The Origin Story Of Flowstate: The Surfer-Owned Tech Startup Born In Chlorine
CEO Luke Wallace explains their AI-driven product, Andy King on the payroll and stealing Surfline’s thunder.
Luke Wallace’s 18-month-old software company Flowstate (FS) just won the Innovation Award at the 2023 Surf Park Summit, rinsing Surfline’s comparable automated video capture product in the process, who incidentally, were the event’s headline sponsor. It was a big w for the new guys.
“The summit has been going for 10 years and anyone and everyone who’s really focused on the wave pool industry is there – that’s tech companies, developers, manufacturers, operators, investors – you name it,” says Luke. “So yes, we’ve got the spinnakers up at the moment,” he laughs.
“Beating Surfline was huge – I dunno if we want to say this out in the article, but our friends over there had $30 million of investment and they still can’t get it working. We’ve done a small funding round to keep the lights on but we’re mostly self-funded through our four founders, we just have the skills in-house to build out this technology.”
If you’ve surfed the URBNSURF Melbourne wave tank in the past six months, you’ve likely already been acquainted with Flowstate, which leverages AI and machine learning to track and identify you on waves (no silly wristbands or board stickers necessary), and seamlessly package them up for you to review and share by the time you’ve hit the hottub.
The tech will be integrated from the get-go at URBNSURF’s Sydney site set to open Autumn 2024.
“There’s something like 400 caught every hour at URBNSURF, with an average of about 36 surfers. So all of those 400 waves are filmed with a fixed cinema-grade camera, edited, and ready within about six minutes after the surf session, which is pretty cool,” explains Luke. “Then we package that all up into a nice digital customer experience available on an app, which has coaching and gamification functionalities. Essentially that opens up a new revenue stream for the operators and provides them with a bunch of data and analytics,” explains Luke.
He continues: “It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical specifics. Really at the heart of what we do is just save people time and money through automation. To pay a team for what we do, you’d need four full-time filmers standing there filming and editing around the clock rain, hail or sunshine, which obviously isn’t achievable.”
The symbiosis of Flowstate and URBNSURF is a pretty unique B2B relationship worth expanding on, not the least because Luke is a founding member of Melbourne Boardriders, used their tank as his test site and credited them in his award acceptance speech as leaders in the surf technology space who “shared our vision for creating dedicated software for the surf park industry.”
“The reality is that there are no other pure play, public access surf parks of this scale, so from a commercial and operational perspective we’ve had to write the book,” notes URBNSURF’s Head of Sales + Partnerships, James Miles. “There were plenty of assumptions we launched with that were right, but there were plenty that were wrong. Things like how people would book, how they wanted to view inventory, even just the competency level of the average surfer and what sort of wave would suit them.”
Rather than sitting on their fingers for the 262 painful days Melbourne spent in lockdown with no revenue coming in, URBNSURF doubled down on first principles and made a bunch of ballsy investments. Specifically: working with Wavegarden to design a bunch of waves, create a brand new booking engine and digital UX, and inking the first contract with Flowstate.
And those improvements cost a fortune… but a principle isn’t really a principle until it’s cost you something. Right?
“Booking systems are hard work for surf parks. You have a lot of inventory cut in different ways and this all needs to work in with a waiver and access gates to ensure a clean customer experience. We designed the new system to allow people to filter and find sessions a lot easier. Right now, if you want to find a specific session type, or just the next available session on a warm day and get through to the cart and purchase it’s 100x easier than in the past. When we bundle that with Flowstate and URBNSURF Surf Academy online (where you can send your Flowstate Clips to URBNSURF coaches or Surf Better Now’s Cahill Bell Warren) we think we have the best digital UX of any surf park.”
Flashy new software is just the top of the iceberg however. “We’ve developed a large corporate events business in Melbourne and so Sydney has specific indoor spaces for meetings, events and keynotes to host guys like Mark Mathews (who regularly hosts his events at the pool). Then we worked extensively with Wavegarden on a remote wave development process for broader customer segments. We came up with ways of describing the different ingredients used to create wave shapes and run the sessions with clear quantifiable metrics in place,” says James.
James continues: “We are still developing waves, maybe at a slightly slower rate, but the new single turns wave we worked with Wavegarden on is probably the best wave we have. We developed it for the WSL event we are holding in February to clean up the broadcast and it will be available for premium sessions from this summer. We also have been tuning the air waves for competitions and athlete development, these will be available privately this summer and we are hopeful we can run some public air coaching sessions in the near future. Best of all, all these learnings and improvements will be factored into the Sydney development from the get go.”
Before we hop back into the weeds on FS’ origin story, I’d like to stress a culturally significant point. And that is… Luke rips.
Here’s a massively condensed bio of his surfing life which amounts to a healthy 7.5/10 core score.
“I’m part of the Melbourne Boardriders Club (he placed second in their inaugural contest) hosted at URBNSURF, and a founding member at their wave tank. The Sparknotes summary of my life is: I was born in Maroubra, moved to Cronulla at 11 (Matt Griggs, Kirk Flintoff, Ben Johnson generation) trying my luck in pro juniors before hanging up the ASP jersey for good. Once I finished school I went full ‘Paul Fisher mode’ DJing around Europe. Then I came home and started a record label before working as Monster Energy’s marketing manager when they launched in Oceania. Fast-forward a few years and I pivoted into working in a Melbourne tech firm, pretty much stopped surfing, got a dad bod and had kids, turned 40 and then fell back in love with surfing in a Tullamarine wave tank of all places…”
That is to say: Don’t let Luke’s current dorky title of ‘tech entrepreneur’ undermine the fact he was raised in a surfing family and lived on two Sydney beaches famed for hosting riots and heaving in south swells. Surfing’s in his bones and he’s done it forever. But I digress.
“The origin story of Flowstate is a funny one,” explains Luke. “It was an idea born in the pool. I was starting to see all of these tripods around the pool shoreline, people sticking their phones and handycams in there. There were GoPros hanging off the wall but my personal favorite was an iPhone gaffer tape to a brick on the side. You could tell people were desperate to record themselves so I just thought, ‘I’m going to try that too’. So I went and bought a cheap tripod on Amazon and started sticking my phone in there and recording all my sessions. I felt like I was getting better just by watching myself surf.”
*Does the thinker’s pose*
“Then, poof! It struck me: Most surfers rarely see themselves surf except for the pros, and people want to see themselves surf, sometimes out of pure indulgence but often as a learning tool too, because it’s just hard to know if something that feels good looks good (Amen)… I’d been living in Melbourne and working at big enterprise software companies and that side of my brain was kicking in going, ‘I reckon I can automate this’.”
“To be honest I was in a pretty sweet spot working in a big tech company, getting paid loads of money and the idea of being a startup was… I was 50/50 on that. And then, I dunno, when a good idea keeps coming back to you and you can’t get it out of your head, you’re like, right, how do we take this from a good idea into a business? So I went about designing a solution drawing on my experience in UX and sales… Eventually I was able to poach some of my former teammates from Zendesk: Mike was the director of product and Chris was the director of AI engineering. The guys at the pool were amazing to let us use their tank as a test site, and eventually sign on as the first licensees.”
“Even as a middle-aged dad, I feel like I’m improving. For instance, I reckon backhand barrel riding is probably the hardest thing you could do in surfing. But after surfing the left tube at URBNSURF with a bit of coaching, I actually learned how to drag my butt in the water and go, ‘oh, that’s how they do it.’ That sort of thing is pretty awesome to tune up before you go do an Indo trip or something like that so that next time you’re in the pit at Ulus you’re not doing it for the first time in three years”.
Off the back of their wavepool work tour, Flowstate has signed licensing agreements with URBNSURF Sydney, Revel Surf in Arizona, Parkwood on the Gold Coast.
With their most recent algorithm they’ve hit a 98% success rate on the identification of surfers, which means 686,000/700,000 waves processed through Flowstate in the past six months correctly found their corresponding ~20,000 Flowstate users correctly. “And no, we still haven’t missed a wave,” Luke chuckles.
Flowstate has grand plans for expansion. For now he’s keeping those DL. The capabilities of how the tech can be applied are exciting as much as they are hard to fathom.
Post-note: Post-note: URBNSURF just launched their Foundation Memberships for URBNSURF Sydney which include a surf a week at the best possible rate (which can be used anytime quarterly) plus a heap of perks including bonus Flowstate clips and a golden ticket surf session prior to public opening.
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