Surfpreneurs podcast E5: Ru Hill from Surf Simply

Ru Hill is the founder of Surf Simply, a high-end coaching surf resort in Costa Rica which books out a year in advance.

Interviewed by Peter Fabor.


Listen podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Soundcloud.


The main topics we discussed in this interview:

  • The story of Surf Simply and the specific niche they are targeting.

  • How to create a high-end surf resort that sold out one year in advance?

  • How to hire and retain high-quality surf coaches and employees?

  • Why they don't have a franchise model and why there are not Surf Simply resorts all around the world?

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Automattic audio transcription - sorry for the quality, better listen the podcast :)

Hey, you are listening surf Surfpreneurs podcast where we interview inspiring surf entrepreneurs and we discuss about their businesses and ideas. I'm going to talk with Rupert Hill from Surf Simply today. Even I'm not a customer. I'm a big fan of Surf Simply. I've been following Surf Simply for a couple of years, and I really admire not only what they do, but how they do things. Hi Ru, welcome to the show. Hi. Thanks. Thanks so much for having me on. Let's start with an easy question. How would you describe Surf Simply in one sentence? So I guess it's say it's technical surf coaching in a luxury Boutique Resort environment has that is that one sentence sounds good. Where is that Boutique environment? Is it in Costa Rica? Right? Yes, that's right. So we're based in nosara in Costa Rica right by the beach here just for 200 yards back from the beach on the edge of the nature reserve but we do coaching projects around the world as well. We run coaching courses in. Peru and UK and in the past we've done them in Indonesia and France and surf Ranch as well. Kelly Slater's wave pool and we're heading back there this year again and then back to Indonesia again actually in September. So we do these little one off weeks but most of the time were based here in this area. Cool. This podcast is more about business than surfing so I will be very direct when I opened your website. I found that you are charging $5,000 for one week surf camp and it looks like that you are completely sold out for the next six or seven months. So my question is how is that possible? And I'm sure that that many people asking you similar question. That's why I'm asking. Yeah, so we're very lucky to have filled up so far in advance where we're actually I think right now full until around August 20 21. So at the moment, we're actually follow about a year and a half out each week. Well, so one of the things that we. Chose to do was to limit the number of people that we actually take each week. So we have just 12 guests who work with our team of nine coaches and you know that the area in the ocean is a limited space and we think that all businesses should use that space. In a sustainable way so we decided not to go with the business model of just increasing in size and increasing in numbers and decided to increase in quantity and stay small. So we've limited ourselves to 12 surface a week and you know as the reputation of the business has grown and is experienced and competent level Surfers have. Become more confident in knowing that they'll get value out of a week of coaching itself. Simply which, you know isn't the case many sir schools for experienced Surfers with you know, with the demand has gone up and yeah, I mean, I think that that people feel comfortable paying paying $5,000 for the week because they feel that they will get that kind of value out of the coaching that they receive and you know, as I said when we were chatting. Before the show we try to do the boutique Resort and all of the Creature Comforts around having a nice vacation as well as anyone in the world, you know scale notwithstanding, but I think it's the technical nature of the surf coaching and the thoughtfulness of the program and the time that we've spent into training our part team and making sure that the. The whole coaching system is properly systemized as a name and as impactful as it can be in a five-day period you know, I think that's what that's what really makes people keep coming back. And of course we've been fortunate enough to have. You know some great press in the New York Times and outside magazine and CNN and various other things, but but I think it's that quality of the coaching and that's sort of weird refuse to compromise on that as the business has become more popular and I think that's what that's what get kind of his has made us. So popular and has what's what makes people want to book. You had quite a long history of surf coaching before you started sir. Simply, right? So it's not you started sir. Simply and you learn all these things during this 10 years of Sir simply, but the already have previous experience. Maybe if you can explain how this experience influenced you to starts or simply. Well, you know, I was. Teaching in the UK in Cornwall mostly. I guess about 10 years before I came over to Costa Rica and started so simply and you know, I was working for a surf school there. That really did do the opposite it sort of did the numbers game and when I started there was I think three of us in a busy day would have 30 or 40 people come through the surf school. And by the time I left which was the late 90s. That was I think was one day we had like twenty eight coaches working and we had 600 people come through the surf school. So, you know, I would go down to the water's edge in the morning with my wet suit and my backpack with my lunch in it and I would teach a group of 10 and then they would go back up to the top of the beach of the next group would come down and they'll go back up in the next group of come down and most of that was kind of entry level. All sort of what people would what we would call at level 2 surfing so beginner intermediate surfing and and you just by get by teaching such big numbers of people and I sort of back of a napkin calculated that I taught about 15,000 people over that period you get to really tease out what coaching techniques work because there's so many variables in the ocean. He need a huge data set like that too actually. Notice if there's a real effect size if you kind of decide to teach people by putting their hand here versus putting their hand hair or putting their foot their first or putting it there, you know later on so, you know, I would kind of try an a/b test I'd be like, well, I'm going to test you know, 200 people this way and 200 people this way and and see what actually works. And you know, it wasn't I didn't think it was just the time spent teaching surfing but I think it was spending time specifically doing that and trying to sort of be a bit scientific about teasing out what our real effective mechanisms for coaching surfing and what just seem like they are but might not actually be as effective in the real world. So, you know, I think that was really what stood me in good stead when I then started to surface are simply. Where are you in contact with just I'm just curious very in contact with those people who are deserve lesson with you maybe after after a couple of months or weeks asking them how the surf lesson or your coaching influence them. Because I have a feeling that most schools. They just teach you they get money from you. And after this lesson, it's done. Its they don't care so much about you, right? They don't they're not interested to listen. What what is your progress in two months? It's not their business, right? Yeah that actually that's it. That's exactly the correct question. You know, I think the reason why I started approaching teaching surfing like that was because I had so many people come back year after year after year. Whoo. Progressing with their own surfing in the classic entry-level surf lesson is that you basically got the emphasis on catching a wave and standing up and that actually isn't what surfing is about. The tool surfing is about its kind of the game of seeing how close you can get your board to the white water without getting stuck in the Whitewater, you know, the technical way we talk about that is of course surfing in the critical part of the wave, but that's really what the game of Surfing is and when someone would come along and you teach them to catch a wave and stand up. And then they would come back, you know going. All right after you know, I got really good at that now, what do I do next? I find myself repeatedly going. All right, forget everything that you learned in that lesson. Now, I'm going to teach you how to actually move your weight around on the board to get it to do what you want it to do. Because it goes, you know, you can be an amazing Surfer writing huge paralleling waves on a body boarder on a kneeboard. So, you know standing up clearly isn't the secret sauce. It's just something that we do in order to surf the wave better. It's not the end point that the analogy always uses that standing up is like holding the steering wheel in a car. It's not driving. It's just something you need to do in order to be able to drive the car. So I find myself having that conversation over and over again precisely because I was seeing the same people coming back. And that and then at the same time, I started teaching the British junior team or helping out with the coaching over there who are kids who are really really good Surfers and that was all video coaching and that was approached in a much more logical way, but it became really obvious to me that there was nothing to connect the entry-level Surfer. To a point where they could even paddle out and begin being video coached in the way that they the junior competitors were that I was working with. So I guess the put it in a nutshell there was kind of the entry level one percent and then the top Elite 1% would that was sort of coaching and place for both of those two groups, but the 98% in the middle which makes up most of surfers. There's really nothing for and so that certainly has been the project of connecting those two groups together. Yeah, it makes so much sense. That's my my question is why nobody else is doing it or at least I don't know many surf camps or which are targeting this intermediate Surfers that almost all surf camps they focus on entry level. Beginners and then on Pro Surfers exactly what habits percent of market and why why there are no more example focusing on this 90 98 percent of the market. What's your explanation? Well, I think. well, I mean first of all, you know, I'm slightly surprised as well, you know every year I sort of I'm expecting there to be another like. 10 20 30 similar business models to pop up and they don't pop up and I'm I'm sort of I find I do find that quite surprising but I mean the reasons why they might not I suppose is you know, number one. It is a huge amount of work actually putting together a curriculum and a syllabus and training the coaches. I mean it takes us two years to have a experience surf coach and a good Surfer begin itself. Simply. It takes us two years to get them to a point where they're trained and they can teach our whole program. So if you're if you're running like a seasonal business and most of your coaching team has only staying with you for two or three years before they go on and do something else, you know, you're never ever going to get your team able to coach. You know the curriculum approaching something which is going to connect those two groups because it just takes too long to train someone. So one of the first challenges for us as a business was to make sure that we paid the coach has a salary which allows them to say. Alright, I'm a professional Surfer coach. This is what I'm going to do for the next 30 or 40 years and that then allows us to train them. So that was a business Challenge and that's you know, where most of the money in that. Package fee that people pay when the $5,000 when they come to stay with us. They're paying to have coaches that are professional career surf coaches. So that's a really big part of the puzzle. I think another part of the puzzle is that you know, as I mentioned before a lot of surfers who are experienced Surfers who are in that 98% who've been surfing for 5 or 10 or 20 years and you know, I'm on pro-level Surfers, but can paddle out on their own comfortably and would feel out of place in a most conventional entry. That's cool classes. You know, I think those people are very cynical on the whole that a certain school will bring any value to them. And I think they're right to be cynical because mostly if they sign up for a lesson they're going to go away a little bit disappointed. So, you know the first two three four years of Sir simply, I was constantly fighting this battle trying to convince people that there was some value in coming and getting coaching. And you know, I would even sort of say two people come along and you know, we'll do a video session if you go away and you know, there's nothing helpful in there. Then you don't have to pay for it and those people told their friends and you know, they also anyway happy and they went away Having learned a lot and quite often having had their minds. Blown at the hot particularly at the concept of how much you have to move your weight around and your stance and the difference between trimming and carving turns. You know, that's something that you just don't learn intuitively by spending time in the water. So people would kind of learn that stuff and go away and tell their friends and the momentum got going and then. At a certain point I find I didn't need to have that conversation with people anymore. They were they were already confident in service employees ability to deliver that product before they were, you know, getting in touch with us and then you know, the scales really went the other way until we got to the stage. We're at now where. As I said, we should have booked a year and a half in advance and we have a waiting list for each week of between usually a hundred and fifty and two hundred people and I think a big part of the success is also the content you create it's the content on your website. It's it's it's amazing you publish regularly podcast. You have really many video tutorials lot of Articles. So even for someone who. Dear customer your website is very very useful. So you can learn a lot of things and without actually visiting sir. Simply, how do you see this as a marketing? Do you get a lot of clients because of the because of the content or you get more clients because of the recommendations of the previous clients. Well, that's the first of all that's very kind of you. You know, we put a lot of work into getting all of that content out there and I think like most people who produce content for the internet. I always feel like I'm on the back foot and just when you feel like you've produced something fantastic, you know, it feels like 72 hours later. It's been lost in the great social media feed and your kind of you feel like you're back to zero again. So thanks very much for saying that. But yeah, I mean we. We feel like there's so much value in what we do here when people come and stay with us. And as I said training people to be a coach takes such a long time that we know that even when we're trying to fall over ourselves to impart all the knowledge that we have. It still takes a lot of time to teach someone how to teach or to teach a customer what's going to be most impactful for their surfing so we're not concerned at all about any kind of intellectual property or giving stuff away. For free, you know, so we have our tree of knowledge. I coaching curriculum up online for people to just download and print off and use themselves and you know, we put some videos up there. Although they're a bit old now and working on some new ones and another podcast we try to talk about, you know, a lot of technical surfing issues and a lot of science stuff and try to approach it from a slightly different angle to the conventional surf media. With a packed a little more skepticism. And yeah, I mean, it's I think. Having a voice while you're while you're out online and you try to just show people. Look I'm an informed thoughtful person and then people have that confidence in you to go ahead and spend some not insignificant amount of money to come and spend a week of their week of their life with you. So, you know, I all of that stuff that we put out there is just to let people see who we are and then they can make a decision about how confident they feel about investing your time and money. I'm sure. There are many people who see our website and then see our price list and they then they research more and then they decide to to copy. It may be in the way that they become customers. They come they come to visit and they will even tell you that they want to replicate serve simply in India in a different location. I'm sure that you have this type of experiences. So, how do you how do you deal with that? Do you help people to replicate these because you are already open with the concept with the content on your website. You share almost everything and I think this is a this is very common thing for you. I'm sure that at least one or two people a week telling you this. Well, we didn't get quite that many, but we have had a few over the years. Well, if you don't maybe don't please don't tell you. - yeah, but we have people who are very open and they come and say look we've booked to come and stay with you because we want to do something similar and we want to see how it operates and they're always there always, you know, well so far they've always been really nice people that we've ended up becoming friends with and you know, we try and be supportive of what they're doing, you know, not in a way that we're giving so much of our time and energy that it's detrimental to. To our business, but you know, we always try and be supportive because it's like why not really? I mean, we only take 12 people a week out of a mother of a huge Marketplace, there's room for another, you know, 500 or a thousand sir. Sim, please to all be as successful as we are without it really impacting, you know us as a business at all. So, you know that old saying it's like worrying about overpopulation on Mars. We're just we're just not really worried about, you know other Service employee. Type businesses popping up and the other thing is, you know, it's like I said, like I think it's so hard to do the analogy that I used when I was speaking with the guys at people and Company and perhaps this sounds a little conceited. So I apologize but just to make a point it's it's sort of like. Getting on a plane and flying across the Atlantic and landing on the other side and going. Yeah. I thought I might build a plane. So I got on a plane and now that I've flown on what I reckon, I could build one of these things, you know, there's so many moving parts and I know how many moving parts of have to be perfect in order for the whole of the surf simply machine to work and I don't think that someone could come and spend you know a week with us and then go away and. And replicate it at all though. Hopefully they go away thinking yes, at least now. I know what I'm aiming for and as much as I can give people my time, I am always happy to jump on Skype with people and let them bounce ideas off of me and for what it's worth share my experiences with that. I have a feeling that big part of. This working machine are definitely people is that is that correct? Maybe if you can share more about how you say that you you pay them better then regular school. So they stay after they don't stay only for a couple of years, but they stay for 20 years. But what are maybe other differences how you how you treat your employees or people who work with you? Well, you know, I think that you're right that the team is the most important thing. I mean, we've just finished building this new facility, which I'm really proud of but moving from the old resort to the new resort and when we run a satellite projects as well, it's always a very poignant reminder that it's the team. It's the people like you say that actually are what what has a lot of value in if you know. That was some kind of natural disaster that we can operate here in Costa Rica or Kiana's anymore. I feel pretty confident that we could pick the operation up and just move the people to wherever we were going to be next and it would work just as well and you know the guy so I try and answer your question without going off and too much of a tangent which I find myself very tempted to do because it's a really good question that there's a lot to it. There's a. One of the oldest scientific studies that's longest-running scientific studies that have been done. I think it's based out of Harvard University and it's actually a multi-generational study following and might have some of these numbers wrong, but I think it's like two or four hundred young men who? Graduated Harvard back in the 40s or 50s and then the same time sorry about that bit of background noise. And then the same time a group of young guys. He was sort of some of the poorest parts of Boston and they were trying to track all of these variables in their life to see what things tend to correlate with a happy life at a successful life and they would measure a successful Life by several metrics like self-reported happiness financial success not being in prison the longevity of relationships and those kind of things. And there was only one signal that really jumped up clear above everything else which was the quality of the relationships that those people have with the people around them and that tended to make them healthier happier earn more money, you know all of those things and learning about that and and the huge amount of literature that subsequently been sort of come to light which supports it. Made me think a few years ago. You know what's really important in my life is the quality of my relationships with the people around me and you know, we spend most of our time with the people that we're working with. You know, you don't usually choose them now is a business owner. I'm fortunate that I do get to choose them to some extent so, you know the quality of my relationship with those people on a personal level is very important to me and you know the best way in my opinion. Top good quality relationships with people around you is to just be an instrument of making their life better. So, you know for entirely selfish reasons I try to make sure that everyone that I'm spending all of my time with which is all of the guys that surf simply have the best quality life that they possibly can because for non-business reasons and for non altruistic reasons, you know, that's going to give me the happiest life so. That's a really important thing to me personally outside of business, but I think it has the happy knock-on effect that everyone feels appreciated and you know and enjoys where they work and you know, we try as much as we can to not have a sort of triangular classic hierarchy at the business. We have myself and Jesse and Harry and Danny the four owners and then we have a team of about 35 people. And it's pretty much like a flat organization and you know, anyone can bring ideas forward and. I don't think anyone feels above or below anyone else, you know, and I think that's a much more sustainable social environment. And I think from what I've been told that's very difficult to do once you get over about 40 employees, so I don't know if that's scales. But at the size we are it seems to work well, so you are you gave me a hint for another question. We have a Facebook group surf prisoners clap where. If we discuss ideas about Sir businesses that are around 120 Surf enterpreneurs and I mentioned there that we I'm going to record interview with with you and ask people if they have some fun questions, but I should ask and there was a there was a very obvious question. Why throw simply is not scaling why you don't try to open more locations why you not try to franchise the business and I guess it's related to what you said before, but I'm curious to hear more. Well, you know, I think that the assumption that you want to make a business bigger shouldn't just be taken. As the Baseline Assumption of all businesses. I mean if you work backwards to you know, what is it that you as an entrepreneur actually want out of life. Is one of your goals to have the biggest business that you possibly can with the most profitable business that you possibly can and if that's not a bad goal. It's a perfectly legitimate goal, but I think it's worth just asking yourself if that is what you want. And if that is what you want. Like, why do you want that? So I think the question shouldn't be why aren't you scaling sir? Simply I think the question should be with businesses that are scaling is why are you saying like, what do you want what you want to achieve by scaling, you know and. That question I do get asked like every week couple of times by the guests and you know, the truth is it's really really fun making surf Simply Better duplicating certainly isn't as much fun. So, you know, we're working on a ton of projects right now to do with VR coaching and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into augmented reality coaching which has been amazing. You know, we're building a whole kind of version of our tree of knowledge which will sit on line with a company videos which people will then be able to access we're involved with some discussions with with a couple of by actually, I'm not sure how much I can say about that but a couple of companies have approached us wanting us to put together curriculums for them. And again, those are great opportunities that kind of. Look a little look and feel a bit like scaling and we're thinking about those very hard because you know just having money come in again doesn't necessarily equate to everyone at Surf Simply Having a much better quality of life. But yeah, just just to go back. It's really really fun making surf simply better. It's not so much fun doing all of the Just let's try and duplicate as much as we can. You know one of my big financial goals for the business is to have everyone who works here across that salary threshold where a lack of money is not something that negatively impacts your life. So having more and more employees doesn't actually get me closer to my financial goal. If anything it might get me further away. There's now there's more people that I want to try and get across that salary night, you know, also just selfishly. I'm so proud of what we do. I mean it probably comes across in my in me talking about the business and you know, I really am proud of what the coaches do and what the entire team does it and that's what I really enjoy and I think if we scaled and got bigger, I haven't seen many businesses that have held on to something like what we have when there's when they've tried to roll it out. So I wouldn't like to lose the pride that I feel and what we do and yeah, so I guess the short answer is there's not very much upside, you know financially. I'm I'm not very wealthy but I have fairly simple taste as long as I get to go and all the surf trips that I want and by the surfboards I want and the gadgets that I want. I'm pretty happy. I think there's my income level. Like tripled my happiness might go up, you know 5% or 10% but it wouldn't go up 300% So I think I'm on that side of the bell curve where scaling wouldn't necessarily bring me a lot of a lot of Happiness. So if someone came along and gave a really good reason why we should do that. Well, then I'm not ideologically opposed to it. There's just no reason for me or any of the team to do it. Now one thing I do do for the for the team here is. Make sure that they don't have that same limitation imposed on them. So any of the team can at any time go away and run one of these satellite weeks that we do around the world and they're free to even go and start another surf simply with with my support and that's how we end up doing these little satellite trips everywhere. And you know and I say to them if you want to kind of spread your entrepreneurial wings and and kind of take this thing and run with it. I'm very happy here in a solid kind of doing this at the scale, but I'll absolutely support you in everything that you do and we even have a sort of a franchise, you know back of a napkin kind of template of what it looks like which is. Really in favor of them being able to go and make it a financial success. You know, there's not many Financial limitations put on them and people tend to go away and they'll run a week or two and the like, you know what I love working in the sorrow, that was a lot of fun. It was a huge amount of work we over here we get paid. Well, we get 17 weeks off every year. So I'm going to keep doing this so that's been the pattern so I guess I guess we're pretty happy. Okay. So for me that has four is that you are kind of testing scaling in this way that you allowed your employees to start another. Surf, simply location, but they are so happy with with the current location working for you that they don't want to they don't want to move and yeah, and the second thing is that you are basically scaling the business but not in a traditional way of opening more and more locations or real estate, but. Align, the this augmented reality. It's a perfect example of scaling what you do and and give access to more people to try sir. Simply without traveling to Costa Rica. Well, actually, I mean it may come to that at the moment of. Driving force behind that is that we just want to have fun playing with what you can do with technology and coaching. I mean, it really does just come from that. We you know, when you can play with stuff for fun rather than because you know, you're trying to meet a financial goal. It's a lot more enjoyable. So at the moment, we're not putting any Financial Targets on any of these projects were just kind of just playing with them to see how how well we can coach basically, huh? I'm on your TripAdvisor profile and five star review five star review looks like that people people really like surf simply. I don't see any negative reviews or any negative things about serve simply you have articles in in York Times. So my last question is what looks like that you have done. Many things well, but what do you haven't done? Well, what do you think that you could do better or if you start again 10 years ago, what would you do differently? Well, I mean, you know the old answers that question when you ask anybody as well if I haven't made the mistakes that I've made that I wouldn't have learned the things I learned and I wouldn't be where I am now, you know. You know, I guess the one thing that I regret was when I first transitioned myself from becoming a like a surf coach to being a manager of people more than I was just coaching people surfing I. You know, I like most new bosses. I micromanaged people horribly. I'd be looking over their shoulder and I was so obsessed with making sure that the coaches were all coaching, you know, as well as I wanted them to that. I was kind of really looking over their shoulder and and picking holes in what they were doing every day the and some of those guys that were the early surf coaches itself simply were guys that I had worked alongside before so, you know, I'd been their co-worker and now suddenly I was their employer. And like I'm still really good friends with them now and some of them run their own certification programs and and like they were so patient with me, you know, they could have had every right just tell me to f off at any number of occasions and they were they were just so patient and so wonderful, so I'm very grateful for that. And what I used to think was that, you know, I could shape a coach into being a brilliant. Teacher, you know, I could say I guess I could I could shape a good Surfer into being a great teacher. What I know now is that rather than trying to shape people you just want to employ people that already have that so, you know now I spend much more time thinking about who I'm going to employ knowing that that's a much more effective way of building a great team rather than trying to train people that aren't a good fit. One of the sayings that we you know, we always throw around what we're thinking about who were who were going to take on it's a new coaches. It's much easier to teach a good teacher how to teach surfing than it is to teach a good Surfer how to teach if you yeah, you might have to rewind that in here a few times but. Yeah, so I you know, I guess I would micromanage people less. I would put more time into just employing good people and then I would stand back and I would let those people make mistakes. Let them take ownership over what they do and let them feel like, you know, certainly is their business and they are the master of how they conduct themselves each day. They're not beholding to someone else because if people don't feel that ownership, And that sense of autonomy you never really get the best out of our someone who's really talented. Yeah, this sounds as a perfect end of the interview. Thank you for accepting the invitation to this interview and sharing your story and hopefully we can meet once in person maybe in no Sarah. Yeah, I'd love that and thank you so much again for asking me on it. So it's very flattering. And I'm spending 40 minutes of your day wanting to hear my Take On The World. I'm very grateful. Thank you.