Founderoo caught up with Rikki Gilbey, the founder of WAW Handplanes. Rikki has a unique founder story that combines helping the environment with a beautiful and simple form of surfing. This is a bloody great article that we think you'll love.
Rikki what's your backstory?
Growing up England in a beachside town called Paignton, Devon, I've always had a connection to the ocean. I'd get anxious if I were in a place too long where I couldn't see or smell the Sea.
I studied BSC Marine Geography at Cardiff University and found a post-graduate position at a marine conservation NGO in Greece. Studying is where I discovered a passion for preserving biodiversity and became fully aware of the impacts that we humans can have on it.
I moved to Australia in 2011, following love. I got a local job as a carpenter whilst I enjoyed the fruits of Australia and spent my days off and weekends exploring the coast and diving the ocean.
In 2014 I discovered bodysurfing, the simple art of surfing waves with your body. And upon discovering the handplane, my inner desire to start an eco-business, that could do some good in the world, began to rise to the surface. It ticked all the boxes, enjoying the outdoors, designing products and working with my hands.
It also gave me the opportunity to contribute to a better world through like-minded partners, using sustainable materials and encouraging others to get out and enjoy the ocean.
Thus, WAW (wave after wave) Handplanes was launched in 2014.
Tell us what your company does?
At WAW we make bodysurfing handplanes from sustainable and recycled materials so that you can bodysurf and leave nothing but a healthier planet and a cleaner Ocean in your wake.
How did you come up with the idea?
The idea to create a bodysurfing brand and manufacture bodysurfing handplanes came to me after an incredibly fun bodysurf at the infamous Bondi Beach. Upon returning home after this particular session, I began to research the availability of handplanes in Australia.
I was shocked to find there were none to be found, not easily anyhow. Thus, the idea to make handplanes was sparked.
How did you come up with the name of the business?
To find the brand name WAW Handplanes I created a word map, placing bodysurfing handplanes in the centre. Then all around I wrote all the words I could think of that associated with these two. Wave kept on coming up in various forms as well as simplicity. So I decided to with Wave After Wave (WAW), in simple terms this is exactly what bodysurfing handplanes allow you to do. Get in the ocean and catch wave after wave.
How did you go about building the product?
For the first three years, I manufactured the handplanes by hand using recycled and sustainable timbers. By 2017 business was going good and soon became apparent that my full job was manufacturing the product, and my part-time job was running the business and trying to sell them.
From here, I needed to scale up my production. I embarked on a mission to outsource the manufacturing of the timber handplanes. I come up with another manufacturing method that would allow me to scale up quickly whilst simultaneously offering part of the solution to dealing with another major issue our oceans are facing, plastic pollution.
This sent me on the path to creating the WAW BadFish bodysurfing brand. Australia's first-ever commercially made product to be manufactured from traceable Australian Ocean plastic waste.
The first hurdle I faced when trying to do this was the complete lack of infrastructure that exists in Australia to process ocean plastics. This meant I had to create an entire supply chain from scratch to make it happen. That's from ocean plastic collection to sorting, to processing right through to manufacture.
The second major hurdle I faced was Australian manufacturers unwillingness to work with such materials. I lost count of the number of manufacturers that turned us down, claiming it was too hard or would be too expensive.
However, armed with the knowledge that similar challenges had been achieved overseas, I pushed on. It was this determination that ultimately scored us a manufacturing partner that had initially said no, eventually agreeing to partner with us and commence some trials.
What did you need to do for the launch?
In 2014 we launched with just a website and Instagram and a few product shots. When we released the WAW BadFish we launched with a press release, social media campaign, a product launch video, an Australian distributor and some online marketing.
Our original launch in 2014 was good, in that it cost us about $500 to get going. The BadFish launch in 2019 cost a little more, but we had capital from five years in business and a big social media following to put behind it, which made a big difference.
It took a solid twelve months for the BadFish to gain traction in the market and gain a good reputation. So don't be disheartened if your product doesn't explode straight off the bat. The longer your product has been in the market, the more credit it has with the consumer, so be patient.
How have you grown the business?
When I first launched the company with the timber handplanes I had recently picked up a weekend job at Patagonia store in Sydney. I used some of the old warranty wetsuits from the store to recycle and turn into the handplane hand straps.
An unexpected result of working at Patagonia was that they offered me a chance to have the handplanes stocked in all seven of their stores across Australia. This was huge for us at that time as it immediately gave the brand credit and a great source of revenue.
From here, we slowly grew organically year on year, reinvesting the company profits into increasing production and slowly building an online social media following.
Once we'd launched the BadFish and given that it was such an innovative product (as the first product to utilise Australian ocean plastics supply chain), we entered into numerous competitions around sustainability and innovation.
We won the National geographics 'Make Good - Defy Plastics award in 2019' and most recently the 'Amazon SMB innovation award 2020'. These awards have massively helped to boost our brand and has been a huge contributor to where we are now.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
In the beginning, we spent/wasted a lot of money on social media ads. And what we learnt was that unless this is your area of expertise, employ someone to help you. It will save you a lot in the long run and generate a much larger return on your investment.
What’s your biggest selling product?
Our biggest seller is the WAW BadFish recycled ocean plastic bodysurfing handplane.
What day to day digital tools do you use?
I use all of Gmail’s services, Instagram, Facebook, Trello for organisation and Xero for all of our bookkeeping.
What book has been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
DON'T GIVE UP. There will be many times that you will want to, but it's the businesses that stick it out during the tough times and make those scary choices to push on that ultimately make it.
Also, look after your body and mental health. A startup with a burnt-out founder is no good to nobody. Hit the gym, start running, have something else in your life where you can see progression and success, your business won't always offer you this, so having additional sources of 'feel good feelings' is a must.
What keeps you up at night regarding your business?
Tomorrows to do list!
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had being a founder?
The involvement and inclusion in such a large and warming community of surfers, bodysurfers and sustainability legends.
Have you ever felt like quitting, if so why?
Oh yes, lack of money. Haha
What quote(s) do you live by?
I’ve always liked the quote:
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
(Winston S. Churchill)
And not an official quote ,but I've also always lived by
“Life has a funny way of working things out”.
Dark times don't last forever. And it’s those totally unforeseen paths that you take and create that you could never have thought of. Have faith that these moments exist, one way or another, things will work out.
In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?
Work smart not hard. Know your talents and what to outsource. Being a founder is scary but exhilarating.