In 2009 the Skywalk Gmbh & co. KG advertised a position as “Head of Sales & Marketing FLYSURFER Kiteboarding”.
Ernst Novak followed the call and shaped the FLYSURFER world with his team for almost 8 years. He led the innovation-driven German brand out of its niche and laid the foundations for internationalization under the motto “Everyday is a kiteday”. Today Ernst Novak, the former Brand Director of FLYSURFER Kiteboarding, works for ITG – Innovationsservice Salzburg, advising start-ups. Read from the person who motivated us every day, driving us to perform on our highest level in a playful way. Join me and look back to wonderful experiences, many challenges and a vision that still accompanies us today.
CH: Hello Ernst, it’s been a while, I hope you and your family are fine. You introduced me to FLYSURFER in 2014. They hired me for supporting you and build up the brand as we know it since then. For me, it is very important talking to you in the course of our 20-year anniversary about your time at FLYSURFER.
EN: Hello Chris, we are fine, thanks for asking. It’s really been a while! I hope you are doing well too. As it looks from the outside, FLYSURFER is running great! My beginnings with the brand as well as the company were an interesting and turbulent time.
CH: Please let me hook this up right away. What convinced you to start with FLYSURFER?
EN: I’ve always wanted to work in the sports industry, but kiting was never the focus. Head of Sales & Marketing was a rarity at the time. In my opinion, both areas of responsibility have to go hand in hand. The company headquarters and the regional proximity to home were a plus point. The tender was simply interesting. After doing my research, I realized that FLYSURFER is a brand with a lot of potentials. It was not established like others, serving a niche in kite sports, the image was German and highly technical. The positioning of the brand literally screamed that you could get involved and make your mark here. In short, there was much to be achieved!
CH: What very few people know, your previous job was in the tool industry. You have thrown yourself into the deep end without really knowing the market or the industry. What were your first steps to gain knowledge and to experience how FLYSURFER is seen from the perspective of a kiter?
EN: I actually travelled a lot in the first year and looked at the industry. It was clear to me that the path had to go towards the mainstream! At that time FLYSURFER was only known as a marginal movement. A brand for tech-savvy people and lovers of the soft kite system. A long way to radiate the surf lifestyle of kiting. Back then, freestyle was the dominant discipline and it was miles away from our products.
CH: I can still remember how I saw soft kites as a thoroughbred freestyler (with a youthful board in front of my head) 😀. It’s funny how biased you can be when the marketing, the look of the product doesn’t appeal to someone personally. I was a passionate snowboarder! Actually, no other brand should have appealed to me. However, I’ve always missed the C-kite or simply said, a tube kite. You worked very hard on this project.
EN: I saw the FLYSURFER tube kite-project as the greatest opportunity to gain market acceptance. Extremely important to be noticed and taken seriously by others. We wanted to be attractive for kite schools and dealers and fully convince the lifestyle customers. Within Skywalk GmbH & co. KG the topic polarized ever since.
In retrospect, we should have released the BOOST to the market as the first FLYSURFER kite. The features like Adaptive Airfoil, Self-Launcher and the high-performance genes would have suited the brand better. At the time, forums and print magazines were the opinion-makers and we received strong headwinds on both platforms. How can FLYSURFER only build a tube kite?!
CH: Understandable opinion by the sworn group of FLYSURFER customers, if you love a brand that stands for their cause or ideology. I think the move was important, especially in the long run. From a marketing point of view, it is important to offer the riders the gear they dream of. At various test events, the customer does not have to consider a different brand in strong winds. Not to mention the potential of sales growth.
EN: We both always agreed on that. Nobody ever said that tube kites were bad, we were always open to anything. FLYSURFER Softkites were mostly laughed about by the competition. We were always different or, as I like to say, unique! Whether it was the 21 SPEED, which simply stood for “more time on the water”, or the PEAK, the first single skin kite, or the board FLYSPLIT perfect for travelling. Everyone knew that FLSURFER is innovative and can build light wind products. The CRONIX was a piece of the puzzle to finally cover the strong winds. It was extremely important to me that our kites also fly at 25+ knots at the test event.
This also gave rise to the idea for the later benchmark product “Demo Tour”. We always wanted to be close to the customer. We did the job ourselves and were there personally, the manufacturer for the end customer. This of course reflects on the dealer, who saw how professional our portfolio is. We always had the first kites in the air, we were always friendly to the people and in the evening we really let it rip.
A total package of sport, fun, music and food, the event where everyone is welcome! Even the CORE disciple or the North Dude were all at our table. “Sit down with us and have a beer.” Let’s enjoy the time together.
CH: I can still remember where we were famous as a “party crew”. I have heard sentences like: “Oh, the FLYSURFER boys are here, I am sure there is a party tonight” on the beach. The good thing is that you get older and then you don’t have to party every day. Haha
EN: I was happy to collect the criticism of the management and keep it away from the team. Our team spirit was just terrific and I haven’t experienced it again until today. We did community building at its finest. Our appearance became stronger and more self-confident. Uniform look, from clothes to tents to beach flags. This drive led to the implementation of the German Demo Tour, which, in addition to end customer events, also included dealer acquisition.
Ultimately, the success spoke for us, the brand shone so much that Thomas Thiele even received offers from competitors to run their show. The scene had recognized the importance and there was praise from many sides. Still, I stick with it, the tube kites were the key to stepping onto the big stage. It took a lot of energy and we should probably have taken a few more months, but with hindsight, you are always smarter. You saw it and are still in a position to justify your decisions. I always thought it was different. I trust the people, you just have to give them the space to develop.
CH: Of course, the job brings that, discussing decisions openly and honestly, and I’m very happy to be heard. After you left, we had to reinvent ourselves and gained a lot of trust from the management. I think your cornerstone, the authentic appearance, the customer proximity and the expansion of the product range make FLYSURFER still attractive today.
EN: Thank you, that’s nice to hear. It was hard to get the thought that function comes before quality and appearance. We have therefore focused on diversity in the product portfolio and focused on bringing innovations to the market.
I used the strengths of the development team at that time, because Armin Harich, Reinhart Paelinck and Andreas Hanrieder were and are brilliant lateral thinkers. I can still remember that Reini put 6 generations of prototypes into the bin and the next was suddenly great. This resulted in the first PEAK with single skin technology. It became a “game-changer” and solved many problems of kite schools. We invented the connection of the FLYSPLIT. The VIRON is still the best kite for children the market has to offer. The SPEED line embodied “Everyday is a kiteday” perfectly!
CH: When I think about the fact that the PEAK has become one of our most successful products, the story is even funnier. What the SPEED was in your time is of course the SOUL to us, with the difference that it is suitable for Big Air. Interesting how history repeats itself! What would you define as your greatest achievement?
EN: Phew, I don’t know if I can say that. We have already talked about it. It was a time of many highs and many lows, simply the way life goes. If I were to pick something, it would be the team spirit and the motivation that goes with it. The drive was extremely contagious! I think my greatest achievement was bringing the people to the brand who ushered in the next era of FLYSURFER. I don’t want to mention names, you know who I am talking about.
CH: How difficult was it to draw a line after you left?
EN: Leaving this part of my professional life behind was a very difficult decision, but the general conditions just weren’t right for me anymore. After carefully weighing up “love it, change it or leave it”, I decided on a new challenge.
I am extremely grateful for the instructive years that I was allowed to spend in the Skywalk Company, the “fitness centre of skills”.
Since lifelong learning is very important to me, I wanted to try something new again. I founded a startup together with an old friend. With the myDinoBox – stories. Playing. Experience. – We made it possible for parents to realize imaginative children’s birthdays without preparation and at the same time to form a team from the small group that can master the task adventure together.
After appearing on the PULS4 TV show 2M Minuten2Millionen and a year of go-to-market, we ended this venture with a lot of incredibly emotional impressions. Without these learnings I would not be where I am now – namely, working as a business coach in the network incubator Startup Salzburg.
Every day I support people in putting their innovative business ideas on the road to success … preferably in the area of sports innovation, of course. Some of the regional sports startups that I oversee are already very successful – SWAIG ThermaRoll (VICTOR Sports Business Award for Sport Innovation of the Year), NEEDIT (VICTOR Sports Business Award for Sport & Climate Protection), Klick.Ma (ISPO Brandnew Overall Winner 2021 ) … and I’m on the go-to-market with a few other sports projects.
This work is simply a lot of fun for two reasons: First, you always have to do with motivated people who want to advance something of their own where there is a lot of passion. And second, although everything takes place in a business context, it is a very meaningful activity for me. All services from Startup Salzburg are free – so I can “give without taking” … and as always with me, the focus is on people!
CH: I think that every period in life is important. Of course, you look back on this time from a distance. Do you still go kiting?
EN: Yes, I still kite, but only on vacation. My heart still beats faster when I meet kiters with FLYSRUFER products. I was allowed to travel the world for 8 years and some dealers like Peter Goldbach are still friends. I am allowed to be Mr FLYSURFER twice a year. I give kite courses at Kitesurfing.at in cooperation with USI Salzburg and go snowkiting with Lake United. I can chat from the sewing box. I still get newsletters and sometimes check out social media. I shaped the brand early on and now it has grown up, I’m curious what the next 20 years will bring.
CH: What about your personal next 20 years? Are there any big plans?
EN: Haha, I have a regular life and two children aged eight and three. My 42h workweek and family take me in full and that’s a good thing. When the children are both in school, I think about taking an international job again. But currently, I don’t want it, I’ll see if that will change.
Thank you very much for your time and the nice conversation! Furthermore, a lot of fun and motivation in supporting start-ups, a warm greeting from the whole FLYSURFER team.
On behalf of the entire Skywalk family, I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and a great 2022!
Your Christoph Hesina