The following is an excerpt from a story that originally appeared in the fall 2022 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. Read the full story and see more photos here. – Ed.
Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.
The exhilarating line from the 1963 Beach Boys song still resonates with Brenton Woo ’99, who would rather be in the ocean than almost anywhere else.
A surfer relies on skill and intuition to meet the wave at just the right moment, speed and angle, and maintain the balance necessary to ride it to shore. But there are also variables beyond an individual’s control, including wind strength and wave size and frequency.
In a similar way, a startup business requires the spark of an idea and the passion to move it forward. It also needs funding and partners who can help transform a vision into reality. But multiple factors can affect whether the business succeeds, among them timing, customer response and economic growth or decline.
For both scenarios, a person needs patience, creativity and boldness to respond to changing conditions. It is estimated that surfers only spend about 10% of their time in the water riding waves, with the rest spent paddling or floating. And while the rewards can be substantial, launching a startup is a daunting endeavor — nine out of 10 startups don’t make it. With odds like that, why do it? Why even try?
The reason in Woo’s case is that he believes he has created a product with the potential to improve the experience of surfing. He says his San Diego-based company, Moda Surfboards, makes the world’s first high-performance soft surfboards. Less expensive and more environmentally friendly than traditional fiberglass boards, Moda’s patented boards incorporate an internal wooden core that makes them more stable and more controllable than conventional soft foam surfboards, he says. He describes the boards as accessible for beginners without sacrificing the performance sought by experienced surfers.
“Surfing is fun,” he says. “You’re active, you’re outdoors. You’re in tune with the environment. It feels good. Why wouldn’t I want to share that with everyone? If my technology can make it more fun for more people, why not bring it out? That’s what compels me to keep going forward.”
Woo’s story is one of a startup in progress. It’s one in which the ending has not yet been written. Here’s how it begins.
The oldest of three children born to Chinese and Vietnamese parents in Northern Virginia, Woo planned to major in government at William & Mary and work in the Washington, D.C., area after graduating — perhaps following in the footsteps of his mother, who holds a doctorate in economics and worked for the International Monetary Fund for a time.
“I was more interested in the philosophical aspect of government, rather than the policymaking part,” Woo says. “William & Mary helped me see many different kinds of thinking, and that allowed me to change and grow while I was there.”
After completing requirements for his major, he began exploring other interests during his junior and senior years, signing up for electives such as music, film, rock climbing and scuba diving.
“I didn’t get the best grades at W&M, and that’s not because I didn’t find classes interesting or didn’t learn anything,” Woo says. “The classroom is not my ideal learning environment, and it took me a while to understand that. Experiential learning works best for me.”
During the summer of 1997, one of his friends at W&M, Paul Tumeh ’00, introduced him to surfing and bodyboarding at Virginia Beach, opening a window into a different way of life. Woo spent the next summer in Hawaii honing his surfing skills.
“I heard there were people who travel the world surfing — people who follow their bliss, who are doing first what they like to do, and making money is secondary,” he says. “I thought, ‘What is this life? Can I do that? I’d much rather be wearing swim trunks than a suit. I’d rather my ceiling be the sky than an office.’”
Woo began an odyssey that took him around the country and the world in search of great places to surf in the summer and snowboard in the winter, gaining exposure to diverse cultures and people who, like himself, did not pursue a conventional career. He drew on his experience working part time as a cook at a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in Williamsburg to find jobs at restaurants and resorts. Woo spent time in Breckenridge, Colorado, and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as in Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Norway and Finland.
He describes surfing not only as a sport but also as a path, one that can feel like a perpetual Christmas Eve: “Surfing is always something to look forward to, and you never get your fill. I’m an early riser because I want to know what the waves are doing, first thing. I don’t know any other activity except for hang gliding where you are literally just riding earth energy. It’s a uniquely satisfying feeling.”
As he traveled, Woo met likeminded people and came to see an expanded future for himself beyond surfing, snowboarding and cooking. He identified with founders — people who feel compelled to start a business that fills a need or develop a product that solves a problem. As he defines the role, a founder is someone who has an idea and acts on it.
While living in Truckee, California, near Lake Tahoe, he spent much of his free time in the mountains snowboarding. Not happy with the snowboards available on the market, he decided to create his own.
“There wasn’t a brand that I felt represented the core values of snowboarding,” he says. “Skiing is faster and more practical, but there’s one thing snowboarding does better and that’s the freestyle approach to snow, which often means tricks — jumps and rails.”
While other brands catered to a broad audience, Woo wanted to make something that appealed to the kind of snowboarders who build their lives around the sport.
“It’s a very small population, but arguably within snowboarding, they’re moving the culture forward because without them snowboarding isn’t cool,” he says. “If snowboarding’s not cool, no one’s buying snowboards.”
Woo started Automaton Snowboard Co. in 2004 with his own savings of $3,000. He incorporated graphic designs by local artists and began selling snowboards from the back of his truck, eventually gaining distribution in Japan, South Korea, Europe and Russia. He enlisted fellow snowboarders who liked his boards to help spread the word.
Despite some initial success and positive feedback from snowboarders, Woo pulled the plug on Automaton in 2012 and liquidated his remaining inventory and equipment. Among the reasons were several seasons in which snowfall was not optimal for board sales and snow sports. According to the journal Geophysical Research Letters, because of climate change, the average snow season has shrunk by 34 days as the result of a 41% drop in the amount of snow in the western United States since the early 1980s.
Another factor was that the Austrian snowboard factory that produced Automaton boards shut down permanently.
“Automaton was an expensive lesson that my talent was not in building a brand,” he says. “Automaton was trying to create a compelling brand. It was cool enough that it was a rolling business for eight years, but it didn’t make the impact I wanted it to make. My talent is in solving unstructured problems — the kind with few parameters other than where you are now and what your goal is, and there aren’t established procedures on how to get there.”
Before closing Automaton, however, Woo was already working on his next venture.
Read the rest of the story on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.