We started Soul & Surf in 2009 without any intention of setting up a business. I had been running a graphic design company in Brighton for 14 years and was looking for a slower pace of life, a dramatic lifestyle change. I drew a line in the sand and left the company. My wife, Sofie, left her job and we went on a round-the-world surf trip with nothing lined up afterwards.
Stay true to your values
Soul & Surf started as a low-key way of extending our trip. We hoped to get a free stay in Kerala for another six months while we worked out what to do. A decade later, we have over 100 staff members across three permanent locations: Kerala, Sri Lanka, and Portugal. Setting up Soul & Surf without considering it to be a business has been a key ingredient to its success. Despite the company growing, we remain true to our core values from that original trip, founded on an authentic passion for surfing, yoga, travel, and adventure.
As the company has grown, we have worked hard to distill what the essence of its true identity is. We’ve developed ten company values that we adhere to, in order to remain true to the company’s DNA. They include risk (that’s at the heart of what we’ve done to get here by leaving our jobs), balance (our lifestyle), and soul (authenticity).
Authenticity is key
Authenticity is crucial to enhancing guest experience. Over the past seven or so years, I’ve noticed numerous surf camps that have just hired a surf coach and plopped a yoga teacher in the corner. Customers can smell that inauthenticity a mile away. If you want to offer guests an experience—like the combination of surfing and yoga—it’s really important that you live and breathe it yourself first.
The people we employ are fundamental to what we do. We find and hire staff based not necessarily on their skillset, but on their authenticity. Our staff needs to align with our principles and ethos – it’s important to us that they are on a similar path. You have to choose someone you’d be happy to spend time with, who inspires you.
Put passion over profit
My advice is to make sure you’re doing things for the right reasons, rather than simply seeing potential business opportunities. Don’t just look at introducing something because you think it might be popular or make money. Do what you believe in and—if you do it well—the financial rewards will follow. When we started, we weren’t designing a program to serve a niche group of customers. We were thinking about how we wanted to spend our days, and the company took root from there.
Leverage communication tools and systems
One of the biggest operational challenges that comes with working across different regions is communication. The time zone difference between, say, Kerala and the UK means we only have three or four hours of our working days that overlap. We use remote working tools, like video meetings and the instant messaging platform Slack, to ensure we keep regular touchpoints throughout the day. Frequent visits are also key – I’ve just returned from seeing our team in Portugal. Now that we’re based back in the UK, either Sofie or I will visit our teams abroad around every six to eight weeks.
To ensure everything runs smoothly, we have implemented a strict structure of management systems. There’s a set process for how we do everything, from serving breakfast to making up the rooms, even how to manage local politics and bureaucracy. This is all documented and easy for staff to reference when they start a new role. We don’t want them to be making it up as they go along. This training is crucial for interaction with customers. For guests, this makes their whole experience seem effortless and seamless.
The importance of patience
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past decade is patience. The systems of operating a business in India and Sri Lanka are very different to those in the UK. We’ve learned to go with the flow of the countries we’re working in, instead of trying to impose our own expectations on how something should be done.
Looking back, I’d advise myself to get more than one professional opinion on everything. Be careful about the people who approach you when you’re just starting out – some may be seeking quick, easy money so are not the best people to work with. Dig deeper, and you’ll find genuine people who adhere to your core values.
- Authenticity is key to enhancing guest experience. You have to live and breathe the experience you’re offering them yourself
- Write down your company’s top ten core values – it helps distill your identity and makes it easier to make decisions while still adhering to these values
- It’s all about the people – consider looking for and hiring staff based on whether their values align with your own, instead of purely on their skills
- One of the challenges of working across different regions can be communication, but it can be mastered if you maintain regular touchpoints throughout the day
- Patience is necessary when you’re setting up a business in countries whose operational practices are not the same as your own. Learn to go with the flow, instead of trying to impose your own expectations on them