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Episode 80: Jack Candlish – Your surfboard is trashing the ocean

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

A laid-back carpenter by day, after hours you’ll find Jack Candlish crafting the perfect ride, one surfboard at a time… and he might just change the world while he’s at it.

A nature lover with a passion for waves, Jack observed firsthand the contradiction between the tranquility of the ocean and the toxicity of polyurethane used to produce surfboards.

The issue piqued Jack’s interest in building his own boards. Today, his eco-philosophy is the driving force behind Jack’s surfboard business, Organic Dynamic.

“Sustainability for me means being able to do the things I love in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time,” Jack told Elizabeth. “It's important to try and make decisions now that will allow us to do that.”

Tune in as Jack shares stories of entrepreneurial failure. That plus insight into the world of sustainable business, how to turn what you love into what you do, and enough surfing metaphors to keep you afloat for days. Xero Gravity #80 – it’s swell.

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Episode transcript

Host:  Elizabeth Ü [EU]
Guest:  Jack Candlish [JC]

EU: Hi everyone, I'm Elizabeth U and this is Xero Gravity. I've been surfing, never mind how badly, for about five years, so I was super amped to talk to Jack Candlish for Xero Gravity. He's the founder and shaper of the surfboard company, Organic Dynamic and this guy cracks me up. He pretty much started his surfboard company, his second company by the way, as a complete accident. He's this impossible combination of totally humble guy next door, who just happens to be a self-taught expert in eco-friendly business. He dropped all these little gems into our conversation and the whole time it's as if he has no idea that he's about to change the world, or maybe that was just me. I'll let you tell me after you've had a listen. Do you think Jack recognises that what he's doing could revolutionise the entire surfboard industry?

JC: The hardest thing about getting into the water when you feel like you're, you know, when you haven't done it often, it's quite intimidating to go out and paddle out among some really good surfers and I think a lot of people are nervous about hurting someone else or making an idiot of themselves. This friend invited me out one time and I just jumped at the opportunity. Went out and just absolutely loved it. Just reminded me of all the kind of joy I got when I was younger and that was it.

EU: How did you go from getting way back into surfing to actually building your own boards? I mean a lot of people never make that leap.

JC: I started buying just second hand when I got back into surfing and I had a couple of incidents. At one time, I bought this board on Trade Me, secondhand. When it was, there's no surf in Wellington, so I drove out to the west coast. I went to Taranaki and then I went up to Raglan the next day, just on a long weekend or something. I got all the way up there and I had this one board at the time and I was coming in over the rocks at Raglan. I slipped and put a big hole in the bottom of it.

EU: Oh, before you even got in the water.

JC: Oh no, this was after my first little surf. I had one little surf on it. Then, so I was all the way up in Raglan, which is about a six, seven hour drive and I have this massive dent in the board and I was, "Aw," but I didn't want to waste the trip and I think that I had another two days up there before I had to get back down to work and so I went down and bought another board from the local surf shop. That was like $1,000.00 or something and then, I rode that. That was fine. I think I broke that about another three months later but I think situations like that occurred and I was just like, "This is just ridiculous. I can't sustain this financially," having to buy boards every two months. Then, also because I had the joinery business as well that was, yeah, naturally I just sort of thought I'll try to make my own.

EU: You had all the tools sitting around.

JC: Yeah, I had all the tools and I started researching and seeing what other people were doing and there's this hollow board construction technique which is quite popular in wooden board making. I had a laser cutter and all the joinery equipment to make one, so I just cracked into it. It was the first time I've been in business for about three or four years, and it was the first time I've ever actually made something for myself in my workshop, like I was always just swamped with the client stuff and I never really took the time to do something for me. It was kind of unique in that sense. I think I subconsciously had a different appreciation for woodwork, based on the fact that I was building something for myself. That's where it all sparked off.

Then, I went and rode that board. That was okay. I had to build a better one because it was a bit heavy and there's cost saving and I sort of just spiralled out of control and I ended up double downing basically on wooden surfboards.

EU: Right. Tell me more about how you got inspired to be using sustainable wood, for instance or wood at all instead of just building a foam board, which you could have done.

JC: One of the problems that I had when I started buying these foam boards was that surfing for me was like my first kind of like post starting, going through university and starting my own business, it was like my first re-connection with the environment, going out and immersing myself in the sort of natural beauty that we have here in New Zealand. I sort of realised that I've been just not making the most of the opportunities that we have here in the country and then, I started buying these foam boards and I was, people start, when you go into the surf shops and look at surfboards, people start talking about the materials they use to make them, and I was like, "Wait, polyurethane, isn't that like really toxic," and you start to realize how toxic those materials are in conventional surfboard construction.

I've heard the easiest materials to work with are the most toxic and if you're in the industry, in the business of making surfboards, you're going to want to try and figure out the easiest and fastest and cost effective way of producing them, so that kind of bothered me because I had this weird contradiction between going out into nature and really loving the tranquillity of the environment that surfing occurs in and then these, sitting on this board that I was aware of what went into the production of it, and as I've started to try to commercialise the whole process, I've been really conscious about where I source the materials from and making sure that they do actually conform to the ideals that are inherent in surfing.

EU: Yeah, so where have you been sourcing the materials?

JC: Originally, I was using poplar plywood. My original goal was to try and make wooden surfboards that were basically the same price as like a conventional foam surfboard, like a conventional PU board. For that, I had to make sure all my processes were really streamlined and optimized. I started looking for paulownia suppliers in New Zealand and I found a guy up in Waikato, he lives about half hour drive from my parents. When I was up there visiting them, I ended up down to check out his farm and it was just awesome. This guy is a dairy farmer by trade but he has a really beautiful stream that runs by his farm and it's apparently really good for trout fishing. He had these cows, which were going excrement into the stream and he was trying to look for a solution to stop polluting the stream. He started looking at options within forestry and came across paulownia, is a growing industry in New Zealand, with the likes of me and other people who are building surfboards and kayaks out of the material, out of the timber.

He did a whole lot of research and learned that if he planted these trees, I think it's ten metres apart, in rows, in parallel lines on his diary farm, the roots would grow down in such a way that they would actually catch all the cow faeces, the faeces would fertilise the trees and it would stop them from getting into the stream. That's what he did. I think he started about ten years ago and now, he's got like twenty rows of trees all at different stages of their growth.

EU: That's amazing and they're all catching the cow poo and preventing it from going in the river.

JC: Exactly, so it's pretty awesome, and then I was like, "Aw, this ticks all my boxes," and he's won a whole lot of awards for sustainable forestry and sustainable farming, so pretty awesome guy.

EU: Tell us about those boxes, what other boxes do you have? It has to be like saving trout, was that something that you were actually thinking about at the time or is that just an added bonus?

JC: Added bonus, I guess. The main criteria is based off what people look for when they're buying a surfboard and then I have my own sort of set of criteria that’s based off what I want to put into the world as far as products go.

EU: Wait, what would that be? Like as a customer, I'm like, "All right I want a board that's light, that's strong," what else are the customers really looking for that you had to make sure that was part of your design?

JC: Weight is the big one, strength and then flex is another really important component. Basically, at the moment, people put a central stringer in their board that's made out of timber and that's where they introduce flex into the board because the foam inherently doesn't have a lot of flex to it.

EU: How does that feel? If you're surfing, if the board has good flex, what are you going to notice?

JC: It has a lot to do with the turning, so the idea is that a high performance board will bend up into the turns and then spring back into it's original shape out of turns and that will assist with you generating speed. Good surfers know how to work a board's flex to their advantage.

EU: Basically, what you're telling me is the reason I don't know anything about flex is because I'm so bad that I can't even turn my board, so therefore, I've never experienced the difference between a good one and a bad one.

JC: Not necessarily. You probably, it's probably something that you'd notice if it wasn't there but because you've always, every board you've ever ridden has an element of sort of flex and spring, you kind of feel it. Wood's naturally like a very springy, flexible material and the timber’s, obviously, dressed or flat so when you bend it back into, when I flex all the shape, it's got like a whole lot of really interesting flex patterns to it. The poplar I was using was 550 kilogrammes a cubic metre and this paulownia was about half the weight. Ever since I've done that, the boards are selling. Guys are like, and we get feedback people who are riding them and sunny times.

EU: Wait, so at what point did you decide, "Okay, I want to actually make a business out of this." It's one thing to just make your own perfect board and it's another to be like, "I'm going to do this for a living." Was that your goal to do this for a living and quit your construction business?

JC: I guess, from the start, it was solely to make boards for myself. That was the goal. Then, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking like, "This could be an interesting opportunity later on," but I didn't want, I was kind of more interested in just developing a really good product then trying to like monetize it early on, and then I don't even know how he found us but this guy, his name is Tom Rayburn, and he is employed by Crave HQ, which is like a company in Wellington here who, all about start-ups and running incubator programmes to get start-ups off the ground. He rang me up with some information about this programme that he was organising called, Lightning Lab Manufacturing. He's like, "Yeah, I think you'd be really good for it. I want to come round and have a chat to you about it," and I was like, "Okay, cool."

He came round and basically spelled out the, how the programme works and there was like a three month programme and they give you $15,000 in exchange for 6% of your company. I was like, "Well, that sounds amazing, what's the catch?" Sure enough there was no catch. In my four or five years of business, I've never really had an opportunity like that where I could take time off my day to day responsibilities and really focus on one thing, which I was really passionate about, so I obviously jumped at the chance. It got to the point where I was ready to start selling boards, which is really awesome.

EU: You don't have a retail shop, so you're literally, you're just getting an email from someone you don't even get to high five the person who comes in and buys the board?

JC: Yeah, at the moment, most of them are going around the country, so I just make them and that takes about two or three weeks, and then send them out to them. I'm working on getting them into some retailers at the moment. Ideally having like a demo board, I think in each store that I sell them in so people can take them out and test them and make sure that they're, they know what they're buying, is kind of the goal.

EU: Have you ever had any oh shit moments. I imagine like when you're manufacturing surfboards, has anyone ever got a big ding in there's or have you ever had to replace a board for somebody?

JC: Yeah, so the worst one - there’s this break down here. It's kind of a secret spot so I can't tell you where it is but it's about a half hour walk.

EU: You can tell me. We won't put it in the recording, just kidding. You can take me there, how about that? When I'm there, we can go.

JC: Yeah, that sounds good.

EU: I'll learn how to turn first. That's cool. I won't hurt you or anyone else.

JC: Yeah, this one's got a bit rocky so you need to figure that out. Let's just call it, Spot X. I had this friend, his name is Tameron. He's a really good surfer. He's sort of been keeping an eye on my developments over the years. He's always said, "Aw, one day I'll test one of your board's out," so I kind of took him up on his offer and I made him a board that was quite similar, pretty much identical to one of the boards that he already had in his quiver.

EU: A traditional foam board?

JC: Yeah, really similar to one of the shapes he's got, he rides all the time, so I thought it would be really interesting to make a wooden version of that so he could give some really accurate feedback on the performance side of things. I made the board for him. It was, it felt really good. I was really happy with it. I saw this swell coming through on a Friday afternoon, it was about, it's probably this time last year. I was like, "Aw, major, perfect," planned out the whole day, borrowed all my friend's camera equipment. I had video cameras, GoPros, had this massive, like SLR camera with a big lens. I was set. I was all good to go. Board done and then, so I met him out at the car park and we walked along. I had to set his board up and he was just dying, the waves were insane, it was such a good day. All the stars were aligning and then, yeah, he paddled out on his board because he was just dying to get out and it was all set up and ready to go.

Then, I put the fins and waxed up this wooden board I made and I was going to paddle out to him, so got it set up, paddled out and gave it to him and the swapped boards and he was riding it and absolutely loving it, getting some really nice waves on it. Then, I was like, "Alright, I better go get some pictures now, do some work," because that was what the whole purpose of the trip was, trying to put together this sort of promotional material. I paddled in, got the camera set up, got about two pictures and then I see him do this massive turn off the top of a wave and then like kind of bail and I said, "Aw, what's that?" I zoom in on this big SLR camera that I was borrowing and he was like lifting up the board and all this water was pouring out of it. I was like, "Aw, God."

EU: Oh no, it broke?

JC: He just put his foot through it. Yeah, so that kind of ruined it. I got two good pictures but they were a little bit out of focus but, yeah it was pretty devastating.

EU: Oh no.

JC: I'm glad that happened then and not when I was selling them to people, you know. If someone paid for a board and then that happened, it would be pretty detrimental to the brand. Then, I fixed that problem by filling all those voids where the feet commonly impact the board with recycled polystyrene, which I just kind of gathered from off the beach. I went down to Lyall Bay once and there was just a stack of big blocks of polystyrene and I was like, "What the hell is this doing here? I'll use that." That solved the problem and then I went out to the Styrobeck, they're like a big supplier of polystyrene to New Zealand. They make packaging. In Wellington, and they film a lot of the Lord of the Rings films, those guys make all their sets out of polystyrene and in their process they often end up with a lot of off cuts, so I think Styrobeck, one of the reasons that Styrobeck sort of started this whole form flow idea was to try and repurpose all this waste that the local industries were producing.

I think the first time I went out there, they were telling me about it and this van drove up and it was one of the film set companies, with the back just full of big, they call them faj, they're like sheep wool bags full of polystyrene, which they were dropping off to get recycled. I was like, "Aw, eureka. This is great."

EU: Wow, so you can actually get a board that has somehow had a history in the Lord of the Rings set. I love that.

JC: Yeah, pretty much. I haven't quite figured out how to authentisize that yet but in time.

EU: You can't like name the board after one of the Hobbits or anything?

JC: Yeah. Quite often the foam that I buy will have bits of debris or paint or glue. Yeah, lots of masking take in it. I'm always like, "I wonder what that was for?"

EU: I'm totally imaging like the long, skinny, like the long board's called Gandalf and then you have like the shorter, Frodo, like the short, fat one. You just name all the boards after Lord of the Rings characters. One of the stories that really sticks out in my mind is the story of Clark Foam, so it was like back in the day, I think something like 90% of all surfboard manufacturers were using foam blanks, like the sort of base shapes that they were then sanding down to make more customised.

JC: That's right.

EU: They're all using foam blanks from this guy in northern California called Clark Foam and then, all of the sudden he just completely shut down his doors. I don't think anyone really knows what happened but we do know that he was in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency and as you've been saying, these are some of the most toxic materials, so likely he just was no longer legally able to do what he was doing, but that completely changed the industry all of the sudden because people who had been relying upon this source of surfboard blanks, to make their own custom designs, no longer had this source. I mean, I'm picturing the story where suddenly you are now manufacturing the blanks that everyone around the world is using. Is that part of your vision?

JC: Definitely long term. What the machine that I've built allows me, and the process I've developed, allows me to do is create, like someone can send me a Cad file of their board and I can assemble that to a rough blank in a matter of kind of hours, which is amazing. I'm already kind of talking to a few shapers, good shapers in New Zealand who are interested in trialling out the blanks model where instead of me selling a finished surfboard, I just sell them a blank and they do all the hands on work.

Yeah, eventually the long term goal is to kind of just become that supplier of blanks, so if anyone goes into any surf shop, any shaper around New Zealand, they'll be able to offer them the option of a wooden board instead of a polyurethane or a virgin polystyrene board. It would be really cool to be able to do that in New Zealand and then, in time, try and find people overseas who can, there's people overseas who can do the same thing that I do in New Zealand, in their country.

EU: What's your ultimate goal? Is growing the business the ultimate goal? Is it having more streams protected using this wood that can then be used in surfboards? Is it taking more polystyrene out of the waste stream? Is it making sure millions of people around the world are stoked on their new board? What do you envision as being success for you?

JC: I think one of the biggest problems at the moment with sustainability is just understanding what goes into making products. I mean, the amount of people that I talk to who, in the surfboard community, who don't actually know that their boards are toxic is kind of like, "Really?" Obviously, you know, it's not marketed and it's the norm and everyone kind of accepts it but I think awareness would be like a really key thing. If my surfboards can make people go,, "Aw, actually wait a second, yeah, I've heard about this polyurethane foam, it's horrible stuff. Can't be recycled and weak, breaks, it's just ..." If I can start to get people to think more about what goes into the products that they buy, I think that would be a really nice accomplishment.

EU: Tell me a little bit about how the actual construction process works because I mean, wood generally, when you get it it's flat and a surfboard is very curvy. There's all sorts of beautiful lines on a well made surfboard, so how are you actually getting the wood to match those curves?

JC: That's been the hardest challenge. Timber, inherently, when you buy timber it's always flat and surfboards are the most curvaceous product I think manufactured. A lot of work to try and get wood to bend to those shapes and to take those curves. It's kind of easy to set up to make one shape wooden surfboard but to develop a process so that you can accurately produce a variety of shapes, was the hard task. Vacuum's been like a common theme throughout the whole thing, so using vacuum pump, which sucks all the air out of whatever cavity you connect it to, is a really good way of getting wood to conform to curves.

I realised I needed a rocker cradle and then I worked out that vacuum was the best way of holding the parts together until the glue set. That's when I started building this big, elaborate vacuum, I haven't got a name for it. I call it the lamination station.

EU: That works.

JC: I haven't ...

EU: Good alliteration.

JC: It works. The guys at Xero Gravity bought Rod a board for his 50th birthday and when he came around to sort of design his board up, I showed him the equipment that I was kind of using to make them and I had this idea of like automating it but that was just way outside of my skill level and he very kindly offered to help me develop that machine a little bit. There was a Hackathon coming up later that year and he put together a team of really friendly and intelligent coders and over the course of about two days, they basically turned my archaic little process into this fully automated manufacturing system, which is really cool.

EU: Wait, that's amazing, so does that mean that Xero employees get a discount now on your boards?

JC: Yep. I think, I'm trying, I've got to say that properly but I think, yeah, 20%. It saves me about, every time I make a board now, that machine that they've built saves me about 20% of the labour, so I think that's fair.

EU: Well, so I mean, it's so clear that you really care about, I mean not only surfing and the environment and shifting the industry itself, but there's got to be a personal reason why having this business is important to you. Are you hoping that you can retire soon or quit your day job, your construction business. What's the best case scenario?

JC: Sustainability, for me means being able to do the things I love in ten, twenty, thirty years time and then, being able to do those things with my kids, when I eventually have some kids. It's important to try and make decisions now that will allow us to do that. I think I forgot about all the natural pursuits and the natural beauty that we have in New Zealand and yeah, being reacquainted with it now, I'm kind of invested in trying to protect it. It's in surfers best interest possible to look after the environment because any sort of global warming is going to immediately effect the water levels and then surf racks are going to stop working. Drinking or coming into contact with polluted salt water.

EU: You sound like such a chill guy and yet you're balancing two businesses and a surfing career, for lack of a better term. How are you, how do you fit it all in?

JC: I have to work quite long hours to be honest. In the other business, I do like 9 to 5. Then, at the moment, I do all the surfboards in I do like four nights a week, I do about five or six hours and then I work on them on Saturday as well. Yeah, sometimes I'll get up early. I'll get up at 5 in the morning and go in a do a few hours but the good thing about making surfboards is that there's actually like quite a lot of down time, waiting for epoxy to dry, so you can go in and do something and then you have to wait, so it kind of works at the moment.

The long term goal is to try and feed some of the production work of the surfboards back into my joinery company, which has a far bigger capacity than I do. We often have extra staff on call that we can bring in when things get busy, just trying to figure out how to optimize it all, but at this stage, yeah, juggling a couple of balls and then I've got a lovely girlfriend, who's very patient. We have burger night on Wednesdays and then on Sundays we go to yoga and hang out. It works. Hopefully, in the long term, I can figure out a more sustainable work life balance. I'm trying to remember, I think it might be Ryan Holiday who, maybe it's someone else, who talks about like you're never too good for a task, you know. Whilst you can, you could hire someone to do those simple jobs, it is quite good to do those, to appreciate and have kind of goals and realize where you want to be.

EU: Looking back at everything that you've accomplished so far, in both of your businesses, is there anything that you wish someone had told you earlier on that you would tell other folks who are listening who want to start their own businesses?

JC: Yeah, I guess there's probably quite a lot of things I've learned. I definitely used to be a lot more optimistic than I am now. I think like often pessimism is seen as quite a negative but if you expect for everything to go right and then something goes wrong, then I think that's when it can affect your mental health or you know, you can start to really feel stupid or think, blaming yourself for your shortcomings, whatever. I think if you, like now often when I approach situations, I always kind of, I'm open to the idea that it might fail or something might not work out the way I dream or hope. That definitely prepares you more for failure and then if something goes wrong, instead of getting upset, I'll be prepared to figure out what the problem is and find a solution.

I think if I started the surfboard thing straight out of university, if I hadn't had any business experience, I think I probably would have given it up after about two or three boards because I was having so many issues.

EU: It's funny because surfing is such a great metaphor for so many things but even in business, it's like anyone that goes surfing knows that they really should just call it paddling because you spend a lot of time paddling out, getting waves crashing on your head, trying to catch the wave and not getting it, or you catch it and then you pearl and the nose goes under and you're like swimming yet again, and that's like business too. You learn to go with the waves and you learn to be in the right position when the right one comes so that you can just close that big deal and ride it to shore or whatever.

JC: Yeah, exactly, yeah, yeah. There's so many crossovers, it's insane. I often will just sit out there, just thinking about things and when a set comes through, you've got like about five guys out and everyone's going to go for the first wave and fight for that, or you just kind of go for the second one and everyone will be, no one will be there, in business or in life as well, there's always lots of opportunities in front of you but you've got to kind of pick your battles, I guess, and sometimes be a bit patient and wait for the right opportunity to come your way.

EU: You get a lot of time out there, just bobbing by yourself to think about all of those great things in life and all of the things you could be doing differently when you get back to shore.

JC: I met a guy a few weeks ago at the surf symposium that I was involved in down at Otago University. His name was Jian and he was studying psychology up in Auckland University. He was doing a whole, it might be his PhD, and surfing is to build up your mental health, you know, how surfing can be such an amazing thing for your well-being. He's going on a road trip soon around New Zealand and just interviewing people and just ask them what surfing means to them. Some of the answers he'll get will be amazing. For me, before I was surfing, when I was just focusing on work and then when I started taking time out, just to do something that I really enjoyed, it was just so good for my head, so yeah, it should be a really good thesis to read.

EU: What a fun research project. I want that job. Well, I pretty much have that job. I get to talk to folks like you all day long. We get some amazing stories about how you've made your businesses work and how you've turned something that you're passionate about into a viable business. What could be better?

JC: I was going to say, this time last year I was road-tripping around the north island of New Zealand with about four surfboards, doing demos and it was pretty fun. We just parked up and then when a car of guys rocked up, we're like, "Aw, do you want to try these out and tell us what you think," and the fact that that was work, I was like, 'Aw, this is amazing."

EU: That's great, perfect. Well, you've definitely figured out some formula for happiness here. Awesome. What's one thing you can't live without?

JC: It would have to be probably the ocean. Even if I don't drive passed the sea, in a couple of days I start to get kind of weird, and I just kind of take the long way to work.

EU: I love that. Well, it's been so fun to hear what makes you tick for Xero Gravity podcast. We're so glad that you joined us on the show.

JC: Cool. Thank you very much.

EU: That was Jack Candlish, founder and director of the surfboard company, Organic Dynamic. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity.

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