Ernest Capbert: Cold Water Surfer


You can’t miss Ernie – he is pure energy. The first time we met, he walked into the upstairs private room at Shoreditch House and delivered a knockout presentation to a packed room at Rip It Up Start Again about his life as an entrepreneur. As one of the original co-founders of the surf brand Finisterre, he had one hell of a story to tell – practical advice from the front lines, told in such a short space of time. I now class him as a good friend, and one of the few people I rate when it comes to business strategy.

Ernest Capbert: Cold Water Surfer

“My mother always taught me to dream and my father taught me to hold our heads up high. I was also once told that you can’t fall off the floor.”

In 2006, he moved to Cornwall and helped build something that most people said was crazy and impossible: a cold water surf brand. Tom Kay took the initial leap into the unknown, Tom Podkolinski spearheaded the product design and breathed the environmental and sustainable angle into the business, Deborah Luffman came on board later to develop the product side of things, and Ernie created the vision and positioning. “It was wild, it was exciting, and there were no guarantees. If I had to sum up a decade of building one of the UK’s great surf brands with a handful of incredible people, I’d say it was about living in the moment – no past, no future, we were all just in it, going flat out.”

When the two of us caught up the other week, he was telling me about his friend, Al Reis, who wrote a book called the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. The advice in this book was a turning point in Ernie’s career. He explained, “When people are buying, they buy categories first and brands second.” Earlier that morning we were talking about some land that he bought with his fiancée (another brilliant entrepreneur, and the founder of Flowers with M). Ernie used this to illustrate a point. “I was looking for a mower to keep the grass under control until we can build a house on the land. I’m shopping for a lawnmower and to be more specific, a push mower with a 21-inch blade. I didn’t search for John Deere. I didn’t search for Kubota. I searched the category first and then the brand second.”

Ernie and Marisa

If you agree that this is how people buy, then it follows that businesses must promote their category before they promote their brand. Think about the last time you bought a refrigerator, a pair of trainers, or a cycling jersey – these are all categories. Unless you have created a strong relationship with a brand, the chances are that you head to Google and search the category first. “Eight years ago, nobody knew the brand Rapha. In the early stages of their development, you would see the words Performance Road Wear under the Rapha logo. After a few years, they dropped this. It was the same with Finisterre; over time we evolved this into a new category of cold water surfing – and we became the category leaders.”

Ernie has this incredibly powerful method of establishing a brand’s unique position within its category. I’m not going to spill his secrets here, but it’s something he shared with me, and it’s golden. It’s the same recipe he used for positioning Finisterre and the one he’s now using to sort out a plan of action for the entrepreneurs he works with. But the other thing that sets Ernie apart is his ability to write from the hip and hit his target. I asked him straight up how he found his voice and what advice he would give to entrepreneurs who struggle to write their own copy.

“Be descriptive, be candid. I only write when I really feel something, and I always think about the reader. I want to share something with them. This is important, keeping the audience in focus – giving them front row seats is free and powerful. I’d also say that there was a wild approach to my writing. Not blowing smoke, but working with you, Seth, over the last seven years has allowed me to step into the light and use the words I want to, rather than second-guessing them. Your friendship and professionalism have played a big part.”


He’s a generous person with a big heart and not a trace of ego. I’m sure I learn more from him than he does from me. The first thing he asked me when we spoke was whether I’m a vegan (I’m not). We got talking about surfing, health and lifestyle ­­– his morning routine of meditation and swimming out to the buoys on Gylly beach when the weather is clear, then thawing out with a hot cup of water with turmeric and ginger, and later whacking some golf balls down at the driving range.

He told me about these five keys to mood that a ‘tall friend’ of his called Rory once said to him. Whenever they would catch up after a period of time, they would do a quick health check by rating the five areas of health, family and friendship, love, work, and new experiences, using a red/amber/green traffic light system. As someone who is self-employed, always needing to motivate myself, always pushing it, I can relate to the importance of balance in these areas.

These days, he’s breathing life into other people’s start-ups at a breakneck pace, coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs through Oxford Innovation. His clients are mostly early stage start-ups. He travels all over Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, meeting them in their homes and nearby coffee shops to teach them how to scale their ideas. “If you can’t explain things to a six-year-old, you don’t understand them yourself. I have worked with over thirty businesses in the last three years and they all share two things in common: capital and people. When I’m speaking to entrepreneurs who want to scale I’m always conscious of their future ability to raise capital and – more importantly – to inspire people. Understanding these qualities early on can put a budding entrepreneur into a killer position.”

Right now, he’s enjoying being on the other side of the fence and watching some exciting businesses grow. But I’m wondering how long it will take before he throws his hat back in the ring. And I’m looking forward to the moment when it happens.


Written by independent copywriter, Seth RowdenEmail for tone of voice, website writing and marketing copy.

Question for Ernie or Seth? Ask away in the comments below. 

Posted by: Seth Rowden

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