Steve Watts graduated from BA (Hons) Product Design at Central Saint Martins in 2007. Originally from South Africa, after spending time in London and travelling the world, he moved to California to pursue his childhood dream of setting up Slyde Handboards with his wife Angela. The idea (a small handboard used to improve your body surfing experience) took off, and they recently received a high profile investment after appearing on the USA TV show The Shark Tank. Find out more about Steve’s journey from studying at CSM to riding the waves of self-employment, and keeping afloat in the competitive surfing industry!
What were you doing before you came to London to study at Central Saint Martins?
I was doing all sorts of odd jobs and travelled around the world before studying. However, I knew all I ever wanted to become was a designer and the only place I ever wanted to study design was at CSM. The college has an incredible reputation and an awesome tradition of producing the best graduates. The old campus in Holborn was on the route to a job I had on the Embankment, and I would walk past it every day, dreaming of studying there. I eventually got my opportunity and took it with both hands. There was never any doubt in where I wanted to end up.
I loved my time there, it was a fantastic experience. I was probably the third or fourth oldest in my class, so I’d had some time to travel and realise this is what I wanted to do with my life. I also had a sharper awareness than when I was in my early 20s of how lucky I was; to be attending not only university, but the school I had always wanted to attend. Like any university, you get out what you put in, and there is no difference with Central Saint Martins.
I think the biggest high was my third year final project pitch, in which I got a first. Believe it or not, that pitch gave me the confidence to stand and deliver for other pitches to come. In fact it was easily the most intense pitch I have ever given.
The lowest point was making the rookie mistake of thinking, “Well I got a first in the last project…” and then taking my foot off the pedal, by not pouring everything into my second project, which I got a second in. It taught me one very valuable lesson; don’t ever sit back and think, “Well I did well before, so that will just follow on over.” You are only as good as your current project and always, always put your absolute best foot forward in everything you hand over.
What were your favourite things to do in London?
There is so much to do In London. From concerts, pubs and clubs, to all the short trips you can take and amazing galleries on offer. The Tate Modern was one of my favourite places to go and take in. As they say – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
A couple of places that really stood out to me were Hampstead Heath and the hill overlooking London for sundown – it’s a semi-secret spot that just allows you to get out of the hustle and bustle and really take in London from a distance. It’s almost meditative being up there. Also Gordon’s Wine Bar on the Embankment was my favourite bar to just go and chill – the history round there is phenomenal.
How did you make the decision to move to California?
I loved living in London, and took full advantage of it while I was there. However, I grew up near the beach, and had visited California and loved the beach lifestyle there, so I always knew that was where I wanted to start Slyde Handboards.
The support structure in California for new up-and-coming business is also phenomenal, especially within the surf industry. Our offices are in San Clemente, which is about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles on the coast. It’s known as the surf centre of California, which pretty much makes it the surf centre of the world. Our neighbours are huge iconic brands like Stance Socks, Dragon Sunglasses and Rainbow Sandals, which makes our growth that much easier.
Where did the inspiration for Slyde Handboards come from? And how did you turn the idea into a reality?
The inspiration for the Handboard came from when I was a kid. I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. To get us out the house my mother would take my brother and I down to the local beach and let us run amok. We would body surf a lot and play in the waves. It wasn’t long before we started using objects on our hands to get more lift and speed when going down the wave.
I remember using frisbees and flip-flops – anything we could find. One of our favourites was a fast food tray. We quickly evolved from those objects we’d found to tearing open our old surfboards to hand shape a more refined board from the foam inside. At the time, there was no brand associated with this, even though a lot of kids were doing it. That’s when I decided the brand and product would be something that a new generation could associate with. Those found objects were essentially the early prototypes for what you see on our website today.
Tell us more about your exciting new investors? And what the future has in store?
Our two new investors are Ashton Kutcher and Mark Cuban. Mark is the owner of the Dallas Maverick NBA team, and a billionaire. It’s always good to have a billionaire partner! We pitched the company to them on the US TV show Shark Tank, which is a very similar format to Dragons Den in the UK. You pitch in front of five investors and they either invest or don’t, all on national television.
I remember watching Dragons Den when living in the UK, and thinking what a great opportunity that would be. Little did I know that, five years later, I would be pitching to Ashton Kutcher, Mark Cuban and the rest of the Sharks, in front of 6.5 million viewers.
We filmed in June of last year and since the deal closed in November of 2015 we have been firing on all cylinders. Both Mark and Ashton have been phenomenal in their support. Mark is amazing with the business, hooking us up with all sorts of amazing opportunities and avenues to grow our distribution channel. And Ashton has been incredible on the social media side, plugging us into his immense network. We are have grown 100% year on year since inception in 2010, and this year we are predicting a million dollars in revenue.
Our aim for the company is to get as many people involved in this awesome water sport as possible. To grow the brand through worldwide events and spread our distribution channels to other countries that have a huge surfing and beach market, including Brazil, Australia and the UK.
What advice would you give to any UAL graduates wanting to turn their ideas into a successful business?
Choose something you love to do and never, never, never give up! We have pitched to a lot of people and we heard NO a lot of times. Honestly, I didn’t care. I always had the attitude “your loss“. You have to believe in what you are doing and believe you are supposed to be in that room. In the end you are offering them an opportunity too.
Also be prepared to eat very cheaply for a while (unless you have a surplus amount of cash), because unless you are very lucky, it will take time. Another thing to remember is that often when you are design and art oriented, generally speaking you do not focus so much on the numbers, and this is all an investor cares about. Know your numbers inside and out, and if you don’t, partner with someone who knows how to make your proposition as viable to an investor as possible. It doesn’t matter if you just invented the lightbulb, if your numbers don’t match up no one will give you a second look.
Try to remember these guys have money because they don’t waste it, so know what you can bring to the table in the way of return on their investment. Also be charismatic; there are many investors that will invest in you. Mark Cuban is one of these investors that like to invest in a person, so bring your “A-schmooze” game and impress them with you passion and commitment to the company, and to getting their money back as quickly as possible!