James Otter, and his company Otter Surfboards, design and make wooden surfboards, and run workshops to teach others how to build their own board too. Otter Surfboards evolved from James’ desire to merge his passions for design, woodworking, and surfing, to create a product with minimal environmental impact. I asked James the following questions to learn more about his journey as a creative entrepreneur.
Let’s start with the most obvious question: why wood?
I’ve always felt a connection to wood, I can’t really explain why. Long before I started building surfboards, I was drawn to making stuff out of wood.
At university I was surfing quite a lot and I got fed up with how my boards kept falling apart. I was studying a design and making degree, with a specialisation in wooden furniture. This led me to exploring whether it would be possible to make wooden surfboards as a more durable alternative to the boards I was using.
Making surfboards that last longer goes against the industry norm and the completely accepted idea of having multiple surfboards for different types of waves and conditions. But I believe that the less we consume the better, so the sustainable angle of making more durable surfboards has always been a big driver for me.
Alongside creating surfboards, you also run workshops teaching participants to build their own board. Was this progression —from purely making to also teaching—intentional or did it evolve organically?
I never intended to be running workshops when I started Otter Surfboards. I thought I’d just be me making and selling surfboards—that’s the path I’d imagined for my business.
But one day, not long after starting the company, a guy called Steve came to the workshop. We chatted about surfing for about 3 hours. I thought he was likely to buy a board, but towards the end of the conversation he asked whether I would be up for teaching him how to make one.
Initially, I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept. After spending a couple of years trying to come up with a design that worked, it was a bit daunting to think of the consequences of just giving all that knowledge away to someone. But I agreed. I ended up really enjoying the teaching process. It was so rewarding to give someone the opportunity to go through the excitement and the emotions I’d gone through when I made my first surfboard.
After teaching Steve, I started thinking that other people might be interested in making their own surfboards too. So based on the process I’d gone through with Steve I started creating a structure for a week-long surfboard making experience. A few months later, we ran the first workshop. That was back in 2010. We now run 10-12 workshops every year and it’s added a whole other dimension to Otter Surfboards.
You came up with a really unique way to create a sense of community around your brand. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Each year we hold the Otter Surfboards AGM (Annual Gathering of Makers). All of our past workshop participants are invited, it takes place over a weekend and we just lay on a spread of food and go surfing as a group. It gives everyone an opportunity to reflect back on their surfboard making experience and to connect with other participants. It’s one of my favourite weekends of the year.
The idea came about during a conversation with a friend. I was very aware that our workshop participants, while being our best advocates, were also unlikely to come back (the whole point of the wooden surfboards is that they last a long time). We wanted to find a way to keep our customers connected, engaged and excited and that’s how the idea for the AGM came about.
Environmental sustainability seems to be at the core of what you do. Could you share some of the initiatives you have taken to minimise the impact of your business on the environment?
Sustainability is really baked into our business philosophy. Take the wood for example. We make sure that we use up the entire tree. So anything that’s not suitable for a surfboard gets used for a smaller product like for example a belly board. We use offcuts to make kindling for starting the wood burners that heat the workshop and we give away the shavings and wood dust to local gardeners or individuals who use it on their own gardens.
We also got rid of all the bins in our offices and workshops. This forces us to work out a way to make use of any waste we’re producing, even the waste that comes from the food we bring in for lunch. In the beginning it was really challenging but it’s amazing what you can come up with when you get into it. It’s helped us realise that when you’re buying something, you need to consider the packaging, not just the product inside.
What have you found most challenging since starting Otter Surfboards?
One of my biggest challenges, when I started teaching workshops, was to overcome my fear of other people replicating what I did. I somehow felt a weird sense of ownership over my knowledge and I felt threatened by the possibility that someone could walk away from a workshop with all that knowledge, and use it to start their own surfboard making business. But over the years I’ve come to realise that people don’t just attend our workshops to gain a new skill. They also come here to experience us as a team and the space we’ve created. And that’s really unique, no one can replicate that.
Another challenge has been the financial pressure and uncertainty that comes from running your own business. I’ve never been driven by money and I hate that the world revolves around it but unfortunately, to participate in Western culture, you just have to play that game. We’ve had some really good years where we were able to save money but there are also times where we don’t get any orders for a few months. Our whole family relies on income from the business and that pressure can create a lot of stress. I can think back to multiple times when I’ve wondered why I didn’t just become a carpenter—it would be so much easier to find work and get a more regular paycheck.
But I couldn’t imagine doing anything else than making surfboards. When you’ve got a real passion for something, it’s impossible to turn it off.
Based on your experience what have been the most effective tactics to spread the word about your workshops?
The most effective approach is connecting with people in person. That’s when we’re really able to convey to people what they could gain from spending five days making their own board. So we go on a few shows every year and we also put on events where we can engage with people face-to-face.
Aside from those in-person interactions there’s not really a single approach that stands out. It’s just been a mix of many different things including social media (especially Instagram), features in magazines, and of course word-of-mouth.
What would be your top tip for someone dreaming about starting their own business in the surf industry?
If you’ve got an idea that you want to put out into the world, then go for it. You’ve only got one time through this life so you’ve got to put yourself out there. Just do it. The world will be better off with it happening.