RELENTLESS ROOTS: The Liquid Force Story
By Paul Lang
Originally Published in the December 2008 issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
When I learned to kiteboard, my first board was a 171 cm Liquid Force Picklefork. It was big, heavy, and had four sharp corners that were always trying to murder you. I thought it was the coolest piece of equipment ever. We all laugh at the Pickleforks now, but the design helped kiteboarders shift from directional to twin tip boards. Liquid Force is one of the original kiteboarding companies as they were the first company to release a production twin tip kiteboard and the first kiteboarding company to sponsor Lou Wainman and Elliot Leboe during those early days on Maui.
In addition to being a kiteboarding company, Liquid Force is also one of the top wakeboarding manufacturers: Founders Tony Finn and Jimmy Redmon are considered to be icons in that sport. The company’s ties to wakeboarding have always been obvious as their products and choice of team riders have been geared towards wakestyle kiters. I had the chance to sit down with Tony and Jimmy to talk about the history of their company at their headquarters in Encinitas, California to find out more about the roots of Liquid Force and their unique perspective on the sport.
How did the two of you meet and what led up to the founding of Liquid Force?
TF: I used to own Skurfer and Jimmy owned Redline. Redline made really good boards for the time. Jimmy is an amazing designer, but I was probably outselling him 20 to one. Skurfers worked good too. They were more durable in their construction, but they didn’t have as much performance as his stuff. So we were enemies, not like arch enemies where we would kick each other’s asses, but we were competitors. I always thought his stuff was better, but I was really stoked that he never had it finished on time. I was way better at getting my stuff out there and marketing it, but he was way better with design. After I sold Skurfer we were hanging out at some wakeboard contests together. He was the judge and I was the TV announcer, and we were like, this is lame, we should start another company together. Then we started Waketech with another investor and that was cool for a couple of years, but then that guy jacked us so we started Liquid Force, and that’s been going good for 12 years now.
What was the story behind Skurfer?
TF: Well, I used to live in South Mission [San Diego, CA], so I was surfing and waterskiing like a block from my house. I was traveling around and had seen some people trying to do some similar stuff, so I tried to combine the two. I was going to San Diego State University delivering pizzas, and just partying and hanging out, so I decided to try to make a business out of it.
When did you first see kiteboarding and how did Liquid Force to get into the sport?
TF: Ten or 11 years ago, someone called me and told me I should go to Maui and check out these kiteboarding dudes. So I went over there and I learned to kite with Lou [Wainman] and Elliot [Leboe]. Mauricio [Abreu] was around at the time too. I was like, wow, what a cool sport, this is f***ing great you know, so we ended up sponsoring Lou and Elliot and getting into the sport. We came out with our first board, which was the Picklefork. Those boards are hilarious looking back, but at the time they were revolutionary because other people were using boards like windsurf boards. The bummer thing is that for a few years we had really lame investors, so that made it really difficult for us to be as involved in the sport as we wanted to be.
During the early days of the sport, did you believe that it could evolve to where it is today? Has it fallen short or exceeded your expectations?
TF: I just thought we could make cool products that people would be stoked on. It’s a weird question, and a lot of people ask me questions like this, but I can’t remember my thoughts. I was just like, yeah, this is fun, let’s do something! Kiteboarding is still just a baby. I think more people are going to get into it. Kiteboarding in the waves is insane, but you can also ride a kiteboard like a wakeboard, so you can hit rails and do things that are really unique to kiteboarding.
A few years ago, Liquid Force went through some hard times and actually went out of business for a short time. What happened and how did you get back on track?
TF: We had some lame investors, so for a few years we couldn’t invest any money into kiting. Our kite business suffered because our investors were total kooks, and I hope that you print that because if they read this, I want them to know that they are kooks!
JR: Every year we would have these meetings and they would be like, “We’re going to kill kiting.”
TF: Now we are able to do more of what we want and for the past four or five years, really get into the sport because we really love kiteboarding. So we have a great team of athletes – Mauricio, Sleazy, Davey, Denver, this dude Silvester from Europe, and we have great designers. Jimmy does the boards, but he doesn’t know how to design a kite so we have Julien Fillion. This has allowed us to really focus on kiting. I mean we’re the OGs, and we’re coming back.
What is one of the biggest mistakes Liquid Force made in your history and how have you learned from it?
TF: Getting involved with those kooky investors. There were venture capitalists and they just sucked the money out of us. They just wanted to put a little money in, suck everything out of us, and sell us for more.
JR: Along with that being our biggest mistake, them yanking the rug out from underneath us was one of the best things that could have happened to us. All of a sudden, we had to rethink what the hell we were going to do with our lives. I went home and everything in my closet had drop logos on it. This is what I do and who I am. We came back with this fire in our gut, and we had lost that. So we had the experience of a company that had been around for a long time with the passion of a start up. Then we got infused with a lot of capital from a new ownership situation. We kept having our plans denied by the old investors, but with the new situation we were trying to figure out what to do. Tony was like, “Hey, let’s shoot for the moon. Let’s ask them for everything.” What they said yes to was literally three times what had been denied in the past.
What did that allow you to do?
JR: It allowed us to push into whole new product categories. We were able to not only reinvent a binding, but reinvent how we were going to make a binding. It completely revamped our kiteboarding program. We knew we needed to change things, it was just a matter of having the money to make it happen. Also, just because you have a killer idea, you might not nail it on the first try. A lot of design happens through successive generations. I mean, you make something that you think is cool, then you go out and find out all the ways it’s going to fall apart, or maybe you find out that it’s not as good as you thought it would be, so you go right back to the drawing board and do it all over again. You have to have a bunch of people with the stomach to keep wanting to do that and a group that wants to fund it. Then you end up in a place where the products just keep getting better and better. Especially with kite, we have so much to go forward on. There is so much further to go.
It’s obvious that your wake products have influenced your kite products over the years, but have your kiteboarding products ever influenced your wake products? How do the wakeboarding and kiteboarding divisions complement each other?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. There’s this unreal cross-pollination. You know, it’s a natural, being involved in wake first that wakeboarding would influence our kite products, but there’s a lot of unique requirements for a kiteboard that are different from a wakeboard, from rocker and outline to how you are going to build it. Along the whole evolution of the development of these products, what is really cool is the diversity. Our kiteboard The Element was influenced by the Subjekt, which is a wakeboard. But then, when I worked with Jason Slezak on his pro model board, we developed a new rail. Kiteboarding uses a much lower volume rail, but he still wanted the board to feel stiff between his feet. So to make his board work, I came up with a rail configuration that had never been on either a wakeboard or kiteboard before. It worked so well that when I went to work later in the season on wakeboards, I gravitated towards this new rail that I had developed with Jason. When we reinvented the Trip wakeboard, that rail came from Jason’s board. So that was kiteboard design directly influencing wakeboard design. Now what’s happening is that the bottom configurations that we put into wakeboards are moving into kite and the ABS sidewall technology that we have been developing in kite is now moving to wake. It’s a loop; we get the best of both worlds.
How would each of you describe your jobs?
TF: All I do is try to get the right people in their jobs and make sure they have a good time. I try to instill passion and a sense of fun in the place, and that’s pretty much it. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to talk to the board of directors.
JR: My job is to make a lot of cool toys without driving Tony crazy about how long it takes me to do it.
Why have you chosen to base Liquid Force in Encinitas, CA, just north of San Diego?
TF: Well, besides the fact that there’s no wind, San Diego is a great place. I went to San Diego State and afterwards I moved to North County. It’s just awesome here. We can walk to the beach, there’s decent surf in front of our office, and our office is thrashed which is cool because it’s cheap, so I think that’s why we’re here. Jimmy moved out here from Texas. He used to sleep on my couch and shape boards in the garage.
JR: Yeah, with renters living above the garage. Finally he said, “You’ve gotta get off my couch and get your own place,” so I’m here.
A few years ago your company formed Liquid Force Films. Why have we not seen a Liquid Force Films produced kiteboarding movie?
TF: The thing about films is that they are amazingly expensive. They are super fun, but the reason that we may not do a kite film is because the way that people are receiving their content today is a little bit different. We can do three minute podcasts or a five minute short on a trip, and that may get more people excited than a full film will. I’m not going to say that we’ll never do one, but that’s why you haven’t seen a kite film from us yet.
How do wakeboarders view the sport of kiteboarding today?
TF: The wakeboarders that are cool either kite or want to kite. The ones that are weird, or I don’t know, have issues about expanding their range or repertoire, might not be into it. Virtually all of the wakeboarders I know think kiting is cool. Not teabagging, but kiting powered up and cranking. They think that’s bitchin, and a lot of them do it.
JR: It’s a function of how much of a waterman is a wakeboarder. If it’s a dude that lives inland and just wants to drive his truck back and forth to the lake, he’s probably not that open minded. But, we’ve got a few riders, specifically Collin Harrington, I mean, he could be a pro athlete in any watersport. He was a complete natural. The second he got up on a kite in the DR, he took off from the beach fully powered in boots and was immediately flying around in the waves.
Do you think that more wakeboarders will get into the sport in the future?
TF: Definitely, more wakeboarders are crossing over to kiting. With kiteboarding, the wind is free, but regardless of what happens to the price of gas, kiteboarding gives you that freedom that you don’t get behind a boat.
Do you think kiteboarding will ever become a mainstream sport like wakeboarding?
TF: Well, I don’t really like the term mainstream. You know, it’s really important to us that kiteboarding is viewed as a cool thing. Surfing and wakeboarding have an image, but kiteboarding doesn’t yet. That takes a long time to develop. We now have a clothing brand, Liquid Force Clothing, which we are trying to use to help develop that image.
Wakeboarding is a largely unregulated sport like kiteboarding. Do you see the need for some type of licensing or stricter regulation of kiteboarding to sustain the sport for the future?
TF: I don’t think we need more regulation. The more we can do to keep it safe the better, but I’m antiregulation as much as I can be. Hopefully people can self-regulate. You know with surfing, if you see
a bunch of kids swimming on the inside, you just paddle to the next peak.
JR: Surfing is the ultimate self-regulated sport. The bigger it gets, the bigger the hurt gets; let God regulate it. Since kiting has this giant apparatus that can get out of control, it has to be the rider’s
responsibility, not some guy on the beach in a black suit with a billy club. If it ever gets to that, we’re all screwed.
Liquid Force is the original wakestyle kiteboarding company, but no longer produces C-kites. Are there any plans to change this, or do you think there are no real benefits to C-kites even though many wakestyle riders like them?
JR: Well the thing is that better doesn’t mean harder. You know the C-kite is stripping away the product to its essence, but don’t discard the things you’ve done to make a product user-friendly. Our highest end product should still be able to be appreciated by someone who is an intermediate and beyond, and they can grow into that.
TF: I think we accomplished a lot of what people like about C-kites with the HiFi Comp. Riders just need to try the different kites out there. C-kites got to the point where they were viewed as being old technology and they became very hard to sell. We’re trying to bridge that gap with the HiFi Comp.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our industry in the coming year?
TF: The sport still has a lot of growth opportunities. I think there are still a lot of places to kite where people aren’t really riding yet. If you compare the crowds here with the ones in Europe, it looks like our beaches are still empty. I think the kite business is going to do great.
What makes you most proud about the company every day?
TF: It’s cool that we’re able to offer great jobs to a bunch of really talented and fun people. But I guess the thing that I am most proud of is that we are able to supply kiteboarders and wakeboarders with really great fun stuff to ride. The amount of people that get stoked on the stuff we make everyday is huge. You know, that’s an amazing feeling.
JR: The coolest thing is when you run into somebody who has tried something you’ve made, and it really mattered to them. Either it was their first kite or first wakeboard, or it was the best thing they’ve ever ridden, but when they come up and tell you that, it’s like how could you not want to do that? It’s the coolest job in the world.
Originally Published in the December 2008 issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
Watch Tony and Jimmy interviewed by The Kiteboarder Magazine at Surf Expo 2008: