John Robertson uses a casket for a front desk in his surfboard shop.
It's a blue bird day in Orange County's most southern sector and the surf-check wanderings of "Robo" have taken him to the lower parking lot of Calafia State Beach.
"Somebody was getting rid of it, so I got it for free," he smiles, "But I'm kinda worried, people seem to be talking about it more than my surfboards."
Bearing a dark sense of humor, a twisted artistic sense, and the grit to get the job done, Robo's a man with a plan. He grew up the prototypical Southern California beach kid. Success on a surfboard came early and often for him. He swam in a talented pool of San Clemente surfers that included Chris Ward, Cory and Shea Lopez, and the Irons brothers when they would blow through town. He enjoyed a brief tour de force as a b-list surf star. It had its rewards, but as any b-list surf star will note, it doesn't necessarily provide you with the life skills after the five years of fame are over.
"Casualties, there are some sad ones," he says. "Finding the second act, that's harder than it sounds."
In the twilight of his surf career, Robo took up an offer from San Clemente-shaper Cole Similar and started working in the front of his shop. Subjected to the traditional surfboard apprentice chores of sweeping foam dust and fending off customers when they would come by wondering why their boards weren't ready yet, slowly Robo started to glean valuable shaping information from Similar. Today, after years as an understudy, Robo's ventured out on his own, shaping under the Robo Surfboards label.
How's it going?
"The lights are on," he laughs.
A young entrepreneur trying to find his niche, he's taken the traditional shaping facility and flipped it.
"I wanted it to be somewhere that people could come, order a board, hang out, check out some art or photos or something," he describes. "I don't know about that now though, I get more people hanging out than ordering boards."
If that were really the case it might be a problem, but Robo has the right people hanging out. Putting custom shapes under the feet of guys like Damien Hobgood, Eric Geiselman, Balaram Stack, Dylan Goodall and more, test pilots with name recognition is a key marketing strategy for a start-up with no budget. Word of mouth can be a powerful thing, and because Robo's currently a small fish in a big pond, that's what he's relying on.
"We're keeping it a small operation, I think people like that," he says. "I think people like the fact that you can still have one of your friends make a board for you. It's that grassroots, do-it-yourself thing that you'll never be able get out of surfing."
With rack space in surf shops limited to major labels like Channel Islands, …Lost, Rusty and Firewire, Robo's strategy is sound: make good surfboards for the people that want them. Nothing more, nothing less. Keep the inventory low and the demand high.
"It's a process," says Robo. "Who knows where this will go, but we're having fun and it's working for now. We'll see."
And like that, Robo whips a u-turn in the parking lot, not satisfied with the surf he found.
"Come hang out at the shop sometime," he says before driving off.