Sand, surf and startups: Beach business lessons

Dragging surf boards, towels, beach bags, cricket bats and three kids across the scorching sand at Noosa Heads the last thing on my mind was business.

We were taking our annual summer break with the kids and were really excited about the perfect beach day before us. We worked our way through a near capacity beach toward the flags and the safe swimming area. Hardly a square meter of sand available anywhere, we moved to the front of the beach and cheekily set up camp on a little plot of sand just before the beach dropped away to the white water of the waves.

Front row seats mid-morning, could it be this easy?

The umbrella went up, towels laid down and the boys hit the waves. Within minutes it was obvious the reason this prime beach real estate was available; the tide was coming in. Stubbornly we decided to hold our ground and build a sand wall.

We had found a problem that needed solving and set out to create the solution. A startup business was born on the sand and next to the surf.

This is a business analogy I need to share.

As a very entrepreneurial founder, I took a strategic high level approach. I assembled the team, dreamed of ways to scale the business online and worked on my personal development (basically sun-baked with a book).

There were a number of other businesses (sand castles) along the water’s edge and the unpredictable ocean was the economy. A complex attraction process caught the attention of a local labour pool (the kids and their mates).

In hindsight, like some startups we may have likely breached national employment standards (NES) by only offering hot dogs and ice blocks as wages to 6 and 8 years olds? An operations manager was recruited (husband) to lead and motivate the team and project manage the construction.

Like many startups before us we battled the elements. A toxic employee (the two-year-old) went rogue and started working against the team, knocking down the wall.

This weakness in the team lead to waves reaching my towel on occasions, but as a team we stayed strong and never backed down. The operations manager worked hard to teach the team the “Vision” and get them to understand the ‘purpose’ of the business. Core values and guiding behaviours were agreed upon and used to keep the team focused. Some of the most loyal employees were lured away by what appeared to be better opportunities (other more glamorous sand castles) or simply lost focus (went surfing).

We tried to take everyone on the journey. There was laughter, tears and sunburn.

With a constantly changing landscape and rising tide (the economy) undermining the walls; innovation was essential. One of the young employees decided the walls must be strengthened and needed dry sand. Using the capital available (the body board) they sharpened the saw and carried larger volumes of sand. This new processes to add dry sand to the wet wall and strengthen the frail infrastructure was genius and doubled the output. With a strong performance and inclusive culture we encouraged the team to put their ideas forward. One brilliant idea was to create a mote just over the wall to trap the white water that made it over the wall.

This idea from outside the box saved the towels.

Victories were celebrated and in tough times we fought. As the wall grew others took notice. Other startups tried to claim sand once ignored and competitors emerged.

Our exit plan was not strong. Should we go bigger? Should we license our design? Was franchising viable? How could we sell now and avoid the influx baby boomer businesses for sale in the next decade?

We successfully managed to navigate the high tide, but what about low tide? Would we be as strong when the tide went out?

Eventually a family coming to enjoy the afternoon at the beach was prepared to buy us out. An offer we could not refuse. We made the emotional sale and retired to the lounges in the shade surrounding our hotel’s pool. We ate foot-long hotdogs and drank milkshakes for the rest of the afternoon!

Proud? Absolutely. But as I reflected on our achievement at the beach that morning, I had an unquenchable desire to do more. I had enjoyed the relaxing time around the pool, but wanted to start something new and to make something better.

A fun analogy maybe, but the similarities to startup business were uncanny!

Sue-Ellen Watts is the founder and director of wattsnext, specialists in HR, recruitment, compliance and people performance.


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