Tom Kay and Finisterre are leading a cold water surfing revolution

Tom Kay and Finisterre are leading a cold water surfing revolution

Started From The Bottom #2 — Second up in our series Started From The Bottom – where we grill industry insiders on how they reached the top of their game – is cold water surf brand Finisterre founder Tom Kay.

Finisterre is the first brand of its kind, existing first and foremost to meet the needs of the cold water surfer on land. During icy team trips to the likes of Norway and the northernmost tips of Scotland, it became abundantly clear that no one in the board sports or adventure industries were considering the needs of these hardy surfers.

Today, Finisterre have launched a new collection to suit numb fingers and frozen limbs – jeans with brushed merino insides, thick, untreated, naturally water-resistant wool jumpers and coats long enough to preserve decency when fumbling your way out of a frozen wetsuit.

We sat down with founder Tom Kay in their St Agnes workshop to find out how they got to where they are now.

Started From The Bottom #2

Where did the journey of your brand begin?
I was brought up near the sea on the marshes in Norfolk. The sea’s always been part of my life; it’s very much in me, and in my blood. My mum and dad gave me a love of the sea and love of the mountains, but the love of the sea was a really strong thing for me. I did Marine Biology at university and then spent a year and a half in London. I realised that I had to do something that represented what I was really passionate about, so I started getting ideas about starting a brand that could represent those things. At the time – as is very much the case now – I was all about cold water surfing. To be a surfer on these shores around the UK, there’s a lot of commitment required to understand the conditions; it’s very changeable, you often spend a long time travelling to the right spot and studying weather maps. To start with it was about creating a product made in ethical and environmentally sustainable fabrics that would fit in around that sort of lifestyle. That was the bare bones of it then, and it’s how the brand has remained.

Did your upbringing contribute to your entrepreneurialism?
My mum and dad always encouraged me to think in my own way and to have my own way of doing stuff. My dad had quite a conventional job and was quite a conventional sort of guy, but he never put any pressure on me to go down a conventional route. I suppose I’ve always been encouraged to think freely and work out ways to get through life, which is kind of at the core of entrepreneurialism. But I wasn’t the kid selling 1p sweets for 5p in the school playground or anything like that.

What made you decide to set down firm roots and create a legacy?
You don’t – that’s the whole thing about starting a business. You start it and you have great ideas and you have a great emotional connection to it and what it stands for, and that’s it. You just have to keep going with it. There will always be big bumps and struggles, but you can’t stop. You just make it up as you go along. It’s a real journey; you have no idea where it’s going to take you. Ten or so years later, we’re here, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ll probably make more mistakes, but I’m really proud of the place we’ve reached. It never really gets to a point where you think, “It’s going to work!” You’re always pushing it, driving it, fighting it. Obviously, pressures change a bit, you get a track record and people get to know and trust the product, but it’s still as alive and dynamic an entity now as it was when it started out. It doesn’t stop being like that and I think if it does then you lose sight of what’s driving you. Making a product that’s still around years after you sold it – is a real testament to a good business.

Why did you decide that it was important to focus on clothes over hardware?
I wasn’t massively into fashion when I was university or school, so it’s a bit of a joke to a lot of my friends that I’m now effectively running a fashion brand! At the time, the clothes and technical garments were just what were needed as opposed to hardware. There were a lot of guys making boards and wetsuits, so for me it was easier to fill a missing function in the surf industry through making clothes relevant to the British climate. That said, we’ve been working on and testing wetsuits, they’ve required a real investment of time and a lot of innovation, but we’re getting closer to producing a cold water wetsuit.

In founding Finisterre, what exactly was it that you wanted to share with people?
I wanted to share the experience of being a cold water surfer on these shores. Even now when you pick up a surf magazine it’s all about bikinis and board shorts, showing people in these tropical places miles away. What I was experiencing and committing a lot of my life to was being a surfer in this country, where often it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s cold. Before the internet – and even now when we’re off-grid on trips – you had to read weather maps, predict the charts; there was a real depth of understanding. It was also very important to create a great place to work – I’m really proud of all the guys that work here and what it’s become. Everyone’s really driven and works really hard and there’s a lot of pressure to do well with the brand and to keep it moving forward, but it’s very much a family vibe. There are always dogs around the office, people popping in to visit and we still go surfing in the afternoon or at low-tide, whenever it is. You’ve got to enjoy the journey – that’s why we’re here.

So many brands start up and fail – why has Finisterre succeeded?
There’s no question that it had a bit to do with serendipity, meeting the right people at the right time. Like I said before, when you start a brand, everything isn’t lined up for you. You have to kind of half try to line stuff up and hope the rest just falls into place. I think it’s also really important to have a legitimate story about why you started a brand. All the good brands that are around today have an identity and origin that can be traced back to a key point in time. For Finisterre, innovation has been a key thing, but not just for the sake of it, like putting Bluetooth holders in our hats. It’s always been about real necessity and finding gaps in the market to innovate around. In our top line now – the Cold Water Surf collection – there’s some really exciting innovation going on, such as with the merino jeans – there’s nothing out there like that. I think that kind of innovation is why we’re still around.

What keeps each day in the workshop fresh?
Every day it’s fresh, there are always curved balls coming in. We go on trips and come back with new ideas and new designs. Being a small team with everyone in-house we can be quite reactive to new ideas, whether on a product level or marketing. So, it’s exciting having Todd as head of design, coming up with these unbelievable products and really thinking about everything based around the needs of a cold water surfer based on feedback that’s buzzing around the office. That’s the real stimulation and keeps everything flowing through the business.

Have you ever wanted to do anything else?
The usual stuff when I was younger, like a farmer or a vet; I lived out in a village in the middle of nowhere growing, so I was always quite outdoorsy. And then, doing Marine Biology, I thought about doing a bit more of that – I definitely didn’t expect to be doing what I’m doing now. But I love it. It’s great.

What advice would you give to someone who was setting up their own brand now?
You need to think about the brand and the business. For a business, my advice would just be to get on with it. Not everything is going to line up perfectly and, for a while, every Monday morning will feel like you’re living on a bit of a wing and a prayer, but you’ve just got to go for it. You’ve got to take a bit of a plunge. Sure, do all the research and everything before that point, but if you wait around too long then the opportunity will be gone. In terms of building a brand, you have to make clear – especially now, because there are so many brands competing very quickly over the same media – what your brand stands for and don’t deviate from that. Keep it focussed and keep that message there. Know what emotion you want your brand to be evoking. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, but if it isn’t evoking any emotion at all it’s just going to flat line. Just evoke emotion, that’s ultimately what a brand is.

Obviously Cold Water Surfing is at the heart of the brand, but what else inspires Finisterre?
People inspire the brand. It could be Ernie coming up with great marketing or Debs coming up with great product or Todd coming up with a radical new design. Everyone inspires the brand in their own way – it’s a big melting pot. The unknown inspires the brand. This next six months, we’ve got a rough idea of what’s going to happen, but in six months’ time I can guarantee it will be different to what I think it will be now. The unknown, the drive and the passion are what really inspire the whole place.

Do you think that people have become less susceptible to hype?
I think people are scrutinising the things that they read and are researching more; there’s more information out there now, so they’re less likely to take things at face value. Take all the stuff around being green as an example; a while back there was so much hype around it, and while it raised awareness, there were a lot of brands just launching green lines for the sake of it. They weren’t replacing what they were doing with organic cotton or recycled fibres; they were just adding it on as a sort of novelty line, which carried another lot of waste and pollution. Although it drew attention to the issue in that moment, the net effect of those lines was no more beneficial – perhaps even less beneficial – than if they hadn’t done them in the first place. I think now people would see through that.

What’s the future of Finisterre?
We’re excited about the brand growing and being in some places that it’s not already. We’re an online brand, we’ve got a few key retail touch points here and in a few other spots, but we’d like to have shops in some top end locations, where we can really showcase the brand. 10 years after starting we are totally on track with where I’d imagined we’d be, so hopefully we’ll carry on with the same vigour and passion, even with a bigger team, perhaps more widespread team. There are a lot of pitfalls with growth and adding more people into the mix, but I think we’re aware of what they are and hopefully everyone will maintain a real sense of purpose and we’ll continue to attract people with that sort of mentality into the brand.

The Finisterre CWS range is released today, October 3.