Waves to Work: How Surfing has Shaped Us


If you’ve been following us since our launch, you’ve already heard that the idea for Knots was conceived on a surfboard in the middle of Costa Rica. While this is entirely true and makes for a cool “start-up story”, I’m hoping this post will help to illuminate just how much of a deep seeded impact surfing has had on our lives, our friendship, and the founding of our company.

Brian and I met on the cross-country team at an all-boys Catholic high school on Long Island, NY. Like most other high school buddies, we were mostly interested in impressing the ladies. Brian already did a pretty good job of that, but I needed to upgrade my repertoire a bit. Surfing, we thought, was just the upgrade that I needed! Brian had been surfing for a few years but promised to teach me so that I could be on par with him! We spent the entire summer at the beach messing around with foam boards, seaweed, and crappy waves. At the end of the summer, I still didn’t have a girlfriend, but I had sure fallen in love with the ocean!

I loved everything about surfing. I had always loved the water, but the exhilaration of riding the wave was unlike anything I had ever experienced. 95% of the time I would be classified as an epic fail out there, but every session there would be 1 wave that would leaving me wanting more! I also loved the serenity of being in the ocean. It was amazing how time and worry seemed to melt away so quickly upon paddling out. My problems and anxieties felt so insignificant after starring out at the endless horizon for hours! Paddling out on a ‘Big Day” would produce an unmatched rush of adrenaline and sense of adventure that was simultaneously freighting and intoxicating.  That summer, we surfed so much that I could still see the ocean swell on the horizon when I closed my eyes at night! I was addicted.

If you’ve ever been surfing, you know that the majority of time is often spent just bobbing in the lineup waiting for the next set of waves to roll through. During the summer months on Long Island, this could mean waiting all day! As much fun as it is to ride the waves, this downtime is really where the magic of the surfing lies! Typically, we would sing songs, act out skits that we had made up, and generally act like the youthful idiots we were! I don’t think many people enjoyed surfing near us!

After about 2-3 summers of surfing, our skills had only advanced marginally, but our conversations advanced quite a bit. We started talking about our life goals and aspirations for the future. We even occasionally talked politics and business. We were growing up. I think sitting in the water for all that time, staring at the horizon, really helped to put things in perspective for us. When you’re floating in an enormous and unpredictable body of water, you learn to focus on the important things. You focus on the simple, yet critical. The things that keep you alive and afloat. From a surfing standpoint, that would be things like breathing, paddling, and ducking rogue waves. Likewise, our conversations gravitated toward the things that kept out lives afloat: our values and ethics. We started to discuss what we wanted to stand for as men and what we wanted contribute to our families and broader communities.

We surfed all throughout college, often exploring new spots like Gilgo, Montauk and parts of the Jersey Shore. After graduation, we both took jobs in the corporate world. Brian was off to Sunnyvale and I was commuting into Manhattan. We were forced to go our separate ways, but we always remained great friends and would surf together whenever we could. We even had an epic 4-day surf trip through Central California, in which we caught the biggest waves of our lives! Despite the infrequency, this was when we developed a true appreciation for what surfing had done for our friendship and the sense of clairvoyance and purpose it had given our lives. This is often a transitional period for many people, but because of the personal foundation surfing had built in us, we already knew who we were and what we stood for.

Even though we both had demanding jobs and we couldn’t surf together, the deep rooted connection to the ocean drew us in for solo sessions whenever we could justify it. If the waves were rideable, I would jump out of bed at 4:30am, jet down to the beach, surf for an hour, rush out of the water and throw on my business attire, and then jump on a train and commute to my job in Manhattan for a full day of work! Sometimes, if the daylight and wave conditions permitted, I would even hit up a second session after work! Sometimes I would find seaweed in my hair at lunch. I’ll never forget the appalled look on my work buddy Calvin’s face when a gush of ocean water came pouring out of my nose and onto the financial statements that I had been reviewing at my desk one day! (Brian and I have since convinced Cal to join our surfing cult, so he now understands!)

It was about this point on our surfing journey that the idea for Knots was born. Brian and I would be at work, but would feel the call of the ocean that we had connected so deeply with. We felt like we didn’t belong. We were lost in the large corporate machine. Don’t get me wrong here, we are both ambitious people that aspire to be at the top of our respective fields. But we just didn’t feel like everyone was getting the full story on us. We wanted to represent so much more than just clocking in, giving 110% at our desks, and then clocking out!
It was about this time that we went on our most adventurous surf trip yet, Costa Rica. With Calvin in toe, Brian and I took our (still insufficient) surfing talents Tamarindo, Costa Rica. We spent a week at Witches Rock Surf Camp. It was awesome. Great waves. Great weather. Great food. And most serendipitously, great conversation. We were out surfing Ollie’s Point, when Brian first hit me with it: “What if we could design work-friendly apparel, that signified that we cared about more than just the spreadsheet in front of us? What if we could bring the surfboard mentality to the boardroom?” We had already talked about so many outlandish ideas while surfing at this point that I didn’t even flinch, “Yea man, that sounds cool. We’ll make a killing!” And Boom. The idea for Knots was born!

Knots has certainly evolved since that time. We’ve moved away from merely promoting the allure of surfing culture and more towards a model that aligns with the personal values that we’d honed WHILE surfing. Creating a brand whose designs raise awareness for great causes AND THEN gives back 50% of the profits directly to those causes is only an extension of Brian’s original thought from his surfboard at Ollie’s. When you wear Knots, you’re not only making a statement about your distinctive sense of style. Your also making a subtle, yet powerful statement, about your personal values. Now that’s a set (of business practices) that I’d paddle for!

PJ McAwardComment