‘I thought I could lose all the money I’ve ever made in this 30-year career’: Kelly Slater’s biggest risk yet


Once great rivals on the water, and now thriving businessmen, surfers Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater have teamed up as speakers at Melbourne’s upcoming Global Entrepreneurship Congress.
Surfer and entrepreneur Kelly Slater. | Image: Supplied

Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning know about fear. Whether it be circling sharks, enormous barrels breaking on shallow reefs, or backing a speculative business venture, they’ve ridden those waves.

Slater, widely regarded as the greatest surfer of all time, risked losing every cent he’d saved from his 11 surfing world titles by building a then top-secret wave pool in California, with no idea if it would work.   

“It was terrifying,” recalls Slater. “It was definitely, as far as business goes, the most scared I’ve ever been, and also the most excited. I think there’s a metaphor there for people because they talk about, spiritually, when you’re really scared of something that’s where the breakthroughs happen.”


The Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, more than three-hours’ drive from San Francisco and Los Angeles, was reported to have cost US$30 million. Slater bootstrapped it through the early years of research and development before securing a backer. “I thought I could lose all the money I’ve ever made in this 30-year career,” he said, “And have to start back at square one.”

 Slater was at pains to point out the different types of fear.

“I don’t think losing your money is life or death. It’s just money. Fear in the ocean is a different thing. We’ve all lost friends that have drowned or been lost.”

Kelly Slater

Regardless, he said that the important part was to be aware of the risk. “And you’ve got to decide what level of risk you’re willing to put yourself in front of … Then you build your life around those things and how willing you are to engage in those and get yourself trained up to face them.”

“We can still go surfing if we lose our money,” Fanning interrupted on the Zoom call with Forbes Australia.

Fanning and Slater on a video call with Forbes Australia.

 “We’ve all got friends whose couches we can sleep on,” said Slater.

Fanning, the three-time world champ, became a viral sensation when he famously punched a shark that had bitten his leg rope live on television during a surfing contest at Jeffreys Bay South Africa, in 2015. But he also made headlines when the Balter Brewing Co which he’d backed from its foundation in 2016 sold for up to $200 million just three years later, netting Fanning a reported $4-million profit. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph last year reported his net worth to be $20 million, of which less than $3 million came from surfing prizemoney.

 Fanning was reluctant to draw a business metaphor from the shark incident.

“It was obviously extremely scary, but you’re gonna hit speed bumps, you’re gonna hit different obstacles, not only in life but in business, and it’s just learning from them and moving forward.” He said the strongest lesson from the attack was the importance of occupational health and safety.  

“After that event, the WSL (World Surf League) went above and beyond to make sure that the surfers were safe. They got jet skis, boats, radars, drones, so that’s something that they learnt. The surfers are the biggest part of their business, so they wanted to ensure their safety … I’m sure if someone got attacked by a bear while playing golf, the PGA would put something in place as well.”

Surfer and entrepreneur Mick Fanning

“They don’t tell generally run marathons in lion country,” said Slater.

Even though Slater won 11 world titles, compared to Fanning’s three, Slater was quick to point out that Fanning was one up on him in their head-to-head encounters.

“That’s why I retired,” Fanning quipped.

The pair have never worked together before. “We just try to beat each other,” said Slater.  “And you know, Mick and I have had one or two little things go awry. That’s why I always had respect for Mick because he’d just call me up. ‘Okay, we gotta talk about it.’ That’s what I loved about Mick. He was probably my only competitor who would do that.”

Fanning: “I think the best leaders I’ve worked with, they don’t make anything personal. And it’s just like you go to work, you do your work and you leave the personal stuff at home.”

“When I go into businesses and stuff, I try and look for things that 1) I use and 2) are better for the environment. I don’t look at the numbers sort of thing.”

Mick Fanning

Fanning’s Business Interests

  • Sea Forest – growing seaweed as a food supplement for cattle to reduce methane emissions.
  • Mikuna, a protein powder grown in the Andes.
  • Mick Fanning Softboards.
  • Creatures of Leisure – surfing accessories such as leg ropes and deck grips.
  • Scratch – dog food using a mix of wild caught kangaroo and grain-free starches.
  • Balter Brewing Co: Fanning was among a group of owners, including fellow surfer Joel Parkinson, who sold Balter to CUB for a reported $150 million to $200 million in 2019.

“The other day I did an interview with a friend of ours, Sam McIntosh, and he counted that I was involved in seven or eight different businesses. I said, ‘You should send me an email and tell me what they all are.’”

Kelly Slater

Slater’s Business Interests

  • KLLY: a just-launched sandal company using recycled materials and algae.
  • Solento Tequila: founded by Slater’s friend, surf filmmaker Taylor Steele. “A bunch of us have jumped in there with him.”
  • Yorks: A recycled lumber business in Nova Scotia. “We repurpose wood from old barns and piers and any sort of salvaged wood and stone basically. A friend who’s super passionate about wood kept telling me about this for years. He also knows of a bunch of great waves around the world that nobody knows about and I said, ‘Look, what if we started this company and eventually started making some money from it, we could buy properties at all these great unknown locations around the world and then build little houses from our wood there.”
  • Outerknown – Slater’s clothing label. “We hired someone to go to all the factories before we ever pick any of them … because there’s a lot of slave labour in fast fashion and I didn’t want to create fast fashion. And I wanted to use organic, recycled or regenerated fabrics and textiles … We could figure out the design from there.”
  • Kelly Slater Wave Company: Slater maintains an interest in the US$30 million artificial wave park, Surf Ranch, after WSL took a controlling interest in 2016.
  • Slater Designs: A surfboard company.
  • Firewire: A surfboard brand made in Thailand.
  • Endorfins: Slater’s very own fintech – it makes surfboard fins.

Fanning and Slater will present together live at Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC2023) in Melbourne on 19 September. Visit genaustralia.org for details.

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