Successful entrepreneurs regularly espouse the benefits of tapping into a concept fractionally before it catches on among consumers. The ability to ‘ride the wave’ of a new business trend is something that Brian Singer has been doing in more ways than one since 1969.
Singer, along with his long-time friend and business partner Doug Warbrick, founded surf brand Rip Curl in 1969. Since then, Rip Curl has grown to become a global brand with sales reaching $450 million a year.
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But Singer insists that the business’ success comes down to the simple truism of knowing exactly what customers want and delivering it to them.
“In a way the business comes down to fortuity, because we both liked surfing and we saw it as an opportunity to make some surfboards,” he says. “We both knew a lot about surfing and a lot of our friends were surfers. We knew what they wanted and we delivered it to them.”
“Make sure you are the customer. Live the customer’s life. If you are starting a magazine, read all the magazines you can. If it’s motor vehicles, talk to all the people you can in that industry. Whatever you do, listen and respond. If you don’t do that, you won’t be around for long.”
Spotting a gap in the market
Singer, then a 25-year-old teacher, admits that he didn’t “think long-term” about the company’s future when he started it up with Warbrick in the Victorian coastal town of Torquay, where it’s based to this day. However, Singer’s taciturn deprecation downplays some impressive entrepreneurial decisions.
After initially selling surfboards to friends, Singer and Warbrick realised there was also opportunity in the emerging wetsuit market. There were plenty of brands making surfboards, but only two companies made wet suits, with both of them aimed at divers rather than surfers.
“It was something O’Neill, an American brand, was doing but it was fairly embryonic in Australia,” says Singer. “We set about finding new solutions for surfers. We wanted the suits to be top level. Premium. We knew what surfers wanted because we lived the surf life. We talked to them all the time for their feedback. “
Singer “sniffed out” a good supplier of rubber and set about cutting up and assembling the wetsuits in a former bakery in Torquay. Using a pre-World War II sewing machine to assemble the ‘wetties’, the duo took on a few casual staff to help them as the business began to grow.
When it came to marketing the fledgling business, Singer and Warbrick again turned to the surfing community they were part of.
“We used top surfers for endorsement – I think Nat Young was our first endorser,” Singer says.
“The growth of the business was gradual. The word spread among the community about Rip Curl.”
He adds: “I oversaw the wetsuits during the time. Doug and I have benefited from a very give and take relationship – we are different but have complementary traits.”
Rip Curl’s international expansion began in earnest in the late 1970s. With surfers from around the world increasingly aware of the Rip Curl brand, Singer visited California to explore the opportunity of selling his wetsuits overseas.
Yet again, Singer’s close ties to the surfing community aided the business, with former world surfing champion Jeff Hakman introducing him to a selection of the largest surf shops in southern California. For the next four years, the company took orders from the US, producing the wetsuits in Torquay and shipping them over.
While in California, Singer was approached by a Frenchman who was keen to act as an agent for Rip Curl in Europe. This was the first step in opening up a lucrative new area as Europe was, at the time, a burgeoning sailboard market.
Today, Rip Curl has nine corporate licensees across the world that make and sell its products. Hiring during this period has been a major challenge for Singer.
“Picking management can come down to luck, as it’s not easy to find the right people,” he says. “We want to find committed people, usually Australian people, who are focused on the company. It’s a constant reiteration of what Rip Curl stands for as it’s now a complex organisation.”
Singer, who is now a non-executive director of the company along with Warbrick, is involved in the local Torquay chamber of commerce and says he sees “very energetic” start-ups emerging in Australia.
“Of course, it’s harder to start a surf business now today than it was in 1969,” he says. “But there are other areas that you can break into in the same way we did with surfing.”
“I guess we had a bit of luck but I’m not surprised by our success. You need a bit of fortune, to be there 10 years before the competition comes along rather than 10 years later. You need to realise what your customers want now and identify what will come next.”