The first in a series of posts on women with a career in action sports, we speak with Sarah O’Brien, the e-commerce co-ordinator for Billabong Australia. A fine surfer herself (and RIPPER skier), Sarah is a part of the Still Stoked team hoping to inspire other women to get out there and be the best they can be!
“People seem to forget that life is how you make it, so if you’re not happy – change it.”
Sarah you’re luck enough to have a career in action sports. Tell us about your role at Billabong Australia?
I am the E-Commerce Coordinator for Billabong. I look after Billabong and all our additional branded websites (including Element, VonZipper, Tigerlily and soon to add RVCA, Kustom). My main focus is putting the right content on the site at the right time and using advertising to drive traffic and boost shopping. I oversee all shoppable content and work closely with our developers to build new and exciting features. I also geek out on lots of Google analytics data and code a million and one email newsletters daily!
You’re an English girl working for one of the World’s leading surf brands, living on the surf-blessed Gold Coast of Australia. How did that happen?
Yeah… I’m not entirely sure haha! It feels like I have been on holiday for the last four years.
I literally have to pinch myself, because I am living my dream. I have to remind myself of that if I am ever stressed or sad that the surf is flat, I’ve got it pretty good!
I started working with General Pants in Sydney (a retail fashion outlet that owned surf shop Surf Dive Ski) and after 6 months Billabong bought Surf Dive Ski and took me with them. 3 months later, they decided they wanted to keep me around (must have been the accent) and sponsored me to stay in Australia. Soon after, an internal job in eCommerce came up and I jumped at it. It came at the price of leaving Sydney, which I was devastated about but career wise, it has been the best decision. Not to mention the waves. The Gold Coast is really incredible and the wave quality has helped progress my surfing so quickly.
How has your background helped get you to where you are today? Did you always set out to have a career in action sports?
As a self-proclaimed techie I have loved computers from a young age and studied Computer Science at Exeter University. I always knew I wanted to continue down that path. I just never knew what my role would be. Living in the UK, the obvious choice was to work for a snow company, building and designing websites. There was no doubt in my mind that a career in action sports is where I wanted to be. However after a second ski season and some travelling I wasn’t ready to take the plunge and live in London at 23. So I jumped on a plane to Australia… because why not? I wrote on a piece of paper that I would like to live in Bondi or Manly and work for Billabong or Quiksilver. I think subconsciously I worked towards that.
What do you think is different about working for a surf brand rather then a main fashion brand? Any specific challenges or rewards?
The rewards are huge: endless wetsuit samples, great discounts on clothes and boards, your boss’ smiling face when you come in late because the surf is too good to miss! Being “forced” to watch all the major surf competitions at work while being handed invitations to the after parties… it’s awesome haha.
The main challenge I face on the website is getting the balance right between Billabong the surf brand and Billabong the fashion brand. Our online customers aren’t always heavily into surfing and surf culture. However we have an core audience that come to the website for inspiration and ideas of what to wear after watching their favorite surfers. My challenge is to balance that messaging and the web content (pictures, video, words etc) so that the website and our product can appeal to both types of customers.
You must meet a few amazing surfers who pop into the office, have you any funny stories to tell?
Oh we do: Parko, Taj, Ellie-Jean Coffey, Laura Enever, Flic you name it … they have all crossed my path. One of my favorite moments was surfing with Felicity Palmateer, she came over for our Billabong Byron Surf Festival and we popped out for a surf. She gave me a few tips and is genuinely an absolute sweetheart. As for funny stories, probably just the way I act when Mr. Jack Freestone comes in the office. I was a mute for basically a whole day during our winter photo-shoot… and I am never quiet!!
They say the surf industry is run by old surfing guys still a bit stuck in their ways. Do you think it is harder to be a girl in such a male dominated industry?
It is massively dominated by the boys, but just like the Women’s Tour is finally getting better locations and more prize money, the surf industry is changing too. The focus on the girls is only getting better, which is awesome – because I feel like I am part of this positive change. I don’t think it’s hard to be a girl working in the surf industry. I actually think being female is beneficial as it makes you work harder. You know what they say? “nothing worth having comes easy” so it just makes my job all the more rewarding.
What would you say to a girl wanting to start a career in the surfing industry, what would be their best route in?
First and foremost you need an interest in surfing! Everyone who works here loves surfing. I’m not saying that everyone surfs but they have an interest in the sport. They want to get involved in all aspects that surround the surfing industry. A lot of sport organisations hire a number of interns, sometimes all you need is a step in the door.
What next? What is the next step for Sarah O’Brien?
I wish I knew the answer to that question… I would love to one day be the Global eCommerce Manager for Billabong, allowing the brand to be accessible wherever you live. As for myself, aside from learning HTML6 :-) Just continue to do things that make you happy.
People seem to forget that life is how you make it, so if you’re not happy – change it.
What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given?
My dad said to me… “Always say yes to opportunities that come your way, even if your not sure you can do it because you will learn to do it later. There is always a way….”
I believe that life has a path… We don’t always understand why or where we are going but just remember you are exactly where you are supposed to be and when things come to you, go with them because life has a funny way or working out and everything happens for a reason.
And finally, you are a pretty sick surfer yourself. What does surfing mean to you?
Naaaaaaw thank you!! Surfing has literally changed my life… literally. It has made me take on a completely new way of living and changed by outlook on food and health. It makes me soooo happy. The water is actually magical. I do not surf to be the best surfer. When I fall off a wave or stand up for a second, those moments are just as fun as the good waves that give you butterfly’s.
If you haven’t tried surfing… go now… go!
Thanks Sarah. You really do live a blessed life! Stay tuned for the next interview in this series of women with a career in actions sports, inspiring all women to chase their dreams and make it happen!
To search jobs at Billabong Australia check out their careers webpage
To check out Sarah’s great work and Billabong’s great products go to the Billabong website
Follow Sarah on her Instagram for awesome pictures of her surf adventures and Gold Coast living!