Trend Surfing as a Business Model

By Mark Karnes
                                     Global Sales & Marketing Executive

A few years ago I was walking down the beach in California when I came upon the local high school surfing team doing their “training.” While I watched, I became curious as to why the surfers did not stay with the wave until it reached the beach.  I eventually spotted the Surf Coach and asked him why this was so.  The answer he gave me was so Zen-like it has stuck with me to this day:Surfer

 “I teach the surfers that if you ride the wave until it reaches the beach and ends, you will wear yourself out and waste tournament time constantly swimming all the way back out and not score as many points.  The goal is to only ride the wave until it peaks and then move to catch another as fast as possible.  In that way your effort is always dedicated to being on top of the wave.” 

Wow, I thought to myself, this is the secret to driving a successful business or marketing campaign.  How ironic that of all the business seminars I have participated in the most insightful advice came from a High School Surfing coach!

How to apply this in real life?  Let’s start with the two main factors—Waves and Surfers—or applied to a business, trends and products/solutions.  If you consider yourself a wave maker, you are either delusional or you are Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, so most likely you are a surfer or hope to be a surfer.  The trick is to ride the wave (or trend) just long enough to maximize profits and know when to move onto the next good looking wave and avoid being ‘beached.’ 

Using my personal experience, a few years ago I was hired by Shure, a professional audio company, to start up a new business division.  They had created a wireless personal monitor system for stage performers that allowed the artist to hear his music mix at a reasonable level without having to be directly in front of a floor monitor.  You will notice today that almost all performers have earphones stuck in their ears as they deliver their art.  These are sound isolating earphones and are the perfect combination to the portable music player.   The product management team saw sales of the earphone of this system zooming well beyond the sales of the wireless pack and asked the customer, ‘Why?’ 

What they found out was that the performers were using the earphones with their portable DVD players and the new Apple iPods.    When I came to Shure they had already spotted the wave (Apple’s iPod) and needed help in building their business applications to ride this specialized product innovation.  My job was to enable Shure to be a great surfer riding Apple’s innovation wave.

By closely aligning with the Apple iPod, Shure went on to double sales of the earphones for 4 straight years.  Shure is now one of the most respected headphone companies in the world because of a simple business model called the “Attachment Strategy”.  The “Attachment Strategy” had one main principle:  Apple makes the waves, Shure surfs those waves.

iphone-3g-screenWherever iPods were sold, Shure profitably surfed that trend with its new earphone products.  And when Apple signaled its next big wave, the iPhone, Shure was first to add microphones to its earphones.  As a result, we got a first-mover advantage and quickly picked up market share.

 SE420MPA_200What about the iPod earphone sales?  The ‘business surfer’ in me realized that the iPod was the ‘old wave’; sales have declined, the market has matured, with commodity earphone replacements taking over.  On the other hand, Apple’s new 3G iPhone is selling millions a week and consumers are looking for attachments that enhance their experience. Even though there is still a lucrative earphone business for the iPod, Apple is making much bigger waves with the iPhone.

So, there is a very lucrative and sustainable business model for those who can identify trends and successfully surf them.  And most importantly, once a trend, or wave, has reached its full potential, quickly reposition your business for the next wave to maintain your momentum, market competitiveness, and profitability.  Surfs up!


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Bob Sherlock

    Mark, you’ve written a very insightful article with practical application for marketers and other execs.

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