James Cleary was up by dawn last Friday, aiming to make a 7 a.m. appointment with his clients at Hydroflex Surfboards.
But he wasn’t headed to the company’s headquarters in Oceanside, California, or to a meeting room in San Diego, where Cleary works as an IP lawyer with Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. Cleary’s morning meeting was the beach, as it is about once a week when he gathers with action sports industry clients to go surfing.
“It really gives me a much better understanding of their technology,” says Cleary, who has helped several clients obtain patents for surfboards and related gear.
On Friday, Cleary got to test a Hydroflex surfboard that’s best ridden when the surfer’s foot is shifted further than usual to the rear. It felt awkward at first, Cleary says, but once he got the hang of it the board excelled on the morning’s small waves.
That kind of first-hand experience, Cleary says, allows him to understand how design and materials enhance his clients’ products.
“He’s surfed it so he knows,” says Hydroflex CEO Fredrik Spiess, who was in the waves with Cleary on Friday. “He’s not just someone talking about it.”
Cleary was first introduced to the business side of surfing through his son, whose surfing buddy was the son of a Bay Area executive named Jeff Bizzack. According to Cleary, about eight years ago Bizzack casually mentioned that his business partner was Kelly Slater, one of the world’s best-known professional surfers, and that they needed some patent work done.
Cleary said he’d be happy to help, and he wound up handling intellectual property for the Kelly Slater Wave Company<http://www.kswaveco.com/>, an enterprise that hopes to outfit resorts with never-ending, manmade revolving waves.
It was just before he was officially retained by Bizzack and Slater that Cleary says he took up surfing in earnest.
“I just wanted to not look bad if I ever got to surf with Kelly,” he says. Cleary now surfs every day before work or at lunch, though his practice is still dominated by more traditional clients including software, telecommunications and electronics companies. His biggest client is the German software maker SAP, he says.
Cleary says the Kelly Slater job helped attract other clients in the surfing industry, and he now works with about six surfing companies. Those include Effekt, a company that is working toward creating a type of bio-based foam that can be used to build eco-friendly surfboards, and Shaper Studios, which allows customers to shape their own surfboards.
This week, Cleary says, he has a date to go wake boarding with a new potential client, Liquid Force.
“They’re going to demonstrate some of their new concepts, demonstrate the history of the evolution of their wake boards,” he says.
Cleary doesn’t charge clients for the time spent on the water, which he refers to as his “board meetings.” But he says he does offer advice between waves. “He’s given us a lot of freebees,” acknowledges George Flint of IR Technologies, whose company makes protective hats for skateboarders.
If Cleary begrudges the unbilled time, he’s not letting on. “As long as they let me take waves, I’ll answer any questions,” he says.
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