Since a young age, Black Project co-founder Chris Freeman has been passionate about watersports. A competitive career in windsurfing first brought him to Maui at 18 years old and the experience was life changing. While Freeman would eventually return to the U.K. to build a successful career in Education, Maui kept calling him back.
The pull of the water proved too strong. After his long-time friend Tom Hammerton began designing specialized windsurfing fins, the duo decided to take a chance and go all-in––Black Project was born. Over the past 12+ years, the company has grown to become a leader in both windsurfing and standup paddling industry. While World Championships and high-performance paddles and fins have become synonymous with the Black Project name, Freeman never lost sight of those humble roots and his original goal: Help more people enjoy the experience of being on the water.
What was your career path/background before starting Black Project with co-founder Tom Hammerton?
I was a windsurfing athlete since my early teens and traveled for competitions at a young age. In 1995, I first came to Hawaii at 18 years old and eventually met Tom, who was working in a sail loft at the time.
Realizing I couldn’t make a living by being an athlete, I returned to the U.K. after a year in Hawaii and started my bachelor’s degree in Economics at Swansea University in Wales. With great waves near the university, I was surrounded by a core group of hardcore surfers including Tristan Boxford, who is now the CEO of APP World Tour.
I would return to Hawaii following my graduation, but eventually completed my post-graduate education in Wales and became a teacher. I was satisfied for a while and my career progressed well, but I felt stifled as my urge to own a business and return to watersports grew stronger.
At the time, Tom was designing sails for Hot Sails Maui, but also began making specialized fins for windsurf speed sailing. His speed and slalom fins were getting noticed here in Hawaii and I enjoyed using them. Eventually, legendary windsurfer Mark Angulo started using our fins, as did a range of locals. After realizing our skillsets were very complimentary––Tom’s deep experience with product design and my experience with testing and business––we decided to take a chance.
Six months later, I quit my successful career in Education (which had by that time taken me from the UK to North Carolina, USA and finally to Bahrain in the Middle East) to pursue a dream some 12,000 miles away on Maui’s sun-washed shores.
When did you decide to enter the SUP space?
Having known legendary paddler Bart de Zwart for many years, we made our first SUP fins for him as he prepared for the SUP 11 Cities. He wanted a weed repelling fin and eventually went on to win that event, which propelled us to sell a lot of those specialized fins in our early years. However, we were still disconnected from the booming standup paddling world.
As I started paddling more, I started working on different paddle designs, eventually making paddles for me and a few friends. I began in the surf, but Bart encouraged me to begin training in the Kahului Harbor. I would soon participate in my first SUP race, the Paddle IMUA, I loved it! I now split my cardio training between running and flat-water paddling.
12+ years later, BP is now synonymous with ultra-high-performance equipment and World Championships. What are you most proud of?
From helping athletes achieve their goals, to collaborating with other like-minded small businesses–– there are so many areas of the business which are extremely rewarding for me.
I am 100% committed to helping people get outdoors and enjoy the water. Having been lucky enough to spend almost four decades enjoying watersports, the ability to share and enhance that experience for others is what motivates me.
While winning World Titles is the dream, helping people paddle more efficiently and better enjoy their paddling experience is what I find most rewarding. We help a lot of paddlers with previous injuries and often receive emails and calls about how our products have helped them enjoy pain-free paddling once again.
From a business perspective, it is amazing to help supply a wide range of businesses with the products they need to fulfill customer needs––we are one big community. Given my background, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time advising other small businesses on a variety of issues. Being able to share what I’ve learned over the years to help other businesses succeed is a blessing and definitely something I want to do more of in the future.
You often say that Black Project has an “outsider” mindset, what do you mean by that?
We didn’t follow the same path as other standup paddling companies and were somewhat isolated from the broader sport at the beginning.
There is not a huge standup paddling community here on Maui and being geographically isolated from the core group of SUP companies and paddlers had its challenges. The flip side was that it gave us the freedom to work independently and resist influence from industry trends. We could get creative and not worry about fitting in.
While this approach meant that it took longer for Black Project to develop, grow, and become accepted by the wider industry, our on-water success eventually led to paddlers of all abilities to take notice of the new path we were forging.
The Hydro FlowX is a perfect example of us shaking things up and breaking down some of the norms when it comes to paddle design.
Top SUP athletes are an important part of the Black Project brand and they have won dozens of championships using BP paddles and fins. Discuss this relationship between athletes and BP, and what you have learned personally from collaborating with the sport’s premier athletes?
Athletes are an integral part of the Black Project team. Since the beginning, one of our key metrics has been event wins––which require a pairing of excellent athletes with high-performance products. Given our success, 28 world titles (and counting) and hundreds of race wins, we have proven that our paddles and fins are ready to win at the local, national and the international level.
Of course, we’re not just buying up athletes. As a small company, we could never pay a paddler enough money for them to compromise their own success. Instead, our athletes actually want to use Black Project paddles and fins because they believe it will provide an advantage on race day.
Athletes paddle a lot and know exactly what feel they’re looking for with their paddles. We tap into their experience and use their feedback for development and durability testing.
For example, we launched lighter versions of our TEXCARBON shafts that were actually used by Seychelle Webster and Olivia Piana for more than 12 months before being put into production. Considering the success these two ladies had in 2019––Webster won the 2019 APP World Championship and Piana won two Golds at the 2019 ICF World Championships––the extensive testing period was a resounding success.
An important thing to note and something we consider carefully is – what is good for an athlete is not necessarily best for the typical paddler. It’s extremely important to consider and develop products with all paddlers’ needs in mind. Connor Baxter and Seychelle Webster are great examples because they have a lot of experience, truly care about the sport of padding, and understand how to help us meet the needs of our average customers.
We pour all of our athletes’ knowledge and testing data into our entire paddle and fin range. The payoff from these intensive product development and testing periods is better paddles and fins for all.
Unfortunately, many companies in the SUP industry are not run by paddlers and product quality suffers. Paddles and fins are developed by factories and sold to brands, but no true development or testing ever occurs. At Black Project, we design, test, refine and build every product from the ground up––ensuring our paddlers will enjoy optimal on-water performance.
Black Project is a genuine paddling company that is 100% focused on paddling, not profits.
What is your ultimate goal for Black Project and how do you hope customers ultimately view this brand and its products?
- We are paddlers.
- We are ocean-minded people.
- We care for people and the environment.
- We make quality and performance equipment.
I see Black Project as that slightly edgy, misfit uncle at the birthday party––the one with all the interesting experiences and stories to tell. We’ll never conform to norms and will always be a company that challenges the status quo in both product development and business strategy.
Our three pillars are: Quality, Performance and Community.
Building and being part of a global paddling community of SUP enthusiasts is core to our mission. As our reach continues to widen, we’ve begun to see more beginner and intermediate paddlers join our movement. Watching the base of the paddling pyramid grow is exciting, and helping people progress in their paddling journey is our top priority. What we lack in graphics or marketing budget, we make up for by exceeding customer expectations in terms of quality and performance. The paddling experience is not just about products, it’s about the relationship we build with our customers.
We are always available to answer questions and take great pride in helping all paddlers have fun in a safe and fulfilling way.
Far too many standup paddlers use gear that’s not suited for their specific needs. Not only does this hinder their progress and create a sub-par paddling experience, but it can be damaging to their body as well. It is our mission to change this and outfit paddlers with gear that allows them to get the most out of their time on the water.
Reducing our impact on the environment and society is also very important. We work closely with our factories to ensure workers are well-compensated and have safe working environments. And instead of engaging in environmental marketing stunts, we are focused on actually reducing our environment impact and enacting long-term change. We have made progress, but our sustainability efforts are just getting started.
What is your favorite paddle and fin combination?
I am 5’9” and 165 lbs / 75kg with small hands.
I love the all-round agility of this equipment. It is efficient for a flatwater training session, fast on the downwind and surfs really well too. I have small hands so the slim shafts work great for me.
I love surfing and this setup is what I use for the majority of my sessions on Maui. As a tester for Quatro SUP surfboards, I have a wide range on the board rack and am always changing boards. But when there is no testing to do and it’s all about fun, this is my go-to setup.
I love the fluid feeling of the Bernd fins, especially on bigger waves in winter. The Medium blade just feels right for me and I like the flex of the Medium100 shaft. People often ask about the handle and while initially I didn’t like the T-handle, I stuck with it and now wouldn’t use anything else in the surf. The flat front and curved back provides tons of feedback and helps me know where my paddle is at all times.
Follow Chris on Instagram at @chrisk97