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Lesley Zonnekein of Surf Neutral: Making Artisan Surfboards Globally On-Hand
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Lesley Zonnekein of Surf Neutral: Making Artisan Surfboards Globally On-Hand

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In this episode of Saltwater High, we will introduce you to Lesley Zonnekein and let you in on a great hack, especially if you are keen on surfing trips or simply stoked about handcrafted artisan surfboards!

Surf Neutral is a platform that lets you connect to shapers wherever they are and wherever you may be—bringing surfers closer to surfboard shapers through the boards made. The brainchild of Lesley’s love for surfing and extensive background in IT gives you access to hard-to-find and unique surfboards crafted by local shapers, aiming to keep the stoke globally on-hand, anytime and anywhere.

Surf Neutral is designed so shapers can use the Surf Neutral blueprint to get a complete shaper profile and digitize and rent out their surfboards with insurance. In addition, Surf Neutral enables surfboard craftsmen to track and keep their portfolios and the history of the boards made online. Surf Neutral introduced a unique QR code for each uploaded board. A scan of the code reveals information about the board, the shaper, the location, and the surfer surfing it. Based on the work done over the years, Surf Neutral is in the process of making a new marketplace in 2022 for shapers and surfers, introducing surfboard NFT sales.

Social Media Profiles:

Topics Discussed:

  • What's is it like in South Africa these days?
  • What are the protocols in South Africa now?
  • Tell me how you got to South Africa from Belgium.
  • Is there a large expat community in JBay?
  • Has the water in JBay gotten more crowded?
  • How did you get the idea for Surf Neutral? What is it about?
  • NFT (Non-fungible tokens)
  • How to use the Surf Neutral site
  • What was your first surfboard?
  • What was your best wave?
  • If you could go back and give your younger self advice, what would it be?

Location: South Africa


Saltwater High, what's up? I've got Leslie from South Africa today, so stoked to meet you, bro. How are you?

I'm doing fine, Derek. I'm doing fine. Yourself?

Yeah, I'm doing well, bro. Yeah. We just got a swell in today, so I'm kind of stoked. It's been a bad winter so far.

It was a bad summer this far.

Was it bad? Yeah.

Yesterday, we scored some waves, so that was cool and there were some little feelers this morning, but some logging waves, so that was okay. Kind of fun.

Nice. Are you in JBay?

Yeah, we are. We are in JBay exactly.

Dude, I love that place.

Oh, me too.

I think that's one of my favorite waves in the world, for sure.

Yeah, exactly. Me too. We arrived here 6 years ago and we never left. That's how I do it.

Wow. That's amazing, bro. Yeah. So what's it like there these days? I don't imagine there are too many travelers in South Africa with COVID.

Well, there are a few travelers here, but not too much now. Not too much because we just passed the summer holiday, so we had 4 weeks of summer. The kids were out of school and stuff, so, yeah, there was quite a busy in town. Not all surfers, but a lot of farmers from the country pulling in into their holiday homes here in town. So it was kind of busy, but since today, actually, it's all kind of cleared out. Things are getting back to normal.

Yeah. And what are the protocols? Do you have to wear masks and that sort of thing or what's the environment like?

Yeah, here it's kind of okay. We wear masks in the shop, obviously, but apart from that, everything is open. We can go to a restaurant. We don't need to give any COVID passes or anything, so that's lucky us on that part, I think. It's a bit more relaxing than what you guys are going through, I reckon.

Yeah. I hear your doggy back there. That's awesome.

It's actually the birds.

Oh, is that the birds? Oh, wow. So tell me a little bit about how you got to South Africa, because you're from Belgium originally, right?

I'm from Belgium, exactly. So I was born in Austin, so close to the sea. My granddad was a fisherman, so I think we all had the ocean a bit in our blood. And yeah, I started surfing since 1998 actually, but I had a job, like most of us in the IT industry. I worked for Verizon business, actually, for almost 9 years. And then actually I went into startup businesses working for an incubator. And it was kind of a hard job sometimes with these 2 jobs. I managed a team in Egypt, Dubai of software engineers and sometimes working with American people. So you don't have a real 9-to-5 job. You're working day and night and all of a sudden you get to have 2 lovely daughters. So my daughter didn't see me, and actually one day she said that to me, "Dad, I don't see you." So I said to my boss at the time, I'm going to take some time off. A year, sabbatical. I want to have a year of sabbatical and I go to Australia actually.


So long story short, during that year, I gave a year notice to do that.

Yeah, no, tell me we've got time.

And during that year, my boss started this company called ThreeFold Foundation which was a blockchain company building a three-fold token for independent internet. And he found some people all over the world that could help him in this project. So he called me and he said, "Listen, come to South Africa, we're going to do something here." A lot of politics got involved and I said, "Listen, we're going to do some things remote and I just need to have some time for me and my family." So I had that sabbatical year and then I came to JBay and I fell in love with the vibe here, the wave, the climate. And that's how 1 year came 2 years and the second year, we decided to stay here and to migrate to Jeffrey's Bay. So we got our visas sorted, we got everything right. So now we're permanent residents of South Africa, which is basically pretty awesome for us as a family. But yeah, to be able to stay here, you need to have your work visa and stuff like that. So that's all worked out. Also part is due to SurfNeutral, actually.

Yeah, great. That's a great story, man. I'm sure there are many listeners out there that think about this sort of lifestyle. That's one of the reasons that I started this podcast is it seems to be a common story, right? People, they think that their life should be one way, they should work like dogs and forego any kind of happiness and not see their family. And kind of one day they wake up and they realize, oh wait a sec, the whole reason I started surfing was because I felt a certain freedom inside of myself and I no longer feel that. And it sounds to me like you had one of those moments, right?

Exactly. Goosebumps when you tell it, but it's exactly like that. And then you come here and you meet amazing people and you think about all the travels you've done because I've been traveling every single day of holiday I've took in my career was dedicated to surfing or snowboarding. So then you come here and look at the people and speak with the people and try to be up and make something new, try to get a new direction in your life. And for us, that was SurfNeutral. And my wife, she's a physio, so she was a physio in Belgium so that you can do everywhere across the world. So now, she's doing that here.

Great. And is there a large expat community in Jeffrey's Bay or there aren't that many people like you that just uprooted their whole life and moved there?

Well, I have to say since the Corona thing happened 2 years ago, we see a lot of people moving in. For us, we arrived here 6 years ago, almost 7 this year. We saw also quite some influx of people now, but more like people from Cape Town, people from Durban pulling in. Less from Durban, but a lot from Cape Town that want to avoid the cold water there. They work from home, they work remote anyway. So now we have also a little place here in town called the Green Room, which is a shared working space where people can go and hire a desk and have good internet connections and stuff like that. So that's all part of the little community since COVID happen. And you basically see a lot of interest in this area.

Yeah, that's great. I first went to JBay probably in the early 2000's. It's one of those places where as soon as I pulled up, I was like, "Oh, I feel like this is home."

I have to say it's a bubble. If you drive out of town 30ks or you go to St. Francis, obviously, there is also a very nice community. And if you drive a bit further away from these parts, you come in a whole other Africa. Everything is all so concentrated in this area. And that's what I like. You drive 7 minutes, and even yesterday I was telling my wife, "Check these mountains. It's amazing. It's an amazing place." And you're just going to drive 7 minutes and you're like in the middle of nowhere. And that's what I really love about this wonderful town here.

Yeah. And has the water gotten more crowded with new people coming in or not so much?

There's been some more people, for sure. People come. But like I said, not everybody is a surfer. I'm mostly surfing very early in the morning. So it's mostly the same crowd you see very early in the morning.

Yeah. Nice.

But if I look to the waves and you see there's been some upcoming crowds. It's not only surfers and it's not the only point that you have here. You have like 10, 15 breaks along this 7-kilometer stretch of coastline here. So you can pick your battles. And you don't even have to pick battles because you can surf alone in other places.

Yeah, absolutely. So how did you get the idea for SurfNeutral, which I love. Maybe you want to tell everyone a little bit about what it is and how you came up with the idea.

Exactly. So our trip in South Africa started in Durban, right? And I knew that Hugh Thompson, he is a very well-known shaper here in South Africa. And I wanted a longboard from him and then went to a surf shop there and basically the guy from the surf shop said, "Oh, he's not here in Durban anymore. He's in Jeffreys Bay." I said, "Okay, fine, I'm going to pass." This is on our way to Cape Town because there I have my meetings for our future and stuff like that. So I'm going to pass JBay and maybe I'm going to meet him there. For our first night in JBay, we hired a spot here and it was absolutely terrible. I had my 2 daughters. The place was disgusting, just absolutely disgusting. If I wanted to go to sleep, there was hair in the bed of people, blood on the cushions, and stuff like that.

Ugh, bro!

This is not it. I want to get out of this town here first thing in the morning. This is not for me. While I had a very good surf the first day because I went to JBay to Nina's restaurant where then I met all those freaking amazing longboards and old school surfboards on the roof and on the ceiling. And I was inspired by all this. Everything together. But in the morning, I left that place and I left the place where we slept because I demanded to change the sheets and everything. So I said, "Listen, I'm not staying here for a week. I'm going straight back to point, going to take my longboard and surf a bit." And there were 2 guys sitting on the bench watching the waves. And I'm like, "Guys, you're obviously from here. I'm new in town. I just arrived. Do you know where I can find Mr. Thompson?" And one of the guys said to me, "Oh, it depends which Mr. Thompson." I'm like, "I want Hugh Thompson." And he's like, he pulled his hand out to me, he says, "Oh, nice to meet you, bro." I'm like, "What? Cool."

That's awesome.

That was Hugh Thompson, just in front of me there. So we were like, I told him the whole story about the previous night and he said, "You know what, I have a solution for you. One of my best mates here in town has a cottage for you and the family." So we stayed there. Very lovely family. Gary Stevens, he was actually the first professional skater of South Africa. His house was a museum now with all records and wow, it was amazing. Playing good tune. So this is what our place for the first 2 weeks here in South Africa.


Wow! This is, man, meeting all those special people. And we're like getting to know each other, me and having an IT background, I'm like to Hughie, we had awesome beers and then I look at his website and I said, "We can improve this and that. Yeah, we can." So I started creating a website in WordPress for Hughie. I found the same problem with other shapers here. So then I meet the Sawyers, Steven Sawyer, and his dad, Des Sawyer. He's also amazing shaper here in JBay and a couple of other guys, obviously, Nate and Thys Strydom from Rebel. So those are all very nice shapers, but they all have the same problem. They all didn't have a nice website and they didn't have the time for it or didn't want to invest in it and didn't have the knowledge to basically build a website. And me, as a surfer traveling here, I always ding my board. So traveling with your boards, we all know it's always. So I said, "Listen, I have a problem here with me as a surfer traveling with boards, dinging those things all the time." And then we have the shapers that basically don't have time to build websites and stuff like that, so what if I build a blueprint for them so they can get their own website onto a platform where they can post their boards, keep track of their boards, keep track of the riders of their boards, and as such, build history of their boards, right?


So this is where I came to the idea of connecting the surfer with the shaper because now I wanted to build some blueprint for the shaper where they can have a portfolio, where they can show for free with just putting in some questions that every journalist asks or every guy asks that comes. Some basic questions so people online know their experience, how many boards they shape, what material do you prefer, and so on and so on. And then which location do you shape? So those are all basic questions we ask to shape them, which can just be answered with dropdown menu. So very simple. And then when this is done, they can just upload a board. So, like you do it on Instagram. So you add a board on the system and you upload your pictures and then you can upload it and it's on your profile, right? So then it's visible for all the surfers. So it's basically then a bit of an Instagram type of thing, but I didn't want that. So I'm like being into those restaurants with all those old school boards, those vintage boards. I thought, I want to know, like, hey, who was that shaper? And then I thought if we make every board unique because it starts with my previous boss and this whole uniqueness of the blockchain and everything. I started like, how can I build this project that is compatible in the future with this new technology that is upcoming? So now we're talking about 4 years ago, 5 years ago. So we started doing the basic work with the QR code, and now everybody needs his QR code in Europe. So now people are going to start to adapt on those QR code things. So I said, listen, every board that is uploaded, you're going to give it a QR code if there's no QR code in it, or we're going to allow the shaper to have decals, his own decal with the QR code so he can laminate the decal into his board and then upload the board, take a picture of the QR code and have all this information on the board. This QR code basically is the digital connection with the internet. So your physical board is now digitally connected to your profile and to the information that you put in the board. If you want to have a YouTube movie, for example, explaining your model, then you can add it to that QR code, which is for me. Oh, I thought that was pretty awesome.

Yeah, awesome.

Having all that information on that little code. So that was what we started off with for the shapers. So they can all do that on SurfNeutral free of charge, right? So that's all there.

Very cool.

We come to the next step where we said we want surfers to ride surfboards from local shapers so we can travel without surfboards, go to local shapers and try some of their boards if they want. Right? Then the first thing was like, "It's hard to do that because not everybody knows how they surf my board. So I get them back. They think that I need to fix them and stuff like that." So I said, "Listen, that's fine. So before I started the whole process of implementing this rental feature, we made agreements with an insurance company that basically insures surfboard per hour or per day or per half day.


So now a shaper can basically rent out his surfboards on SurfNeutral. So first, he can digitize them, building its history, and now he can rent them out, too, so surfers can find them, see who they are, see what boards they have. So imagine you have a very nice board that you want to have that board costs you $1,500, $1,600. Imagine you can try one of those first to see if you like it so you can rent it. And then the shaper can say, "Listen, here you go. This is my board. It's insured. If it's dinged, we're going to pay you all the ding costs." So, yeah, this is the whole idea behind SurfNeutral. And now the next step, obviously, is a question that I had a lot is building a marketplace for surfboards.

That was my next question. That's awesome. I think it's a great idea.

So now we're in the process of building the marketplace. And now with the latest technology that came out in the past 2 years like the NFT, non-fungible tokens, I'm sure you heard about it. Or maybe not.

Of course. Yeah, I know. Of course, yeah.

So non-fungible, maybe for the listeners, I will explain what a non-fungible token is.

Yeah, that's a good idea. Do it.

Basically, if you have a bill of $100, it's exchangeable with another bill of $100. Right? So that is a fungible token. But if you were Kelly Slater and you're surfing a board that's been maybe Tomo, he made 2 of the same boards. I ride this board here at Supers and then Kelly Slater rides that same board at the Pipe Masters, and he rent it. So now we're both going to sell our boards. I bet Kelly Slater will get more money for his board than I do, even if mine doesn't have anything. Right? So those 2 surfboards are the same, the cost of making is the same, but because they've had a new trajectory, they're not exchangeable. So that's non-fungible. So now we're creating a marketplace where shapers can sell their boards as non-fungible tokens. So if a certain surfer surfs it and he is dead on this, he accepts this board as a token, too. Then he can exchange it in the future or exchange a token, exchange the board or both, or have sponsorship. If a sponsor wants to go in there and then sponsor. But behind that, there's some smart contracts that we're making which gonna benefit the shaper and the creator of the surfboard. That's what we're building now. So not a normal marketplace. So we're going to do it based on NFT's. That's our first trajectory in the next couple of months, actually. Then from there, we're going to focus and see how that goes and see what the interest is, obviously. But the offer does it. I think it's going to open up a market, because then obviously those QR codes get really a meaning because then you can connect, scan the code, scan it, and then it's connected to NFT and stuff like that. So it's all connected.

That's amazing. So in the scenario of the NFT, if I were to buy the example board shape, so I'm a little confused. Would I then own the rights to that particular shape or to that particular iteration of that shape?

You're going a bit further down our roadmap, actually.


Because an NFT basically is just a picture, right? A picture on the internet or an MP4. Right? That's an NFT. It's just an MP4, a JPEG, a GIF, a PNG file. That's an NFT. So now we're building behind that, we're making the connection with the physical assets through the QR code. So that's the thing that we say, listen, this is a use case that we can use and where we can connect the physical board to a digital asset. So that's what we're doing. So now the next step is having obviously the boards in a 3D file, right?


That we need to basically then sell with the NFT. But the 3D file, you can't attach it to an NFT because an NFT is only a picture or an MP4. So now we're building on this solution where are we gonna attach and created a 3D file. The NFT is connected to the 3D file, and so on. And then basically the owner of the NFT will be the owner of the file and the owner of the model. But now we're basically walking a few steps ahead. But this is what we are going with, that's what's on our goal map.

Yeah, I think it's super exciting because I've done some shaping over the years. So you have these CAD files, basically, shapers files that you use if you have the blank CNC, right? So you send it to a CNC, which is a machine that cuts out the blank. So the sweet sauce and a lot of the board, a lot of the shapes is that CNC file, right. That's kind of the intellectual property. So it would be an amazing iteration because what happens now is if somebody gets hold of that CNC file, they can just reproduce your shape and without any credit to the original shaper who actually created that particular iteration.


So if you could connect a smart contract to the original CNC file that then lives as that Kelly Slater surfboard, for example, in your example. And every time someone creates a board from that file, the original shaper, just like the original artist would get a percentage or small cut. That would be sick.

Exactly. That's the smart contract we're making actually. But first, we're going to do it for that. But that's why you need to build it from the ground up and start with the nitty details. It's easy for everybody to go to certain platforms and to create his NFD. But then for us, it's like we need to give credits to the creator, to the shapers, to the people that have it. But if you do that with the 3D file, it's a whole different ballgame, because now you're talking about having files attached to NFTs, which we nearly dead on doing. So that's pretty cool. Just step by step. This is our go-to for 2022, actually. And then we can sell custom surfboards in many different formats. So we have some plans on that, which obviously I will explain in the next one.

Yeah, it's a great idea, bro. Because you can really, look, all of us, all surfers, they love 2 things. And I don't know which one they love more than the other. They love surfboards and they love waves, right?

Yeah, exactly.

We all spend a lot of time looking at surfboards, either thinking about buying them, thinking about surfing them, just admiring how they're made, how they'll surf. So I think having a whole marketplace for surfboards in the NFT space is a beautiful idea because then it already speaks to who your customer is. Your customer is a shaper and a surfer. And then kind of this NFT thing is we all it'd be cool to say, oh, yeah, I own that particular shape that was done by a particular shaper back in the day who's been kind of selling his shapes to the world, right? As a surfer, I just wish I had a picture of all the boards I've shaped, all the boards I've surfed and shaped in my life, actually, I don't even have pictures of them. So I think in your idea for SurfNeutral's, to have a physical picture of the board connected to this QR code is already such a great step because I'm sure a lot of surfers and shapers will, as your database grows, they'll be like, oh, yeah, I remember that board I shaped last year. And so and so bought and there it is there.

Yeah, exactly. And even you can see the surf history, right? So if you sell the board and that you can all do on SurfNeutral, it's there, we've made it already. So if you transfer, you can transfer the board to your surfer. Right? And then if the surfer accepts it on the other side of the world, you can see where your board is at while in a certain vicinity to protect the privacy of the surfer. Right? But you can see in which area the board is at the moment. And as a surfer, you can build your surf map on SurfNeutral. So if you go to my personal quiver on SurfNeutral, I have a board or 2 on there that you can see. Okay, he's been surfing here, he's been surfing there, and he's been surfing that. So you can go to your own board, right? So this unique board on the internet and see where you've been surfing, who owns the board because if I resell the board to you, I can transfer it again. So that's all there already. So now it's just a matter of connecting into the other space, which is the blockchain.

Yeah. Very cool, man. Love it, bro.


Yeah, it's a great idea, man. I'm glad you're doing it. Super stoked.

Yeah, it's complex and it's going very slowly because obviously, it's all privately funded also. So it's all baby steps. And we don't have large budgets to do marketing. And all the marketing that we've done so far, it's just some Instagram posts and some Facebook posts. So we hope slowly, by the word of mouth that we get more traction and that people, when we have the marketplace in place or if shapers feel like renting out some surfboards with insurance that they do, because then we earn, obviously, a little percentage of every rental. And after any seat sales, we also going to ask a little commission.

Very cool. Love it. Cool, man. I have a couple of kind of rapid fire questions I like to ask. What was your first surfboard?

It was a Brazilian longboard, but I don't know who shaped it. It was that like a channel in the front and a channel in the back. And I still have it. It's in Belgium. It's my go-to. The only board I still have over there. All the rest are here.


That works pretty well.

How big is it?

It's a 9'2". Oh, man, and I remember. It was a pro-competition in 1999 in San Sebastian. And it was a guy. His van was full of boards, and he was like, "Hey, can you please hey, hey, come? Can you please buy this surfboard? I need to pay my ticket home." And I was like, "Okay, what do you have?" And it was a boogie board. I started with boogie boarding, right? And let me try that longboard here. So then I bought it. I've been stoked about longboarding ever since.

Awesome. That's a great story, bro. Nice. What's the best wave that you can remember that you ever took?

The best wave. Right or left?

Either one. Whatever comes up, bro. Do 'em both if you want.

The best left I surfed was, no doubt, G-Land in Java. That was for me epic.

Such a sick wave.

The number 2 for me is Nias in Indonesia, also in Sumatra. And the third one is here, Super Tubes here.

Right at home, baby.

That's such a great memory for me.

That's a great top 3, bro, for sure. If you could go back and give your younger self advice, what would it be?

Buy Bitcoin.

Buy Bitcoin, yeah. Yeah, good advice. Good advice, bro. I have a quick story on that. So early days, Bitcoin, first couple of years, there's a gym here in town, and I go and sometimes I sit in the hot tub afterwards. And I was sitting in the hot tub and I started talking to this guy I didn't know. And I was like, "Hey, how are you?" He's like, "Oh, I'm good. I just wrote this book." And I was like, "Oh, yeah, what did you write it on?" And he's like, "Oh, I just wrote it on Bitcoin." And dude, super early days, probably when Bitcoin was still maybe $100, something like that. And he looked me in the eye. He looked me in the eye and he says, "Whatever you think about my story, go home and buy a couple of Bitcoin right now." is what he told me.

I hope you did.

I didn't. I didn't. I went home and I researched it. And back then, it was so hard to even figure out how to buy it, right?

Exactly. It can turn from a dollar to $100 in 2 days.

Yeah, exactly. What an incredible opportunity laid at my feet. My lesson from that is the universe is always giving us advice, and we just have to listen.

Yeah, exactly. It's an exciting journey, this technology. I've been working in the high-tech industry. I've been there. Knew about the technology that we learned about it in the very start days. I knew Bitcoin sale was $25, $30. You're so much into your own working world and your space and you're like, ahh. And then you don't even bother. You're busy in creating a company for somebody else, and you're just so focused. That's how I was at the time. But I learned.

Yeah, we've been there, bro.

I learned a lot about the technology, which is cool to understand and which helps me and have helped me a lot in building SurfNeutral, actually.

Very cool. So where can everyone find you? And then the Instagram, all these links in the show notes. @surfneutral, cool. And why that name? Just as a departing question.

Because we want it to be neutral for all shapers and for every surfer, too. If you paddle out and you come in a lineup, you always have this. Sometimes people look at you like ugh! Other people are very friendly, but we want to be neutral. I'm neutral. It's a neutral platform for every shape. I don't pull anybody in front or back. We're trying to be neutral. We want to make it easier for surfers to find local shapers. And the shapers have a neutral place. They all have the same blueprints that they can build their website. So everything is neutral. No distinction between any.

I like it. I love it. It's a great message for the whole world. Absolutely. All right, brother. Thank you so much for spending the time here. It was great to talk to you. I hope to share a wave with you at JBay someday in the future.

Oh, that would be lovely. Let me know for sure, Derek. It would be good.

I will. I will, bro. Yeah, man. You take care. Take care, brother.

Thank you very much. Have a wonderful 2022. Thank you for inviting me on the show. It was really my pleasure to be there and to share my story. Our story.

Thank you, brother. Yeah, man.

Cheers, man.