Why This Founder Gave Up Banking to Reinvent New York’s Surf Scene

He fell into the surf business by accident.
February 24, 2016, 7:01 PM UTC

It seems like your stereotypical entrepreneurship story – roommates turned business partners working out of a small warehouse space in Brooklyn trying to break into the market.

But that’s about where the stereotypes end. They didn’t set out to be entrepreneurs. They’re not building a fast-growth tech company. And they’re most certainly not “crushing it” yet. Chris Williams, 29, and Charlie Porter, 31, are two surfers who fell into the surfboard business by accident. For them, surfing was a hobby that turned into a brand. They believe their small custom surfboard company, Union Surfboards, can bring the New York surf scene to the forefront. Yes, New York has a surf scene. Hot spots include Rockaway Beach and Long Beach.

“There are some large communities of surfers who work on Wall Street. There are doctors, there are professors, there are artists,” says Williams, who founded the company in 2014. “Surfers are unique in physical build, skill, and experience. Surfboards should be catered to the individual for those reasons.”

Williams never intended to start his own business. He previously worked as a product manager at Charles Schwab. Living in San Francisco, Williams would surf as a hobby, but he kept breaking boards and would end up buying five to six a year – costing him $800 per board. Williams met a local surfboard shaper who taught him how to shape boards, so he started making his own in his spare time. In 2014, Williams decided to pack up, move to Brooklyn and find a new job.

“As I was looking around for jobs, I kept making my own surfboards, and it was something I had fun doing in my spare time,” Williams says. “Then, friends started asking for surfboards. It kind of happened on its own – the business wasn’t really planned.”

Union Surfboards founder Chris Williams learned to shape boards while living in San Francisco and surfing as a hobby. Photograph by Morgan Russell

The one thing he noticed right away is that his friends didn’t just want surfboards – they wanted custom surfboards. More and more people are starting to care about personalization, Williams says, and that’s how his company differentiates itself from surfing giants like Lost Surfboards and Channel Islands Surfboards. Williams called mass production of surfboards “a terrible business model,” and his goal is to change the buying experience for the local surfer.

“The surfboard industry needs to be disrupted right now,” Williams said. “I believe the made-to-order business model is the one that should exist.”

It’s easier said than done. Here’s how Union’s business model works right now: Once a customer orders a board, Williams and Porter consult with him on the type of board and design he wants, and the process begins. The design file is sent to Florida where a CNC machine makes a raw cut of the board. It ships to New York where Williams shapes and finishes the board. It’s then sent to a glasser in Gloucester, Mass., and shipped back to Brooklyn. The entire process takes about four to six weeks. Williams admits it’s challenging to consolidate all the moving parts of the production cycle.

“The problem with being a custom surfboard company is that surfers don’t want to wait ages for their board, which is why the retail model is so popular – because of instant gratification,” Williams says.

Union hopes to eventually bring the CNC machine and the glasser under one roof. Williams estimates the entire process – from purchase to shipment – would then take two days. For now, the business partners have been bootstrapping the two-year-old company, and it hasn’t been easy. The hardest part? “Surviving,” says Porter, Union’s creative director. “New York’s one of the most expensive places in the world, you know? You really have to hang in there because it’s not easy.”

In 2015, Union made $45,000 in revenue. So far in 2016, they’ve brought in $7,242. The boards retail at approximately $675. When asked if they are looking for outside capital, it became clear the duo hadn’t quite discussed (or at least agreed on) Union’s future growth strategy.

“Well, we would want to keep it small,” Porter begins before Williams cuts him off.

“The answer is ‘definitely,’” Williams says. “What are you saying right now? What the f–k are you talking about? We’re trying to be disruptive, and we want to reinvent the business model. We would need outside funding to do that.”

Business partners Charlie Porter (left) and Chris Williams (right) work out of their studio in Brooklyn to design and shape surfboards. Photograph by Morgan Russell

With additional resources, Williams wants to create a brick and mortar extension of the online experience so customers can come in and see the process for themselves – think Harry’s and Warby Parker.

Williams says the goal for 2016 is to grow brand awareness. Union recently had an order from Victoria’s Secret, which wanted four boards with custom artwork as part of a photo shoot for its Spring/Summer catalogue. They also have a plan to launch a clothing line this summer, which will feature fitted T-shirts, board shorts and button-downs.

“We’re not trying to go ultra-high fashion,” Williams said. “It’s like the New York urban dude meets surfer. We want to bring the rawness of being a surf brand with the urban contemporary look.”

Williams and Porter have brought in their third roommate, Ladd Evans, who currently works for Marc Jacobs, to help them with the menswear line. For now, the Union team is small, and that’s by design. Williams expressed that it’s a big responsibility to bring on new people so early on, and he’s still learning the ropes of being an entrepreneur.

“This is totally new for me – running a business,” Williams says. “It’s a lot of pressure especially when you’re financing it yourself. We’ve also invested so much time and mental capacity on a day-to-day basis. There are definitely some psychological challenges that come along with that.”

Porter adds: “Surfing’s a huge stress reliever for both of us.”