I had the chance last month to interview Tona Boards founder, Dereck Camacho for the Weendy App blog and with the news yesterday of Andre Phillip joining the Tona team (and part owner), I figured what better way to keep on the Tona wave then to re-post the interview here, on my personal blog. Hope you all have as much fun as I did interviewing Dereck, reading his story it. Get stoked for what Tona has coming in the pipeline for kiteboarding and keep reading for a discount code!
Who: Dereck Camacho, co-founder of Tona kiteboards
Jenna: What’s your shaping philosophy?
Dereck: It is fairly basic. I really don’t set out to reinvent the wheel. I always feel with a little focus I can improve on any design, really. I was/am always modifying things to improve them, whether it is modifying a motorcycle or making a guitar for myself, if I can see a way to improve on something I will focus on that aspect and I guess this spills over into my shaping and making of boards. I always say everything is designed a particular way for a reason and the process starts by understanding this basic fundamental reason. I think with a better understanding of what you want from a board, or any design, it allows you to see opportunities for improvements if there are any. And most of the time there is an opportunity for improvement. The next step is to then be able to make it happen.
So to wrap it up in a one line ‘philosophy’ I would say, ‘keep looking for improvements’ and my strength is knowing what the true purpose of the design is for and always thriving to improve it.
Jenna: Tell us how you started?
Dereck: It was not always pretty. I remember once when I was 11 I incorrectly mixed some fiberglass resin that overheated and started a thermal runaway. I had to run out the smoky toxic room leaving my pet mice behind. Poor things, they never stood a chance. Anyway, I continued to learn about materials and in particular fiberglass resin as I grew up. I tried surfing when I was 9 in Barbados and I got hooked. I was not always living in a place that had surf but I gravitated to the whole surfing culture from early on. In particular, I always loved surfboards. Everything about them, I loved. The shape, the feel, the look, the curves even the smell (with the sex wax back in the day)… everything about it just grabbed me. As a teenager I would rest the surfboard on my bed or against the wall in my room and stare at it for hours. I actually started experimenting with shaping when I was about 14 while I was big into windsurfing as well as surfing. For my first board I convinced my shop teacher in school to let me make one as a class project, that way I could spend valuable school time frolicking with a surfboards and provided me with an excuse to have my SURFER mags in class. It was not always easy to get the correct materials available where I was living at the time. It was not like I could call up a surfboard store and get a blank and resins delivered. I had to search and use different materials from anywhere that I thought might work. I used to look for old refrigerators and take the foam out of the doors and stick them together to make a surfboard blank. I thought I was in heaven when I found a broken 12 foot windsurfer on the beach one day. Just the nose was broken off so I peeled off the old skin exposing a virgin surfboard blank and I used the foam that was left to shape my first short board windsurfer. Later on in my teens when I went to college in Hawaii I was able to buy proper blanks and surfboard resin so I started shaping again, but just for my personal use. I was windsurfing competitively in Hawaii and I had a board sponsor, but I still experimented at every opportunity I could because I knew I would learn a lot from making my own stuff. I never really set out to shape or make boards for other people, just mainly for myself and learn about the process. Then I got into kiting. Once I picked up the kite I never touched a windsurfer again. Kiting was new and board designs were not defined as yet. There were many different shapes, styles, materials and sizes showing up at the beach and in the mags. This was exciting for me to get into a sport where nothing was defined and board makers were still experimenting to see what worked. Every month there seemed to be a new design showing up. It was as if it took all the experienced shapers that had been shaping windsurfers and surfboards had an interest in kite boards and that put them all back at the starting line together on a level playing field. No one had an advantage because the sport was so new. These were great times because board makers were trying things they could never do in the other already defined sports. So after I learned to kite in Antigua and I got back home to Florida, the first thing I did was make myself a kite board so I could continue to learn how to kite.. Again, it was just intended for my own use and to push my own personal board making skills, nothing more. Well, then the guys at the beach started trying my boards and liked them, I then got request and started making a few boards for a few friends, and then their friends and so on and that was the start of DCboardz. I mainly just made and sold boards to fund my Kite habit.
Jenna: What led you to shape and build Tona Boards?
Dereck: To answer this question is to really tell the story of how Tona got started. I had been shaping and selling custom kite boards for about 5-6 years at the stage the idea of Tona was conceived (about 5 years ago). A couple years prior to this, Adam Anton and Andre Phillip had started the Kite Scoop Forum for kiters catering mainly to the small group of wake/power style of riding. From early on they saw the need to break away from the conventional direction kiting was heading in and develop a community where like minded riders worldwide could connect and talk about riding. I always admired them for taking such a bold step. Not just because they were pushing wake style on this particular forum, but for tapping directly into the riders and really connecting with everyone. This ability to reach out and hear what riders really needed sparked my interest. I have known Adam and Andre for years from when I was living in Antigua. I have known Andre since he was 4 or 5 and Adam moved to Antigua as a young boy and he and Andre became close friends. We all go back a long way. Anyway, so I was a part of the Kite Scoop community that Andre and Adam started from early on and so I started making custom boards for quite a few of the members on the forum, as well as continuing to make custom boards for the market I had already established for myself. The word spread and I developed a solid following within the community for all types of boards and riding styles from wake style to freestyle and even surfboards. As a relatively small custom board builder I was listening to the kiters’ request, both on the forum and in the general public. I was very interested in hearing what they wanted from a board and enjoyed the challenge of making something to satisfy any style of riding. I was fast approaching the point where I was receiving too many custom orders to handle on my own and wanted to somehow get into production boards and use my DCboardz set up more as a R&D for the production boards. As we all know Andre was already well connected with Cabrinha and so I sat down with Adam and talked about starting a company, a brand, that catered to really listening to riders and seeing what they wanted and then using my resources as a board maker and Adam’s already established community to reach out to riders around the world. Riding styles were changing, whether it was wake style with bindings, strapped or strapless surfboards or freestyle twin tips with straps, we just knew we could do a better job at providing better equipment using our ability to tap into what riders wanted. That is where we wanted our strength to be. What really drove us also is that here we were, 3 guys all from the islands, all with our hands deep in this new sport in different ways but operating totally separate. So I suggested why not get together and make something meaningful. And so Tona was born.
Jenna: Why did you choose wakestyle over surf?
Dereck: This is a kind of mislabeled in my opinion. We did not really choose wake style over any other style of riding. In my quest to design a board that can stand up to the power demands and strength required for the higher performing riders which happened to be wake style riding, also greatly lends ends itself to making a perfect board for any other style of riding in particular free style with straps and even beginners. The elements I have used in my designs, for example the channels, a well tested efficient rocker lines, stiffer rebound, all results in a more efficient board that goes upwind great (even when finless) and all these traits also makes for softer landings. So no matter what style of riding, our boards perform very well in all disciplines. So yeah, publicly we seemed to have been labeled a ‘wake style’ company, and I am flattered but the truth is the boards are ALL tested with straps as well and we work on making sure that we have not left out other styles or levels of riders. Actually you will be surprised how good the Pop is for beginners. The channels and the stiffness result in learning to stay upwind a lot quicker. I am proud of the fact that you can actually buy one board that you can learn on and not outgrow from your first time up on a board all the way to hitting sliders with Bindings. There are not many other boards out there that can claim this. I think it got labeled as a wake style board mainly because the wake style riders in their quest to find a better board suited for that powerful style of riding gravitated to our designs early on and I also think it did not hurt that they also make the most noise! : ) I guess the point I am trying to make is that yes we are driven by wake style riding, probably more so than any other company, but we still focus a lot on the all round performance of our products. So yes, when I sit with a fresh design concept, I make sure it can answer the wake style demands for strength and power first, then I work with it to make sure it performs with foot straps just as well. In the beginning, having Adam (who was also running Kite Antigua) and all the guys in Antigua (which included a 10 year old boy called Jake Kelsick that I had been making custom boards for), was great to have these riders that were pushing the limits, using kickers and sliders to test my boards In Antigua. It was and still is a tight community of talented riders. I think that accelerated my progress in building boards for different riding styles. It is really import that we stay committed to the core riders and the lifestyle and riding style that got us all started in this sport. I want to stay focused on the rider at all times. Give them what they need. As we grow we will branch out into other types of boards as long as we can maintain this connection with the core riders along the way. That is important to us.
Jenna: What/who are some of your biggest influences?
Dereck: That’s a good question… In terms of Riders and representatives in the sport? I would have to say Andre Phillip. Andre loves kiteboarding and cares about the image of the sport. He has stayed committed to the cause and focused on representing the sport in a loyal and legit way. He does not sell out. He rides hard and stayed true to his style of riding with boots even when the industry was not looking to go down that road. A lot of riders caved in to what the bigger kite companies wanted them to push. Andre did not.
As far as shapers? I would have to go old school and go back to my windsurfing days and mention guys like Harold Iggy (Shaper of Naish… RIP Harold) for his craftsmanship and also Rick Naish (Robby’s Dad) for having the lifelong love of shaping. I also have to mention Sean Ordonez (SOS) because he grew up in Antigua also and is doing well for himself in Hawaii now. It is not easy for any of us from the Caribbean to get recognized amongst the established personalities around the world. So hats off to Sean for that.
Other influences, and I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I will mention people like Steve Jobs. The reality is that with Tona now, I have to run a business as well as shape boards. It does not matter how good I can make a board, if we do not make products that riders want and run a good business, the brand will fail. Steve Jobs had a great ability to cut away all the distractions and focus on the product and the people. We want to make sure we stay focused on what we do, be good at what we do and not just try and make as much products as we possibly can.
In the past 5 years another huge influence to me was Herb Obrien (Herb passed away in late 2012). I got to know Herb when we were looking for the best manufacture for our boards. For those of you that don’t know who Herb is, he started Obrien Watersports, Hyperlite, and then Ronix Wakeboarding and Radar water skis. His record of companies spoke for itself but what impressed me the most about Herb is his attention to detail and his ability surround himself with people that love what they do and this comes from his love for design and innovation and people. Herb was always willing to listen to anyone and entertain any design or business idea. I have learned a lot from him, not just in board design and manufacturing but in keeping the focus on the people and not just the product.
Jenna: What do other’s consider your expertise?
Dereck: I don’t know, I have not asked anyone that question. But I would like to think it is my ability to put things together, be it boards, relationships or concepts. It is important to have a broad knowledge about a lot of things and not just focus on one skill or task. I would like to think I know a little bit about a lot of stuff rather than a lot about one thing and that has allowed me to bridge many gaps between the art form of just making boards in my back yard and getting boards out worldwide. I am not where I need to be as yet but I am only getting started.
Jenna: What is unique about Tona boards?
Dereck: If I was to pick just one quality about our current board, the Pop, I think the most unique difference is the flex. It is stiffer than most kite boards out there in the market today. I was not impressed when I saw the kite industry moving towards thinner, lighter and flexier boards. Flex really sucks up energy and especially with the wake style type of riding where it is all about energy and power, these flexy boards just do not handle this task well. When we first set out to get our boards produced I approached many already established kite board factories and they were not able to give me the stiffness I needed to make my design work. We were a new and small company so they did not really want to listen to what I wanted from the board. That inability to find a good factory for what I wanted made basically delayed us 2 years in our start up. Then we struck gold, and I don’t know why I did not think of it sooner, but I was introduced to Herb Obrien from Ronix Wakeboards. Herb took a liking to us that I am very grateful for. I think he saw where we were coming from and appreciated our vision as he himself started in the basement of his parents house making water skis. For us there was no better manufacture out there for our products. The wake board world has been around a lot longer than kiteboarding making strong and capable boards for demanding riders and conditions. This suited what our customers wanted for a board as well. The major difference with wake board and kite board design is that wake boards have an abundance of power available from the boat so wake boards tend to be very draggy but I knew I could design less drag into our boards and benefit from the materials and manufacturing methods used in the wake board industry. Our relationship with the wake board manufacturing world gives us a great platform to create kite boards that the market has not seen yet.
Another major quality the Pop has is that it is a great cable park board as well. So you can kite and ride the cable park on the same board without losing anything. The Pop has very defined and carefully placed channels that allows the rider a lot of grab without being draggy behind a kite. The benefits of an energy filled wake board but efficient enough to kite with. The cable does not have as much power as a boat, so the cable riders are liking the Pop’s more efficient feel at the park and it’s ability to go up wind even without fins with the kite, yet it still has the grab and energy feel of a wake board. The cross over potential of the Pop between cable and kite is something we designed into the boards from the start and our customers really like this. It’s a pain to swap bindings from your cable boards to your kite board every time.
If I had to pick something that was unique to Tona boards in general, it would have to be the fact that we put huge amounts of energy into our research and development process, as well as feedback from our customers. We really value everyone’s opinion and it’s the riders out there that fuel our motivation to make better boards. This is an advantage of being a small, rider owned, company and its one of the key elements that we will try our best to preserve as we grow in years to come.
Jenna: Are there any new technologies that you are integrating into Tona boards?
Dereck: Yes, we are experimenting with different types of wood in the cores. But a few different companies are doing this. One major technology I was told we can claim is the use of a very high scratch resistant slippery bottom material that is being used on wake boards for sliders and kickers. It is called sintered UHMW. This material is very expensive but it is second to none as far as standing up against rails and sliders. Nothing is indestructible, but this is close. I won’t be surprised if other kite board companies all start using this material. They should! Other than that, I am always trying different shapes and flex patterns to respond to the riders’ request. Riders are progressing and trying different things so I always need to keep up and provide them the boards that can answer the call.
Jenna: Tell us about the brand? Who influences it? Where are your major markets? If it were a person, who would it be?
Dereck: We are new and a true definition of a grass roots brand. We truly started between my back yard and the beach in Antigua without any outside funding or help. Just lots of encouragement from the community. We have not been around long enough to claim any sort of image but we know what we want it to be. It is about the small guy stepping up to the platform and nailing it. The industry is big with some heavy hitters in terms of brands and distribution. It has not been easy to get our boards out there and we don’t have access to throw large amounts of money at the system to brake in, so all we have to rely on is getting one board out there at a time and getting people to try our boards. Once they ride our boards and feel the difference it has been easy to gain and keep a rider. We currently have distributors in Europe, UK, Mexico, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. And we are continually working on more. Even these distributors in these markets are all grass roots connections we hooked up with from word of mouth from friends around the industry. Just like us we wanted to give the small guy an opportunity to sell boards and set up something for themselves if they saw a opportunity to establish a market. This has been rewarding. We also have our rider/rep program in North America where we reached out to core riders that have influence in their local riding community to represent Tona and sell boards. These riders don’t have to be traveling pros or the best riders at the beach. We try to pick riders that are stoked to be out there to ride and try something new and different. It helps if they are good connectors that will represent our brand as a legit rider’s brand. It truly is a grass roots effort all around.
Jenna: What do you look for in a Tona pro rider?
Dereck: Right now Jake is our premier rider. He has been with me for years and it is nice to see Tona growing with Jake to the point now where it can allow Jake to travel the world doing what he loves to do. We are not really after the best ‘pro’ riders that can nail all the latest tricks. This is where we are a little different than the other companies. We see as much value in the weekend worrier that has a good reputation at their local spot or cable park as we do a pro rider. We want riders that other riders want to be around. Riders that can promote and live the life style and brand of what Tona is all about. For us it is not that important that we connect with a rider that is winning all the competitions. In our sport you don’t have to be wining competitions to be successful as a traveling pro. Dre kind of started all that where he travels promoting the sport successfully without competing. It is more about promoting the life style and keeping it fresh and in touch with what is going on at the local spots. We want to be your local shaper so to speak. So we look for the riders that have influence at their local spots and are generally liked and respected and have good style. These days it is also very important that riders have a good social media portfolio or presence. This is more important to us than competition results. Being a grass roots company, we do not want to buy our way into the industry by paying for the big name riders. We want to earn it. So we are targeting the riders that matter to us and those are our local riders.
We have expanded on this with our Rider Rep program in the US. If you go to our rider rep page on our web site you will see that our reps are all every day weekend riders like 99% of us that ride. Our rider/reps keep in us touch with what the local rider is looking for. Our reps keep us in touch with what is going on at the local scene. It is import if I am going to design great products that we keep our fingers in the pulse of what is going on at the beach or park and our rep program is a big part of this. Our reps were chosen for having all the qualities I mentioned before and one more simple requirement. They have to like the boards. To be a rep you have to try a Tona board first. If you are not stoked on it and just don’t like it, we get the board back and all is cool. (we have not had one retuned yet!) It is important to us that you like what you ride and that you are riding Tona boards because you like them and not because we are paying you to ride it.
Jenna: What is the biggest lesson learned in your shaping career?
Dereck: The customer is always right. The feedback I get from the weekend rider is as important to me as what I would get from a pro. Every bit of feedback I get no matter who I get it from is a lesson of some sort. I also have learnt over the years that there are always going to be great shapers out there making great stuff, so never settle and think that what you are making is the best. I guess the point is to stay humble and continue to learn.
More info on Tona:
Dereck: Now that we have established ourselves, we will be focusing on growth. However, what you won’t see is us rushing to get as much product as we can out there. There is no way we can compete with the already established larger kite brands in terms of the amount of product they have available so it would be foolish to try. What is important to us is that we stay focused on what brings quality to our sport. Even with our first board, the pop, we originally just launched it is 2 sizes (133 and 138) and we just lately on our second production run added a larger 142 because we got request from riders out there for more board. If I do my job right as a designer you should only need one board for all conditions behind a kite AND at the cable park. I never saw the need for 5-6 different sizes in the same model board and then having 4-5 different models. To me that’s just firing shots into the air and hoping to hit something. I really believe through design you can focus on making boards with a larger range that can satisfy every rider. Too many choices is sometimes not good. What I don’t want is for customers to leave a shop wondering if they should have bought a size larger or a size smaller and always be second guessing their decision. Doesn’t it feel great when you buy something and you know from the start you brought the exact product you need period!
It is also important to us that we continue to grow organically; meaning that we only add products when we feel we can produce something better than what is out there. I want riders to know that if they see Tona put something out, it is definitely worth a look.
Thanks to Dereck and the Tona team for this interview. For more Tona info, head to Tonaboards.com. Now you can have 10% off all items on Tonas’ internet shop (North American market only) until May 31st! As this offer is limited to Adrenaline Hot Tub readers, please use the contact form to reach me to redeem code.