Mitch Abshere, Captain Fin

Mitch Abshere is a busy guy. Between spending time with family, running a company, and managing a retail location, time seems like it could be hard to come by. But Abshere, who recently carved out an hour or two to talk with TransWorld about his latest projects, says he still makes time to surf and have fun, and doesn’t get too roped into having to do things a certain way—all of which are key to maintaining his creativity. And that alone, many could argue, is one of the underlying reasons his businesses have done so well.

Captain Fin got its start in 2007 and is picking up speed after some key collaborations with heavy hitters like Hurley and Vans. Steadily gaining street cred within the surf industry, Captain Fin has rapidly become more than a blip on most people’s radar, yet Abshere still talks of his company with a passionate and humble air, an admirable quality and one that surely hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers.

In 2009, Abshere, a pro surfer, launched his own vintage resale, surf-inspired retail location, Captain’s Helm. The shop also carries a hand-picked selection of new surfboards and apparel by fellow local brands like Brixton and shaper Chris Christensen. The shop was an idea he’d been mulling over for years and one that he’s been passionate about since day one. The journey has definitely been a labor of love, says Abshere, acknowledging that both Captain Fin and Captain’s Helm got their start during a turbulent economic landscape.

At the current Oceanside offices—a small building that houses a close-knit team of  designer and artists, and a warehouse from which Captain Fin ships all its product—Abshere invites us into his office: a bright space, with an old van seat as a couch, magazine cut outs and art inspiration tacked to almost every inch of the walls, and a range of different fins with endless combinations of graphics strewn across the desk and floor. We instantly felt at home in Abshere’s inspired environment , and as he began walking us through the story behind Captain and how everything came together, we were left curious to know even more about what makes this creative brand tick. Here’s part of the interview:

What’s behind the names of your brand and shop?

I don’t know why I named them Captain Fin and Captain’s Helm.  I had this idea for an anchor forever and always wanted to use it as something. So it was funny because when I did it, someone was like “Oh, so you are the captain of fins?” and I was like “Oh crap. No, not at all. I don’t think that at all.” I just kind of liked the name. Basically we just made fins and T-shits, hats, sweatshirts – the basics, its not a full clothing company or anything like that.

 What about the retail location – how did that come about?

Forever, I wanted to open up a store. When we lived up in LA we lived not too far from Fred Segal. I would go in there and we were poor, but I  just thought it was so cool. I was so intrigued by how you could go to a store and shop like all day basically in there if you have money. You could buy anything and get it wrapped, you can eat there. I just thought it would be so cool to open up the poor man’s Fred Segal. So that was my concept with Captain’s Helm, I just brought in the stuff that I really liked. It’s still not nearly close to what I want it to be. We sell used clothes, we have new clothes, records, wetsuits—it’s full eclectic kind of stuff in there.

I always loved retail and that side of it. It’s a lot harder when you do it than you think. You start doing it and you’re like “Oh so you don’t get to pay yourself?”

We carry Brixton, obviously Captain Fin, Loser Machine, Insight, and then we carry a few smaller local brands, like the Brothers Marshall. Pretty much most everything else is used. Surfboards are new: Chris Christensen and Jeff McCowan.

Take a tour of Captain’s Helm, right here:

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Photos: Chris Kimball

 So what inspired you to create Captain Fin?

Captain Fin started on a full whim. When I was a kid like 12 years old, I started riding for Donald Takayama. I moved to Carlsbad when I was 13, he sponsored me and then gave me a job at his shop as a shop rat. I’d be done working and I’d just hang out at the shaping bay and he’d just be shaping and he’d talk to me while he was shaping. One of the things he would talk to me about was fins. Placement of fins, how they work on a board.  I think just over the years, sitting there listening to him and getting boards from him, whenever I got a board he’d be like “okay, for this board you want this fin, you place it here.’

Fast forward years later, maybe 2003 or 2004, I had boards that just didn’t work that good, I started messing around with putting different fins in the board. He knows what he’s talking about —which I knew he did, but it just kind of registered at one point. One day I was in my garage and I had these fins that didn’t work, so I just started reshaping the fins cutting them down and filing them differently. So I started sticking them on boards, and like “oh gosh, this board works now—it works so good.”

A friend of mine was like “oh, we should make fins for you.” I was like “that would be cool, do you think we could put any graphics on them?” I was and still am a huge skateboard fan—love graphics on skateboards. It was always fun to see as a kid your favorite skaters coming out with new graphics on their boards. I thought it would be rad if you could get surfers to get their graphics on the fins like a skateboard. I thought nothing of it, if it was a place in the market that needed it or a big sale. I just liked it.

I started figuring out how to get the graphics on the fins, which was a huge process and cost a lot of money to do, but we tried here and it just cost so much money and took it over seas and it was tough. We didn’t know how to do it all. Finally a couple years ago we started talking with Futures and they now manufacture our fins for us. Now they are getting done legitimately and properly, which is awesome. They licensed just the fin, about two years ago. 2010.

What’s it like working with Futures?

It’s rad— they make great fins, the quality is amazing. We had some short boarders too that wanted to do stuff, but  we just couldn’t get the fins right. So once we did that it gave us a place with some of the short boarders, where they knew we could make what they wanted.  I think the first one we did was with Dane Reynolds’ Summer Teeth, so it was cool that we could actually make him what he wanted. He’s super smart and knows what he likes to ride and what works for him, and so it’s been fun to be able to pick his brain.

So how does the design process work?

There are a couple of artists who we have worked with who help out on the design side, but most every single person has what they want, and they just hand us the template. And the same with the art. That’s the whole thing—giving them what they want. They’ll send the art in and we’ll lay out variations for them, cad it up, send it to them, and make sure its okay. Once we get everything together we send it to Futures and they’ll send us a sample we can give to the rider and make sure they are happy with what it looks like and how it rides. It’s very much rider design driven and I think there is something cool about that, rather than one person coming up with all the stuff.

How did you decide who to put on the team?

The team roster is pretty much still to this day all friends. It’s grown and there are some guys now that I didn’t know but it still came off a friendship. It’s at a place where anyone involved, they still match the feel of the company. Like Chippa Wilson is someone who just came aboard and I didn’t know Chippa—I knew who he was of course. He knew about the brand and I had a friend who knew him. I started hanging out with Chippa and was like “this guy is killer, super rad.” It’s a good fit.

Follow the jump for more on the Captains’ futures…

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Photos: Chris Kimball

What are your thoughts on growing and expanding as the brand gains more momentum?

I think we’ll grow for sure, but I love where we are at right now. There are only four of us who work here right now. Obviously it’s a small crew. We are in Oceanside next to a recycle center where there is so much dust and dirt— it’s amazing [laughs]. The fins are rad and we will obviously keep making those. But just the T-shirts, hats and fleece —the basics,  stuff that we can make here and has our feel— to me, if I could just do that and it grows and that’s how it stays, that would be awesome. I have friends who own companies in the industry and I’ve had good conversations with them, asking them for advice. A couple people and the ones I’ve found that I can grasp what they are saying, they just say keep doing what you’re doing. You don’t need more stuff. If you can sell your T-shitrs and your hats and make it work, it’s going to be a much more profitable and happy environment, than if you are saying “Okay the next step is four pairs of pants, and four pairs of trunks, and all these jackets and all this stuff.”

How has the company grown and changed over the past year?

Our operational side has changed massively since last year.This year was a building year for us. There’s still a ton of stuff we are trying to figure out, but I feel like this next year we can see growth and our business will be set up so we can operate correctly. We have tons of people who have no clue that we make fins because we make such a limited amount of them. We just have people like “oh that’s a cool T-shirt” and buying it online from the weirdest places in the country, like Tennessee, that you would never think would know about us.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Most people’s start ups are forced to be creative because they don’t have the money, and then the money comes and they lose that a little bit. I’m hoping and believing that’s not going to be the case because of the way I operate. I’m more of the creative side of it, and a lot of the stuff is just off a whim. Whenever I have meetings with people and are like “okay we have to have all of this set up,” and there’s a part of me where I’m like okay I get a little bit of it, but that’s just not who I am.

I will do the real basics of what our goals are, but when it comes to projects and certain things I’m just throwing knives at a board and I’m just going to go with – if it gets too formulated for me I just have no drive at all. Half the time when we create ideas for the catalog or an ad, we are late every single month because nothing is done and we are just like “crap, we got the email and it’s due.” I put some dates up but even then it’s late. For some reason that’s just how I am. It’s a last minute thing. I have no inspiration and then all of a sudden I’m like “okay let’s do this!” Honestly I just cut things out and I spray it and tape it, and am like “does that look cool?” I think for me that’s the way it will stay. We obviously need some order in the business but I think to be able to be creative you just have to have fun with it.

How do you determine who to collaborate with?

We’re trying to make stuff that we actually like and just trying to work with people that we like.

I don’t care if it’s big or small— it’s more like “is there a friendship there?”

What about sales and marketing?

We are more heavily on the marketing side than sales. We have some bright reps who have come aboard and now I think things are finally going more smoothly and our sales team will start to catch up with the marketing that we’ve done.

When did you bring the sales team on?

It’s been for the past six months. We had a few reps before, but we didn’t have everything in place. We are still learning how to help the reps that we have, but it’s getting better and we have a good team going.

Are you on the East Coast as well?

Yeah. We have the West Coast fully taken care of, Texas and the East Coast is pretty close to being taken care of, and we just set up distribution in Australia, which is cool. We have our Japanese distribution and part of our Europe distribution going. That’s all finally starting to work. We have good people who like the brand. That’s the fun part, too, is when you get emails from different places from people who are like ‘We love Captain, do you have a distributor?”

How many retail doors do you in the US?

I want to say it’s about 100 doors here.

What cool projects are on the horizon?

Coming up this summer, Chippa Wilson’s fin will drop, which we are super excited about. That’s probably our main project. We are going to be doing the monthly limited fin with guys already on the roster, or different friends like Craig Stecyk —we are working with him right now.

Working with Vans, we had Alex and Joel as riders, and they were like let’s do a shoe with the colorways you do on the fin. Andrew Doheny, Tanner Guaduskas, we just did one with him. It’s not very planned or thought out, it more comes down to us saying “okay let’s do this.”

On the marketing side, where some people have everything planned from when it drops to the press release, I probably have like half of that. I know when they drop and I post stuff, but to me, there’s no set formula to it. Let it be what it is, let it get out there, and people are going to find out about it. We’ve had shops frustrated with us because they couldn’t get product, but it’s like, we aren’t that big, and the fins are limited and this is all we can do.

Working with Vans, Hurley, and Brixton, RAEN, Stance— that has been a huge help, plus super fun projects and good friendships.

JP Olsen will do a small amount of fins for us. He did his own print on the fins, and he also made the anchor for us. He carves out the stamp and then we just stamp it on the fin.

One of the projects we’re doing is with Dane Petersen, one of our friends who is local. He foiled all the fins, there will just be ten of them and that’s it for that design. It’s all made here.

We have people who fully collect every fin. Hopefully these will be something people want to collect and hold on to as art pieces, whether they surf them or not.

Have the apparel collaborations helped you get into more accounts?

For sure. One of our huge helps has been Stance socks. When they first started we became a part of it just shortly after. I just love socks. I think maybe the second trade show they had I was talking to John Wilson.  I was like “how are the Captain Fin socks doing?” He’s like “Doing great, selling really good —it’s crazy how many times I’ve had to tell the story of Captain Fin. We were out in the snow show in Colorado, and out in Chicago for an event, and telling people about it.”  I was like full lightbulb, “This is going everywhere that I would never go to—ever.” It helps both of us. We get to design some socks for them. In the surf world it will get people to know their name, and it’s good for us because we are getting into all these other places on this whole other side of the business, where before it just wouldn’t happen. That’s probably been one of our bigger ones. We get random snowboarders who will hit us up and send us random photos from the Alps, wearing our hats and ordering stuff.