By: Brendan Richards
This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Fall 2015 Issue: Volume 12, No. 3
It’s the early side of noon in the middle of a Californian workweek and Coleman Buckley is pumping up a kite on the thick-grained sandy beach known to the locals of Santa Cruz’s north coast as Davenport Landing. In the distance, windsurfers strong-arm oversized sails and pump hefty sailboards down chest-high lefts on the south reef, but like most days, the waves rolling off the north point are empty. With the valve on his kite sealed and wraps of tired Dyneema lines falling from his homebuilt control bar, the San Francisco native is stopped in his tracks by a heated windsurfer with an urgent public service message: “Kitesurfing is not allowed at Davenport,” he boasts. This statement is not without truth. The beaches of the north coast have long been divided by a generally observed truce; windsurfers have exclusive domain over Davenport while kitesurfers share everything else.
Coleman’s tall frame is suited head to toe in thick, black neoprene. It’s one of the few pieces of equipment to remain in its unaltered off-the-shelf form, mostly because he’s been preoccupied with reengineering his kites and control bars. At that time, Coleman was relatively new to Santa Cruz. In fact, he was fresh off “The Farm” — that’s code for Stanford, the most prestigious educational institution on the West Coast. After four years studying bioengineering and despite vague medical school aspirations, Coleman was as much out of place as a kitesurfer in Davenport as he was a newly minted Stanford graduate on Santa Cruz’s isolated north coast midweek.
Unlike his classmates just over the hill, the majority of them pulling down six-digit Silicon Valley salaries, Coleman was tutoring math and living some sort of existential quarter-life-crisis for which the only cure was surfing his brains out. Most watermen, windsurfers included, would probably agree that this deviation deserves some kind of respect, but Coleman was in the wrong place for respect; he was pumping up a kite in Davenport.
Taking his eyes off an empty set wave tapering off the north point, Coleman addressed his new friend with his typical trademark boyish demeanor. At 6’4” tall with avian-like appendages, Coleman was most likely considered lanky in his younger days, but his recent regimen of paddling and kiting had weighted his upper body with enough muscle to hold his own amidst confrontation. “Go out there and you’re probably going to get beat up,” the entitled windsurfer warned. Coleman weighed this advice briefly and responded with far greater tact and good-nature than appropriate under the circumstances:
“Are you going to beat me up?” he questioned, placing emphasis directly at the windsurfer. The answer was a disgruntled and defeated “no.” This windsurfer would not be throwing any punches today. Historically speaking, the few forays into Davenport by kiters have typically ended in shoving matches, petty property destruction and fistfights, but like everything Coleman does, his approach represents his ability to challenge the status quo with integrity and intellectual purity.
In the years following Coleman’s Davenport session, he has changed the harness segment of the windsports business with his custom rigid frame design. If you ask Coleman, he will coyly claim he never intended to start a kitesurfing company; in a vast understatement, “it just happened.” With humble beginnings in a garage on Santa Cruz’s west side, Coleman has created one of the most exciting and innovative brands to enter the industry in recent years. Coleman’s fixation on kiteboarding started at the early age of 13 years, when his father took him to watch a kiteboard contest on San Francisco’s waterfront in 2007. Moments after stepping out of his dad’s car, Coleman watched as a young Jesse Richman launched a massive jump that extended the entire Crissy Field waterfront (still viewable on YouTube). Coleman recalls the event announcer exclaiming, “15-year-old Jesse Richman has just set a new world record for hangtime!” and the impressionable Coleman thought, “hey, we’re both around the same age, maybe I can do that too.” If his fascination with kiteboarding was securely planted, it was still far from fruition; high school would be a busy time for Coleman, and college even busier.
Having graduated from Stanford in the spring of 2010, Coleman wanted to spend one good summer in Santa Cruz, catching up on all the surf he missed while consumed with the bioengineering gauntlet. Moving into a room on the west side of Santa Cruz, he made rent with a tutoring gig and spent his free moments on the north coast obsessively hacking away as a beginner in the niche world of kitesurfing.
Partly out of necessity, partly out of habit, Coleman began tinkering with his kite equipment. Starting with an old inflatable kite, he sewed zippers into the leading edge and canopy, building a 10m that origami-ed into a size smaller. A few years back, RRD had introduced a kite that could adjust the aspect ratio with zippers, but Coleman had solved the problem for the struggling college graduate, a more affordable kite quiver.
He began shopping his ideas to various kiteboarding brands, but the resounding answer from the industry was a polite, “thanks, but no thanks.” Meanwhile, Coleman’s summer reprieve had extended into winter and the combination of surf and kitesurfing was turning him into a full-time Santa Cruz resident. Despite the reality check on his folding kite aspirations, Coleman continued dabbling with all things kitesurfing; particularly the idea of building a better kite harness.
Having bought a brand new harness and disappointed with its marketing promise of true anatomical fit, Coleman concluded, “kitesurfing was ripe with lots of low hanging fruit in terms of gear and plenty of room for innovation.” However, the question remained: Could money be made? For the time being, the utility of innovation, rather than financial reward, was enough to keep Coleman preoccupied with improving his gear.
Focused on the anatomical issue, Coleman took a seam puller to his brand new harness with the intention of creating an inflatable harness that would mold to the shape of the rider. With a custom-welded kite bladder sewn back into the harness Coleman had improved the overall feel, except the unwieldly bladder was bulging through the flexible back of the harness. To eliminate the bulge, Coleman created a carbon shell, and quickly realized the hard skeleton itself was the breakout concept. With each prototype the carbon shell became thicker and Coleman learned he could deliver better back support, but more importantly, his invention prevented the harness from creeping up out of position on the rider’s torso.
The concept was new, and the construction a little sketchy, but Coleman sought out the opinions of other kiters. He reached out to professional kitesurfers like Josh Mulcoy and Patrick Rebstock and offered to build them custom samples. Coleman’s early construction methods were crude at best with his first fitting resulting in a near disaster.
On a hot Santa Cruz day, Josh Mulcoy was laying in Coleman’s front yard with a thin protective layer of plastic Saran wrap separating the pro-surfer’s back from sheets of resin-impregnated carbon. The resin fired off surprisingly fast, releasing more chemical heat than anticipated. Coleman watched as one of his biggest surf heroes screamed in agony, writhing shirtless in the grass while Coleman struggled to remove the branding-hot mold contraption. Fumbling to find a garden hose, Coleman watered Mulcoy down, and skillfully convinced his latest guinea pig to stay through the remainder of the fitting process.
Receiving extremely positive feedback on the samples and backed with a team of highly talented riders, it wasn’t long before Coleman got his first legitimate order from as far off as Oslo, Norway. Coleman recalls spending close to a week building that harness, obsessing over every microscopic detail in order to get it perfect. He labeled his garage-based company Ride Engine, and his first harness product “Armor.” A single harness order made his garage-based venture little more than a hobby, yet a few months later Coleman returned from a long trip with 10 harness orders. At the time, while holding down his tutoring job, an order of that size seemed near to impossible to assemble, yet later that year, he was staring down a standing order for 50 more.
Looking back on this ever-busy time period, Coleman reflects on what he calls, “the shifting baseline of what is normal and what is possible,” as he quickly learned “the limits of what you can accomplish is much higher when you find yourself in a high-pressure situation.” Coleman never put a limit on the orders he would take; instead, opening the floodgates, he was determined to handle any and all demand that came his way.
If the 20th century colonial house on Peyton Street was your standard college flophouse when Coleman first moved in, Engine’s growing harness production was slowly transforming it into a factory. Fabrication workstations spilled from the garage into various rooms throughout the house. Coleman’s five housemates didn’t seem to mind living amongst the jumble of sewing machines, resin and stockpiles of neoprene, nor did they complain when he expanded his work force. According to Coleman, the smartest decision he made was hiring extra hands, even when money was tight. Placing ads on Craigslist, he found a college kid willing to cut fiberglass for four hours on Mondays and a local lady who would come by on Tuesdays to help sew. Colman worked feverishly to get harnesses out the door. Requiring all sorts of creative ingenuity, he refers to Engine’s early days as a “by hook or by crook operation.”
By the spring of 2014, Engine was humming along with about as many orders as the Peyton Street operation could manage. Coleman was in a tough position — his company was taking off, but not without incredible personal sacrifice. Coleman reflects on those days: “I felt trapped by the harness business. I was spending so much time making them that I wasn’t doing anything else that interested me.” Even with helpers, he spent most of his days keeping up with production demands, bogged down with the mundane business functions of order processing and shipping. Ride Engine left little time to focus on innovation or riding itself.
It was around this time when Coleman, thumbing through the advertisements of a magazine, spied a new harness that claimed to offer a new energy dispersion frame. The product wasn’t anything close to the rigid shell crucial to the performance of Ride Engine’s Armor harness, but the marketing material made it sound otherwise. For Coleman, that was an “oh shit” moment; the enemy was coming. Like David in a battle with Goliath, Coleman knew he needed to get serious or get out before his competitive advantage disappeared and his small cottage brand lost its edge.
As Coleman weighed his strategic options, he pondered a fallback plan. He crossed medical school off the list because it was clear he had a calling for creating products. A master’s degree in industrial design seemed like the best option, but not an easy choice as the Ride Engine brand was building too much momentum to just walk away.
With some pro bono advice from a patent lawyer, Coleman set out to pitch his rigid harness design to the bigger accessory brands of the industry. If he had a buyer, his lawyer would quickly bang out a simple patent. While relatively inexpensive in the world of industry, a patent was no small cost to Coleman. With the intention of selling his non-existent patent, Coleman asked team riders Patrick Rebstock and Alex Fox to introduce him to Tony Logosz, a longtime windsurfing and kitesurfing equipment designer at Slingshot.
Coleman’s reputation preceded him. Tony was impressed by Coleman’s design skills and invited him to work in Hood River at Slingshot’s R&D lab for the 2014 summer season. Tony took Coleman under his wing, helping him think through the process of scaling up Ride Engine’s production. From the outset, it was clear that Tony wasn’t interested in purchasing Coleman’s pretend patent, however, he was interested in helping build the Ride Engine brand into a leading provider of cutting-edge kite accessories.
When Coleman returned to Santa Cruz in the fall, he used Tony’s connections to strike a deal with action sports investment company, 7 Nation. This partnership secured vital funding and resources, ensuring that Ride Engine would not only be the first to market with a production version of Coleman’s rigid-framed harness, but also, and more importantly, that Coleman would have the backend support and resources to turn his attention to the innovative side of product development.
A year after Coleman’s visit to Hood River, Ride Engine is set to release the production version of its Armor harness. Building upon his experience with custom molds, Coleman has created standardized sizes to fit the average kiteboarder which he believes provide better back support and performance than any other off-the-shelf kite harness available today. Having finally brought his vision to market, Coleman isn’t phased that his concept might be adopted by others in the industry. “It will push the sport forward; more high performance gear will lead to higher performance riding.” To Coleman, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and lends credibility to the original idea.” Coleman’s mindset never seems to cross into defensive rhetoric. Even if competitors end up releasing similar designs, he says it doubles as powerful motivation to stay one step ahead of the pack.
Wearing a prototype wetsuit made with alternative neoprene, Coleman walks the beach after an early morning kitesurf session just south of Ano Nuevo. With a devious yet energetic smile, Coleman tells the story of how he recently used his Stanford student ID to sneak into a business MBA class helmed by world-renowned entrepreneur Steve Blank. Amidst a standing-room-only crowd, Coleman learned the official terminology for the grassroots approach he used to build his first harness: The “cheap hack strategy.” Coleman explains the importance of building a sketchy prototype as fast as you can before wasting time dwelling on theory. Speaking from personal experience, “Once the product exists you’ll see issues you didn’t expect and will be inspired by things you wouldn’t have thought of had it just stayed in your head.”
Cheap hack prototyping just made sense to Coleman, much like the chosen name for his company. In Coleman’s words, “An engine is any object that converts raw energy into mechanical energy,” and he believes “kites are the most elegant engines ever invented; both in their simplicity and power.” This mentality was the guiding principle behind Coleman’s first Armor harness and he intends to keep functional simplicity as the driving compass behind Ride Engine’s future.
As the sun advances past its apex, the water off the north coast trades its brilliant emerald complexion for a darker and less reflective shade of green. The sandstone cliffs begin to grow shadows and the conversation shifts to the challenges of producing environmentally friendly neoprene and Coleman’s desire to make a greater impact in the world; a meaningful contribution in an important field such as renewable energy. Greater ambitions aside, for the moment Coleman’s attention is securely planted on kitesurfing and with more than a few tricks up his sleeve it’s a safe bet Ride Engine will be hacking together more powerful products in the very near future. In a way, Coleman has circled back to where he began, surrounded by half-imagined products and gear challenges in need of sleek solutions.