Friday, April 8, 2011
Making Her Own Waves
Over the last decade or so of covering business as a journalist, I’ve come across many inspiring, creative and passionate entrepreneurs who have a strong conviction for what they are doing and have kept their nose to the grindstone to make the impossible happen. Entrepreneurship – whether the economy is up or down – consists of a lot of passion, heartaches, failures, frustration and satisfaction. One entrepreneur who has really made an impression on me is Sandra “Dee” DeLaRosa, who has, despite many road blocks, succeeded beyond expectations. Aside from her being my best friend, Sandra has proven that if you really believe in something and have the talent, you can make it happen.
Here is her story:
Sandra “Dee” DeLaRosa (yes that’s her real name) is elated when one of her employees at Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport calls her with the news that the shop made $2,000 in sales in one day. However, on another day, the quaint, colorfully-painted shop – which sits on the north end of Highway 101 in Carlsbad, Calif.– will make only $24. Sometimes, there isn’t a single sale.
And so it goes for the life and times of a small surf shop owner.
Despite the fickleness of the retail business, Sandra is not giving up.
“It’s a daily high and low in retail,” she says. “When sales are good you’re stoked. When sales are bad and you have a zero-dollar day, that’s the low. I’ve made it for almost eight years struggling with finances. What’s another couple of years to get through the tough economy?”
Sandra, who opened Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport in 2003, says the highest sales years for the privately held shop were 2003-2004. The market was good back then – the surf industry was hitting its peak and surfboard sales were way up. The tremendous influx of women hitting the waves has made a major contribution to the growth in retail sales in this industry. According to a Surfing magazine reader study, women surfers now comprise 15 percent of America’s 1.8 million active participants in the sport.
It’s a market that Sandra began to tap into back in 1997 when, using $3,000 from credit cards and family and friends, she created and launched her first line of Raw Skin rash guards for women and girls. Since then, her product line –which is sold in surf shops in Southern California and Florida – has expanded to wet suit jackets. (And I have to say that Sandra’s rash guards and wet suit jackets are the best I’ve ever shredded in). She was the first woman around the globe to design her own line of tailored fit rash guards for women.
Sandra opened her shop to help promote her Raw Skin product line. She mentioned her plans to the owners of the shop -- which was then called Salty Sister -- who were thinking about selling. Several months later, they called Sandra, and the rest is history. Sandra, who changed the name of the shop to Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport, thought it was the perfect opportunity to not only increase the visibility of her rash guards and jackets but to also further take advantage of the booming women’s surf market. Several studies have indicated that the female portion of the surfing population is the fastest growing demographic, increasing as much as 25 percent a year, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturing Association (SIMA).
Despite these demographics, Sandra has yet to make a profit from Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport. To help keep her shop afloat, she has sought funding from several different sources, including SBA loans, only to be turned down. And so it goes for a woman/minority small business owner, especially one who is in an industry with a lot of multibillion-dollar big fish.
“Trying to find investors and convincing them of their payback is tough in this industry,” she says. “In this industry and market you’re turn-around for profit isn’t as fast as other industries. It has been very challenging.
“One of the most challenging things is having stock of everything you need at the right time and having the funding to do it. For the most part we’re covering our areas. It’s just borrowing and paying back—from my credit cards and my parents. I borrow money in the winter and pay it back in the summer. Hopefully the borrow-pay back ratio will come to an end some day.”
Since she doesn’t pay herself a salary from the shop, Sandra works part-time to pay her own bills as the chief financial officer of Just Surf, Inc., an Encinitas-based surf accessory and products distribution company, which subleases the back of her shop. Sandra, who has two part-time employees at Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport, says she tries to maintain a competitive edge by carrying different brands than other shops do. She has also diversified the products in her shop, which sells surf and skate-related clothes and accessories for women, men and kids. Surf lessons and surfboard rentals, as well as kayak and paddle board rentals, have also been added to the mix to help supplement the shop’s cash flow.
One of the ways Sandra has set Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport apart from the regular everyday surf shop is by renting bikes—from beach cruisers to mountain bikes and kids bikes. The shop, which started with only two bikes, now has a fleet of 30, and sells bike accessories. Check out her web site by clicking here. You can also check out: www.thers.com.
“Any smart business owner should diversify,” she says. “That’s why I named my shop ‘Surf N’ Sport.’ I didn’t want to be stuck in one market. If one market goes soft there are other markets to tap into. Since I have added bike rentals and accessories it has helped me keep my sales up since the apparel side of the business is down.”
Sandra’s next set of plans include growing the shop’s skateboard section. The 38-year-old entrepreneur has another plan up her sleeve – she is currently seeking capital for a woman's wetsuit she designed. (I can’t wait for this one! Sandra is one of the best designers I know).
Sandra and her shop have become ingrained into the Carlsbad community culture. She attends business owners’ gatherings, fought to help beautify her shop and the surrounding areas and volunteers for community events. That must be why Raw Skin Surf N’ Sport was named as the U.S. Commerce Association’s 2009 Best of Carlsbad Award in the Sporting Goods category.
“Sandra is just overall a really nice person and that shows through at her shop. She is also willing to help anyone,” says friend Brian Seibert, also a professional photographer.
Aside from the daily struggles of not knowing whether she will be able to pay all of her bills (personally and for the shop), Sandra says there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing (well maybe surfing or snowboarding, but that’s also part of the job)
“It has to payoff. Sometimes it seems like it’s not going to,” she says. “I stay strong because I do what I love. I love doing business; I love negotiating. It’s in my blood. It keeps me going. I like the freedom of being able to do what I want when I want. I can go surfing during lunch breaks. Sometimes I even make a detour to the beach before going into work.
“I truly believe you need to do something you enjoy doing to be a happy person,” adds Sandra, a Southern California native who grew up in Simi Valley. “I could be making lots of money, but I could be miserable at another job. That’s why I stick with it. My ocean view from the shop is not that bad either.”
Below are some more photos of Sandra’s rashies, shop and her ripping and chillin’ in Mainland Mexico. (Yes even busy entrepreneurs find time for some R&R). If you're ever in Carlsbad, stop by the shop and say hi to Sandra. Tell her Dre sent you.