23 Business Lessons from URBNSURF Founder, Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross is the founder of URBNSURF - Australia’s and the southern hemisphere’s first surf park, which opened its doors to the public in January of 2020 to much fanfare.
Prior to opening URBNSURF, Andrew spent twenty years in various legal and investment banking roles and started his own oil and gas company at the age of 33. Later, at the age of 41, Andrew made a life-changing discovery at a research & development lab in Spain that would enable him to merge his profession with his passion to create URBNSURF — something that was seven years in the making.
As you might imagine, building a $30M, two-hectare large surf park, one that generates 1,000 ocean-like waves per hour requires a Herculean effort, fraught with both engineering and financial challenges.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew for an episode of the Future Squared podcast and unpack the many business and life lessons learned along the seven year journey from idea to launch.
You can listen to the entire conversation below, or wherever you get your podcasts.
But if you’d prefer to quickly extract the key lessons, look no further as I bring you 10 business lessons from Andrew Ross.
23 Business Lessons from URBNSURF’s Andrew Ross
1. “At the intersection of profession and passion, you’ll find purpose”
Andrew’s quote reminds me of Jim Collins’ ‘hedgehog concept’, below.
When it comes to choosing what to work on — how you’ll spend a large percentage of your waking hours, Collins advises to do something you’re passion about, something you can be the best in the world at, and something that makes money.
2. It’s not how far you fall, it’s how far you bounce
Having interviewed numerous leaders across myriad domains, one thing that they all credit to their success is persistence. If we want to do great things we will inevitably face setbacks and failure, but as Rocky Balboa said, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
Andrew suffered many setbacks as he tried to make his way in London as a young lawyer, and later had to endure many demoralising engineering challenges in completing the surf park, but the one thing he didn’t do was quit.
3. Bring successful business models to countries or cities where they don’t yet exist
While this doesn’t always guarantee success (because of unique subtleties of your country or city — eg. cultural, ecological, geographic, technological, economic, political and so on), in the case of URBNSURF and many other businesses that have followed this model (see Rocket Internet), it can be a real winner.
On this note, I’m waiting for somebody to bring the zero-sugar, high protein Magic Spoon cereal to Australia… I’ll just park this here.
4. The harder you work, the luckier you get
Yes, most successful people got lucky somewhere along the line — a chance encounter, being at the right time at the right place, an acquaintance who just happened to know someone important — but the thing about being lucky is that you can increase your chances of a lucky outcome and serendipity through what Andrew calls “f’n grind”.
The more you do, the luckier you get.
5. When you find your purpose, it’s like being hit by lightning
If you’re not really feeling your job, or your life, something should probably change.
6. Build it and they…will come?
Nowadays in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, concepts such as minimum viable product, fail fast, and iterate are widely practiced. In Andrew’s case, there was no MVP as such. In fact, URBNSURF appears to be in his words “an overnight success that was seven years in the making”.
Andrew acquired the rights to the Wavegarden technology that powers the surf park back in 2012 with URBNSURF openings its doors seven years and almost $30M later.
However, in lieu of this came comprehensive and diligent market research complemented with independent third party research.
For example, the fact that Melbourne alone has 300,000+ surfers, most of whom have to drive for over an hour to get to a surf beach (providing the conditions are inviting, and the surfer is available) which means that most of them simply can’t surf all that often. This alone, for a city in Australia — the largest surfing market in the world per capita — was a strong foundational reason to do further research.
7. “If you can integrate head, heart and gut you make exceptional decisions”
8. Pre-empt investor and customer objections
Before you meet with would-be investors or customers, pre-empt what you think the objections might be and come armed with rebuttals or answers. It could be price, social proof, industry experience and so on.
In Andrew’s case, he had to raise $30M to bring something to Australia for which there was no real precedent in the country. In order to do this he had to be ready to answer a barrage of questions from investors who are well trained to spot the holes in business models.
9. Be clear about what you don’t know
While it’s important to be prepared, there are simply going to be things that you can’t prepare for — known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Being candid about these demonstrates you’ve thought about such matters, and also spares you being written off as naive, short-sighted or seeing the world through rose-colored glasses — something that usually results in jumping to conclusions and making bad financial decisions.
At Collective Campus, we often share questionnaires via email while we’re pursuing a company (“why might you not work with us?”) or after we’ve lost an opportunity (“why did you not choose to work with us?”) with a simple multiple choice form. This gives us invaluable insights to incorporate into our sales strategy going forward.
10. Use third party research to validate your assumptions and forecasts
If raising capital, you will no doubt have a number of assumptions that underpin your financial model. Have these verified by a credible and trusted, independent third party — not just for your own piece of mind, but also for your investors.
Andrew had his elaborate financial model — one he was able to create thanks to his years in investment banking — verified by Deloitte.
Sometimes however, if you’re truly doing something completely new, you might struggle to find enough data, and will need to create your own data through experimentation. This is essentially the Zuckerberg view of data versus an economists which is often based on the past.
11. Make selling visceral
How do you sell a surf-park to investors who have never surfed? Show them.
Andrew took investors on a field trip to the WaveGarden R&D lab in San Sebastian in Spain so they could see first hand what all the fuss was about.
This is kind of akin to a car salesman giving you the keys to that hot little convertible you’ve had your eyes on, and giving you a few hours to take it for a spin down to the beach. Chances are you’ll be much more likely to buy it after feeling it and seeing the possibilites that said car presents for you that summer.
12. Experience gained in adjacent fields can be priceless
While there’s much narrative encouraging kids to do like Jobs or Zuck did and drop out of college, Andrew credits his success with turning his URBNSURF dream into reality to his investment banking background.
“Do you think you could have done it without your IB background”, I asked. Without any hesitation, the answer came back…”no”.
13. Plug your weaknesses with other people’s strengths
We simply can’t be awesome at everything — even though some of us might think we are. By identifying where our weaknesses lie, we can determine who we should partner up with to plug those gaps, and together become much stronger and go much further than we could ever go alone.
14. Starting a business in your 40s is the sweet spot
Again, while publications like TechCrunch and Mashable are big on twenty-something entrepreneurs, 40 and 50-something business founders are more than two-times more likely to build successful ventures than 25-year-olds, according to a study out from the US Census Bureau and two MIT professors.
When you bring business and people experience, as well as networks to your business, you can race past many of the hurdles than 20-somethings are blind to or struggle to overcome.
15. Mentors are valuable
This goes without saying, but even though Andrew said he has kept mentors throughout his life, he still wishes he had more. Stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from those that have walked similar paths before you.
But watch out for these mentor traps.
16. Keep company size small to maintain trust and speed
Speed is fundamental to innovation, but as most companies grow they inhibit speed with silo’s, policy and procedure.
To counter this, do as the Virgin Group does and splinter organisations into smaller groups in order to maintain first-name-basis relationships, trust, and speed.
However, it also helps if you hire great people to begin with.
17. Hire great people
As Richard Branson says, hire great people, give them the tools they need to succeed, empower them with a worthwhile mission, and get the hell out of the way.
If you have great people on the bus, you won’t need to introduce burdensome policy and procedure to regulate behaviour. As a byproduct, your company will move fast and continue to innovate.
18. You’ve got to be careful to keep balance or you blow yourself up
Andrew spent 180 nights away from his family in Perth in 2019, as he raced to the finish line at URBNSURF, overcoming numerous engineering and development challenges along the way.
While he concedes that he didn’t do the best job of managing family expectations, he stresses that entrepreneurs need to be very cognizant of balance, or they will “blow themselves up”.
With URBNSURF now delivered, Andrew is taking his hands off the steering wheel a touch and letting others drive, which means more time with family.
This comes back to the hiring great people thing (see 17)
19. Micromanaging = self imposed ceiling
If you don’t hire great people, or don’t trust them, then you’ll find yourself micro-managing. If you micro-manage you are self-imposing a ceiling on your growth, because you can only micro-manage so many people a time, and for so long, before you burn yourself out.
When you micro-manage, you become the bottleneck in the way of your organisation’s growth.
20. Build redundancy into your business
I was lucky enough to look under the sheets of the $30M surf park, and saw mechanics that looked more Tesla than Ford, more electronics than internal combustion engine.
Redundancy and fail-over mechanisms have been built into the electronics to ensure that the park stays open, and doesn’t risk losing customers and revenue as a result.
21. Define and control for risks
On redundancy, Andrew and his team defined all of the known risks that face the park and put in place safeguards to either eliminate or mitigate the risks to an acceptable level.
Of course, as fans of Talebian philosophy will know, there are always unknown risks that are hard to control for. Should such risks come to fruitition, it’s a matter of not preventing, but of remediating as quickly as possible. Again, having great people on board helps do this.
While I was interviewing Andrew, large numbers of the park’s people were in clean-up mode and working around the clock after a dust-storm tore through Melbourne, turning the park’s usual crystal blue lagoon waters brown.
They had bought into the mission of providing Melbournians with awesome surfing experiences, and so they did so with a smile on their faces.
22. Big and audacious dreams drive people forward
I learned that URBNSURF plans to open a further nine surf parks across Australia over the next nine years, with the next one set for Sydney’s Olympic Park.
Setting big audacious goals like this inspires people to action. In the absence of challenge or novelty, we become bored, and that’s no way to attract or motivate great people.
23. Don’t tell me what you’re selling, tell me the why you’re selling it
An oldie but a goodie. When you’re playing Super Mario, it’s not really the flower that you want but it’s the ability to shoot fireballs. Sell the fireballs, not the flower.