What do Google founder Larry Page, British business magnate Richard Branson and US Secretary of State John Kerry have in common? They’re all high-flying individuals of course, but they’re all fond of a different kind of flying too. All three are big into kitesurfing.
At first glance the fast-paced, often dangerous sport, which combines elements of wakeboarding, paragliding and surfing, might seem a strange hobby for such big cheeses. Action sports enthusiasts are usually characterised (by the mainstream media at least) as long-haired surfer bums, not high net-worth individuals. But a closer look reveals that Page, Branson and Kerry, all over 40, all hugely successful in their own fields, aren’t the only kitesurfers from the worlds of tech, business or politics.
“What do Google founder Larry Page, British business magnate Richard Branson and US Secretary of State John Kerry have in common?"
In fact kitesurfing has become so popular amongst a certain sector of the entrepreneurial elite that in recent years several magazines (including the business Bible Forbes) have claimed that it's “the new golf". Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in Silicon Valley, where Page is far from the only tech CEO who likes to get out on the water.
So what is it that makes kitesurfing (also known as kiteboarding) so popular? And why are increasing numbers of tour operators, like Robinson, offering kiteboarding to the businessmen who visit their resorts?
“Well, the type of person that's running a tech company - or any startup really - is normally somebody that has the capacity to handle a lot of different things at the same time," explains Bill Tai, a keen kitesurfer who’s a venture capitalist by trade. “When a CEO that's used to living a life full of that needs a little bit of a respite, it's very hard for that person just to sit on a beach and do nothing for a couple of days. Kitesurfing is exhilarating, and it’s a sport that will feel very familiar because there’s a complex set of variables."
A successful businessman in his own right (back in 2007 his company took a $250,000 punt on a little-known startup called Twitter) Tai is also the founder of MaiTai Global “a community of entrepreneurs" with around 2,000 members who attend regular kitesurfing and networking events. “I'd been windsurfing in the 80s," he says, “and I saw kitesurfing for the first time in the year 2000." He quickly fell in love with it and as one of the early adopters of the sport (to use a term beloved of tech CEOs), he was among its first champions in Silicon Valley.
The history of Kitesurfing is a relatively short one, with the sport really only developing in the 90s. However, in 1996 surf legend Laird Hamilton helped popularise it by riding a kiteboard in Hawaii and by the turn of the century kitesurfing was (if you’ll excuse the pun) taking off. Kitesurfing’s rapid growth has continued in the intervening years. According to the latest estimates from the International Kite Association (IKA, the sport’s governing body) there are now 1.5 million kiteboarders worldwide.
“You’re continually making decisions and tuning on the fly, which is definitely what you should do when you're running a company."
The sport’s popularity among the Silicon Valley set definitely owes something to chance. San Francisco’s Bay area is sheltered from the biggest Pacific waves but still boasts fairly consistent winds, making it the perfect place to practise. The sport also requires a fair bit of kit, and kitesurfing gear is far from cheap. A decent power kite from a brand like Cabrinha will set you back around £800, while boards cost around the £500 mark. Keen kitesurfers will have several of each, to suit a variety of conditions, so it helps if you’ve got a bit of money to burn.
But these environmental factors aren’t the only reason kitesurfing appeals to CEOs. Bill believes it ticks a lot of the same boxes as running a business. “There are so many little things that will affect your ride. Whether it's the size or the aspect ratio of the kite, the length of the lines, the board… And you're constantly sizing up the environment. You’re continually making decisions and tuning on the fly, which is definitely what you should do when you're running a company."
Is the element of risk inherent in all action sports also part of the appeal to investors, I ask? “Well every ride is a calculated risk," he believes, “but I don't think entrepreneurs would go into something just because it's risky.
“Entrepreneurs are people that feel like they can control their environment and if they learn enough they have an impact on the course of their life, and I think kitesurfing is the same thing.
Bill continues: “It's not a sport where you feel like the forces of nature will control you completely. You know that they're all powerful - as are market forces - but you have to work within the environment that is handed to you to the best of your ability. And I think a good entrepreneur is going to feel like they can handle it."
The science certainly backs up his idea that the two require similar skills. The mental capacity to accurately assess risk and handle scary situations without panicking is something that’s prevalent in most action sports enthusiasts, according to psychologists. Dr Eric Brymer, an academic psychologist at Leeds Beckett University, has conducted several in-depth studies into the psychological impact of participation in action sports. He believes people who partake in them can “handle fear differently".
“Unlike traditional pursuits, action sports like kitesurfing actively encourage the pushing of boundaries, and even the breaking of rules"
“You learn to be more comfortable with fear in adventure sports. You know [it] doesn't have to hold you back [and] you realise that you can use fear effectively. Because it’s information like any other information."
When facing a scary, unknown or potentially risky situation, action sports enthusiasts don’t tend to think “’No, this feels uncomfortable, let's stop it here,’" Dr Brymer says. Instead, “it would be: ‘This feels uncomfortable, I need to look into it more before I make any movement.’"
“I can very much see that kind of thing moving across [to business.]"
There are other characteristics where there’s an obvious crossover between kitesurfers and business leaders too. In the course of his studies, Dr Brymer has noticed that: “There is a relationship between adventure sports and transformational leadership-type skills."
Conceptualised by political scientists and psychologists in the 70s and 80s, transformational leadership is “the kind of leadership where you're interested in empowering others," according to Dr Brymer. It’s an approach that’s very popular amongst Silicon Valley CEOs - Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is often held up as an archetypal transformational leader.
There’s another key feature of action sports like kitesurfing which makes them attractive to business-minded people too. “They aren't limited by artificial rules and regulations, or by environmental boundaries like most traditional sports are," according to Dr Brymer.
He uses the example of rugby - you can play on the same pitch with the same ball but if you change the rules, it ceases to become rugby. It might become American football, or Aussie rules but it’s no longer rugby.
“Now, adventure sports are not limited by that boundary. If you're skiing and you go off-piste it doesn't become something else, it's still skiing." Unlike traditional pursuits, action sports like kitesurfing actively encourage the pushing of boundaries, and even the breaking of rules (when inventing new tricks for example).
This means that they attract “people who want to form their own boundaries, who are interested in exploring possibilities". Modern business theory (certainly the kind that you hear espoused by tech CEOs) tends to celebrate these kinds of people – individuals who want to disrupt old models, to push things forward and set their own boundaries.
If kitesurfing and business are mutually beneficial from a mental point of view – with skills learned on the kiteboard transferring to the boardroom and vice versa – they can also be beneficial from a purely financial one.
The sport provides plenty of opportunity for networking, and among today’s businessmen, a chat on the beach after a kitesurfing session has increasingly replaced a drink at the 19th hole.
It’s these kinds of connections that MaiTai was designed to foster, except that, according to Bill Tai, connections forged in the water are stronger than you could ever make on the golf course. “It is a physically dangerous sport where unless you have someone that can help you launch and land you're going to get into trouble," he says. “There are moments when you know your safety is going to depend on your friends. That's not true of golf."
He has several tales of successful ventures that started by (literally) flying a kite, including that of Melanie Perkins. Three years ago the young Australian entrepreneur turned up at a MaiTai camp with little more than an idea. She left having raised $3 million in investment (partly from Tai himself) and Canva, the design startup she founded, is now worth an estimated AU$165 million (£82 million) - making her Australia’s second-richest woman under 40.
Her success has obviously been exceptional, but there’s no doubt that with all those potential psychological and social benefits, learning to kitesurf (on your next Robinson holiday for example) can be good for business. And of course, as Larry Page, Richard Branson, John Kerry and 1.5 million other kitesurfers know, it’s also a whole lot of fun.