Tom Kay founded Finisterre from a shared flat, on a dial-up modem. He’s been on a genuine adventure since. He talks shipping forecasts, shared visions and sticking to your true north – even when the seas turn rough.
“I spent much of my childhood in North Norfolk. My parents wanted to give my sister and I a love of the sea, so I was in boats and around the sea from an early age. But when I hit 15 or 16, when other people were getting into music or team sports, I really got into surfing. I lived and breathed it. It was all I knew, really. I went to university in Bristol, doing a Biology degree with a marine focus, but during the holidays I lifeguarded and taught surfing down here in Cornwall. Up to that point the sea had been a big part of my life. But my father, who was ill at the time, and I guess from his own personal experience, was keen for me to get a qualification, so when I graduated I became a chartered surveyor in London. After 18 months of that, I knew I had to build something that brought my passions together.
I remember you’d open a surf magazine back then, and for the first eight pages it was all bikinis and board shorts. The sort of surfing I knew was dark starts, cold winds, driving rain, shifting tides but on its day, it is as good as anywhere. In those days before the internet, I’d spend hours studying isobar maps and weather charts. But there was a romance to it that I loved, because it took real commitment. I felt there was a genuine need for a brand that I could align with, and which represented that commitment and built real product that would address a sustainable design agenda.
When I was growing up I can remember listening to the BBC shipping forecast in my parent’s car, figuring out where all the sea areas were and understanding the sea states and conditions. Finisterre was one of these shipping forecast regions. It literally means ‘end of the earth’, and it was one of the biggest sea areas, off Cape Finisterre in Spain. I used to picture what it might be like for trawler-men right out in these huge seas and big gales, listening round a ship’s radio, while I was in a safe and warm car in the back lanes of Norfolk. On the one hand the forecast is romanticised but on the other it is very real – it exists to save lives at sea. Finisterre has a romance and a reality to it.
In the early years, Finisterre’s only product was a waterproof breathable fleece, giving money to Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society. For the first four years it was just me in my bedroom, with some help from my sister. I was working in Truro three days a week, lifeguarding in the summer, and I used to take the fleeces to trade shows at weekends, meeting customers face-to-face. We did have a three-page website, but all I had was a dial-up modem; I had to get my flatmates off the phone to be able to use it. Google wasn’t really around, so you still had to type in the actual URL to find the website. So those were quite long years!
“You’d open a surf magazine for the first eight pages it was all bikinis and board shorts. The sort of surfing I knew was dark starts, cold winds, driving rain, shifting tides but on its day it was as good as anywhere. In those days before the internet, I’d spend hours studying physical maps and weather charts. But there was a romance to it that I loved, because it took real commitment.”
I never lost faith in our potential and where we could go. Little milestones would give me encouragement. I’d go to a show and sell 100 fleeces, and just break even on the show cost. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I’d laid out all the money to get into a show, it was a small win. It meant there were 100 people who loved what they’d seen and had bought a product I’d spent ages designing, branding and marketing. I wasn’t a businessman, I wasn’t a designer. But those little things made me go: ‘This is possible.’ When you start out it’s your mum, your sister, your friends buying your stuff. I remember the first time I saw someone I didn’t know wearing one of my products. It was about two years after starting - a pretty exciting moment.
Four years in, there were three of us, flying by the seat of our pants. The HQ here on the cliff at Wheal Kitty was literally just a shell of a building, full of random furniture people had given us. But we were united by a common belief – that we could make this vision, this dream, become a reality. I’d say to the guys, ‘Remember these days, because it won’t be like this forever, just three of us round a table, taking on the world.’ We were like brothers: we’d go surfing together, go to the pub together, go on trips together. And we were pushing the brand as hard as we knew, banging on doors and being evangelists of what we were doing and building a better business.
The whole idea of green, as it was then, was still in its infancy, and people didn’t really get it. They thought we were just making whatever on the cliff in some crazy fantasy land. But I think if you’re going to start something from scratch, something that’s going to shake things up, you do get a lot of naysayers. But that can be empowering. And you do get some people who take it on early. We’ve got customers that have been around from day one, who remember products we brought out in, say 2006. To talk to them now is a real privilege.
The journey has definitely given me battle scars. Things got mega tough financially between 2008 and 2012, I was taking a lot of the risk on myself. I’d always really loved having my work life intertwined with who and what I truly was, but suddenly I wasn’t looking forward to coming in on a Monday: I knew I’d just be ringing people up telling them I couldn’t pay them. Those were the toughest years for me, psychologically. I felt very responsible for my team – everyone had come down to be part of this thing I’d set up, and this was a real time when we were almost failing. I’d taken out some big loans to fund the business that I was personally liable for, so there was a lot more on my shoulders. I was living in a shared house, in an exposed spot in St Agnes; I’d wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, my mind racing at 100 miles an hour, trying to work stuff out. The wind and rain would just be lashing. Wild, deep winter Cornish gales. Problems always seem worse, more amplified somehow, in the middle of the night when the wind is howling outside. I wasn’t really sharing it with anyone either. It was quite a dark time.
I turned down an investment at a critical time in the business. We needed the money, but I felt that their values weren’t in line with where the brand was going. That was not an easy decision. Getting a chunk of cash in the bank account would have oiled the wheels and taken all those pressures away, but if deep inside you’ve got a gut feeling that they aren’t going to be on-board with your purpose, you need to turn it down. It was a big decision, but I did it and it was the right call.
A year later, around 2012, I realised my current state wasn’t sustainable – neither for me nor the business. We had to get some help. So I literally went around knocking on doors looking for financial support. I met a guy called Nick Evans, at Active Partners who believed in me, liked the story and what we’d built and started working with us. This was a big achievement, a proud, defining moment and Nick and his team are great; it was fantastic to get their long term support. Suddenly it wasn’t just me making the big decisions; I now had support and a board to share that responsibility. And in terms of my personal psyche, it was great, because it meant the pressure was off a bit. We got breathing space and I also got oxygen personally. The brand journey and vision could continue.
One of the biggest things an entrepreneur can have is resilience. If you keep going, stuff will happen. If you stop, the business is going to stop. My thinking was that simple. With all the stuff I’d put on the line – I’d built a good team, built a good brand, built a good product – I just had to keep going. So I took it one week at a time. I could see where we could go, the potential of what we were building.
“One of the biggest things an entrepreneur can have is resilience. If you keep going, stuff will happen. If you stop, the business is going to stop. My thinking was that simple. With all the stuff I’d put on the line, I just had to keep going.”
I have an RNLI pager on my desk. The first thing I did when I moved down here to start Finisterre was join the Lifeboat crew at St Agnes. I was on the crew for about 10 years, before becoming a helm, five years ago. On its day St Agnes can be one of the roughest stations in the country. There’s often 20ft swells out to sea here in winter, and there’s no other craft that can get to some of the spots we go to. The week before last I had two shouts in a week. Suddenly the pager is going off and I’m driving down to the station. You get on the radio find out what the shout is for, it’s quite intense, the adrenalin’s really pumping – launch the boat and off you go. I’ve been out in wild winter gales and the only living things you see are reeling seabirds, that’s it. But the sea is what gives me energy.
I think having responsibility is very empowering, because you’re doing something that’s benefiting more than just yourself. The other day we picked up this lady who’d been coasteering and had fallen badly in the water. We had to get her out on a spinal board. It transpired she’d broken her back. She’s OK, but if we hadn’t done what we’d done she could have been paralysed from the chest down. I’m not sharing this to say ‘aren’t we great?’, but to show that what Lifeboat volunteers do is very real. And it’s going on round the stations all around the country all the time, it’s a unique thing. It’s good to have a sense of purpose. As a station our purpose to go and save people’s life at sea. It sounds dramatic, but that is actually what it’s like.
For me it’s always been the wider experience than just the act of surfing itself. It’s about the trips, the camaraderie, the adventure. Driving all night to arrive at a spot. The hardship and the rewards. Surfing is the glue that holds it together, but the rest of the experience is as important. We really feel this on our trips to document our Cold Water Surf campaigns, with some of the best photographers, cinematographers and surfers out there. We’d go and live with six or seven guys in a tent on Lewis, in the Western Isles off Scotland, for about a week. I’d have those hairs on the back of the neck moments, going off for a walk, looking back and seeing our big tent there in front of the waves, and knowing that all these guys had come on board with us. Special times, definitely.
Maybe running a business is like a trip to some new spot. I’ve always said it was about the adventure of it – doing something you’ve never done before, whether that’s becoming a businessman, starting a brand or innovating to achieve sustainability. All of this stuff is all so new. For example, we’ve now got the world’s only full-time wetsuit recycler, who’s aim is to work out how to make wetsuits from wetsuits and introduce circularity to the wetsuit industry. That really is ground-breaking, because we don’t know where it’s going to go. When you can feel you’re doing things that people haven’t done before, that’s the genuine unknown. It is adventurous and pioneering. And it’s really exciting.
I still see our original fleeces around today, 15 years later. That makes me proud. I always wanted to build product that would last and stand the test of time. People see the Finisterre badge on someone else’s jacket and they give them a bit of a nod, perhaps even talk to each other. I’ve been told that happens a lot. Those are always big moments, when I step back and see everything that’s going on. This is something I started, and now there’s all this stuff going on around it. The British side of me almost gets a bit overwhelmed by that. But I’m really proud of it, and of all the guys that I’ve been lucky to have met and who’ve helped along the way.
This all started with the help of a Prince’s Trust loan. Around eight years later I wrote a letter to HRH Prince of Wales, (probably because my mum had told me it was a good idea) to thank him for his support in the early years. He keeps all the letters, and our letter got to the top of his pile this year, so he came down in July. It was amazing to spend 45 minutes chatting to him about sustainability and innovation, wool, sheep and wetsuits. A big moment in our 15th year. He is a good guy and interested in what we were up to. During his visit I got out our first brochure to show him. It mentions the same three points of commitment: product, environment and people. As well as a love of the sea; meeting the needs of cold water surfers; and making the best and most sustainable product possible and the tone was the same as it is now.
We became B Corp accredited in January. B Corp’s mission is ‘to use business as a force for good’. Again, it’s about having a purpose beyond existing just as a business. As well as examining all areas of the business to become certified, we have also altered our articles of association so that we have a legal responsibility to our stakeholders, our environment, our people, culture and our communities. It’s given us a lot of things we can get better at, in terms of what’s possible with innovation and sustainability, design, retail spaces, and communities - in fact it feels like we’re just getting started.
I sometimes drive to work and think: ‘I’ve been on this journey for a long time’. But I still very much love working here, there’s lots of things going on. It’s a fun, exciting place to work, with fun, exciting people, driven and motivated to make it happen. We haven’t got it all totally worked out, but I’m very proud of what we do and the people I work with. I love it. And I’m as excited and motivated now as I ever have been. Possibly more so, actually. In the early days, blind naivety carried me through. I was working things out as I went along, but there was a genuine feeling that I was driving hard as I could to make it a reality.
There’s momentum behind us now. That momentum is an exciting thing for the business, and for me personally, having written down the vision at the start. I’m very proud to see that the guiding principles are now even more alive than when they were just the kernel of an idea. It’s 60 people, seven retail stores, international sales, and a brand that is known for and guided by our same true north star, that commitment. There’s still work to be done, still things to get better at, but it’s exciting. And it’s real.