Fighting for Territory in the Booming Stand-Up Paddle Business
Nanette GonzalesMatt Shubin demonstrates the art of the paddle.
As a kid
growing up in Malibu, Christian Shubin eschewed the surf industry and
all it stood for: commodifying something pure, selling it to the masses
and giving everyone a little "slice of paradise."
"It's part of
the selfishness of surfing," he says. "You want to be the only good
surfer, or the only person enjoying the waves, and you see it's being
sold to everyone else, and it waters it down."
Shubin's perspective has changed. As co-owner of Poseidon Stand-Up
Paddleboards in Santa Monica, the 37-year-old has not only embraced the
idea of selling his passion but also has become one of Los Angeles'
greatest proponents of stand-up paddling, or "SUP," in industry
Developed by pro surfer Laird Hamilton as an exercise
alternative when the surf is flat, SUP is essentially a hybrid of
surfing and kayaking: Participants stand on a large, stable board and
propel themselves across the water with a long paddle.
Hamilton began experimenting with SUP almost a decade ago, the sport's
popularity in the past two years has skyrocketed worldwide, exploding
with new enthusiasts, new genres -- from SUP yoga to SUP adventure tours --
and a free-for-all of new businesses elbowing their way into the ocean.
who runs Poseidon with his brother and business partner, 31-year-old
Matt Shubin, is a perfect ambassador for the sport. Tall and tan with an
easy manner and small-town warmth, he's the picture of California beach
culture. Christian's passion for SUP practically radiates off him as he
extols the virtues of the sport -- fitness, relaxation, adventure and a
tiny learning curve, among others.
Beneath their cool SoCal vibe,
though, the Shubins are keen entrepreneurs. The pair opened shop on
Windward Circle in Venice 18 months ago, thanks in part to short-term
half-price rent but, more importantly, to timing: Poseidon was the first
SUP-specific shop to open in Los Angeles, which enabled the brothers to
"stake their claim in the area," Christian says. (They've since moved
Poseidon to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, tucked into Hotel Row and
within throwing distance from the pier.)
Poseidon has enjoyed an
early edge. But since its arrival, the SUP industry in and around Los
Angeles -- including SUP schools, races, fitness classes and recreational
outings -- has drawn people from land to water in droves. The business
boom has spurred competition, both healthy and not-so-feel-good.
few would discuss the topic on the record, rumors of design piracy and
questionable business practices abound. Star Surf founder and Bay Street
local Curtis Veach, who added stand-up lessons to his surf school four
years ago, notes that competition has always existed in the surf
And the SUP boom has renewed subtle rivalries once
again. While the surf-school community is tight-knit, Veach has noticed
instructors vying for students, and sometimes poaching those who mistook
one school for another.
Heath Hamilton, who manages
beach-business permits for the City of Santa Monica, says that a flashy
website may draw tourists and other SUP neophytes in over an
established, less media-savvy business with the legal permissions to
operate. The sheer size of the coastal terrain can make enforcement a
Among shop owners and product designers, the boom's
implications are borne out on their bottom lines. They assert that
hard-goods knockoffs are everywhere and nearly impossible to litigate,
because SUP board designs have organically become homogeneous as shapes
and tastes are refined. A frequent gripe is that independent, high-end
shapers' designs are copied and mass-produced in overseas "pop-out"
factories, where a blank piece of foam is "popped" out of a mold, versus
hand-shaped, as with traditional prone surf- and SUP boards. That leads
to lower prices but also lower quality.
Jim Terrell, a former
Olympic medalist in canoe racing and founder of Quickblade paddles,
describes the pitfalls for designers like him. "Say you're a company in
China that produces paddle bags and other SUP goods," he says. "You'll
send out a mass email and solicit the shops. The shops are being invited
to buy direct from these companies, for much cheaper than [board
manufacturer] Naish or other companies. ... Other people will backdoor
it -- they'll go down to the beach and sell from their cars."
industry] got to this point where you had some people building boards,
and it was pretty exciting to see their designs," says Joe Bark, founder
of Joe Bark Paddleboards, and one of the first shapers to make
SUP-specific boards for Laird Hamilton. While Bark has made some of his
closest friends in the SUP community, he notes, "The next thing you
know, 10 times those companies popped up overnight, by just taking a
board they liked, sending it overseas and putting their name on it and
saying, 'This is ours now.' It's kind of a sad thing."
however, including Hamilton, see the infighting as par for the course.
"Normal kind of business trends occur when you have new ideas, and
things that are hot, everyone jumps on it," he says. "But at the end,
the real design, and real board design, and real quality product will
rise to the top."
The competition also is leading to renewed
energy, he says. "The surfing industry and the board business in surf is
really at an all-time low, and SUP has saved a lot of these stores,"
Hamilton asserts. "Ninety-nine percent of all board builders right now
are building stand-up boards, and most surf shops are selling them,
because people want them."
Indeed, SUP sales accounted for 9
percent of surfboard sales in 2010, according to Surf Industry
Manufacturers Association, in a report from the first year that included
The SUP boom's other unintended consequence may,
ironically, be more innovation, at a faster rate. With cheaper products
forcing price points down, Terrell has had to re-evaluate every aspect
of his business, finding cheaper, lighter materials that are just as
Back in the cozy confines of Poseidon, Christian Shubin
isn't too worried about the scramble for stakes in the SUP industry.
"People have to make their living somehow, and might as well do
something they love," he says. "In the end, turning someone on to
something like this is helping them."
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