Ride the Entrepreneurial Wave: How Surfing Informs Business Strategy

As a teenager, I trained obsessively. After a full day of school I would go straight to practice, train for four hours, go home and fall asleep with my head on my laptop. But I loved it. 

That intense level of training led to me winning two gold medals in the national championships of Kwon Jae-Hwa Traditional Taekwondo in Germany. 

Thinking back on it, the way I trained — the discipline and the plateaus — taught me a lot about the way business works. 

For example, in Taekwondo you have to see the kick in your mind before you can ever physically do it. In business, I have to focus on and visualize my goals, feel them, believe I can actually achieve it, and then I can reach them. 

In Taekwondo you reach plateaus and sometimes feel like you’re not progressing at all. Business feels very much the same. 

In Taekwondo you can be at the peak of your fitness, and then an injury can put you into the worst shape of your life. In business, in 2023 I had the best revenue year we ever had only to learn in November that we’d likely lose 50% of our revenue for the upcoming months but then again through twists and turns realizing everything was going to be okay after all.

It’s all part of the game. 

Now that I’m an entrepreneur and avid surfer, I’ve realized that surfing teaches me more about the way I live my life and run my business than Taekwondo even. 

Here are five things surfing has taught me about business:

1. The wave comes where it comes, not where you want it to come

Often while surfing, I just wish I could sit in one spot and have the waves come to me over and over again. But even in the most predictable surf spots like reef breaks or point breaks, the waves still shift. It’s up to you to paddle to the best take-off spot and put yourself in a good position way before the wave comes. This doesn’t just apply to the wave itself but also to how you navigate the crowd. The wave will not come to you. You have to do the hard thing and paddle and put yourself in an opportune position. The same is true for business and life. You can’t wait for the ideal customers or the best employees to appear at your door; you have to go to where they are to discover and engage them. You have to go after opportunities. They won’t fall in your lap. They say success is a numbers game. How many times have you put yourself in a position to win?

2. Things change

One day, a surf spot is awesome. The next day, it’s bad. In fact, a surf spot can be awesome one hour and bad the next due to wind and tide changes or the swell dying. Some surf spots are huge in winter and barely have waves in summer. This reminds me that situations change, and it’s our responsibility to adapt. However, it also shows that there is some level of predictability. Situations can change based on swell (short-term), season (midterm), and over time due to larger developments, such as sand shifts because of construction (long-term). The same is true for life. Expect change — the only constant is change — but look for patterns. 

3. Seize opportunity

Great surfing doesn’t happen on your schedule. It happens when it happens; it’s up to you to make time in your life and be there. The best swell period might be at 8am on Wednesday, and if you have a conflict, then you have to decide what’s more important. Great surf doesn’t last. The swell comes and stays for 1.5 – 3 days at best. Usually, the morning time will give you the best waves because the wind hasn’t picked up yet. If you don’t make time for it, you might have to wait weeks, months or even another year for another good swell. Similarly, in business, when an opportunity presents itself, and it’s the right opportunity, you have to go for it or you might never get that chance again.

4. The best things in life are challenging

Surfing is by far the hardest sport I have ever tried. I’m fairly athletic. In addition to winning national Taekwondo competitions as a teenager, I was honored as the No. 1 female in sports in my high school. I ski, snowboard, skateboard, play soccer and pickleball. I grew up as the tomboy who would beat the boys. And yet, surfing is REALLY hard. A lot of things in life that are worth it are hard. Unlike other sports where you can rely on constant progress, surfing takes a long time. The ocean will show you over and over again that you, in fact, know nothing and are absolutely no match compared to her. But that makes the moment of success so much sweeter. That one good wave you get can keep you going for months. The world is similar. Some of the best things in life are hard. I think most of us found out entrepreneurship is a lot harder than we thought. But persevering through plateaus is what leads to the next level of success. Right when I was over my surfing career, when I thought that maybe it just isn’t for me, I had a major breakthrough. All it took was persevering through the hard times.

5. It’s really hard to do what you can’t imagine

In surfing, you might catch 5-10 waves per session of which often about 15% are good waves that allow you to ride for more than 5 seconds. Unlike other sports where I can practice the same move over and over again, surfing only provides tiny fragments of time as opportunities. I spend about 90% of the time  paddling around in the water, trying to create those opportunities. So, the best way to get better at surfing is to figure out a way to train on land. Maybe with a SurfSkate, which helps you practice the body movements for turns and create muscle memory. However, before you can even make a turn, you have to be able to see it in your mind. It’s really hard to do something with your body that you can’t see in your mind’s eye first. I’ve learned that visualization is incredibly important, not just for surfing but also in business. Because it trains your mental muscles to achieve the goal that you want. I have to believe and see that I can build an 8-figure business, and truly feel that in my body, before I can ever build it.

Contributed to EO by Melanie Balke, an EO Los Angeles member and founder and CEO of The Email Marketers, which helps companies grow their revenue through email marketing and SMS. Melanie is an avid surfer, and yes, that’s her catching a wave in the photo!

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