Today’s segment of our small business success series highlights Cynthia Issel, the owner of Surf-fur.
Cynthia purchased a custom fabric banner to help advertise the Surf-fur brand.
Tell us about yourself.
We are a husband and wife team that are both obsessed with the ocean and all the many things you can do on, under and around the water. Zenon is an avid spearfisherman/freediver, surfer and boater. I’m an infatuated surfer who also enjoys free diving and likes boat rides. Together, we live in Southern California with our two water-minded children.
What does Surf-fur do?
Surf-fur is a creator and maker of quality waterproof clothing for waterman of every age. We’re obsessed with producing the perfect clothing to keep people warm and dry as they’re out pursuing their passion for various watersports.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
Getting in the water is a matter of sanity for our family. So, designing something that allows the waterman to stay out longer and enjoy the water was the primary objective.
We (Zenon and Cynthia) met while surfing one day and started our company several years later, on the beach when we were cold! Our goal was to make the warmest and most versatile blanket-type thing to bring to the beach to keep warm and change under after a session. It couldn’t look like a blanket or Mumu. And since we are rather low maintenance, we needed something that could wash and dry easily; something that would replace the down comforter that we were currently using to keep the shivers at bay until we made it into the water. We got together with a few of our ocean-minded friends and came up with a design that began our journey from beach bums into entrepreneurs.
We perfected the initial design over a couple of years of rigorous testing and began selling our “Waterparka” in 2007. The Waterparka is an essential piece of gear for any type of water sports athlete with its long design, roomy fit for changing under and its specially designed breathable, wind-proof and waterproof fleece. It’s a solid piece of gear for the non-stop activities that happen near the water. Who wants to slow down the fun by getting cold?
Can you tell me more about the process of how you came up with the design? How did you know where to go to get it manufactured, and what was the final push that got you to take a risk and go for it?
I don’t really remember the details it was so long ago. I didn’t see it as a risk, just a following of the heart. We got our factory through word of mouth and asking other manufacturers who their factory reps were.
What sets you apart from your competition?
Our Waterparka is the only one of its kind on the market. We have the only one layer, breathable parka that has the special changing pockets hidden inside for changing discretely on the beach or the boat. You can even hang out totally nude under it for several minutes (or hours) and no one would even know. But, it wasn’t really made for that. It was made to change under, wear in between dives to rewarm your body, block the wind, protect your car seats so you can shower off at home or throw on for protection moving from one dive/surf spot to another. And it dries quickly so you can use it all day long. No other parka on the market can make that claim!
What is one strategy for gaining customers that you have been successful with?
Most of our sales are repeat customers buying their favorite dive/surf/swim buddies a Waterparka after they have deemed it a necessity. Or, they love the Waterparka so much that they break down and get the SurfCheck hoodie, the shorter everyday version of the Waterparka. However, word of mouth and organic growth through social media is the major percentage of sales for us.
Is there an area that you’ve struggled with in regards to customer acquisition that you believe is critical to future success? If so, how are you overcoming that?
We don’t have a huge budget for paid advertising so this stops us from reaching a bigger audience. Slow organic growth is more our style anyway.
With the small budget that you do have, which advertising avenues do you use? Or are you just avoiding advertising all together?
We donate to various races and contests in exchange for free publicity. We use social media a lot. Mostly, it’s word of mouth.
How do you compete with the bigger competitors that are similar to yours but have a recognizable brand and large marketing budgets?
None of our competitors, if you want to call them that, have the same features our product has or our level of quality. If someone wants the most versatile, high quality parka designed for water sports, ours is the only one of its kind. I have seen people with those furry-inside swim parkas at some outrigger races and they just come into our booth with saggy shoulders wishing they knew about our product before they spent way too much on a long windbreaker with furry insides.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have had with your business and how did you overcome it?
During the busy season, inventory is our biggest problem. We run out of a different size every year so it’s hard to predict what to order. This past season was the first time we did not sell out of certain sizes before Christmas, so maybe we have the formula down. On our new style, the SurfCheck hoodie, we had an issue with our zipper heads bending and falling off. As it turned out, the factory put on an inferior zipper head that was not approved by us so they had to send all new heads and pay for four people to replace zipper heads on 1,500 hoodies. It was a mess, but now we have a solid zipper! Whenever we launch something new, it seems like we always have one big issue to resolve before we get to that perfect product. We had snap issues, toggle issues and zippers. It’s always a challenge to make sure the factory isn’t cutting corners and keeping the quality high.
When dealing with the factory, do you have any pointers with building a great relationship with them so that issues like quality aren’t compromised?
Be very clear and have examples and drawings of everything you require. Pay on time and make sure you let them know you are working to grow your business and appreciate your relationship. Especially dealing with Asian factories, they like to hear that they are doing a great job and the relationship will be a long and prosperous one. Send eCards on special Chinese holidays and acknowledge that you were happy with the products they sent.
If you could rewind time is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what?
We really like the way things have unfolded with our brand. We have taken our time and pushed it when it needed to be pushed and backed off when it was time to back off. We don’t have a lot of money to throw around and lose, so we took our time and made sure everything about our brand and who we are stayed authentic and real. We couldn’t quit going in the water for a business or for any amount of money, so moving slow and going with the flow has always been our style. We aren’t the Snuggie so we aren’t going to throw out a bunch of infomercials. We just get out there and try to connect with our market segments in authentic, organic ways. And our customers are the best! Scuba divers are top notch, awesome people and they are our main customer segment. However, we have been getting a lot of traction in the freediving and spearfishing community. The Waterparka was made for boats and fishing!
You mention taking your time to unfold your brand. How long would you say it took from the moment you started to the moment you started making a profit?
That is hard to say because we were always selling and always having to increase our orders every year, therefore we were constantly investing more money into our inventory. I think the last two years have been the most profitable for us and it really does feel like we are a money making business. The growth really takes a lot of time energy and budget.
If you had advice for other SMB owners, regardless of the industry, what would it be?
Be patient, find your brand identity early and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
How do you “WOW” your customers?
Our quality and attention to detail on all our products really shocks people. We aren’t the cheapest dive parka on the market, but we are the most hardcore and heavy duty. We also stand behind our product 100% and have a great warranty. We are a small company, but we really try to give customers the same great customer service as a large corporation. Sometimes a customer will call just when all the kids in the hood are over at our house and it’s noisy as hell, but we try to make ourselves available anytime.
That’s pretty awesome that you make yourself available to your customers in that way. Does that mean you and Zenon are taking care of shipments, customer service and marketing, or are there other employees?
We have a logistics company that does all of our shipping and placing the orders. In the beginning, we did everything, including warehousing and shipping, but it ended up being very time-consuming. There was no time left to build sales or work on anything else. We decided to go the route of the logistics company because everything is insured and staffed and we don’t have to worry about that end of things. We do answer all of the emails ourselves and do all of our social media. We also do any race that we attend and sell product and we do conventions ourselves.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
We are really excited about the growth of our business in the past two years, especially. We added another awesome product to our lineup last season that was designed especially for the water woman and the response has been great. It’s another solid product we now offer. Our SurfCheck hoodies continue to do well and we have three colors available. We hear feedback from customers about gear they want so something is always on the drawing board.
How do you create the hype or introduction for a new product? Is it through email marketing, social media, another source or none at all?
We do some email marketing but mostly social media.
Without sharing detailed financials can you speak to your growth to this point and why you think it will continue?
We have had a steady 20% average growth every year for the past 7 years with this past year’s growth being double that! So, that gets us pretty excited. It has been a lot of work with a lot of sacrifice, but it really is starting to pay off.
Where can you be found online?
Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank Cynthia for taking the time to tell us about the growth of Surf-fur and insights into growing a business. The need for a low-maintenance yet effective blanket drove Cynthia and Zenon to create a company with a vision to change the industry. Changing the industry not only stemmed from the product, it also started with superior customer service. A lifetime warranty and available customer support allows Suf-fur to foster customer relations at a personal level. Organically growing the brand through word of mouth, social media, and marketing at competitions has left a strong impression on their target audience, giving the brand a means to branch out to various watersport markets. Small business success hinges on successful and cost-effective marketing through those channels mentioned. Cynthia, we wish you, Zenon, and the Surf-fur company the best of luck in changing the watersports clothing industry!