Here comes the wave, now paddle

There’s a similar “point of commitment” between catching a wave and starting a business. Anyone who has ever surfed would understand this analogy that Alistair Lawson endorses.

In the water it’s the time when you start paddling hard until you feel the pull of the wave take over. In business it comes when you realise your idea has momentum, so you must go with it.

While a passion for surfing was to be the catalyst for Alistair relocating to Australia, the idea for his award winning business Great Ocean Road Surf Tours started much earlier when, as a youngster without a car, no one could take him to  England’s surfing beaches on the Cornish coast.

Surfing however was not his first love. As a six year old he was captivated by martial arts. It was for his business Elite Taekwondo that he won his first business award in Australia.

But the emotional pull of the waves continued and neither living in an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne or a seven month old daughter would prevent him and his family moving to Torquay and launching a surf school more than a decade ago.

With several awards behind him Alistair recommends submitting to awards as a means of refining his businesses and looking for new ideas.

“The processes you go through give you a much greater return than just an award.  You understand your business a lot better. Submitting to an award acts as a health check on a business.”

The underlying philosophy of Great Ocean Road Surf Tours provides an insight into why the business has garnered a variety of awards since it was set up in 2006.

“We want our customers to become as good as they can be when they are on one of our courses, whether they are with us for a few hours or several days,” Alistair says.

Staffing is pivotal to achieving that outcome.

“Great surfers may not necessarily be great teachers and vice versa. They are there to teach surfing all day,” Alistair says. 

It is important to live the culture and staff must show a passion, something which is encouraged in staff competitions for photography or videos.

Choosing staff with the right qualifications such as OH&S, working with children and surf coaching is important, as well as ensuring these qualifications are updated regularly, as required.

Alistair acknowledges that “finding a point of difference has helped make us successful even though the business is founded on how I wanted to teach surfing, rather than what a competitor might offer.”

With customers coming from around the word, from a marketing point of view it is essential to understand what is important to each person, including images on brochures, telephone interaction and photographs.

“Honesty in marketing is essential,” Alistair says. He is very much “hands on” with using tools like Facebook and Instagram but cautions that not all marketing tools work. A 1800 telephone number for example proved unsuccessful for his business.    

Equally, he advises not to try and hit back at critics on TripAdvisor. The likelihood of such criticism is minimised he says by having comprehensive and explicit terms of business on the company’s website.

With customer satisfaction remaining his highest priority, Alistair does a regular analysis of the business and asks himself how it might be run more successfully even though some services have been trialled and discarded when they adversely affected profitability.

Being an entrepreneur means that taking risks is mandatory but so too is having a backup plan Alistair says.

“Understand your business model and be willing to take advice. But be careful to avoid the sort of statutory warnings that say ‘this advice is general in nature’. Rather choose advice that takes your actual business into account,” he adds.

And while progressively bigger waves might strike fear into the L-plate surfer, Alistair’s experience suggests the successful entrepreneur like a big wave rider, has the knack of translating fear into excitement.

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