Hovering across the wave of success

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Hovering across the wave of success

It was meant to be an extended break for David Trewern and his family. A chance to rest and reset in Byron Bay after decades of building and selling fast-growing digital marketing agencies. But as he looked out over Belongil beach in 2014, an idea struck him. And within a year he’d accidentally created the next-best-thing for international water sport enthusiasts.

Fliteboard is now a multi-million business that ships its electric hydrofoils to more than 90 countries, where the final assembly rolls out from the Byron Bay head office, a 3000-square metre factory warehouse tucked behind Mitre 10 at the top of Jonson Street. The business has offices in Melbourne, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco, with composites experts in Thailand and gearbox design specialists in Germany

It’s a highly technical product – “there are a couple of hundred parts in the efoil,” David says – and it took David more than six months of creative and mathematical trial and error to build the first prototype using a custom-made board, electric bike batteries, off-the-shelf hydrofoil mast and wings and a propellor and motor that David designed himself.

“I did a lot of research online to get first prototype working, and pulling things apart and experimenting,” David says. “My mum told me Aldi had a sale on 3D printers, so I bought one of those, and then taught myself [3D software program] CAD.” David ran close to 10 times without success. “I’d go into the water and ask my wife to have the camera ready and it didn’t work”.

He became obsessed with KV ratings that measure the revolutions of motor spin per volt, and mathematical formulas of RPM, propellor torque and design, and battery voltage.

“I tried to find experts but it was so new, they’d say, ‘I don’t know’, so I did a lot of experimentation to try and work out the magic formula to get enough thrust from the motor to get me up on the foil,” he says.

In August 2017 two things happened. Firstly, it worked. “It actually works, I can actually do it. There’s me riding around the bay. ‘This is amazing!’. That was as big moment.”

Second, it grabbed immediate attention. “Two weeks later I got some drone footage of me riding around in the bay on a really glassy day. I put that on Facebook with a $500 ad, and it got more than 2 million views in a couple of weeks.”

“And I thought, ‘I wonder if I promote this and put it out into the world, what will happen? My 12-year-old son came up with the name ‘Fliteboard’, I worked with my brother to set up a webpage, and we got more than 10,000 enquiries in three months from people saying they want to buy one.”

Some of the people reaching out to David now make up the private investment team, including Xero founder Rob Drury, SEEK founders Paul and Andrew Bassitt, and former CEO of Opel Automobiles (Germany), Dr Karl-Thomas Neumann, who is also a renowned investor in electric vehicles.

“We have about 20 investors now, many who were Fliteboard customers first,” David says. “A lot of them also have relevant knowledge and experience in different areas.” Investors are scattered globally across the UK, Germany, Monaco, US and Hong Kong. 

Growth has been rapid, with 2021 its largest year, despite COVID challenges. The business enjoyed 300 per cent growth, taking more than 2000 pre-orders, and more than doubling the team in Byron from 15 to 35 people (and globally to 65). In 2022 the global team hit 100.

It also was a year that saw Fliteboard take off in unexpected ways of its own, with one customer gaining social media traction by travelling from Spain to Morocco – “The first person to go from one continent to another on a Fliteboard” – and a Fliteboard race established as part of a sustainability festival in Portugal.

Fliteboard has also been celebrated through business, industry and design awards, including the innovation in a luxury product category in Geneva, best-in-class for product design, sport and lifestyle for Australia’s Good Design Awards, and UK’s Green Product Award (among many other). Not to mention local recognition through a Business NSW innovation award.

The local angle of this very global business is important to David.

“Even though we’re a startup and just getting established we’re really proud that we could use our global reach to raise $100,000 for bushfire support for WIRES wildlife service and the local rural fire service.” Fliteboard also raised close to $80,000 after the floods and directly donated a further $50,000.

Not to mention the new jobs Fliteboard has created in the region.

“I’m really happy that we’ve been able to do something constructive locally. We’ve created different and diverse jobs with engineers, and found really interesting local talent. We’ve got a guy from Alstonville working with our product development team who worked on the America’s Cup teams 10 years ago with his expertise in composite production with carbon fibre,” David says.

“My son is now 16 and he and his friends work on holidays in warehouse as packing controllers. It’s great to be able to create a global business that’s very grounded in the local community.”

And then there’s the happy customers.

“This week I got a message: ‘Thank you for inventing this board, it’s the best thing I’ve ever bought, it’s changed my life’.” 

“It’s really inspiring.”

“And I thought, ‘I wonder if I promote this and put it out into the world, what will happen?”

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