WSL – A dream that became a marketing opportunity that became our biggest marketing error (so far)

Afonso and I at a WSL QS championship
Afonso and I at a WSL QS – Ericeira 2017

We started to test Van der Waal in 2015 and in 2016 we officially launched as product our Performance Series 1.0. Afonso was still working at his full day job, while I was working as a freelancer, so naturally, I had more time for Van der Waal.

My days were split between working at BluePepper social media agency and answering emails, managing Van der Waal social media and, most of the time, dropping packs at local post offices. Not a fun way to spend my time, but surprisingly, I was really ablaze with this new ‘work’. My mind was always surfing through remote goals, like having an office at the beach, be able to hire Afonso and Joana for a full-time job at Van der Waal, or to be, one far far away day, at a WSL event with all pro surfers.

Probably because we had a huge smile on our faces and due to our enthusiasm with our product, suddenly seemed like everybody wanted to help us. Quicker than I could ever imagine, people like João Costa (from Portuguese Surf Association — ASP) were guiding and introducing us through stores and dealers.

The day we were introduced to ORG, Polen, Xen&Co and Semente in a row
The day we were introduced to ORG, Polen, Xen&Co and Semente in a row

People from blogs and magazines started to talk about us. Suddenly we were featured at SurfBunker, Surfing Sections, Beachcam, Surftotal, The Inertia (!!!) and so many other sites, with cool and nice reviews.

I’m completely honest when I say that was not expecting anything this to happen in such a short period of time. Remember that none of us was from the surf industry and on top of that we knew absolutely no one at surf industry. [Read We are amateurs]

And then everything changed for us. Especially to me and to my child’s mind.

Out of nowhere, Francisco Spinola and Frederico Teixeira invited us to offer samples to all surfers competing at WSL Championship Tour in Peniche.
Can you imagine my face when I knew that I was going to offer my product to names like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson, among all other top surfers in the world? No, you can’t, neither do I. It must have been a very silly face that kept that way for a really long time.

Again, my mind was surfing much higher ‘waves’ than it was possible. For weeks I was dreaming with Kelly Slater calling me to discuss my product, or about Mick Fanning posting a review at our website, or any pro surfer tagging us on Instagram. I know that those are impossible dreams, but if someone told me that 3 months after our first online sale we were going to be invited to offer our product to all top surfers of WSL, I would have said that was a beautiful but impossible dream.

So we worked really hard all night to pack everything and to talk about what we were going to do differently from all other brands that were offering their products to those surfers.

I decided that we should write a personal note to each surfer, wishing them all the best for the Championship Tour event and explaining that we were not looking for any kind of advertising but rather sincere feedback from the best surfers in the world. I was totally honest with this and really committed to that the first thing that surfers would see was our words about don’t wanting any kind of free publicity. We really just wanted sincere feedback.

Note: As a new product and concept, none of us was completely sure that it would work at all possible surf environments. So if a pro surfer had told us at the time ‘This thing works!’ we could vanish our doubts.

That way, instead of just giving them a pack (that in my mind they would never open it) with a note inside, I convinced Afonso that the best was to cover our boxes with this handwritten letter to them.

I woke up early and drive to Peniche, with a silly smile on my face, a heart beating fast and my mind rambling around the idea that John John Florence would have later that day our product on his hands (and, hopefully, one later day at his feet). There, I gave the packs to the organization girl that would place them at their lockers and after receiving my VIP wrist went to the beach to watch the championship.

Was an amazing day. Waves were pumping, the beach was crowded and I had, for the first time, a shadow to protect me from the sun and free beer at the VIP tent. And a flutter of nervousness for knowing that our product was waiting for the surfers at their locker room.

By the end of the day, I got back home and called Afonso to share with him the experience of watching the championship side by side with all my surf idols, share with them all the ‘wows’ every time a huge set arrives and that our packs were successfully placed at the lockers.

Sit at my couch, I’ve opened my laptop to watch replays of my favorite sets. As soon as I hit play I understood my (huge) mistake and felt a slap on my silly smile. At the video player of the WSL website was Sebastien Sietz, getting ready for his heat, with a pack of Van der Waal rightly placed behind him.


My heart just fired up, and looked closely to watch our Van der Waal pack…In that moment my silly smile just turned to a silly face. I felt (and still feel) the slap on my face.

Instead of our logo and package displayed to all (millions?) of WSL website visitors was a big white unreadable letter. Handwritten by Afonso.

As a marketing guy, I should have known, from the moment we were called to offer our product to all top surfers, that our strategy should have been to make some special packaging for them, with bigger logos and personalized messages at their back.

But never, ever, covered our brand with a big white paper.

I knew that at that time, and if it was a client of any agency I worked for, probably it would be my advice. But as a new business and trying to stand out of the crowd, my ingenious option was clearly a big mistake.

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The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice… or not (about the smell of wax contradiction)

Van der waal wax scented special edition
We filmed this video at a flat day in Oeiras 😀

Van der Waal with the smell of wax? Let’s do it!

This title is ‘stolen’ from Barry Schwartz TED talk about the paradox of choice (embedded at the end of this article) and it is just a way of many to explain why sometimes users don’t want to decide and, more than that, they will not decide for what they always asked for.

Every single time we at Van der Waal had gone to an event, a WSL Championship, beach markets or product presentations, there was always someone who told us something like ‘oh… nice product, but I really love the smell of wax’.

To be honest, I love the smell of wax too. And, since I was surfing with Van der Waal almost 2 years in a row, I really missed that smell on my board.

So I’ve decided, with Afonso, to launch a special edition of wax scented Van der Waal. We talked and after sometime brainstorming and figuring out how to do it, we created and launched a special edition of Van der Waal. To communicate it, we created a video in homage to the famous scene from Apocalypse Now – “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.

We had a product that everyone asked for, limited edition to 100 packs, at the exact same price as the regular version. My house stank of wax, we had stock and everything was ready, so we launched it across our marketing channels.

I was so excited with this new version and so sure that it would be a massive success, that I slept dreaming of selling all the 100 packs on a single night.

On the next morning, I had several emails congratulating us for the video and the idea and the product, I had messages and shares across social media, and our website visits had grown. But no sales.

And after 2 months, we had sold zero packs of this special edition. More than that, our conversion rate as decreased while users could choose between wax scented and regular version.

I’m not sure what might have gone wrong and is still unclear for me why we didn’t sell a single pack of Van der Waal special edition until today. Everything was working — I’ve checked all the details over and over again — and was a product that everyone wanted, right?

Wrong. What I’ve learned with this Van der Waal Wax scented (better said, sentenced) version is that not everyone wants what they say they want. And more than that, when people have to choose between two (or more) versions of the same product will cause some kind of paralysis, making them give up earlier.

Maybe next time I ask my customers to make a choice, I should read/watch this first.

And if you have several choices around your products, so should you 🙂

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The unpredictability of surf and a leap of faith

unpredictability of surf
Testing the unpredictability of surf

As a sport, surf is probably one of the most fickle ones. It depends on so many factors and scenarios that predicting what gear will work or not (and how it will work) is more or less like predict the future with oomancy (divination by eggs). Which is the same to say that probably you (we) will fail a lot of times. Here is what I learn with the unpredictability of surf.

To develop a grip solution, as an alternative to the surf wax mainstream, it’s more than a challenge. It’s a leap of faith…

Since day 1 that research has always been, for me and for Afonso, exciting, fun and meaningful.

Just to name a few factors, surf will depend on weather conditions, waves size and shape, wind (onshore, offshore, side shore…), surfer skills and experience, type of surfing waves (beach break, reef break, point break…). On top of that, add surfboard shape, size, design and construction type (epoxy, fiber, foam…), add a set of fins (that can change from 2 to 5 fins, with different size and shapes), and add a wetsuit (again, a lot of different materials, thickness and so on) or no wetsuit at all.

As a plus, add on top of these variables a surfer physical and mental form, if he is adapting to new gear (surfboard, wetsuit, fins) or surfing in a new spot, or if suddenly all conditions changed and he was trying our surf grip on a more challenging day. Count also with surfer patience and willingness to try and adapt his surf to a new (and more expensive) grip.

All these factors make almost impossible to read and understand all the feedback that we received since our first sale. And despite a lot of testing and research (read more here) on the most accurate materials that we could, it’s almost impossible to get a final result on how our product will behave in this magical formula:


So, the only way we could improve our first version of Van der Waal (Performance Series 1.0) was running a survey to all our customers and cross their feedback with our test results. A year later, also based on our customer’s feedback, we decided to launch a new version, r.Evolution Series. This is a softer and clear version of Van der Waal, free from plasticizers and PVCs, so also a greener one.

With this version, we have finally a killer product! Or not…

A new clearer, lighter and greener version of Van der Waal

The feeling now is the same when we started this… a leap of faith.

As always, we tested a lot of times and at different conditions, I keep surfing with it a year from now and it keeps working, but we will never have sure if it will work for everyone that will buy it.

That’s why now we have to be even closer to our customers. Because only with their feedback, and after analyzing all the facts, opinions — frustrated and amazed ones — and suggestions that customers kindly provide us, we will able understand if this is what I think it is (the best version of Van der Waal so far) or a better version but yet to be improved.

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An alternative to surf wax

Or… why I feel we have an indebtedness of 100% over our total sales.

Van der Waal is a grip solution introduced in 2016 as an alternative to surf wax.

An alternative to surf wax combinations...
An alternative to surf wax combinations…

To start, let’s consider that a surf wax bar costs, on average, 3€. Our product, on it’s cheapest package (21 hexagons, for a standard small shortboard), costs 34€. That is, at least, 10 times more.

I know there are many advantages on our product when compared to wax (last longer than wax, it’s a greener solution and it will not melt or get sticky, just to name a few), but it is an expensive product.

Besides that, when our customer is buying Van der Waal, he doesn’t know if it will work or not (more about surf unpredictability here).

As in any business, our customers choose to believe that our product will fit their needs and in exchange, they give us their money. I think about it a lot of times and really care about this trade. For me, it must be a fair trade. Not fair trade in a sense of ‘improved social and environmental standards’ as explained at Wikipedia, but rather on a sense that is our customers’ money in exchange for our product.

This quote from Jose Mujica is on point as one of the most important things to keep in mind when selling something to anyone:

“When you buy something, you’re not paying money for it. You are paying with the hours of your life you had to spend earning that money.”

Aware of this, above everything else, we should really respect our customer’s money. I always feel grateful when an order drop at my mailbox, just because someone decided to give me his money in exchange for my product. This money, that could go for so many other things (wax bars, competitor products, other grip solutions, etc), it is his time working, sometimes away from his family or friends and certainly away from waves.

Thinking like this leads to a different perception of any sale, where respect and honesty surpass order value or profit. And that is the way I think things should be done, feeling gratefulness when someone buys our product and aware that he has chosen in spending his working hours with us, instead of a 10 times cheaper wax bar.

For me (for us at Van der Waal) the value proposition is not at our product offer, is in the consumer’s option to choose us. And that has to be treated very carefully, with a great sense of gratitude and huge respect.

This proof of trust has no price, and that is why I feel to owe to every Van der Waal customer every single minute of their working hours they gave us.

A really huge thank you to all Waalers for their support, feedback and, of course, for all their orders.
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