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Surf Shacks 058 – Hayden Cox

If you are a surfer and don’t know who Hayden Cox is by now, well, you should. Shaper, designer and founder of Haydenshapes, he has singlehandedly revolutionized the shaping industry with his patented FutureFlex, stringerless technology and created the world’s most popular surfboard design ever: the Hypto Krypto. All this before the age of thirty five. Progression and innovation are two words that immediately come to mind when trying to describe Hayden, the surfboards he designs, and pretty much the way he lives every facet of his life. His recently renovated home in Palm Beach, just north of Sydney is a perfect example of this. It is a modern home overlooking the water that reflects his passions for technology, efficiency, design and minimalism. Hayden has worked harder than most to get to where his is today, so it is refreshing to see that strong work ethic paying off for such an honest and humble prodigy.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

Hayden Cox, Shaper and Designer. I am the founder of Haydenshapes Surfboards and creator of FutureFlex tech.

Where are you from?

Sydney, Australia.

How long have you lived here in the Palm Beach area?

We’ve been here for around a year. We moved back to Australia after five years setting up the brand in the US, basing ourselves out of Venice Beach – twenty minutes from the Haydenshapes office in El Segundo.

What are your favorite parts about Sydney and the area in which you live?

I live just over the hill from Whale Beach, which is one of my favourite spots to surf. Sydney’s Northern Beaches in general is a cool place to live – there’s a good vibe here. I set up a factory nearby in Mona Vale when I was 22 years old and just recently opened my largest custom factory yet on Tengah Cres, which is significant because the roots of the Haydenshapes brand all started here. I’ve basically had a factory of every street in the industrial sector of Mona Vale now – each one bigger than the last.

Favorite places to surf locally?

Winky in Manly, Box Head (by boat), Whaley. Out front at Mona Vale is pretty fun too.

You have lived in LA for a period of time. What are the pros and cons of living in Sydney vs. LA?

It wasn’t until I moved over to the US that I realized how progressive Sydney (and Australia) really is both from a mindset and practical point of view. Being so far removed from the rest of the world, I think culturally, we are quite innovative because we have to be. Tall poppy syndrome is rife in Australia, which keeps you humble and on your toes whereas the US is a place full of possibility and there is no ceiling to what you can do and make happen there. Sydney will always be home to us, but on the business front, I don’t favor one over the other.

What are your favorite parts of your home?

It is surrounded by water and the ocean which creates a good energy. From a design perspective, it is quite minimalistic which suits both Danielle and my taste – similar to our Haydenshapes retail store which we also designed ourselves. We did basically all of the renovations for our home from the sanding and bleaching of the floorboards, to ripping out tiles, laying concrete, all of the painting, building some of our own furniture pieces etc. We recycled and re-purposed a lot of second hand materials in the process too.

How did you first get into shaping surfboards?

I did work experience on my school holidays when I was 15 years old. I did all of the shitty jobs like sweeping, cleaning toilets etc. On the last day the factory owner realized I was there on my own accord and not a school program, so maybe out of pity, he let me shape a board a taught me a couple of basics. It was all self taught after that and I hand shaped for the first decade. Haydenshapes turned 20 this year, which is kinda crazy.

What was the turning point in your career when your hobby turned into a successful business?

I think that there have been so many ups and downs over the years that I have never yet sat back and thought “yep, Haydenshapes is successful” because there is so much to achieve yet and not just for me or my brand, but the surfboard category in general. I wrote my first and only business plan for Haydenshapes when I was in high school and I have taken it pretty seriously from day one to be honest. Surfboards have never been a hobby for me and I’ve always had a big vision in my head of where I wanted to take it. I have never worked for anyone else, only myself, so it’s always been up to me to make it work and learn more about the craft. When I patented and launched FutureFlex back in 2007, the GFC hit and a few years later I was around half a million dollars in debt and close to declaring bankruptcy. If I’m proud of anything, its getting through that period, paying back those debts and being able to continue doing what I love everyday.

For such a young guy, you’ve certainly made a huge impact on the shaping industry and surf world as a whole. What would you say has been the biggest factor contributing to that success? How have you been able to stand out and carve a new niche?

Being young definitely worked against me when I was starting out and it still has its challenges – I’ve had to work a lot harder to be taken seriously. With being young, comes naivety and I just boldly went out and did shit without being to fearful of failure. I had a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude which in hindsight, I am very grateful for. I was (and still am) a young guy in an industry built on and mostly driven by “legacy.” I didn’t come from any type of surfing bloodline or family lineage either, no doors were opened for me and I had to create my own opportunities. My brother and I were the first generation of surfers in our family and we grew up 30 mins away from a beach. When I opened my first factory my team of surfers consisted of Craig Anderson and Laura Enever who were even younger than I was — 15 and 12 at the time.  My first brand tagline was “Youth Rising,” which was pretty accurate. I think that the biggest contributor of Haydenshapes growth and popularity is the fact that I am probably more willing to take risks that most others in the surfboard industry are not willing to. To make it big you’ve gotta gamble big and that is pretty intimidating for a lot of people. This means challenging stigmas and old mindsets that have long held our industry back – especially in manufacturing. I still own 100% of my brand. Some of those risks have nearly broken me, but others have paid off in the small wins along the way. Innovating a new technology being one of them. I’ve never followed a traditional method to growing my brand and I have always felt like an outsider. I don’t have tour athletes riding my boards; I generally don’t hang out at surf events courting surfers and networking with the industry. That’s not me. Sales skills is a weakness of mine and always has been. I’m a manufacturing and product person. I try to put as much energy as I can into creating a great product that has the ability to sell it’s self based on customer experience – with a solid commercial execution to back it up. Marketing definitely plays it’s part too, but if your product is shit, it won’t sell. People talk. The surfboard industry relies very heavily on word of mouth.

It’s clear not only from your highly innovative board designs, but also the unique architecture and design features of your shops and your own home that you love technology. When did you become so fascinated with science / tech / design?

That’s just my personality. Shortly after buying the house we made it a Samsung smart home where all of the appliances sync and link to one another from my fridge to the TV’s and our even our washing machine and oven. I can control a lot of it from my phone. I geek out on that stuff, I love technology and have always been an early adaptor. It’s a big part of Haydenshapes DNA because of my genuine interest in design, aesthestics and innovation. It naturally carries through the brand, rather than being forced. That said, I like design that is functional. I feel like the space and environment that you surround yourself in is so critical to your creativity and headspace. My style isn’t for everyone… Some people feel its too clean and modern. I like clean and modern. Each to their own.

You and Dani make a great couple – and business team. What’s it like to work with your spouse?

I’m not always the best communicator. Danielle is a great communicator and her role in the business over the last few years has helped me take 15 years of work and help shape and define our brand voice and identity in a way that actually makes sense to the outside world and consumer market. It was always there in my head, but Danielle has this unique ability to bring clarity to chaos and push boundaries creatively. She is so talented at what she does and really helped take Haydenshapes to another level. At the foundation of our relationship is a really strong friendship. You need that part or else I don’t think it would work. Our skills are quite different and she has the final say on some things, and I have the final say on others. She encouraged me to keep going when I was almost ready to throw in the towel 6 years ago. Being around people that genuinely support you and want you to succeed changes everything.

Admittedly, I was the type who didn’t want one of your boards — solely because everyone else in the lineup had them and I didn’t want to buy into the hype (I know it sounds weird to even say it). Then I rode the Hypto Krypto model, and it totally changed everything for me. It’s a quiver killer, it’s truly hard for me to ride anything else these days because I have so much fun on the Hypto. Anyway, how did you come up with the concept for that particular design?

Don’t feel bad. I don’t have an ego about that stuff, but I’m always interested to understand it more because personally, I don’t relate to that way of thinking. If I like something, I buy it. I’m not too concerned about whether or not a product is too popular or too obscure. But if something is popular, naturally I am curious to try it. Then I form my own opinion. A surfboard isn’t a purely aesthetics based purchase like, say, a t-shirt can be. A surfboard is about the function and the experience it helps create when you are out surfing it. That’s a one on one relationship, not a democracy.

The Hypto Krypto has changed lives for some people… Myself included. The stories customers send me are pretty incredible. Some are very emotional. It is a model that I actually designed back in 2007 for myself based on my own feedback rather than my athletes. In saying that, having worked with Ando for 15 years I knew that he would vibe on it too. Even though it sat in his garage for nearly a year before he rode it! Craig and I have very similar tastes when it comes to boards, he just rides them a shitload better than I do!

Did you ever think it would be such a hit?

Not at this level to be honest. Retailers told me it would never sell. I knew how good it felt and I knew it suited the broader market from the every day surfer, to the elite level. The shape and FutureFlex together were the ideal marriage of design, performance and technology that the market was ready for. The black rail made it stand out in the water. It still outsells any other model out there; we are just more discreet about it these days… How many times to people need to be told how popular it is? How many ‘Surfboard of the Year’ Awards are really that necessary? I’m pretty stoked with three. We just let it continue to do it’s thing and fly under the radar somewhat.

There are a lot of purists out there who seem to have pegged Haydenshapes as the bad guy in surfboard shaping / manufacturing these days. What are your thoughts on this and how do you respond to the criticism of your peers in the surf world?

There are ‘purists’ in the surfboard industry that love and appreciate what we do. Then there are others who resist change and anyone that represents progression. Haydenshapes is a brand that represents design, innovation, performance and progression. While many feel the pressure to fall in line to avoid ever exposing themselves to the “angry mob,” I personally don’t. Opinions like this exist in every industry and in the case of surfboards, it’s mostly within the small circles and networks of other surfboard shapers that feel threatened and challenged because they don’t want to be left behind. Of course there is a hidden agenda – and it’s often just a way to try and compete by protest rather than compete by building a product that is better. I don’t buy into it… It’s a heavy weight on your shoulders if you do and it will only make you second guess yourself. I respect everyone in our industry whether they are selling product globally or not beyond the local beach, building product offshore or in their back yard. I also respect them whether they like what we do or if they hate it. We all play our part and there is room to co-exist. One thing that the surfboard industry is not short of is passion, and passion has multiple layers to it. It isn’t black and white. I try to focus my time on ensuring that the materials and processes used to build my boards deliver the highest quality and the most consistent performance to our customers whether they are built in my Australian factory or in Thailand.

Personally, I’m passionate out modernism and elevating the critical role that shapers play in surfing. Historically I think that shapers have always under-valued themselves and that’s a real morale killer. Surfing is one of the few industries where the fundamental backbone, a product that makes the sport possible, for the most part lurks at the bottom. Why do shapers have to be starving “artists?” I feel like board builders should lead and sit at the top our industry and for that to happen we need to continue to innovate and evolve.

You have a amazing showrooms in Sydney and LA, a book out and now a newborn baby. What’s next for you?

Finding a balance in everything that is going on is something I have been focusing on lately. Working smarter not harder and allowing time for family, design, R&D and going out and testing everything that I’m playing around with. I don’t mind stepping back and challenging the way we are doing things and then implementing change to improve it. We are about to launch a new board model that I’ve been testing and designing for the past few years myself. It features an interesting outline which is my take on how the rail line of a board can affect the speed and maneuverability of the shape. I’m excited to see and hear the feedback from everyone who tries it out.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice for other designers or shapers just starting out?

I’d just say to them get started and then figure out your own path based on what you are personally interested in. Don’t be scared to evolve and learn and put that back into what you are doing. Customers are interested in your stories and the path that you are taking, so stay focused on that rather than what others are doing. Critics can be your biggest motivators.

/ Photography and interview by Matt Titone

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