Surfing for success
Student entrepreneur rides the wave of opportunity
By Brian McNeill
Over the summer, Virginia Commonwealth University student Tony Cannella lived out of his pickup truck as he traveled from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to northern New Jersey, visiting just about every surf shop along the way to sign them up for his fast-growing used surfboard startup company, Boardgrab.
“We’re calling it [that] we went on tour. I loaded up the truck, and lived out of it all summer,” said Cannella, a senior in the School of Business. “The routine was: Wake up at six in the morning, go to Starbucks and work for four hours, then go to the surf shops as soon as they opened and catalog boards until they closed. Then I’d go back to Starbucks and put the boards up on our site.”
The close-knit surf community can sometime be leery of outsiders when it comes to doing business, so Cannella, a longtime surfer, knew he would need to reach out to each individual surf shop owner in person.
“I would walk in and tell them, ‘We’re Boardgrab, the best place to buy used surfboards,’” Cannella said. “‘We partner with surf shops to catalog their used inventory to our site to help you sell more used surfboards faster. We aren’t charging anything right now — we think of ourselves as surf shop support to help get your boards out to the public and limit your dead inventory in the shop.’”
Nearly 30 surf shops up and down the East Coast agreed to let Cannella post their used surfboard inventory to Boardgrab’s site. Only one shop declined the offer.
“We’re pretty happy with those results,” Cannella said. “We’ve had almost a thousand boards come through the site already.”
Boardgrab — which Cannella likens to an online version of Autotrader magazine, but for used surfboards — is one of 29 VCU student-led startup companies launched over the past two years that emerged from VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program, which provides a $5,000 stipend and three months of instruction and mentorship. Of these companies, at least 14 are generating revenue, totaling well over $1 million, and have created 29 full- or part-time jobs.
“We like to say that VCU is a Venture Creation University,” said Nicole Monk, who oversees a variety of student entrepreneurship programs at VCU in her role as enterprise and economic development executive with VCU Innovation Gateway. “The Pre-Accelerator is just one of many programs offered at VCU that ensure all of our students will graduate with an entrepreneurial mindset. That mindset will allow our students to make an impact, to be agents of change for Richmond, whether it’s in a startup, in a large company or in the public sector.”
Cannella’s pathway as a founder included not only successfully completing VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program, but also taking part in the School of Business Entrepreneurship Program. Cannella, Monk said, is a great example of VCU’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“When Tony talks about Boardgrab, it’s pretty obvious that he’s creating a company based on his passion for surfing,” she said. “Taking your passion and turning it into your job sounds like a great idea; however, Tony has that VCU secret sauce — the combination of determination, agility and pure hustle — that’s what’s going to make him successful.”
An entrepreneurial mindset
Cannella, who grew up in Richmond, launched his first company in 2012 while he was a sophomore at VCU. Over a couple years, that landscaping company picked up more than 40 accounts and employed three people.
“That experience was really valuable for me,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to have to get a job somewhere and work for someone else. It taught me how to handle customers and manage my time.”
Around the same time, Cannella also tried to develop a restaurant reservation app, after taking an app development course in Washington, D.C. He quickly scrapped the idea after realizing that Open Table already had the market cornered.
“We met with a few restaurants,” he said. “They told us how much they loved Open Table, so we were like, ‘Well, OK, not going to do this.’”
After three years, Cannella sold his landscaping company. But many of the lessons he learned while running it have come in handy for his new venture.
“With the landscaping company, we did a lot of door-to-door sales,” he said. “And now with Boardgrab, we’re visiting surf shops [in person] and partnering with them to catalog their used boards to sell them on our site. It’s required me to sell [the shop owners] on the idea, right there on the spot.”
After selling the landscaping company, Cannella was trying to decide what kind of company he might like to launch next. He started thinking back on the experience he had buying his first new surfboard.
“It was absolute hell,” he said.
Living in Richmond, Cannella had to drive to a surf shop two hours away in Virginia Beach. Once he got there, the shop had received the wrong board. So he had to drive all the way back to Richmond empty-handed, and then return six weeks later to pick up the right board.
Worse still, the first time he took that board out, it broke.
“I was surfing down in the Outer Banks, I came off a wave and barely tapped it — well, it was a pretty good hit to be honest, and I still have a scar from it — but it just completely shattered the board,” he said. “That’s when I thought, I’m never buying a new board again, and just jumped into buying used boards.”
The process of buying a used surfboard, however, was not exactly user-friendly, especially for someone who doesn’t live at the beach.
“The main places to buy boards are in surf shops, people sell them on consignment or they sell them on Craigslist,” he said. “Well, on Craigslist, at least in Richmond, there’s not a very good selection. But even if you go on Craigslist in Virginia Beach, you still have to drive there and deal with all the pitfalls of Craigslist. Who’re you meeting up with? What’s the condition of the board? And then you’ve got to find a convenient time to pick it up. It’s just such a hassle.”
There had to be a better way, Cannella thought.
“And that’s when Boardgrab kind of hit me,” he said. “And I just started trying to figure out what it is exactly that is so difficult about buying a used board and how to make it easier and what it would take.”
Cannella reached out to Jon Angot, a 2012 VCU alumnus and founder of RVA Surf Club, to develop the concept of Boardgrab and build out a website.
“We shared some beers and good conversation, and figured out how Boardgrab could function as a service,” Angot said. “So Boardgrab needed a website, and lucky for Tony, I work at Never-Not, where making websites is our main squeeze. We made the website, did some consulting along the way, and eventually Tony asked me to be a partner in the company. Our love has only blossomed since then.”
How it works
Boardgrab, in its current iteration, is simply a listing of surf shops’ used board inventory. It currently does not process sales of used surfboards or receive a commission, though the company expects to down the road.
“Right now, we’re just a catalog,” Cannella said. “You find a board you like, you click ‘grab it,’ and that’ll give you the surf shop’s information. If you aren’t local, you can call them and ask if they can ship it to you. If you’re local, you can call and reserve the board, and then just go pick it up from the shop.”
In January or February, following Cannella’s graduation from VCU in December, he plans to travel up and down the West Coast to enroll more surf shops.
“Our next step is taking it to the West Coast,” he said. “From there, we’re going to really automate all the systems to where we can sell boards, accept money and shops can put up the pictures of their inventory themselves.”
He also hopes to eventually expand the business beyond just used surfboards.
“I could see us expanding the platform to include snowboards, paddleboards,” he said. “Just board equipment, though. Who knows where it goes from there?”
Snowboards in particular, he said, make a lot of sense.
“We really think once we get into snowboards, they’re going to be a lot easier than surfboards,” he said. “Surfboards are bigger, they’re more fragile, harder to ship. So if we can really perfect buying a used surfboard over the internet, then we think snowboards will just fall right into place for us.”
Boardgrab has great potential, Angot said, as it meets the needs of the surfing industry.
“Boardgrab has the potential to be a big player in the action sports industry,” he said. “But what makes me feel good about what we’re doing is seeing how we can be a huge service for shops that don’t have much of an online presence. The surf shops and shapers are under assault right now, and I’m glad that we can help them.”
A ‘go get ’em attitude’
Cannella is a student in the School of Business’ Entrepreneurship Program, which he credits with teaching him much about how to channel his creativity toward launching a business.
“What I love so much about the culture at VCU is that they understand entrepreneurs in the sense that you don’t give them a bunch of worksheets to fill out, don’t structure too much, let them do what they want, how they want to do it, where they want to do it,” he said. “They’re hands-on when they need to be, and hands-off when they don’t. They understand how to support students who have a passion for starting their own company.”
Jay Markiewicz, executive director of entrepreneurship programs at the School of Business, said Cannella is a “standout young entrepreneur” and that “it’s no surprise that he is achieving success as the founder of Boardgrab.”
“What strikes me most about Tony is his go get ’em attitude,” Markiewicz said. “He works extremely hard and only focuses on what’s most important for his company. I recall receiving an email from him the day after he finished my entrepreneurship course where he said: ‘Well, the day after our final presentation I launched my company Boardgrab.com — the best place to buy and sell used surfboards. We launched in the test market Charleston, South Carolina, and to this day have sold 50 boards only in Charleston. This is what I was working on throughout the entire semester in your class so I thought you might like to hear about the little success I’ve had so far!’”
Cannella is a great example of how the Entrepreneurship Program sets students up for success, whether they go to work for corporate America or launch their own company, Markiewicz said.
“The reason is we focus on real-world skills and teach practical and applicable tools [and] frameworks that are necessary for success,” he said. “We believe in experiential learning, the power of being creative and innovative, and the value of both thinking and doing. Who doesn’t want a self-starter that identifies problems and solves them? That’s the core of our entrepreneurship program. Tony is one of the shining examples of how our entrepreneurship students are thriving.”
Cannella also cites the Pre-Accelerator Program as being instrumental in helping Boardgrab get off the ground. The program evolved from what was originally called the Go For It! program, which was entirely funded by donations.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “The most important thing it did for me was it plugged me into Richmond’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. I now know people out there who can help, who are potential investors, and who just want to foster entrepreneurial activity. It’s also been great to just to have the comfort knowing the VCU community is right behind us.”
Thanks to a few investors, Cannella was able to pay for his trip to visit the surf shops.
“I probably spent $1,000 to $2,000 on gas and I couldn’t have done that if it’d been coming out of my own pocket,” he said. “We’re also sponsoring a bunch of surf events to get our name out there. The first round of funding allowed us to do that, and we’re already starting to see some good outcomes from it.”
Boardgrab’s website is seeing around 200 visitors per day, Cannella said. And the event sponsorships are helping to build awareness.
“More and more people out there are hearing about us, we’re out there sponsoring events, and they’re like, ‘These guys are serious. It’s not just a garage operation.’ Well, I mean, we are,” he said. “But it doesn’t appear that way.”