Surfer wants to make waves with new app

Surfing is one of the world’s most popular water sports, and Wales offers some great beaches for it. But the thing is, it’s far from easy and takes a lot of skill.

Ben Martin, a keen surfer from Swansea, has created a smartphone app to make surfing easier. Johnny on the Spot lets keen surfers track their performance, their location and the weather.

The entrepreneur launched a beta version of the app two years ago after pitching at an enterprise competition in Swansea. He quickly raised support for his idea.

We recently caught up with Ben on the progress of the app, how it works and and how he wants it to become an crucial asset in the world of surfing.

TD: How does the app work? 

BM: Every surf spot is dependent on a large number of variables coming together to be good. For the perfect waves, you need the right swell, the right tide, the right wind. It’s not always easy to remember exactly what these variables are of reach different spot, so Johnny on the Spot helps surfers do just that.

A surfer takes a photo of the waves and all the current wind, wave and tide data is stamped onto the image. They can rate these conditions for size and quality, and make notes of any other specifics such as tide or the board they surfed. This is then stored in a gallery as a diary entry.

When a surfer looks at their diary entry, the conditions they saved are shown alongside the current conditions. So, for example, if you recorded a great day when the waves were 6ft at 10 seconds and you see that today is 4ft at 8 seconds with a slightly different wind direction, you’d know that it will be slightly smaller today, so you might choose to go somewhere else, or to take a different board.

Over time, you build up a very detailed of what makes the spots you like to surf work, so you can make better decisions about when and where to go.

TD: What’s new with the update? 

BM: Well, the first time we launched it was really just a prototype to gauge interest and see if it really was as useful a tool as we thought. But the feedback and interest from surfers has been amazing – from all over the world too!

So we knew we had to build a new version, and to incorporate a lot more features in. Firstly, it works for Android this time too.  But the whole thing looks a lot slicker too and we’ve added a lot more features.

Photos weren’t stored in galleries before. They were just in a stream kind of like Instagram, which made it harder to access older shots. We’ve also added a group function, where a surfer can create a private group with their surf buddies.

There’s a lot more detail in the information we record, and the surfer can now rate size as well as quality.  We’ve been really lucky to have been working with Tony Butt, who is a world-renowned surf forecasting expert, and he’s really been helping us refine what data we need to include.

TD: What makes it unique?

BM: I think that one thing that really appeals to lots of surfers about Johnny on the Spot is the stance we take on privacy. As surfers, we’re kind of an odd bunch in this world of mass sharing, because we still like to keep some of the spots we surf to ourselves.

So we’ve always said that Johnny on the Spot will remain private, and we’ll never share any of the data or the locations people record with the app. This extends into our business model too. So many apps are free because the data they can collect about a user, either to advertise to them or to sell on is more valuable than they’d be able to sell the app for.

To stay true to our commitment to respect privacy, we’ve said we’ll never do either of this things. So we’re actually charging a small amount for the app because we have to make the business viable somehow! It’s kind of an old school approach where people like what you’ve made and buy it, and that’s the end of the transaction.

But we’ve had a lot of feedback from surfers telling us they really respect the stance we’re taking. It’s probably not the best business decision in the long run, but it’s what feels right so we’re sticking with it. We’re also giving 50p from every app we sell to the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage too.

TD: Why did you set up the company?

BM: Honestly, the whole thing was a bit of a surprise. I’m one of the least tech-minded people you could ever meet. But I went to a start-up event to network and promote my copywriting business, and I pitched an idea I’d had a few days before after a perfect surf at a secret spot out on Gower.

I wondered out loud if app technology could help me remember when the same conditions would happen again and it turned out that it could! After I pitched the idea, a team came on board to help make it happen, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of them ever since.

TD: What’s been your biggest success, and where next for you?

BM: We’ve built Johnny on the Spot with a budget of zero. We made the decision early on that we weren’t going to go for investment, so everything has been done for free, late at night or on Sunday afternoons. So actually just getting this version out there feels like a huge success.

Anything that happens from now on in is a bonus, because the whole experience has been a great one.
And where next – who knows? We know the next features we want to build into the app, and hopefully we can do that within the next six months.

But I actually think there’s huge potential for us to use the tech to expand into other vertical markets as well – fishing, sailing, skiing, paragliding – they all lend themselves to what we do.  Essentially, we’re answering the question ‘What made the experience I just had so good?’ and making it easier to have the same experience again.

To do that we probably would need some investment, but if the right people come along who understand what we’re trying to do and will be happy to let us keep put our values before just making money then we’d definitely consider it.