Sometimes, all it takes is one poignant moment to change your life’s course forever. This is exactly what happened to Peter Belden, when former lifeguard colleague, Ben Carlson, drowned on a rescue in his hometown of Newport Beach. Going from a soul-less office job to travelling the world, he’s now turned his true passion into a thriving business, as the founder of a world-renowned surf club...
Growing up in Southern California, Peter had always been a water baby, “bodysurfing & swimming in the ocean since [he] could walk”. Naturally, he followed in his father’s footsteps, going through the junior lifeguard programme, before heading off to college at UCLA where he captained the water polo team.
The team won a national championship, and by the time he’d finished college, Peter had already achieved everything he’d set out to achieve in life; “most people grow up wanting to be firemen, or a doctor or all these things but for me, I wanted to play water polo and win a national championship at UCLA… but then, that part of your life is over and [you] go from that to getting a job and sitting in an office.’
Like so many young graduates, he was unsure of what to do with the rest of his life – exploring different avenues such as real estate, founding his own dealership, and even heading to San Francisco to work in the tech-world with several different start-ups. But, “it was just an opportunity that looked good when I started”.
It was then, after 10 years of work, that everything changed. Ben Carlson, one of his fellow lifeguard co-workers from his hometown of Newport Beach, tragically drowned on a rescue. He's the only US lifeguard to ever do this.
“I looked at him as a peer in a lot of ways and looked up to him in a lot of ways… It sent shock waves through the lifeguarding world, through Newport and through me too. [Ben] was a big wave surfer and was arguably the best lifeguard in the department. This guy was an absolute stud - he would go off and surf 20 ft waves in Mexico. For a guy like that to go, it was pretty eye-opening.
I’m sitting in an office working my ass off selling something I don’t care about. I was chasing career advancements and money and not happiness.”
It was exactly the catalyst for change that Peter needed: “within a week of him drowning, I quit my job, I sold my car and put everything into a storage unit and said, ‘I’m out of here”. I bought myself a one-way ticket and went to Indonesia.
I had that gut feeling when you know something isn’t right, but you can’t get yourself out of it. It hit me so hard and made everything so clear. I’m not being true to myself.”
After 2 months travelling around Indonesia with 2 surfboards, a backpack and a scooter, Peter headed to Australia and lived in a van for 6 months. Travelling around, surfing, looking for what he wanted to do next in life, “on this soul-searching journey... and [he] actually found what [he] was looking for.”
It was here in Australia, that the idea for The Board Club was born. Peter was surfing a particular spot and only had one board with him, but it was totally the wrong board. He was in the surf capital of the world and yet he couldn’t find what he needed anywhere.
“That’s when that lightbulb moment went off. I was sitting there, kind of frustrated after a surf session and I was like what if I had access to boards and people could just pay to use them?
As far as I knew, no-one had done this and that just seemed crazy to me. It was such a simple concept. I [wasn’t] inventing a new brain surgery technique, I was just getting a bunch of boards and people pay for access. There was a giant hole missing in the market. You either have to buy [boards] or if you want to rent, they are going to be shitty boards.”
So, he spent the next weeks writing up his business plan, before heading back to Newport Beach to put his plan into action. After 3 months of desperately searching for the right club location, he’d mentally given up.
Which of course, is when everything fell into place; “my buddy was eating tacos at this taco spot & saw a sign go up. He ran over, talked to him, took a picture of the sign, sent it over to me. An hour later I drove down, met with the guy, saw the place. A week later I had it.”
The Board Club is a homely, laid-back beach-house, a block and a half from the bay for stand-up paddle boarding and two blocks from the best surfing in the area. Plus, there are those great tacos across the street – it’s the perfect spot.
“When I got this location, I was like, I’ve got to jump in with both feet! It was scary, but I’m so glad I did.”
However, it’s not just the epic boards and a prime location that has grown The Board Club to what it is now.
Peter says; “I’m so very involved with the community here, I describe The Board Club as a surf club with boards. The community aspect is what has made this successful. The end goal here is to have a united franchise of surf clubs around the world with reciprocal memberships so it’s creating a worldwide network of surf clubs.
When entrepreneurs talk about the difficulties of growth, I’m right there now. I see four or five different taps of growth that all seem to make sense, so I’m just figuring out what the right way is to go.”
But with such a thriving, fast-growing business, does Peter still have time to do what he loves? That’s something that’s “proved to be far more difficult than anticipated.
During the first year, I was [at the club] 7 days a week, for 12 hours a day. That’s the way it was. I did get help here and there but it was full-on. At that point, I didn’t really have a ton of balance. My performance and happiness hurt because of it.
The second you get in the water, you feel that adrenaline go. There’s something about just jumping in the ocean that cleanses you and gives you a fresh start - I sometimes forget that. It just takes one surf to get back into it and you’re fully charged and feel ready to go.
Now, I put it on my calendar. My calendar runs my life, and when [surfing] is on the calendar it’s real. I make myself do it, even if I have important things to get done.
Fortunately, with surfing, and I think most surfers would agree, I never look at it as a workout, even though it is. That’s what is so beautiful about it.”