“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Words of Wisdom from Bruce McFarland, founder and president of American Wave Machines
“You have to know when it’s time to turn over to the smart business people. Now is that time for us, the space is hot.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce McFarland, founder and president of American Wave Machines, and a leader in out-of-ocean surfing. With his proprietary technology for both small indoor venues and large-scale outdoor surfing destinations, and successful installations all over the globe, American Wave Machines is making surfing accessible to everyone, even in landlocked areas far from any ocean.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I suppose it helps that surfing is in my blood. My Great Uncle “Sonny” Charles Wright was one of the first surfers in
San Diego, taught by the great Duke Kahanamoku, and I grew up on the Strand in Manhattan Beach surfing LA’s South Bay. While working on simulated spacecraft for customers like NASA and Sandia Labs, I serendipitously watched a video of Kelly Slater riding the Waimea River in 1998 and inspiration took hold. After several months of researching at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography library, collecting data at the mouth of the Del Mar River and Torrey Pines, and tinkering with scale models in the backyard, I realized that I could capture and build this particular river wave phenomena.
When we founded American Wave Machines, we started out with only an idea, and no capital. I literally mortgaged our house to fund a full-scale prototype to the tune of $400K. First, we had to overcome the inherent challenges of introducing new, unproven technology to a small niche, non-technical audience. So, we used an incremental and methodical approach to prototyping, mitigating uncertainty in time for a full-scale build. Flipping the switch in front of paying customers with no calibration or testing time due to construction delays can be quite challenging. I’m proud of my team’s perfect track record for delivering on time and on budget. Integrating designs into unique projects, and managing everything from parts procurement and logistics to delivery and installation, requires an innate ability to balance priorities and coordinate efforts between disparate organizational units…far beyond the technology.
Let’s just say from the company’s humble beginnings in our backyard shed to delivering surfing systems to a worldwide market, we’ve come a long way.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company.
We knew how much we loved surfing, but what has been most interesting for us is that we’ve discovered that the joy of surfing is truly international. We have installations in all four hemispheres, and people trying to surf for the first time on waves produced by American Waves Machines in Perth, Australia are just as excited as they are in New Hampshire, or Montreal, or Peru, or Turks & Cacaos, or Sweden.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our goal from day one was to recreate surfing by imitating nature as closely as possible. As author Guy Kawasaki says — his books were inspirational when we started out — “Nature is a research and development lab that’s been perfecting real-world solutions for the past few billion years.” Unlike legacy wave technologies, which are effectively tidal bores, our PerfectSwell® technology creates surf. What is surf? Surf is an infinite variety of waves, certain particular hydrodynamics, and variable frequency. With PerfectSwell we’ve done all that with proprietary technology. With no moving parts, and an efficient and versatile design, the system will deliver both premium surf waves and recreational waves in one machine. Emphasis is on the surfing experience: wave quality, duration, and frequency.
It’s been exciting to introduce professional surfers to PerfectSwell and watch them play around programming waves in our tabletop model pool at our Solana Beach headquarters. They totally get it! Cheyne Magnusson said, “So you’re basically designing your own swell?” And Jamie O’Brien said, “It’s the perfect platform to say, ‘Do you surf better than me?’ because we are going to serve you two of the same waves, and may the best surfer win.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My partner and co-founder of American Wave Machines happens to be my wife, Marie. Interestingly, we both grew up in Southern California and both of our dads were engineers involved in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. So, we both grew up watching incremental engineering up close. We met at UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) and are both mechanical engineering grads. We instinctively took an incremental approach for AWM, which is quite different than others in the space, but our aligned incremental engineering efforts have resulted in a 100% track record. (I guess rocket science works!)
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Simply, people love to surf. Surfing is our raison d’être, we feel fortunate to work on this every day.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why.
- I wish someone told me, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. Developing the technology was the fulfilling aspect, but the business side was challenging. We were sued for patent infringement in a case that lasted for 7 years. We ultimately prevailed, knowing the entire time our tech was novel and unique, but it was a long time to straddle ramping up and running the business, and defending the business.
- In the words of Guy Kawasaki “Churn baby churn”. Churning is the Japanese model: Idea-engineering-production-customer-feedback, repeat. The ongoing art of incremental improvements and continued innovations.
- Also in the words of Guy, “Don’t worry, be crappy”. Get the product out, and continue with improvements.
- The team is everything. I am lucky, my partner is my partner.
- You have to know when it’s time to turn over to the smart business people. Now is that time for us, the space is hot. Surfing is going to be in the 2020 Olympics, the Kelly Slater Wave Co. has recently shined a light on the industry, and we prevailed in a grueling IP lawsuit. The opportunity is huge — we want to see a surf venue in every major city in the world, either large scale with PerfectSwell® or smaller urban scale with SurfStream®
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Author Guy Kawasaki because his work provided enormous inspiration for us when we were starting American Wave Machines. And Matthew McConaughey, because he is a surfing family man from Texas, and we would love to personally invite him to be one of the first to share the stoke at our new PerfectSwell venue opening next month in Waco — BSR Surf Resort. We applaud his Just Keep Livin’ Foundation’s dedication to empowering kids to live active, healthy lives.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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