Founder & CEO Johnny on the Spot
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The Inertia

“No way. Absolutely, 100% no way. We’ll get murdered.”

Six faces stared back at me in utter confusion. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“But look…” the skinny one with the facial hair tried again. “If people share their surfs, they’ll know where the best waves are all of the time, like a…”

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“Andy…” I checked his name badge. “You’ve got to understand – surfers are different. We don’t want to share.”

More confusion. This was going to be a long weekend.

I hadn’t come to Startup Weekend to build a surf app. My plan had been to promote my recently formed copywriting business, to network with some of the UK’s brightest new entrepreneurs. But a 60-second pitch later, and I was heading a team of whiz kids who were going to help develop my surfer’s diary idea into a prototype.

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The idea was simple. After a particularly good surf the week before at a spot that works only a few times a year, I’d had the same thought as thousands of surfers before me. “I’m gonna write down the exact conditions that made this happen.”

Vaguely aware of the world of app technology and how it could potentially help me do this a lot more accurately, I mentioned the idea at this event. And here I was. We had 52 hours to build then pitch the app to a Dragon’s Den-like panel of judges. Not one person sitting in front of me knew the first thing about surfing.

I’ll cut a 52-hour-long story short. We came second overall. Those six confused faces turned out to belong to a mind-blowingly talented group of individuals and five months later, my idea is in the App Store.

They got it in the end. The privacy thing. Most of them, anyway. One guy left the team, and the last thing he said to me was that he just found the whole concept of not sharing too strange.

I wasn’t particularly tech-minded at the time. I didn’t have a Facebook account. I’d made tentative steps into the world of Twitter. I was aware of this current obsession for sharing absolutely everything like I would be a distant motorway on a Sunday afternoon. It was a mild distraction but nothing more. I’d never considered how fiercely out of step my surfer’s inclination towards privacy was and how it seemed not just outdated, but rude, to my new tech-minded acquaintances.

What I noticed during the development of Johnny on the Spot is the way in which technology and large-scale sharing have become so intrinsically linked in people’s minds, as though we’ve somehow come to accept that nothing that we do anymore is private. It wasn’t just my development team who assumed I wanted to make a guide that told everyone where the best spots are. Whenever I showed prototype versions to surfers at the beach, there were always two concurrent reactions. First, their eyes would light up as they saw the possibilities for more waves and lower petrol costs. Then suddenly, their faces would darken. They took a half step backwards and said something like, “So people are going to be able to see where we’ve been surfing.” It was a statement, not a question.

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I’ve never said the word “private” as much as I have in the last six months.

The fact is, privacy is part of surf culture. I’m not talking about localism. I’m talking about the inherent meritocracy that rewards the hard work of discovering a new spot. For me, the enjoyment of riding a wave is almost doubled when I’ve pored over a map, taken a chance on a good day of swell, trekked across fields and discovered a perfect peak with no one out. I knew all along that I didn’t want to create something that was going to take away from that experience.

It comes down to this. Just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should. Surfers’ mistrust of new technology is to be admired and comes not from a conservative aversion to the modern world but a desire to protect what is sacred about our sport.

When it began to look like making this app was going to be a reality, I always knew I wanted to be able to paddle out at my local break and hold my head up with integrity. Yes, the app can help a surfer more accurately record the exact conditions at any given time. But the surfer still has to do the work first. It’s a record of where you’ve been, not a guide telling you where to go.

I’ll end with an anecdote that I feel encapsulates what I’m talking about, and why the wider, non-surfing world finds us so unfathomably strange. I lived in New Zealand for three years, and about a year before I left, I went exploring down the coast and found a completely empty beach – a perfect right hand peak and no one out. I surfed it alone for a bit, and then another guy turned up. He was the local. We got to chatting and, over the next 12 months, I surfed that spot several times with him. Some truly epic sessions, always with no one out. We became good friends and our partners did too. We had each other around for dinner and went on fishing and camping trips on weekends. He’s coming to my wedding later this year. About a week before I left, I asked him where he’d been surfing that day. He looked a little shifty. “Awwww,” he said in that classic Kiwi drawl. “There’s this wave….”

It turned out that a wave of truly world-class quality existed only half an hour from where we’d first met. 200-meter-plus rides with multiple barrel sections. We looked at each other and grinned. I understood.

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Johnny on the Spot, the Surfer’s Personal (Private) Diary is available for free in the App Store.

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