What Surfing Taught Me About Our Startup Team

By David Mizne

It’s a warm morning in Sayulita, a sleepy town halfway down the western coast of Mexico.On this second day of our annual retreat, the entire team is walking towards the beach for a surprise adventure.

A Mexican getaway may sound extravagant for a growing technology startup, but with a globally distributed team working remotely from as far away as Poland, meeting anywhere on the planet is a decent option.

Our CEO David Hassell stops us under a cluster of palm trees to announce that we will all be learning how to surf in the warm waters of the Pacific that morning. David mentions that the experience is completely optional and gives us some words of encouragement about learning something new. Everyone agrees to give surfing a try, but none of us could have predicted the incredible outcome.

Riding The Learning Curve

David mentions to us that (as with anytime we learn something new) we may come up against frustration. I have tried surfing before so I know exactly what he means. Being tousled around like a rag-doll in the frigid and unforgiving waters off San Francisco has soured me to the experience of surfing more than once.

As I reluctantly agree to give it another shot, I think back to the words of Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  It will take 10,000 hours to acquire a new skill. That’s the equivalent of working a full-time job for 5 years. Who has the time for that?

We arrive at the shore, tether the boards to our legs with leashes, and swim out past the break to attempt what seems impossible.

But I never actually read Outliers, so I don’t know that Gladwell is often misquoted. What he actually said was that the key to becoming an expert in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. According to best-selling author Josh Kaufman, it only takes about 20 hours. In fact, after only several hours most people will already see some solid results:

Considering that I caught my very first wave, it looks like Josh is on to something.


The Method

Our instructors take us to the beach and have us run through the motions on our boards as they lay still on the sand. We practice paddling and hopping-up, establishing the basic process of surfing.


We excitedly hike down to the water, watching the pelicans and blue-footed boobies diving in to feed on a multitude of fish. We arrive at the shore, tether the boards to our legs with leashes, and swim out past the break to attempt what seems impossible.


The newest member of our team, Carson Adam, is an avid surfer — so much so that he does a headstand on his board at one point. (Of course I don’t have any pictures of that little move, so you will just have to trust me). Carson spends most of the morning helping us get the hang of it, and he’s shocked that each one of us successfully surfs that day. He thought that at least a couple of us would get frustrated and quit, but nobody does.



Executives, directors, managers, and employees laugh and surf together for hours. All are equal in the eyes of Poseidon. We yell excitedly when a coworker is triumphant, and we teach them what we learn from our own mistakes. This is also how our team relates at work. Everyone is respected for their unique gifts and contributions, and we form a cohesive and collaborative unit.


Catch The Wave

Later that afternoon at one of our sessions, David congratulates all of us. He explains how we had succeeded through repetition, recursion, and reciprocation:

1) We repeat the same motions; paddle, hop up, bend the knees, and balance with the arms.

2) The instructors give us little pointers like “arch your back more” or “paddle closer to the board”. Through recursion, we all integrate the little pointers and fine tune our skills.

3) Reciprocation is the secret sauce that makes that day (and every day) so magical. We support one another in everything we do. Whether it’s a sales initiative, a marketing campaign or hanging ten, everyone on the team supports the others to succeed.

In many ways, this experience reminds me of what our startup team does everyday. Growing a startup is challenging, sometimes frustrating, and often fun. In one respect we are little more than a group of people all paddling forward within our individual zones of genius.


We have known for quite some time that our team is creating something special together. After catching the wave we continue to ride the momentum of 2015’s lofty goals.  Not only to delight our customers by releasing new products and features, but also by inviting other businesses to improve communication and create the space for their employees to become the best versions of themselves.

For more of these amazing images check out the Humans of 15Five on Instagram.

David Mizne is Content Manager at 15Five, web-based software that improves communication between managers and employees to align goals and uncover obstacles and opportunities that are often missed. David interviews some of the most brilliant minds in business and reports on topics ranging from entrepreneurship to employee engagement. Every so often, he catches a wave in Mexico. Follow him @davidmizne.

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