The story of Santa Cruz Waves
By Aloe Driscoll
What does it take to be an entrepreneur? “Not settling for mediocrity,” says Santa Cruz Waves founder Tyler Fox, who built the digital empire and associated publishing business from the ground up.
A regular competitor at the Mavericks surfing contest and former participant of the Big Wave World Tour, Fox strives for excellence in all aspects, citing professional surfing as his first entrepreneurial venture. “If you don’t have a manager or an agent, it’s kind of like running a business,” he says, describing how he milked his contacts, solicited meetings and crafted pitches to gain sponsorship.
The idea for Santa Cruz Waves came to Fox in 2007 when a photographer approached him and a group of friends at a nightclub, offered to take their picture, and handed them a business card. When Fox pulled up the website the following day and scrolled through the gallery, he had an ‘aha’ moment. Why not use surf photos as an incentive to drive traffic to a website? “Originally, I did have the thought that I was going to monetize it through traffic and advertising,” Fox recalls. “I didn’t know how much traffic I needed, but I knew if I got enough eyeballs on it, there would be value.”
Fox pitched the idea to fellow surfer and longtime friend Chris Curtis, asking him to partner on the Santa Cruz Waves project. “I thought he was crazy,” remembers Curtis. Fox forged on alone, writing up a business plan and investing thousands of his own dollars for start up costs: purchasing a high-end camera and lens, developing a website and logo. “I really did it bootstrap,” Fox admits. Despite going into debt, he never skimped on quality, forking out cash on three different web designs before he felt satisfied with the result. “If I’d settled for that first website and just launched it, it wouldn’t have worked,” he claims.
The Santa Cruz Waves website finally launched in February of 2010. Fox hit the streets, shooting photos of surfers at popular spots around town. He put business cards which read ‘View your photo at santacruzwaves.com’ on the windshield of every car in the parking lot, editing and uploading photos each day for months before he ever saw a dime. “You’re just doing it because you have that belief that down the road, you’re going to get enough traffic to bring in some revenue,” Fox recalls.
Six months after launch, Santa Cruz Waves was averaging 400 visitors per day. Fox turned his focus to ad sales, bringing on Jon Free as a partner and onboarding local businesses with paid banner ads. Though the website was finally bringing in revenue, it came with more hurdles: clients didn’t know how to make the right size banners, and web revisions were endless. “It’s all hard in those beginning stages,” Fox notes. “It requires constant problem solving and not throwing in the towel.”
Fox and Free put most of their small profit back into the company, renting an office space, and hiring staff, including paid photographers. Dazzling photos abounded and traffic skyrocketed to thousands of visitors daily.
As the business flourished, Fox continued to raise the bar, concocting a scheme to resurrect the beautiful photos that were getting buried under an avalanche of digital content. “A lot of these amazing images just got back piled in our archives,” Fox says, describing an idea that started as a coffee table book, and developed into a Surfer’s Journal-inspired free magazine.
Fox and Free approached Stephanie Lutz, ad director and lead salesperson for Good Times Magazine, about launching the publication. “Oh that’s cute,” Lutz told them facetiously. “You have no idea how a magazine runs.” A month later, Santa Cruz Weekly bought out Good Times, and Lutz decided to jump ship. She joined Santa Cruz Waves, bringing a plethora of ad clients, as well as editor Elizabeth Limbach and designer Josh Becker.
The first issue of Santa Cruz Waves Magazine came out in June 2014, and soon became the primary source of income for the company. What started as a website of surfing photos is now a community platform with a social following of more than half a million, and a magazine with a circulation of 20,000. The business currently employs seven full-time employees and around 20 independent contractors.
If you think Fox is rolling in dough, think again. “Tyler takes nothing,” Lutz confides. “He’s at the bottom of the barrel as far as getting paid.” When his primary surfing sponsor dropped him earlier this year, 36 year-old Fox chose to move back in with his parents, rather than take more of a salary from Santa Cruz Waves and risk draining the company in a stage of growth. “For the longevity of the company, you have to make sacrifices,” he says. “We’ve definitely run into some situations where we’ve had to get creative to keep it going.”
A self-described goofball, Fox has engaged in some memorable marketing antics with Off the Lip radio host Neil Pearlberg. “We decided to do some crazy videos,” laughs Pearlburg, describing a stunt where he and Fox donned roller skates and paddled out on stand-up paddle (SUP) boards. The video went viral, as did others featuring Pearlberg sparring with UFC Champion Luke Rockhold, getting humbled by the Santa Cruz Roller Derby girls, undergoing a transgender makeover, and skydiving in a diaper.
Slapstick humor, however, is only a means to furthering more serious ideals. “In every issue [of the magazine] we have something on a non-profit, every issue we have something that’s talking about the environment and what’s happening in our community,” Lutz says. Santa Cruz Waves has established a host of community events: The Swellie Awards, which highlight local businesses; Beer Week, which promotes local breweries; and the Sandbar Shootout, a community surf contest. Fox’s chief aim is bringing awareness to environmental issues, specifically pollution from single-use plastics. “Our planet needs our help,” he cautions. “That’s where I get fulfillment with the magazine, is being able to shed light on important issues.”
Though Santa Cruz Waves is still more passion project than gold mine for Fox, this entrepreneur has other tricks up his sleeve. He partnered with environmental activist Brent Allen to form Avventura, an adventure company offering SUP tours that finish at a huge inflatable SUP anchored in the kelp. Atop the floatilla – complete with tables, chairs, wine, and a chef – guests enjoy a fresh-cooked gourmet meal, prepared with locally sourced ingredients. “It’s hard to believe anything can be at the front end of doing something in California,” Allen says. “Neither of us had ever seen this.”
The same was said of Fox’s mind-blowing surfing at Ghost Tree in 2007 and back to back 4th place finishes in the past two events at Mavericks. “He’s been on the biggest stages of athletic performance,” says Allen of Fox. “It gives you a different mental acuity of how to accomplish goals.” To aspiring entrepreneurs, Fox suggests “asking as many questions as you can from as many knowledgeable people as you can” and “finding things that you’re really passionate about.” Fox’s old friend Curtis, who went on to found Alibi Interiors, echoes the same advice. “When you’re passionate, and you love what you do, it’s not so much work anymore, it’s just your life,” says Curtis. Though he admits that starting your own business requires a huge investment of time, energy, and capital, he insists “you will get the return when you invest in yourself.”