"Changing lives, one wave at a time."
Bondi Beach is an Australian icon and tourists from around the globe are lured there like moths to the flame or perhaps more precisely, like fish to water. A burning sun, golden sands, the smell of celebrity and Bondi Rescue dramas are in abundance all year round, but there’s only one place to learn about the art of surf board riding and that’s at Let’s Go Surfing.
Brenda counts herself lucky to be at Bondi Beach every day and able to wear her uniform of board shorts and thongs to work. In her element – water – she’s celebrating the 20th anniversary this year of her surfing school business. From a family of strong women (her mother was in the Navy during WWII), she grew up with the attitude that you didn’t sit around waiting for something to happen, you went out to get involved, to help or to make it happen.
As a young competitor, she passionately encouraged girls onto ocean boards and into competitions to try to balance the gender numbers, because at that time surfing was pretty much a sport for boys.
Now she has 70 staff in different locations teaching across the societal spectrum. From professional surfers to disadvantaged groups and tourists to corporate staff on team building exercises. And, everyone who turns up for a lesson at the surf school comes with a story. Brenda, her staff and the surfboards are the vehicle, and they help them through their narrative – be it professional development, confronting a fear, healing a broken heart or simply wanting to have some fun. Being in the ocean is a transformative experience as much as it is general pleasure. Brenda likes to see people enjoying themselves and with a smile on their face.
The benefits of being in the ocean, out with the waves and meeting its challenges, are perhaps deeper than one can imagine. For Brenda Miley, facilitating the joy and profundity of the experience through her surf school, she knows she’s “changing lives, one wave at a time”.
Raised in an ocean-loving family at Coogee (just around the coastline from Bondi Beach), the experience of that first thrill of the wave she rode on her father’s back at age three may very well have been what steered her towards her life’s path. Sports-oriented and trained as a Physical Education (PE) teacher after her HSC and selective high school years, Brenda morphed from competitive swimmer to one of a few pioneering girls who ventured into the male-dominated sport of surfing.
While teaching PE at Dover Heights, she maintained a passion for surfing and had a deep desire to get more girls into the sport. From the back of a van and with some borrowed funds, Brenda started to coach surfing as a sideline to her teaching job.
“I borrowed a friend’s van and $5,000 and bought some surfboards and just started from the back of the van in the car park at Bondi. And, I just did that because I liked it.”
She also wanted more girls in the sport. That’s what got her started. She used to round up girls and take them to surfing competitions at Maroubra to pique their interest but because only boys were involved, they got a bit nervous. That’s when the idea to coach them came into play. She was a teacher after all. Why not use her skills to coach surfing?
Brenda’s boyfriend at the time – now her husband – was managing a ski shop and knew about marketing, retail and sales. Brenda, with her good nature, knew a lot about doing things for free. That made him mad! They decided to see if they could turn the venture into a money earner and found an old Laundromat to rent by the beach in which to set up shop. The rest they say, or at least Brenda does with a laugh, “is world domination”.
“We decided one day maybe we could make a living out of this together. We were driving round in North Bondi and saw the old laundromat was for rent and we thought, “Oh, maybe we should set up shop.” And we did.”
From there it was facing the reality of making the business work. There were mortgages, wages and leases to pay – all the overheads that simply didn’t exist doing business out of a van. They had faith that this was what they were meant to be doing it, and the pressure of waiting for money to come in was almost negated by their positivity and adaptability to be open to change if necessary.
“When we went into the shop, that was when reality set in, that, “Uh-uh! We actually have to make this a business. Otherwise, we’re going to go bankrupt, because we’ve got leases to pay and we’ve got now the staff and we need to make this viable. We had a mortgage, had to pay money,” remembers Brenda.
Realising she didn’t know a lot about the business aspects of Let’s Go Surfing, Brenda sought help through the Women in Business Mentoring Program, run by BEC (Business Enterprise Centre), and signed up to be mentored.
Grateful, yet again, to be a woman (there is no BEC Men in Business), the program helped her feel confident while developing her skill set to the next stage so she could keep moving forward. She knew she wasn’t alone, that she could do it.
Brenda now works for BEC and is a facilitator for the Women in Business Mentor Program, allowing her to continue her support and development for women. And she’s just welcomed a new businessman as mentor into her life. He coaches her free of charge and she’s grateful to have him on board.
“Mentors are fantastic because they’ve generally been there and done that. They know what’s going on and wherever you’re at in business they can help you on your path,” Brenda says.
In talking up the power of positive thinking, Brenda relates everything to surfing and says if you’re out in the waves and start thinking that you’re going to get hammered, generally you’ll get hammered and it won’t be pretty. So staying positive, thinking you can get through it and that you just have to do a few things to get where you want to, is key. Out there in the waves no other possible alternative is a good one.
Let’s Go Surfing is a business which has a pretty fluid workload. With up to 70 employees – casual to full-time – the roster can change at a moment’s notice because of the dependence on Mother Nature to provide the right conditions for surfing. Weather and tidal pulls can affect classes at a moment’s notice and those classes are as diverse as they are numerous. Mums come for an hour on Thursdays and other groups – birthday parties, local or disadvantaged groups and team-building corporate groups to name a few – all have fluctuating numbers and ad hoc bookings that literally have to go with the flow of the natural elements – a lesson in itself.
Safety is always the first priority, so when it’s too dangerous to surf, lessons are cancelled. This can inevitably leave some feeling disappointed but the risks are generally understood. No inexperienced surfer wants to put themselves into a wild and pounding surf. The sunny side is that more classes are scheduled during the good times keeping people engaged and enthused.
A big picture person, Brenda and her husband have aspirations for Let’s Go Surfing to expand geographically. Last year they took over a business in Byron Bay after feeling grounded and secure with the schools in Bondi and Maroubra. Iconic locations like the Gold Coast and Noosa are rich potential for their next venture, as perhaps is Bali. Brenda’s also been thinking about a move to LA for a year so that’s another exciting possibility that could materialise in the future. The goal is to grow and resource Let’s Go Surfing to the extent where it will become known as the world’s best surfing experience.
After reading the book by Janine Allis, the founder of Boost Juice, who has done exceptionally well, Brenda says she is a woman she aspires to be like. A woman of several passions who decided to run with and develop a great idea, she manages a family and a business that has gone from strength to strength. The similarities between the two women are quite striking. And, as Brenda keeps her aspirations for ‘world domination’ at the forefront of her business goals, she may soon start thinking about writing her own book and sharing her journey from junior surfer to successful businesswoman.
“We want to be the world’s best surf school experience, and we want to have locations in iconic beaches around the world,” she says.
Risks and the nerve to take some seems to be an underlying trait of entrepreneurs. They don’t necessarily want the security of a well-paid sedentary job. Rather, they want to put themselves out there and take a gamble on being masters of their own destiny, somehow make a difference. More often than not, they sweep people up around them; employing them, engaging them, helping them confront issues, aiding the process of self-healing or simply having a great time. These are the things Lets Go Surfing provides, even if it’s been a rough or patchy ride on the journey to autonomy.
When Brenda’s entrepreneurial spirit was looking for a way to take flight, her mother tried to convince her to stay in her teaching job. She listed the virtues and benefits it promised women who might become mothers. Enjoying school holidays with your kids was always a great lure and top of the chart in perks for female teachers, but it wasn’t what Brenda wanted. Instead, she took a risk and threw it all away for the chance to control her own destiny.
Business owners are reputably obsessed with running their business and are deemed to ‘have no life’; certainly not in Brenda’s case. Insisting she has a good life and enjoys days off she’s still always poised to act for the business if necessary.
When she started out, her aspirations and goals were modest. She wanted enough to pay the mortgage, travel to a tropical location every year and go surfing. And, apart from still paying off the mortgage, she enjoys living her dream fuelled by the other two happiness-inducing criteria. And it suits her just fine.
In the male-dominated surf industry Brenda certainly had her fair share of challenges. But she says you have to be tough and grow a thick skin. “There are so many people out there ready to tell you the bad stuff, that you’re no good or who enjoy a bit of mud slinging. There’s professional jealousy too. It’s a highly competitive environment; any business is.”
Kindness is an attribute that can be particularly difficult for women. Often it’s perceived as a weakness. But Brenda will attest that it’s not. Not unless you choose to be so nice you allow yourself to get walked all over. It can be a real challenge to speak up, and there have definitely been some challenging times in the industry for Brenda in that regard. But that doesn’t stop her from giving a lot personally and in the business. She’s always nice to people. And, she’ll tell you that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are a good indication of hierarchal status. Ginger Rogers had to dance backwards and in high heels to get half the kudos of Fred Astaire. Again, Brenda gives a hearty laugh and decrees world domination as the only way forward!
Every person who comes to the school has a story behind why they want to try surfing. So the goal is to give them a great time out there, a good experience. And it’s the best outcome the business can hope to achieve for its clients because it means they feel good about themselves. And for whatever reason they’ve come – to confront a fear, to grow confidence, to help in the grieving process after a break up, losing a loved one or to improve professionally – getting in the ocean can make them feel good about themselves and the Let’s Go Surfing team is there to help facilitate the experience. What a rewarding job. Enabler and coach of fun all in one!
Ask Brenda about the impact of the Bondi Rescue TV program and she’ll tell you it’s been both good and bad for the surf school business. On the downside, the beach can appear a real danger zone with sharks everywhere and people constantly being rescued. The danger can be overstated. On the up side, the exposure the beach gets on a global scale is substantial and the lifeguards are seen as highly professional, so visitors to the beach and swimmers feel as if they’re in good hands.
“I’m really fortunate that I get to work on Bondi Beach every day, and deliver a great ocean experience for people who want to change their lives. So one of my mottos is “Changing lives one wave at a time.”
Beach lovers and tourists, of course, come from everywhere to get an ocean glimpse, hopefully a dip in the waters, of a great Aussie icon they can transport back home in a memory that lasts a lifetime. Some of them will book in with Let’s Go surfing and actually give surfing a go. Destination NSW is happy about that and Brenda Miley is even happier!
Three business tips:
1. Understand you’re going to work really hard, and you might not get any money from it at first. But if you have a dream and a passion you’ve got to keep going.
2. Ask for help to get your business plan organised and surround yourself with good people as much as you can. A lot of people have a great idea— a lot of people that say they’ll start a company, they’ll become a millionaire. It doesn’t happen to everybody.
3. If you have a passion about something and you want to be the creator of your own destiny, you should run a business.
- “Changing lives one wave at a time.”
- “You have to be a risk-taker to run a business or be an entrepreneur.”
- “We want to be the world’s best surf school experience, and we want to have locations in iconic beaches around the world.”
- “Mentors are fantastic because they’ve generally been there and done that. They know what’s going on and whenever you’re at in business they can help you on your path.”
Video & Podcast
Brenda Miley loves her work and why wouldn’t she? She spends all day at the beach! She started Let’s Go Surfing twenty years ago, initially teaching girls how to ride a board. It’s developed into businesses in Bondi, Maroubra and Byron Bay with international expansion as her next step.