Darryn, tell us about Solitary Islands Surf School?
Solitary Islands Surf School is a Surfing Australia endorsed community-based surf school located on the Coffs Coast. We started the business in October 2011.
Starting the surf school in the area I grew up in was something I had long been considering. I had been working for Surfing Western Australia and spent my last year there on an advisory committee with Surfing Australia, setting up the national junior development program, SurfGroms. The timing was perfect, not only to start a surf school, but to move home as well. I took the idea to one of my best mates, Harley Ingleby, to see if he wanted to jump on board and so, Solitary Islands Surf School (SISS) began!
Harley and I were on the same page from the start as far as the direction we wanted to take the surf school. We didn’t want the operation to be about one individual or one component of surfing; we wanted a very inclusive operation that provided a quality service to the community and its visitors.
SurfGroms had just launched nationally, and the program really helped us to hit the ground running. It has also enabled us to branch out into the operation we run today. In 2013, Sawtell Surf School also became part of the SISS family when I partnered with Caspian O’Donnell to re-launch the operation under the existing Solitary Islands Surf School brand. The addition of Sawtell Surf School has seen our surf school services spread along all of the Coffs Coast.
You mentioned your strong association with SurfGroms. What is the program all about?
Weet-Bix SurfGroms is Surfing Australia’s National Junior Development Program and can be delivered by any Surfing Australia Affiliated Surf School. For the first three years, the program was Vegemite SurfGroms, and last season it changed to Weet-Bix.
For us to use SurfGroms to get up and running was a no brainer. I had a really good understanding of the program and felt it was a perfect fit for our local community.
The program is for five to 12 year olds and is surfing’s equivalent to Nippers, AFL’s Auskick and Tennis’s Hot Shots. Being a new development program, Surfing Australia engaged a lot of people from the wider surf community and professionals who have been actively involved in kids’ sports for a long time to help develop it. Being involved in its development meant I had a very clear picture of how best to deliver the program here.
That passion also resulted in me developing a SurfGroms operation in the wave pool up in Darwin. While setting it up had its hurdles, the Darwin wave pool program became a hit with locals, and programs filled up fast. The most satisfying part of the Darwin operation was my involvement with local Indigenous communities. We were able to get the kids along to go surfing in the wave pool, which was such a thrill for all involved.
At the start of 2015, I also took up the role of SurfGroms Manager to oversee its re-branding and to introduce the program to schools. However, with the arrival of our twins just a few months later, I realised it would be a challenge for all of the family for me to be away from home so much, and it made sense to step down. Now I’m back enjoying family life and staying home on the Coffs Coast.
You co-own the business. What do you think makes a good business partnership?
I think everyone will tell you that business partnerships have ups and downs, like any relationship. I think a good business partnership is identifying your individual strengths and combining them for the better of the business. Harley is probably one of the most recognisable surfers on the Coffs Coast and has some great achievements in surfing, which helps the reputation of the surf school.
From a business perspective, he is very driven and has a great feel for presentation and marketing. He came up with our business name and his input on how we present the business, be it in digital or print media, is vital to our success. My role is more operational and making sure everything moves along smoothly and that we offer a quality service. Over the past few years, Harley has been working on other ventures within the surf industry and has managed to combine these well with our business.
My business partnership with Caspian at Sawtell Surf School is a little different but just as effective, as he focuses on running the day-to-day operations of the schools and I do all the business development. Once again, we focus on our individual strengths.
I imagine it’s a pretty competitive market. What advertising and marketing do you find effective to set your business apart?
Surf schools and all activities focusing on leisure make for a competitive market. Firstly, I think it’s important to have a really good understanding of the product and services you offer. Once you have this, you can start to build strong and effective partnerships. Our main form of advertising and marketing is via our partners or through digital platforms.
We have found that by using strong visual imagery and changing it regularly, we avoid the brand looking tired or old. Most importantly, we work really hard to maintain a quality service, as our most of our business comes from repeat customers and word of mouth.
What important lessons have you learnt about running your own business over the past five years?
The single most important lesson I have learned in business is to always keep your eye on the ball. I think if you focus on what you are doing and have a strong vision and good marketing plan, success will follow. Things have only become difficult when my focus has drifted and I’ve tried to force things to move along too quickly. The other big lesson I have learnt and am still learning is when to stop working and have a good work life balance. I think most people running their own business struggle with this.
Any challenges in starting and running your business and if so, how did you overcome them?
I think everyone starting out in business faces some strong challenges. When Solitary Islands Surf School started, the biggest challenge we had was knowing whether the area had enough people to support a surf school. Both Harley and I have always had other forms of income besides the surf school, which has taken the pressure off. At the start though, it was stressful for both us with the amount of work and time being put in without any financial reward. Otherwise, we haven’t had any major hurdles and touch wood; we’re hoping it stays that way.
Is there really ever a bad day at your office (lol)?
Yes, even at the beach you have bad days. 99% of the time I can’t complain and when I do, I have to kick myself. The windy days get to me the most, especially spending hours in the wind with large groups. Like most jobs in the sun, it can be taxing. But all up, I wouldn’t swap it for any other job. I find what I do very rewarding. I’m able to spend time in the ocean each day and make a living from it too, which is amazing!
Thanks Darryn; when shall I book in a surf lesson?