Tofino is a small, isolated town on Vancouver Island. While it’s a popular surf and vacation destination in the summer, in the winter months the dropping number of visitors are replaced by the rise of post-delivered Employment Insurance cheques. Starting a new business is risky, but in one of these off-seasons, Nina Waltl took action. With the help of a community self-employment program, Nina started Cold Surf Company: a business that creates hand-tied surf leashes, useful surf and beach gear (like seat-covers and change mats), dog leashes and collars, and custom sewing projects. Now, with her gear in all the local shops and attached to a growing number of surfboards, Cold Surf Co. is moving into its 10th year of business. Here Nina answers some of our questions about making it in and out of the (cold) water.
What’s the backstory behind Cold Surf Company?
I think it was 2003, and I was on EI after a summer of landscaping. I’d heard about this self-employment program offered by Community Futures. You had to be on EI to qualify. If they accept you they’d give you pay cheques for an entire year to help you start a business! Sounded good to me! So I needed a business idea fairly quick, and my husband suggested, “Why don’t you make leashes?” Ok, sounds good… I presented this idea to Community Futures, and they liked it. Then I had to come up with a business plan, present that; they still liked it and accepted me to their program. Everything had to happen pretty fast: Come up with a name, some sort of logo, figure out how to actually make leashes, where to buy all the materials, etc. It was an awesome year of suddenly being my own boss, and when it turned out that my leashes were actually really good, I just kept making them. And other stuff.
Three words that describe your products:
Simple. Strong. Useful.
Tofino is pretty small. Are you able to work at Cold Surf full-time?
I also caretake a house out on the beach, a job that actually pays by the hour!
What’s your favourite part of your work?
Flexible schedule. I can go surfing whenever I want. When it’s good. I also really enjoy making stuff that I can use on a daily basis. You can do so much with a sewing machine! It’s really cool to see my gear out in the water, or on car seats, or happy dogs on the beach. A few surf schools are using my leashes. They are available at a couple surf shops in town, also in Ukee. A lot of people come directly to me looking for custom colors or length, or with other custom sewing ideas. It’s always fun working on a new project and coming up with a simple and strong solution that lasts!
What does your day-to-day look like?
I take my two dogs (a Jack Russell and a Staffie Terrier) for a morning walk out to Chestermans. There I get a good idea of where I’m gonna surf. I bring the dogs back home and usually go for a surf right after. (Unless tide and wind and crowd require a really early surf, then these two things get switched around, not much to the liking of Bunn, the Staffie). After my surf I go to work for a few hours. Either to my “factory” or my caretaker job. Sometimes both. Again, work and surf can get switched around if necessary. Later I get some dinner going for my hard-working husband (good wife 🙂 ) and then it’s already time for another dog walk. Maybe squeeze in a second surf somewhere if the waves are really good. That’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, and I keep the house clean, do the shopping, make sure bills get paid on time, and do everything else around the house.
Your products are cold-water specific. How are they different than warm-water gear?
With all the neoprene from wetsuit and booties, your ankles are much bigger than naked in warm water. So I make my ankle straps longer to accommodate all that rubber. More comfort, better fit, stronger hold. The car seat covers are for driving home in your wet wetsuit. The change mats/bags are big enough to hold two winter wetsuits plus booties, etc. I guess you don’t need that in warm water.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Daily life. Going surfing. If you do something all the time, every day, you kind of figure out what works and what doesn’t, and what would be convenient to have. I love being able to say, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have this or that,” usually surf-related, then sit down at my sewing machine and make it!
What’s the big-picture plan for Cold Surf? Are you growing and taking over the surf-leash industry one ankle at a time?
Haha. Yes, one ankle at a time. I always thought that it would be cool if Cold Surf was some kind of a co-op thing that provided work for a bunch of people – people that can bring different strengths and skills to the business. I do everything myself, from R&D to ordering materials, to actually “making it”, selling it, etc. I find that the “growing” part, the marketing, the selling, I neglect the most. I’m better at the “making it.”
Cold-water surfing. Sounds terrible. What makes it worthwhile?
Beautiful locations. There are lots of awesome places with cold water. Keeps the crowds down. And if the waves are good, who cares if the water is cold?! Plus, it keeps you in shape for those warm-water trips!