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Walking on Water Surf

Learn how Gisborne local Liz Alder has created a successful business by bringing together her love of the ocean and encouraging others. 

Liz Alder, founder of Walking on Water Surf, always felt a connection with the ocean.

“Growing up in Gisborne gave me this appreciation for the huge outdoor water playground right on my doorstep,” says Alder.

After travelling and living overseas working in the surf industry, Alder knew she wanted to return to New Zealand and start a business teaching others the joy of surfing.

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Walking on Water Surf opened in Gisborne, in 2011 offering safe and fun surf lessons for people of all ages and abilities.

While Alder had worked in the surf industry for years and taught many people how to surf she knew she’d need help with sorting out the business so she worked with the official national sporting organisation Surfing New Zealand.

“They really helped with giving me advice on the compliance side of the business including health and safety, and with staff training.”

Alder also decided to upskill in a few areas to help get her business going.

“I did a variety of courses on e-commerce, marketing and basic web design.”

Getting the right mix

Alder’s passion for surfing and encouraging others gave her the inspiration for Walking on Water Surf. Her Bachelor of Commerce and her experience working as a product manager helped her develop the business idea.

She knew it was important to get the right mix for the business.

“To be successful I knew I needed a unique point of difference and make sure the business was bigger than me – to be able to have staff come into the business was always a goal,” says Alder.

“It’s so important that we are working on what inspires us as well as making sure the business is viable – it’s a balancing act,” says Alder.

“It’s so important that we are working on what inspires us as well as making sure the business is viable – it’s a balancing act,” says Alder.

As a mainly service-based business Alder knew it was important to hire the right staff for Walking on Water Surf.

“We are so fortunate to be able to meet these amazing humans in a context that is quite beautiful," says Alder.

“A learning phase is often a vulnerable place for people. Our goals and our focus are similar. A customer wants to learn to surf and we want to teach them how. We also want to remind the customer how marvellous they are, how we can see their beauty and the uniqueness they bring to this surf experience.

“The staff at Walking on Water Surf understand how to motivate and encourage a whole range of people, they need to be pretty special.”

Carving out a customer base

Getting the customer base right has been a focus for Alder. She wants people of all ages and abilities to have the opportunity to get out in the surf.

Walking on Water Surf has introduced a range of different programmes to tailor to different people.

These include a kids' holiday programme during the school breaks and working with local schools to include surfing in their outdoor curricular activities.

“The joy that kids bring to the sport is like magic, they’re our future surfers and they’ll be the ones making sure this industry thrives,” says Alder.

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While Alder focused on expanding the customer base for Walking on Water Surf she was also conscious of the seasonal changes her surf business would face.

“Winter can be tough for this type of business and we knew that we’d need to diversify to keep things ticking along and stay viable year-round,” says Alder.

So Alder has branched out into other areas that complement the surf school.

One area Alder is passionate about is quality, organic surf wear products. “A lot of the big name surf brands don’t offer this – so I decided to fill the gap in the market with a range of organic surf wear,” says Alder.

“I’ve focused on making sure the supply chain is responsible in terms of people and the environment – it’s so important to know where your products come from.

“By using Fairtrade-certified work places and organic cotton in our supply chain as well as non-toxic ink in the printing process, I feel confident the product is competitive against those bigger brands.”

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Another area Alder has explored is a new concept called Women’s Squad.

“It’s surf cross training with Pilates, pool and strength training combined into an eight week programme that runs throughout winter,” says Alder.

“Realising the importance of community and how we are building it and expanding our summer seasonal business through winter has been key.”

Part of the success of the programme has been joining a collection of diverse people together – with each person’s strengths encouraging others to up-skill in different areas. The skills of the more experienced surfers can be shared with the less experienced.

“We want to encourage, build and inspire a community of surfing women,” says Alder.

“We want to encourage, build and inspire a community of surfing women,” says Alder.

“The surfing industry is heavily male dominated but the energy, enthusiasm and humour women bring to the sport brings it to the next level,” says Alder.

“The buzz of bringing a group of amazing women together and supporting each other is incredible.”

Alder has advice for anyone starting or growing their business.

“Fill your world with inspiration – learn from other people that rip and gain from their stories. Why? It motivates us to go that little bit further, expanding our knowledge of people, place and understanding,” she says.