully surf the wave.”

One surfer talked about being confident and staying calm in a bad situation. They also talked about being mentally comfortable in bad situations, relaxing even in dire situations. They also look to other surfers or riders on jet skis to help them out.

One surfer described to Wiersma his experience of wiping out like this: “And I got the crap beat out of me and didn’t think I was going to live through it. I made it, but I don’t think, mentally, you ever recover. You shouldn’t forget. It just makes you more cautious when you are out there.”

Spoils To The Victors

A unifying theme of those who ride the towering Maverick’s waves is an adrenaline-fueled rush that can stay with them for weeks. They have conquered Maverick’s, overcome fears and doubts and revel in the rush of adrenaline and excitement.

Wiersma writes that it’s the “feeling of riding a massive wave and feeling like you’re the king of the mountain for that day is certainly a big factor. But it’s also that you survived something.”

Many of the surfers described a high of euphoria that in the days following abruptly changed to extreme fatigue. To the point that one described adrenaline flowing so hard following his Maverick’s session that the next day he couldn’t even move.

One of the conclusions Wiersma draws in his study is that the surfers who perform in risky environments have a “complex understanding of both a performer’s own abilities and of the challenges of the activity itself.” Isn’t that just like being an entrepreneur? Except that business almost always requires a team, and success requires a great team. So, you can evaluate the surfer by his skills alone, but with the entrepreneur the requisite skills include building and motivating a great team.

There Are Some Big Waves Forming

I strongly believe there’s a wave of transformational change upon the American business and entrepreneurial worlds. That wave is the democratization of capital. The 2012 JOBS Act is, for the first time, allowing American companies like Allegiancy to raise up to $50 million in capital through new Regulation A+ rules, also known as `IPO Lite.’ And the rules allow, for the first time, everyday Americans to participate.

Crowdfunding and the democratization of capital markets is happening, just like the Maverick’s waves, whether you are ready or not. Private companies in the United States represent a $75 trillion ‘emerging’ market — opportunity is pounding on the door. At the same time an estimated $30 trillion in net worth is being transferred from Baby Boomers to the younger generation. From my perspective, Wall Street is wholly unprepared for this massive wave of change that levels the playing field for investors to join forces with savvy entrepreneurs and business owners like you and me who want to grow their business.

The wave of change is coming. Are you prepared and willing to ride it with me?


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