Ben Matson - Swellnet

What do you love about surfing?
Surfing is a real equalizer. I mean, you can't buy experience. Over time you start off as a beginner, and the waves are small and they scare the crap out of you even though it's only a foot or two. But you have to develop skills to overcome your fears and learn how to read the waves. You get to a point in your surfing career where you can take on those waves, and it's an amazing feeling to know that you've earned that. You can't just walk in off the street and paddle out at six-foot Bells or anywhere else, because you will really hurt yourself. I love nothing more than traveling overseas and going to some place I have never surfed before, and drawing on all of my surfing knowledge to figure out a new break.

When did you first learn to surf?
I actually joined the nippers when I was about five, back in Adelaide. As for my first surfing experience, my dad took me surfing when I was about 10. He had a single fin from his surfing days, and then when I was 11 I got my first thruster, and from then it was just every weekend.

What was the beach that you surfed at?
I lived at Seacliff, which is one of the metropolitan Adelaide beaches, it only gets waves during big storms that come through. When those storms came through we had a great time, probably every week or two through the winter months. But really my local surfing beach was on the Mid Coast which is about half an hour's drive south of there. So Southport and Seaford were probably the breaks I surfed the most.

When did you first start to get an interest in surf forecasting?
Probably when I first started surfing, actually. My dad taught me to read weather maps, because my local beach only broke when there were really strong onshore winds. So I was scouring the weather maps looking for those weather patterns. And so he showed me what a cold front was, and ultimately a low pressure system or a cold front would whip up the waves on the metro beaches. I just started looking at the weather charts in the back of the paper, he would hand me the paper in the morning, and I would flip to the last page and look at the four day synoptic chart. From there, I just started to learn a little bit each day. I eventually went to Uni to study it in more detail.

What course did you take?
I did a degree in Earth Sciences, which encompassed oceanography and meteorology. I did a whole bunch of other subjects, hydrogeology, groundwater geophysics, stuff like that. I actually did quite a bit of groundwater studies which was really fascinating. After that I did a bit of post-grad study in near shore waves up in Queensland at Griffith University. But there is no degree in surf forecasting, so a lot of what I know is self-taught.

But by the same token, I don't think you can be a surf forecaster if you don't actually surf. We share an office with the guys at Weatherzone, and they know way more about weather forecasting than me. They're just amazing. But, many of the forecasters there don't surf so they can't appreciate what makes “good” waves. I put good in inverted commas because it's different for someone who is learning to surf, or an intermediate surfer or an advanced surfer. When I am forecasting for Storm Surfers with Ross and Tom, they're after very particular kinds of waves. Their definition of “good” is on another level. So as a forecaster you have to be able to interpret all of the information and present it to the layperson as a one size fits all.

What was your first job out of Uni?
Technically, I was still working part time at a local record store when I left Uni. I was applying for graduate work, and not getting anywhere so I was a bit bummed actually. I got rejected by the Bureau of Meteorology straight off the bat. I got down to the interview stage but they said no. It turns out there was a second year Uni maths subject that I hadn't taken, and for some reason they said, "Right, that's it. You're not in." I was like, "Are you kidding?" I had all a letter of recommendation from one of the senior meteorologists at the BOM but it didn't seem to matter.

After that, the first degree related job that I got was at SARDI, which is the South Australian Research Development Institute, which is the research arm of PIRSA, Primary Industries and Resources of South Australian. I worked there as a climate research scientist for about six months. So I was looking at farmers and their rainfall patterns and how we could use a whole bunch of weather indices to help them better predict what grain to sow for, or what weather tools they could use to better maximize their yields. So that was really fascinating, because I'm interested in the relationship between climate patterns and surf patterns. It gave me a really good understanding of how the two may be related, which I want to study more of in the future.

How long between coming out of Uni, that first job and then the process of starting Swellnet? How did that come about?
It was actually the other way around. I got my first computer in '97 or '98, and I immediately started looking at weather charts, when I realised I had come across something special. That's what spurred me to go into university in '99. While I was at university, I decided to start committing my forecasts to paper. I'd actually type out a whole page forecast for the South Australian coastline, and I'd fax it through to the local surf store. The reason for this was that once the forecast was committed to paper, it either happened or it didn't, there was no backing out. This way I was accountable for my forecasts. So I started those fax forecasts in second year Uni, which was in 2000.

Once I finished Uni I was still forecasting every day while I was looking for a job. So really, forecasting was just a hobby for me back then. I never dreamt that it would ever amount to anything like what it is now. People who had heard about the forecasts were hassling me at the beach, saying "Oh, can you send me a forecast to my email address?" Eventually I got sick of that, so I created a website so people could check it at their leisure. That's how Swellnet started. And from there, it's essentially gone from being a weather blog to a full blown business.

How long till you started introducing cams?
The first Swellnet website went live in April 2003, I then expanded to Victoria later that year. I then expanded with national forecasts in 2004, and then in late 2005 I employed a national network of surf reporters. Shortly after that I put in 18 live surfcams, I think they went live in 2006.

Have you gotten any financial backing at all?
My family initially helped me out. Mum and Dad were a huge help, because the cameras cost a lot of money. You've got to buy them, find a location, then get an electrician to install them. You also need telephone lines and ADSL services. My parents helped me get going through the first six months, and it was great. Web traffic went through the roof. I had a huge growth spurt, but I didn't have any business skills, I didn't know how to make money out of the web, because advertising was kind of a bit of a new thing. So that's when I joined forces with my business partner Mark. He bought into the business and helped me strategize a way forward to derive some new revenue streams based on what he'd done with his weather company Weatherzone. So we signed some commercial contracts, and we started providing surf reports to mobile phone companies and other websites and so on and so forth, and then we also started to slowly build up an advertising model. It's slowly grown from there.

What are you doing now on a day-to-day basis?
I do a little bit of forecasting. Aside from the forecasts on the website, we also do some commercial forecasting for a variety of clients including TV and film production. Storm Surfers is a big part of this too, which really opened my eyes as to how these kinds of productions really work.

I've got a small team in the office every day, including an editor, a forecaster and an ad sales guy. So suppose I'm looking after the business but what I really enjoy is product R&D. We've got all kinds of interesting projects in the wings. But because we are a small company, we have to spend our money carefully. So I tend to work on those projects myself and assess their potential for realizing them commercially.

What do you love most about your job?
Wow, I don't know. I just love everything about it. I suppose one thing is that I'm not bogged down with the same tasks every day. One day I'm working on camera technology. Then I'm forecasting for a big swell for a competition. Then I'm traveling over somewhere to do a photo shoot. Then I'm in a meeting with a client about a major advertising campaign. Every day is totally different. But it's all hinged around the one thing that I love in life so much - surfing. Every day there's a new curve ball, there's a new challenge to unlock, and that keeps me going. I start work at five o'clock every morning, and I work late every night and I love it. I'm really, really lucky I suppose.

When do you the squeeze surfing in?
In and around all of that work. It's also hard because I've got a young family so I don't have time to go for big, long three hour surf sessions anymore. If I have a meeting down at Bondi, I'll duck out for a quick half hour session but there are some times when I'll go for a week or more without getting wet. I've had my head down with Swellnet for 11 years now, and I reckon I've probably got another 5 or 10 years to go at top speed, and then I'll be able to come up for air. The waves will still be pumping in ten years times so I don't mind missing the odd session for now.

Hopefully, in ten years time I'll have a really successful business that will allow me to pursue other related projects. There's so much in and around what we're doing with Swellnet. Technology is advancing, so rapidly and my brain is ticking over as to all the new opportunities that are going to come out in the future. I've got a lot of energy left to burn.

What do you dislike about it? Is there anything?
There's nothing I really dislike about it. I suppose there are some things that I've learnt that I wasn't aware of at first. Running a business has huge responsibilities. I've got a team of amazing guys, and we work really well together. We have a great time. But as a business owner, I've got staff with families and kids and mortgages and stuff like that. I don’t have millions of dollars in the bank as a reserve if things go pear shaped. I've got a great deal of responsibility to them and I take it really seriously. So that's something I hadn't thought about when this all started.

What is the most memorable wave you've ever caught?
Wow. The most memorable wave, I don't know. My best surfing years were probably when I was at my physical peak in my mid-20s. I did a whole bunch of overseas trips to Central America, and over to Europe and around Australia. I remember surfing a left-hander in Costa Rica called Pavones. It's one of the longest waves in the world. I remember getting just an amazing wave where it seemed like I had done ninety eight cutbacks and a thousand re-entries, and scored a couple of barrels too. That experience is something that will live with me forever.

But it's not always just about the wave itself. Often it's the journey getting there. Being from Adelaide, we spent a lot of time just driving and driving out in the desert and camping in the middle of nowhere, just waiting for waves. And those days when it all comes together and the wind swings and goes offshore, and the swell is pumping and there's no one around, it's incredible. Just the fact that you're there scoring unreal waves with your mates, it's a really special kind of experience.

Where can we find you online?


Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on April 3, 2013
Categories: Interviews