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How I made bodysurfing my career

Ever fantasised about escaping the rat race to pursue your passion, but you feel it's too niche? Rikki Gilbey proves that a niche product can be a startup success story.

Millions of surfers around the world hit the beach first thing in the morning, but dry themselves off just in time to catch the bus to work. For Rikki Gilbey, the call of the ocean was too loud to ignore, and his background in marine conservation and surf shops made it a natural fit.

The moment he first hit the surf wearing a handplane - a small hand-board that allows you to glide through the waves - inspiration struck. Today, his eco-friendly company WAW Handplanes are stocked in surf shops all around the country.

How did you discover your passion for bodysurfing?

I’ve always been an all-round surfer/waterman. I grew up on the coast. I was working at a surf store and we got these handplanes in from America, and so my love for bodysurfing kind of came with the handplanes. I took up bodysurfing and then just instantly fell in love with the simplicity.

How did you transform that passion into a career?

I did a bit of research within Australia and realised that there wasn’t really anybody creating handplanes and doing it well. I saw a gap in the market. I’ve always been a bit hands-on, I’ve always done carpentry work, and I just thought it’d be a good opportunity to make some handplanes. And they started selling really well.

And now you’re selling them all around Australia?

In the states of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and W.A. - all the surfy ones!

It’s really not that hard to make it a nice, eco-friendly, sustainable company. So consider that from the very beginning.

WAW Handplanes is committed to sustainability. Why was that so important to you?

Being a user of the ocean, you want to protect the ocean that you’re surfing in. So, I made a commitment to myself, that if I was going to start a business that involved using the ocean more and trying to get people in the ocean, I didn’t want to create a product that was going to harm it in any way. We used sustainable materials as much as possible. It marries well with the simplicity of bodysurfing - just protecting the environment we play in.

What were the biggest risks you’ve had to take on your journey?

I got to this realisation where I was like, “In order to get this to the stage where I could make it my career, I do have to take that leap and step away from other work.” I had faith in the company, but that was a bit of a risk. I took a financial risk in that I was removing my steady, regular income and then committing all my time to growing the handplane company into something that could support me. That was a big risk. Luckily, it paid off.

So you had faith that you were making the right decision?

Of course. We could never make enough product. We were always selling out. I could see the opportunity for further growth, and the general interest in the sport and pastime was growing. So I had a lot of faith, but it was still a bit scary and still a bit of a risk. But the faith, and the passion, and the belief that it could actually work pushed us through.

Do you have any advice for young people looking to turn their ideas into a career?

My advice would be to not let go of your steady income too soon. You really want that steady side income to support you. It puts a lot of pressure on a passion business if it’s your full-time gig.

My other bit of advice would be: it’s really not that hard to make it a nice, eco-friendly, sustainable company. So consider that from the very beginning!

What does the future look like for your company?

I think the future’s bright. For me, the most exciting part is the growth in interest in the pastime of bodysurfing itself. I’m never going to be able to sell my product unless people like bodysurfing. So, I’m really excited to see that bodysurfing as a sport is growing. And it’s great, because once we can get people to jump into that - remove themselves from their busy, crazy lives and focus on simplicity - we can get our message across about sustainability.

The future’s good.

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