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Interview with Jonno Wells, Surfline

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo

 

As part of our interview with local companies and executives, we always like to talk with interesting local companies. One local firm, which every surfer would be familiar with, is Huntington Beach-based Surfline/Wavetrak (www.surfline.com) -- which is the source for wave forecasts. We recently caught up with CEO Jonno Wells to talk about the firm and its expanding network of web sites.

First off, tell us about your network of sites?

Jonno Wells: Surfline/Wavetrak has three primary websites--Surfline.com, Buoyweather.com, and Beachlive.com. Surfline.com is for the general surfing community, Buoyweather is for the international marine environment, and we also have a new site called Beachlive.com, which is targeted at the general beachgoer, with information about weather conditions at beaches around the world. Our products are also syndicated into newspapers and web sites around the country. We're also delivering our information to mobile devices, through widgets, and mobile.surfline.com, a popular version of our site which is available through the mobile web.

If I'm not mistaken, your firm has actually been around awhile, hasn't it?

Jonno Wells: Surfline was founded in 1985 by Sean Collins, who was the first guy to accurate forecast Southern hemisphere swell conditions, and what that would do at local beaches. If you think about it, that's pretty interesting--not long ago, that information wasn't available. Sean was the first guy to do it, and brough tit to market by publishing that information to paying users via phone systems. You could dial an 800- or 900-, 976- number and get the forecast and daily updates for beaches around the country. Sean moved things onto the internet in 1995, by adding live surf cams, and using the Internet to both publish forecasts and put live beach cams on the web. From there, he worked with a number of experts to develop his methodology into a meterological swell model, which can forecast all across the globe. That meant that local conditions could be forecast, around the world, at many different locations. Before that, what had existed before as weather information was primarily for the government, deep water ship routing, and was used for the fairly well-developed market for what happens in the middle of the ocean. The military and government could use that, but there was not a lot of good information about what was happening when the waves got to the beach.

That became the fundamental engine for Surfline, and became the utility to create the largest audience in surf, or really, in any water sport that we know of. That recurrent usage created an audience, and is the core to our paid services. We're a business that has both advertising revenues and subscription, a blend of both. in 2004, we purchased Buoyweather.com, moved it into our setup, weather department, and marketing department, and in 2005, we added much more multimedia news and entertainment to Surfline. It's resonated more with our core community, which as increased the time spent on our site from a couple of minutes--just checking frequently to see how the surf with doing--to ten minutes today, with deep engagement around the site. It's now a one-stop shop for surfer's entertainment, plus a utility portal. It's a blend of Weather.com and ESPN.com for surfers.

You also bought a surfing magazine at one point, didn't you?

Jonno Wells: A couple of years back, we bought Water magazine. We had a though to market that directly, but it was just as the economy for advertising in print took a big hit. We decided to put that on hold until a better time for it, when maybe in the future print advertising is stronger than now. That turned out to be a good move, because it got much worse. Fortunately, it's not as bad on the digital advertising guide, since lots of companies are now moving in that direction.

It does look like you are going in the content direction, though?

Jonno Wells: Without the utility and the recurrent usage, the content doesn't really work as well. You need both, and we'll add more content where it makes sense. We're looking at adding more content that is unique enough, and there will be more content for sure, but we're going to regulate how much depending on ad support. The question is if there is the ad market there to support it, and if not, what kind of content can be paid for directly. We've done pretty good running a subscription business, and using the paid service model for our core services.

So there's a significant amount of science and technology involved now in the operation?

Jonno Wells: It's always being modified and tweaked, from a technology standpoint. There are probably three or four major areas that we would think of from the technology side, which are discrete technology issues. One is running our global swell models. That takes scientists, and Ph.Ds in engineering and forecasters constantly tweaking those models. We've also got specialized computer equipment to crunch those numbers in real time. We're probably the largest downloader of data from the NOAA out there, as far as we know. We download that data from the NOAA and other sources, and crunch our own data models, and from those models, we produce many of the tools on our website that allows people to forecast the surf in advance. We also have meteorologists who are constantly takin inthe real time reports and looking at how they stack up to the models. We have 125 streaming web cameras on the beaches around the world, on surfing beaches, and they are great indicators on how well our models are projecting surf when it comes and hits the beach.

The second part of the discrete technology that we employ is our camera network. We have clients and cameras out in the field we have to keep up to date and running, and reporting back to our servers. Plus, we have to distribute those across the Internet to a fairly large audience. We get 1.5 million uniques a month, with over 100,000 people hitting Surfline every day. Our general back end also takes the data from the models, forecasters, editorial, and distributes that across oru web site products and mobile devices.

It sounds like mobile is a growth area for you?

Jonno Wells: It's a huge area. mobile.surfline.com is the highest growth area for us in terms of traffic and uniques. Buoyweather is also growing, but mobile is growing quite rapidly in terms of usage. The revenue behind it is growing as well, but not as fast as the usage. it will be interesting to watch, but, like many hot things in technology, lots of the time the usage is well ahead of the money.

Is that information free, or how are you handling that?

Jonno Wells: It's both free and paid. For example, you can access free content, and users can see content, but in terms of the streaming cameras and longer term forecasts on mobile, you must be a premium subscriber. Right now, it's difficult to determine how many premium subscribers are people who subscribed primarily fo that, because they have access across multiple devices. We also don't currently have a paid iPhone app, and have been using our relationship with Oakley, which offers a free iPhone app with 400,000 downloads around the world, to market our mobile web product. Mobile apps are really cool, but it makes sense with our real time media and information to drive most of the heavy usage to our mobile platform.

Finally, how big is your firm now?

Jonno Wells: We're a private company, with 35 full time employees, and another set of contributors that are part time or add to that. In 2002, when I started, we had 12 employees.

Thanks!


 

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