Words by Ashley Hurst
Photos by Kyle Carpenter
Bryan Thompson cries every time he listens to Guy Raz interviewing Jake Burton Carpenter from Burton Snowboards on Raz’s podcast, How I Built This. And when he is so frustrated that he’s about to toss out everything he’s been working on, he listens to the episode with James Dyson about how he invented Dyson Vacuums. “That episode also chokes me up because I see myself in his utter and complete despair of making iteration after iteration, prototype after prototype. People thought he was crazy.”
At the end of every segment, Guy Raz asks these truly amazing people three questions about their success: Do you attribute your success to your intelligence? Do you attribute your success to your hard work? How much of your success is because of luck? People give all kinds of answers. Bryan would answer, “I’m not smarter than anyone else. Luck is a huge variable that is present in almost every success story. But hands down, hard work is the fuel that makes anything great happen.”
Bryan is an inventor, and he has put a serious amount of hard work into something he’s passionate about: wakesurfing. After seeing a YouTube video of someone wakesurfing almost a decade ago, Bryan was hooked.
The draw to wakesurfing is the consistency. Natural waves last well under a minute, but a boat's wave can last for as long as the boat is moving. The average wakesurfer travels at around 12 miles per hour, and because the body feels almost weightless, the sport requires almost zero upper body strength, and it is easy on your knees and back.
Wakesurfing is a fast-growing sport—with a fast-growing price tag. Twelve years ago, an entry-level boat came with a price tag of about $40,000. Today, that price tag is closer to $180,000. Historically, the common way to make your surf wave bigger would be to add more weight; the farther down the boat is in the water, the taller the surf wave. With the explosion of the sport and a general desire for bigger waves, more weight is added to the boat, which means that boats are getting bigger—bigger boats to carry the extra 4,000 pounds of water and bigger engines to pull the load. Bigger means a more expensive boat, and it also means more mechanical problems.
The summer of 2019 was a difficult one for Bryan. A failing business was threatening to force him to sell his boat at the end of the summer. Its surf wave was on the low side of mediocre, its frequent mechanical problems was making it too expensive to maintain, and a new boat was not an option. Bryan became obsessed with designing a boat component that would allow "normal people" to wakesurf without financing a boat for 30 years.
In Bryan’s experience, when you finally have a working concept, that’s just the beginning. Then it’s time to be rigorous in refining your idea. You spend much of your time making one change, while you know there are many other things wrong. But it’s your only path forward because trying to fix them all at once will drive you crazy. Bryan says, “This is also the story of my life: I’ve got so many things that need to change, but if I look at all of them, I almost collapse under the weight of them all. So here I sit making one .01” change at a time. The process is maddening and cathartic at the same time.”
Bryan built over 500 prototypes over the summer of 2019. He would take them to the lake 25 at a time, and every single one of them broke, sank, or just didn't work. But one day, one of them did. He had made a surf wave with 65 percent less water in his boat. Surf.Mode appeared in the wake of hundreds of hours of work, and according to Bryan, it was all worth it.
Bryan began attaching his system to the side of anything he could—even to a Yamaha WaveRunner. On Labor Day, he posted a video on Facebook of his WaveRunner making a surf wave big enough for his 13-year-old daughter to surf ropeless. He says, "You know, I was going to be happy if I sold four or five, just to reinforce to myself that I wasn't crazy. But the post exploded, and I woke up with 300 messages in my Facebook inbox. In the first week, I shipped a surf system to every single state in the United States, with the exception of South Dakota. It was insane; I didn't know what to think. By the end of the second week. I had sold over 150 units!"
At the end of 2019, Bryan made another post to Facebook, saying, “I have learned so many things these past few years, but I swear I have lived a lifetime in the past 12 months. I can officially call myself an inventor. But I have also learned that ideas are easy. And they are like seeds—you better have a lot of them because most of them won’t grow. Having a concept in your mind is great, but the important part is putting in the work to make those concepts come to life as soon as you can make it happen. I am ending this year with a patent portfolio of 11 patents that will very likely change how boats are constructed in the future. It is not because I am a genius, because I am certainly not. I simply refuse to accept my own defeat—each and every time it’s served back to me hotter than before. I believe that normal, everyday people change things—not big companies."
Bryan’s advice to fellow inventors? “Surround yourself with people who support you even when you fail—and fail over and over again. Don't listen to what the world says; listen to what your soul says. Because you will absolutely fail—when you give up.”