Surfline and Sean Collins: A Digital Media Success Story

Jan 20, 2012


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It's true in any industry: you never know where the next success story is going to come from. That's especially true in the world of digital publishing, where anyone with a passion and a little bit of know-how can start a site or community for like-minded people across the globe. No where was this more evident than in the story of Sean Collins, an icon in the surfing community and founder of Surfline.com.

On December 26, 2011 Collins died of a heart attack after a tennis match in Newport Beach, California. He has been called "the Steve Jobs of surfing." Inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfer's Hall of Fame in 2008, he was extremely well known in the surfing community around the world. In 1999, he was named by Surfer Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century. In addition, the site he founded, Surfline.com, has become a must-read for today's wave rider. I wouldn't be surprised if Surfline had more market penetration among that group than Facebook.

I never met Sean Collins, but, as a surfer and publisher, I've always admired his work. Since his passing, I've read a number of stories that celebrated what Sean Collins did for wave riders. But his story, and the story of Surfline.com, is more than just a surfer's story. It is a story of innovation and adaptation in digital media and digital publishing. No matter who your audience is, there are some real lessons to be learned.

The First Wave: Surfline's Humble Beginnings

Surfline started in the mid-1980s as a dial-up 900 pay-per-call service, 976-SURF. As a self-taught (but serious) meteorologist, Collins founded the company as a resource for surfers looking for information on current wave conditions. It also provided wave predictions. He developed his own forecasts using all of the applicable meteorological data available to him at the time.

While the 900 number (and the subsequent fax service) was successful, it was the emergence of the internet in the mid-90s that proved to be a game-changer for Collins and the community he served.

As it did for many companies, the internet opened up a whole new opportunity for Surfline. While I imagine Collins and executives at the company struggled to monetize the new medium in many of the same ways as any media company, the internet provided a natural path to growth.

At the heart of Surfline's appeal is a real need for the information it provides. Prior to Collins and his innovation in wave forecasting, surfers pretty much showed up at the beach with their fingers crossed. What Surfline did was allow them to know what the waves were like at any given moment, as well as plan for future surfing opportunities. Like everyone else, they have jobs, families, and obligations to juggle. Being able to plan-at least to some extent-a schedule around good days of waves was a huge change in the lives of the average amateur surfer as well as globetrotting professionals who travel far and wide in pursuit of a great swell.

The Next Wave: Surfline Starts Streaming

But even that wasn't enough to keep Surfline going forever. So when the site came along, Collins knew it was time to innovate again. Surfline.com put up cameras at popular beaches and streamed the video feed, allowing its audience to actually see their favorite surf spots before even leaving the house. As this feature took off, the company gradually added cameras to its network. These days Surfline has more than 150 cameras on the East and West Coast of the United States, and Hawaii-the majority are high definition. Subscribers pay the site $9.95 per month or $69.96 per year for access to the cams which they can view from the web or a smartphone. The subscription also includes an extended 14-day forecast.

"One of our most popular features, definitely, is the live cameras," Brian J. Mezger, Surfline's VP of Technology told Streamingmedia.com in an interview last fall. Surfline now has more than 40,000 subscribers, a figure he says is growing daily. The cams are also used in a related site called BuoyWeather, which is aimed at mariners.

Because it's such a valuable resource, The Weather Channel and local TV stations often make use of the streams free of charge, which provides valuable publicity for the site. While the surf reports, forecasts, and cameras provide the core content of Surfline.com, it has now become a diverse media property with news and articles, streaming video of competitions; user generated video; community-driven content and much more. That richness and variety of content hasn't gone unnoticed by its audience. According to Mezger, the site serves over 1.5 million unique visitors a month and growing.

The Perfect Storm: Meeting a Need & Indulging Your Passion

While the content offerings on Surfline have changed along the way, Collins always innovated in the area that seemed to be his true passion: surf forecasting. He continually worked on the development of his proprietary and sophisticated system of wave forecasting, much of which is now used in LOLA, Surfline's Global Swell Model.

Collins started Surfline to serve a key information need for his community. He identified that need, had a passion to serve it, and delivered a product that was embraced by his community. In the process, and seemingly almost as a by-product, he helped build a very successful business. On his secret to success, Collins once said, "Really simple things when you think about it. Mostly just follow your passion, try to be a really good person and a good judge of character, and then just surround yourself with a great team and really good people. Add lots of luck and all kinds of great things can happen!"

In these days of content farms and entire media properties built exclusively on maximizing SEO traffic and trying to make a buck, stories like Surfline.com and what Sean Collins created are great reminders of the core mission of publishers and media companies. The business is about giving audiences the information they need, and becoming indispensable to those communities.

On Sunday, January 8, an estimated 2,000 friends, family, and fellow surfers gathered in Huntington Beach to "paddle out" to remember Sean Collins. For me, I'll remember his achievements every time I check the waves on Surfline.com, and I'll certainly remember his voice on the other end of my countless calls to 976-SURF in the early days of his endeavor.