With their sun-kissed torsos, beach-tossed locks, and laidback outlook on life, surfers have provided decades of stereotypes and cliches in media and advertising. But there is something different about today's surfers in San Francisco. Meet the local startup execs who are grabbing boards and getting down to business.
Britt Packouz, vice president and senior account director at BBDO
At 6:30 in the morning, Britt Packouz is boisterous. The ominous fog hanging above the western end of the city, broken up by just slivers of filtered sunlight, doesn’t deter him from zipping up his wetsuit and jumping into the water. On this particular day, he notices the waves aren’t as good as they usually are.
“It’s not a great morning,” he says, while looking over the dunes to a gray and choppy ocean. “(The swell’s) not big right now, but it gets big in the wintertime and it’s a whole different ball game.”
Packouz says Ocean Beach is one of the better surfing beaches in the Bay Area, but he offers a caveat: “Wherever you find space is the best place to surf.”
That’s not too difficult at Ocean Beach, where the notoriously cold water and unruly weather keeps the beach pretty clear on most days.
“You have to be pretty dedicated to consistently go out here. You have to not mind this weather, you have to accept that there are large fish in our ocean. It’s a little bit rougher up here,” he says.
For Packouz, moments in the water help calm him before the workday begins.
“Surfing is something that gives me perspective I might not have had before I went out [on the water],” he says. “Being at peace with nature and being at peace with myself helps in my decision making throughout the day.”
James Gross, cofounder at Percolate
Having left behind the warm waters of New York City’s Rockaway Beach to relocate his company to San Francisco, James Gross talks about Ocean Beach as one might describe a past relationship: challenging and dark, but worth it in the end.
“Ocean Beach is intense,” he says. “Currents are very bad, and most of the year it's shrouded in fog. Most people wouldn’t wade into the water. But for really advanced surfers, it’s absolutely an amazing playground.”
Gross, who runs the software company Percolate, says that OB is one of the better surfs on the West Coast and also attracts a different kind of surfer: “You see a lot of people take an engineering approach,” he says. “These surfers understand swells, they understand patterns and currents and movement. It also goes without saying, but you have to be incredibly intelligent to surf a lot of the bigger breaks in Northern California.”
That technical approach to surfing in tumultuous waters, Gross says, applies directly to how people work in their day-to-day business.
“I love to see people I’m recruiting who like to surf. I want to see what kind of surfer they are, how they approach the paddle or how they approach even the planning for the day,” he says. “You can learn a lot about someone when you see how they think about surfing. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, it matters what level they think they are.”
Jen Hinton, co-owner and creative director of Carve
Besides owning a clothing company designed for women and surfers, Jen Hinton uses the ocean as a kind of blueprint for how to deal with work-related issues.
“When you’re surfing and you get up on a wave, there are steps—it’s all a very methodical stream that happens," she says. "It directly applies to any major decision you’re dealing with.”
Being in the water is calming for Hinton, who uses surfing as a time to reflect not just on herself, but on how exactly to get through frustrating or upsetting problems at work.
“What I love, and what helps me, is when I’m out there, I'm solely focused on one thing. I’m able to step back and look at the issues I have to deal with and methodically map out the steps I need to remedy a situation,” she says. “You go out surfing and you get to calm all the craziness or anger and you get to step back and think about it.”
Of course, the Bay Area itself provides an extra draw for Hinton and surfers like her. “Whether you’re at Ocean Beach or Balinas, the backdrop is just stunning,” she says.
Kraig Swensrud & Sean Whiteley, cofounders of GetFeedback
Everything about Kraig Swensrud and Sean Whiteley’s business has, in some way, been touched by surfing.
“We decided to sell our first company to Salesforce.com while on the water. That was over several, several surfing sessions,” recalls Whiteley, who adds that the pair's time on the water has been instrumental in solidifying their business relationship and has informed many recent business decisions.
The longtime friends grew up in beach cities on opposite coasts, sharing the same passion for the water. They moved to SF during the dot-com boom and, most recently, created the survey application GetFeedback, which they sold to Campaign Monitor seven months ago. Swensrud currently works as chief marketing officer for the company.
Making time to get into the water has been a challenge over the past 10 years, Swensrud and Whiteley say, but they use the time to hold mini board meetings and work through the minutiae of office life. Swensrud says surfing isn't about having that "massive aha moment," but when they're out on the water, they can discuss the bigger picture without distractions.
“When you’re in the office and you have whiteboards full of sketches and you've got wireframes up on the wall, you’re nitpicking on all these little things. You can’t do that out here. We talk about things at a higher level.”
Adam Berke, president and chief marketing officer at AdRoll
If Adam Berke is going to put on a wetsuit, he’s going to go out. It doesn’t matter if the conditions are terrible or boring—any chance he gets to be on the water is a chance to refine his skills.
“I’ll always surf with an accent,” he says, commenting on his inability to surf as often as he’d like due to his work.
Berke is one of the founding members of the advertising company AdRoll—its exponential growth has inevitably meant that the responsibily of his role has dramatically expanded: He moved from vice president to president and then recently also adopted the role of chief marketing officer.
“When you are an executive at a company, your days are very busy, you are in meetings, and you’re being asked to make decisions,” he says. “Since surfing is an individual sport, it’s the ultimate time to have a quiet moment, and literally leave your daily stresses on land. Nobody cares what I do for work out there and the ocean definitely doesn’t either.”
Ocean Beach especially provides an uncrowded space to escape: Our city isn’t high on the list for top surfing destinations, so the six-mile stretch of sand is home to only a handful surfers. That’s okay, says Berke.
“I think people who surf here are very happy with San Francisco not being known as a surf destination. It’s a fairly small (population) and it gets smaller every day,” he says. “People definitely aren’t surfing here because it’s trendy; people are surfing here because they really love it. Because if you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t put up with everything OB has to offer.”