Riding the Business Waves

Wisdom from the board--but not the one you'd expect.
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This story appears in the March 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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"I will catch a wave every day, even in my mind."
"I will ride and not paddle in to shore."

These and 10 other simple rules for surfers make up Shaun Tomson's Surfer's Code. The code has gotten the former world-champion surfer over personal humps, including the bust of his first business, a clothing company in his native South Africa.

Tomson and his wife, Carla, have a 9-year-old high-end casualwear firm, Solitude, that's sold exclusively at J.C. Penney. Thomson expands on the code and applies it to business--and life--in his book Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life, which was already in its fourth printing at press time.

Entrepreneur: Can you give a couple of examples of Surfer's Code rules that you think are crucial for businesspeople?
Shaun Tomson: One is "I will always paddle back out." If you get wiped out in business or in life, you've got to get back on your board and paddle back out and try to catch another wave. Tenacity, determination and courage are all important ingredients for a successful athlete--and entrepreneur.

Another is "Never turn your back on the ocean." The ocean is something I really love. But if you don't keep your eyes open, it can kill you. In business, it's the same thing: If you're not aware of the environment, you can [be] destroyed.

There's another level I think it speaks to: Be associated with something you love. Once you have that, don't turn your back on that.

Entrepreneur: How did your rule "I will never fight a riptide" help you decide to sign with J.C. Penney in 2005?
Tomson: There's a trend in American apparel retailing that you need a big distribution partnership--look at Mossimo in Target stores. We didn't want to go against that. We were still a small company, under $20 million, and we wanted to go more mainstream.

Entrepreneur: How do your rules about respecting other surfers and the ocean apply to the often-cutthroat business world?
Tomson: Another rule is that all surfers are joined by one ocean. You need to remember that life is not about profits, sales and growth. You need to have respect for yourself and your fellow human beings. That might [seem like] an aspirational philosophy, but look at Starbucks [and] Patagonia. Business is starting to be done more ethically.

Seattle writer Carol Tice reports on business and finance for The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine and other leading publications.

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