I chatted with Designer, Engineer and Founder of Airwave Surfboards; Josh Moffat about his first surfboard, his design process and getting a business off the ground.
Do you want to start with a little about your background, what kind of a kid were you?
Man, that depends who you ask! Very ambitious, creative, obsessive… safe to say most of those qualities are still here! What I wanted to be when I grew up seemed to change every week, but I’d always been into building things, taking things apart, finding out how and why things worked.
I grew up in Chester, went to Uni in Nottingham and then did a Masters’ in Design in Liverpool. I’ve spent some time working in the engineering industry in Manchester, lived and worked in Newquay for a season and, alongside AW, I’m now working as an industrial designer for an awesome studio in North Wales. I have a very creative family, we’ve got graphic designers, jewellery designers, fashion designers, all sorts in my family, so being a designer or being creative is something that I didn’t really have a choice about, I’ve grown up around creativity in so many forms.
“I was ready to pull all-nighters… as long as it meant something more than just being a cog in a machine”
Did you always want to work for yourself?
The idea or goal of only working for myself wasn’t something I was ever that fixed on. You know, the idea of setting your own working lifestyle, setting your projects, building a business or just being your own boss wasn’t really something that drove me. Even starting Airwave, it wasn’t something that I had my mind set on. Although, from a young age, I knew that whatever I did, and whoever I did it for, I wanted to be proud of my work.
I have a strong work ethic, so working for myself or for someone else wasn’t something that bothered me, as long as I was doing great work. I had this feeling that I was ready to pull all-nighters or stay late or whatever to get work done, as long as it meant something more than just being a cog in a machine. maybe this was something that drove me to start my own organisation, but I couldn’t say that it was about me and my own ambition to work for myself more than it was about making great surfboards.
When and where did you first get the idea of making surfboards?
Being a designer, it’s pretty hard to not be interested in the products around me. I really started to fall in love with surfing at Uni, so that’s where my inquisitiveness about surfboards, the shapes, the materials and the design thinking behind them grew. At the time, I was actually studying fluid dynamics and composite technology at Uni, so I was learning much of the knowledge I now use to design surfboards. I’d been playing around with my own designs for years before I made my first board, and first made one in my garage in Chester, just decided I had to make a one. Front line testing of my own concepts, type of thing.
I shaped the board by hand, laminated and sanded the board myself and took it to Portugal with some friends. A couple of boards later, I’d had a couple of friends ask for their own AW. But even though i’d only made one board, I was already formulating the identity of AW in my mind; I really felt like I had something to offer to the surf industry in the form of better designed surfboards. Before long, my idea had grown into a small factory in my garage. I was doing all the manufacture of my boards myself and I had a small list of customers made up of friends and friends of friends. My parents hated it, the house stank of resin whenever I was glassing!
“this felt like a real opportunity to do something that could be big”
Can you remember your first sale? Who was that to and how much for?
I can, absolutely. It was such a good feeling. I made a board for a friend from Uni, a guy called George Holroyd, who’s a really talented musician from London. He approached me about having a board made, I don’t think I charged him any more than cost price. At this stage, I think I was just frothing on the idea of having other people endorsing my ideas rather than hitting a profit. The design process we went down to create a board for George is very similar to the process I now use to design custom surfboards for clients. Obviously now we have clients all over the world, but the excitement is still the same.
Tell me a bit about that custom design process.
So it starts with conversation. Before we even throw around ideas of template, surfboard dimensions or materials, I’ll start a dialogue between myself and the client. The real value in this stage of the process is to understand what a client is looking for from their design. A lot of surfers want to improve, ability wise, so we’ll talk about their ambitions for their surfing, where they’re at currently, where they’d like to get to. We’ll talk about they type of conditions they like, what they normally have access to and how often they have access to them. Then we’ll look at weight, height, fitness, age, body geometry, stance, even shoe size.
There’s a lot of information extraction at this point, before we even think about generating some concepts, but all of these bits of information really add value to an effective design for them to get the most out of. Obviously I only want my clients to have amazing experiences on AW boards, so this is a really crucial phase of the process!
We’ll then start looking at Airwave templates; we’ve got five quite distinctive templates, all of which are targeted towards a different style of surfing, and they constitute different outlines, rail profiles and proportions. Based on what we know from the client, we’ll recommend a template and then tweak the dimensions it to fit the body of the surfer. Surfboards rely, more often than not on subconscious movements of our bodies, so having a board that you feel intuitively connected to is hugely important.
Then comes colour, graphics, material options, fin types. We pick resin colours from a palette of selected colourways which really embody the AW brand – there’s lots of dark colours, particularly black!
“I think with any product, the experience is as important as the product itself”
So there is no off the shelf AW board?
We don’t make for stock. Every surfboard that’s bought direct from AW is bespoke. Obviously we have standard dimensions for each shape, which we’ve developed as ball park figures for length, width and thickness, but we’ll tailor every board based on each client’s ambition. You can’t buy them off the shelf, not yet anyway.
The bespoke thing is probably the most fulfilling part of the process, at this stage. It gives me an opportunity to connect with my clients, to not just design great boards for stoked clients, but to offer an experience of what AW stands for at every level. I think with any product, the experience is as important as the product itself, so I place huge emphasis on making the AW experience as engaging as possible. As AW grows, there will undoubtably be opportunities to buy an AW board off the rack in a surf shop somewhere, and the quality will always be as high, but we’ll still recommend custom boards as a total experience of tailored design.
So you’ve hit on the idea of making surfboards, how did you go about starting the company?
I think this throws back to being a bit of an ambitious kid. I used to joke with that “go big or go home” phrase, and this felt like a real opportunity to do something that could be big. I sought some advice about what I needed to do from some friends and mentors who are themselves pretty influential in design and business, and who have their own organisations. The old Dragons Den idea was suggested by most people who’d heard about AW, but it wasn’t something I wanted to use to bring my idea to the world. I won some funding from a competition run by Chester Uni – I had to pitch my business idea in front of panel of judges, and won a small amount of money, which really helped kick the idea into motion initially.
Looking back, I had to teach myself a hell of a lot of stuff, about all kinds of things, to get to where the business is now. I really had to be innovative with social media and marketing, I had to teach myself how to keep books, accounts, how to write code for my website, how to edit videos – I think the biggest challenge was probably teaching myself how to actually make surfboards. I learned how to install fins, laminate surfboards and sand them myself, just be being obsessive over clips I could find on the internet. We’re now lucky to work with some of the best manufacturers in the country, based in Cornwall, but that knowledge of the process I have from making boards, in my garage in Chester myself is extremely valuable.
I think a lot of it also comes down to having a solid crew of people around you who share your idea and passion, believing in what you’re doing and turning up to work every day, even when things aren’t going to plan. AW’s almost two years old now, and I’m more excited than ever
Is it just you at AW, do you have staff? did you say you weren’t full time?
So, yeah. At the moment I’m technically the only employee, there’s still a small crew of really amazing people that I work with to bring life and reach to some projects, but the staff list is pretty short! I’m splitting time between AW and Design Reality, the studio I work for in North Wales, which means my working day is pretty long!
“I think i’ve learned to appreciate the little victories.”
Whats the future for AW, would you like to design other products?
We’re actually in the middle of an R&D phase at the moment – still surfboards, but the ideas I’m developing are really exciting! But in terms of diversifying, I definitely think surfboards will always be at the core of AW, it’s what the foundations of the brand have been built on and there’s so many different aspects of surfboard design to explore that we haven’t touched on yet. As far as my own portfolio goes, I love the challenge of designing lots of different things – I think the best designers are those who can apply their skills to solve a problem in any area of design. You only have to look at the portfolio of Marc Newson, he’s designed so many different things, cars, watches, clothing, surfboards, interiors, so many things.
But one of the things that’s not in AW culture is to design for the sake of it, chucking an AW on something without giving it any real thought. We’re about making surfboards better, and that philosophy applies to anything that we’d design – less stuff, but better stuff. So surfboards will always be at the core of AW, but if there’s an opportunity to create something where I feel that AW can innovate, improve a product or solve a problem, then I’ll definitely give it my best shot.
How have you changed from when you made that first surfboard?
Man, deep question. It doesn’t feel like that long ago! I think I’m close to 100 custom boards now, which pretty good considering how long AW has been going. It’s hard to say how I’ve changed personally, but my understanding of design, of business and how to build a brand has definitely developed. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with building a brand, lots of throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks, and from that you definitely learn what works and what doesn’t, which probably makes you more efficient. But of course that comes with time and experience. I think i’ve learned to appreciate the little victories more. It’s all about baby steps!
“you need to have a real hunger to learn as much as you can”
What one single trait is most important for people wanting to be successful making their own products?
That’s tough, there are so many! Obviously if you’re developing your own stuff, off your own back, then I’m not sure there’s a particular trait that is guaranteed to bring you success, it’s very much an amalgamation of different traits, probably the same as anyone who wants to do anything that’s above and beyond a well-trodden, more linear route. Hunger, drive, obsessiveness, being resourceful, building relationships, not giving up. Probably, for makers or designers, the most important thing you need to have a real hunger to learn as much as you can, about your product, processes, materials, suppliers, all the stuff that’s going to give you knowledge about what you’re making.
What advice would you give yourself on day one, if you could go back?
Be patient and keep going.