Surf Diva Shares Lessons From 20-Year Tenure
April 2016 marked 20 years of business for Surf Diva. The La Jolla Shores-based surf school and women’s boutique opened in 1996 and has become an influential force in women’s surfing, with its notability reaching well beyond surfing’s endemic world.
Owned and operated by twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva started as a weekend surf clinic for women. Fast-forward 20 years and Surf Diva has grown today to an operation with 50 employees, and offers a variety of surf experiences including surf retreats to Costa Rica for the past 12 years, “Moms and Groms” spring break sessions, and family surf camps.
As Izzy and Coco describe it, Coco is the force behind their success on land, and Izzy handles the water; hence, they say Izzy is the “Surf” and Coco is the “Diva.”
We caught up with the Surf Divas as they celebrated this milestone to ask what key business lessons they have learned over the past two decades, what inspired them to start the business and what motivates them still today.
What inspired you to open Surf Diva surf school before the whole female surf business really took off?
Izzy Tihanyi: I had surfed competitively in the NSSA for UCSD and had worked my way up in the industry from retail kid to team rider, to surf magazine writer and events coordinator.
After launching Board Aid with TW, I was with STV (Surf, Skate, Snow TV) working with the Weatherlys in 1996 when I started a weekend surf clinic for women. I was inspired to offer women a way to actually get in the water and learn.
The classes were an instant hit, and my twin sister Coco agreed to partner up and become co-owner. Coco also graduated from UCSD and had experience launching new brands as the fourth employee at Reef and as a Rotary Ambassador to Spain.
I honestly never thought I could work with my twin sister. There are times when she probably wants to dump her latte on my wetsuits hanging around the office balcony. But we have a good balance and ultimately really care about the brand, and each other — most days!
What then led you to decide to go into the surf retail business with the boutique?
Surf Divas: We love surfing and fashion and our dream had always been to open a fun, trendy and cool surf shop for girls.
When we first opened, our shop and office shared a 10×20 space with half dedicated to the office and the other half for the shop. It was in a shared space of a modeling agency called Jet Set, which supplied a lot of the surf industry models.
Downstairs was a liquor store and when they went out of business we took over the space and made that the Surf Diva shop. When the modeling agency was sold we took over the entire upstairs for the Surf Diva offices.
How have you seen the surf retail business change over the past 20 years?
Surf Divas: There has been a lot of growth in the girls surf retail business with the development of hardgoods specific to women, as well as brands designing clothing for athletic yet feminine customers. It’s a great position to be in! There are a lot of really cool brands with so many different products we can choose from.
How did Surf Diva manage to survive during hard times like recessions?
Surf Divas: Learning to manage the hard times during recession, for example, has become instinctive to daily challenges. When you have any business you rely on environmental and economic stability, so it’s important to be cautiously optimistic.
Our parents always taught us to be debt-free and would say for anything “if you can’t pay for it in cash you can’t afford it,” so that’s how we’ve carefully grown the business.
Of course we had to have lines of credit to run the business, but we have a healthy operation thanks to the way we manage our finances and pay our debts.
What are a few key business lessons learned over the years?
Surf Divas: Surround yourself with positive, smart and loyal people and hire the best staff that cares about the company. Have a great relationship with your banker, CPA and lawyers! Do your research on trends and go with your gut.
Can you share a few fond memories that stand out during the past 20 years?
Surf Divas: When we first opened I’ll always remember the time I met with Triple 5 Soul at ASR in San Diego and they said they’d come visit before going back to New York. Two hipsters from the company came up our stairs and headed to see me in our tiny space. They looked around our 4×8 shop nodded and smiled at our Surf Diva rashguard selection, Sugar high heels in tan and hot pink, and custom shaped Craig Hollingsworth Surf Diva surfboards and said that I’d get a call from corporate letting me know if we were approved. It was cool learning they approved us and liked our style.
In 2005 I’ll also always remember when Inc. Magazine called to award us as one of the “26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs” in their magazine and an all-expense paid trip to the gala event in San Francisco. It was incredible being on the same list as Michael Dell, Richard Branson, and Diane Von Furstenberg.
Having superstars come surf with us, such as Will Ferrell, who is always super down-to-earth. He came in and smeared an entire tube of blue Zinka on his face to make the kids laugh. It ended up being a great disguise, as well. Although lifeguards announcing on the loudspeaker, “Stay Classy, Surf Diva” was a good giveaway!
Another highlight was picking up Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer in my truck and peeling melted surf wax off the passenger seat while watching his personal chauffeured helicopter land at Carlsbad so he could come surf with us before the Blue Crush premiere.
What has been the best thing about your job?
Surf Divas: We love doing what we do everyday and coming to work is fun. We love the people we work with, the surf industry, the fashion, and our office – the ocean. We love the amazing personalities we get to meet from instructors and students to the inspiring challenged athletes, and mentoring the next generation of girls about to bust into the scene.