'Being an entrepreneur is lonely. It's a bit like surfing - instinctive and solitary'

This former champion surfer started her company with YouTube sewing tutorials.

By Ashleigh Smith Founder, Atlantic Equipment Project

FOR MOST OF my teens I surfed competitively. I was Irish champion a few times over and also won bronze and silver medals at European level.

I stopped competing in my early 20s, but I grew up surfing with my family in Sligo so I’ll still be a surfer for life.

In college, I did a bachelor’s degree in product design in the University of Limerick and then worked for two years in the Irish design industry and the retail sector.

I learned a lot about how retail works and the margins shops expect and how to develop a good relationship with a designer from a shop’s perspective.

That was good, but of course I didn’t know how useful that was going to be to me a few years later.

To get my design career back on track, I went to the Netherlands to study for a masters in integrated product design at the University of Delft.

It was an amazing education in the strategic side of design, such as branding and positioning of product within a market, and has really informed what I’m doing now.

I was really fortunate that I got to do a lot of research in the safe surrounds of university before coming out into the real world and graduating with a thesis that was the development of this brand I have now – the Atlantic Equipment Project.

Ashleigh Smith atlantic equipment Ashleigh Smith
Source: James Connolly

Natural progression

When I went over to the Netherlands for college, I didn’t expect to be coming back to Ireland to launch a company. I went over there just knowing that I wanted to get back into tangible design, because I hadn’t been in that area when I was working in retail.

I knew I wanted to work in the outdoor-accessories industry and design those kind of products, so I thought I would go and work for a company in that area as a designer.

For my thesis, I was working on a single product – a bodyboard bag – that I thought I would end up licensing and selling on.

I had a few great professors who were interested in strategic design, and they pushed me to develop the brand around the product. As the brand emerged and evolved, I found that I loved that process and it was something I was passionate about.

I knew I wanted to work for a really cool company, so I thought, ‘Why not start my own?’

AE Rolltop_navy_forest_Stevo turn
Source: Atlantic Equipment Project

YouTube sewing lessons

There really was a lot of education packed into my thesis. It was a great because it pushed me to bring the idea of the bodyboard bag to a certain level and to actually make it, since I needed a presentable prototype.

There was nobody around that I could get to make it, so I bought an old second-hand sewing machine for €25 in the Netherlands, carried it home and taught myself to sew on YouTube.

That was three and a half years ago, and it took a lot of late nights trying to figure it out. But if you have an engineering kind of brain, you can work out sewing. It is very mechanical – not rocket science.

I’d say it took me a month and a half of just plugging away and cutting fabric. You have to learn how fabric works, how thread works, different fabric weight, thread strength and things like that.

So I made the bag and morphed the project into a number of other additional bags that would support the main product. I just ended up making loads of bags for six months.

Back to Ireland

I graduated from that masters in September 2013 and came home to Ireland with this really robust brand identity and an initial product collection – so I decided I was going to give it a go.

This was all done on a shoestring budget – if even a shoestring – mostly because I had no other option. Now that I’m two years into it, I’m so glad that’s how it all began. I’m in a very fortunate position now not to owe anyone any money.

All I really had was that sewing machine. But then in order to really launch the product properly, I actually needed an industrial machine that would make a big difference in the weight of fabric I could use.

That was €600, so it wasn’t too costly, but I also needed a little work space and luckily there was an enterprise centre in Strandhill that had a small little office that was available for modest rent.

Getting my own workshop was such a big moment for me. It meant I was able to set up the fabric rolls, have the industrial sewing machine there and a cutting table – it just felt class.

Ups and downs

Anytime I launch a new product is a real high for me. We have released three new product collections since the beginning, and any time we do, I get a photographer to take product shots of them out in an environment or with models.

That’s really exciting for me because I get to see them in a different light than my own workshop. It’s always a mission to get a new design finished, so that’s like ‘end is in sight’ moment.

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Source: Atlantic Equipment Project

Getting into the Irish Design Shop in Dublin and getting my first sale was another big milestone. It was validation of what I had been working towards and meant someone else, other than myself, thought it’s something other people would want.

Then we sold 100 bags through the website, then another 200 – all of those are important milestones. In the beginning I didn’t appreciate how big a deal it was, but now I celebrate those moments because they’re what you have to keep you going through the low points.

We haven’t had a really low moment yet. I haven’t been told “no”, or “that’s not for us” or “we don’t like it”. I’m sure they will happen, but I haven’t had them yet.

So the lows I’ve had are more general, such as the loneliness of being an entrepreneur. That’s hard. Anyone will tell you that it’s a lonely business and it’s so true.

I have great friends and family, but nobody is in my brain all the time, so nobody knows 100% of what’s going on in the business and that’s hard.

I suppose it’s like surfing. Surfing is a very individual sport and the community around it is very supportive and fun, but what you’re actually doing is very solitary.

You are alone in the surf and it’s a challenging environment, with everything changing quite quickly – once there’s a wave it’s all go, go, go. It’s very instinctive and you’re making decisions really quickly.

That’s all stuff that translates to running a small business: risk management, mitigating problems and managing what’s in front of you. Like surfing, when you’re managing a small business you need to be self-reliant and also rely on your gut quite a lot.

Ashleigh Smith is the ‎founder of the Atlantic Equipment Project. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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