Aloha Brothers Surf Lessons in Venice Beach, California, has achieved amazing popularity online. Of the 700-plus reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Facebook, Google and Thumbtack combined, only one weighs in at a less than perfect five-stars — and that was a "mere" four-star critique (which weighs heavily on owner Nick Fowler).
The Five-Star Secret
Aloha Brothers founder Nick Fowler chalks up this popularity to his "surf fanaticism." Having grown up in Hawaii, where surfing is part of the culture, Nick says "I never wanted to work for The Man. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. And I love surfing. So Aloha Brothers lets me do that."
Asked about his "brothers'" role, Nick admits he doesn't actually have brothers in the business. "In Hawaii, when you grow up the way surf fanatics do, you are pretty much family. So me and my fellow instructors, we're brothers in the waves."
"The secret of our success," he says, "is genuine talent. All our instructors love what they're doing. Unlike some unnamed surf schools," he continues with a wink, "we don't nickel and dime or cut corners with our instructors. They're the real deal."
"I make it a point," he continues, "to give more than a fair working wage to my instructors. I'm not looking to low-ball amateurs who show up one day like tourists then four months later sport crocodile tans and long, blond curls. My guys aren't part of the herd that real instructors know could be thinned — and ought to be for safety's sake."
For example, one of Nick's top instructors is Jamie Sterling, the 2011 Big Wave World Champion. "If you want to surf some big waves, Jamie can help you," says Nick. "But if you just want to get into that first one-foot whitewater that may still be terrifying, we can make it fun to learn and easy to do faster than you thought possible."
"One of my greatest thrills," he continues, "is to see someone struggle when they're starting out, then suddenly have that little A-ha moment, and get their first wave and just have that sense of euphoria. It's wonderful to see. Never gets old."
The First Line of Defense
Aloha Brothers has grown to 10 instructors, split between operations in Los Angeles and Hawaii. It has minimal overhead (no brick and mortar HQs), operates mostly out of instructors' cars, and stores boards and wetsuits in Nick's home three blocks from the famed Venice Boardwalk.
"But even with most of our expenses focused on talented instructors," says Nick, "we're operating in a litigious society where anything is possible."
So one night soon after Aloha Brothers started, Nick was having beers with a childhood friend ("super-smart, he aced his SATs") who, upon hearing how exposed Nick's company was, wondered out loud, "what the hell are you being so stupid for?"
"That got my attention," says Nick.
"'Trust me, dude,' my friend said, 'you could lose everything you own and more if you don't protect yourself legally. You won't survive without a first line of defense.' Since my friend has been involved in a number of startups, and I did in fact trust him, I decided to take his advice. Sitting there with a couple of beers in hand, we hopped on LegalZoom.com and submitted our info in about 30 minutes," says Nick. "I was amazed. We got an actual, real-life LLC going in half an hour. He swore by LegalZoom — and now I do too."
Zero to Hero
Aloha Brothers' reputation continues to grow as happy students spread the word that even neophyte surfers can, as Nick says, "shred the gnar" almost immediately.
"By putting our efforts in the water from day one," says Nick, "we quickly reduce or eliminate the fear of crashing all newbies feel. We shorten the time it takes to develop surf-confidence—take you from zero to hero—by months, even years. Sometimes we even get you popping up on your board the first day."
Looking at the comments that accompany the nearly unanimous five-star reviews for Aloha Brothers, a secondary theme for the school's success emerges: the love that their instructors have for surfing itself—and for the people they teach.
"I get paid to surf for a living," says Nick Fowler. "It's—like—I pinch myself all the time."