The Inside Story

THE MAKING OF AQUABUMPS – FROM A DAILY PIC OF BONDI BEACH TO A GLOBAL CULT BRAND

“Yes I always deliver but man she (Deb) doesn’t make it easy. I might be shooting an advertising campaign for Google with my phone. I’m hanging out of a chopper with my arm, tilting the chopper like this and that so I can get my arm out a little further. I think this is nuts! So that’s when she might get a bit of blow back. I’m not going to die in a chopper, just to shoot a campaign!”

When you think of Sydney, you think of Bondi Beach. Nothing is more iconic. A boulevard of palm trees and people chasing dreams. It’s a melting pot of hipsters, Bondi locals, surfers, the creative set and not to mention the suit wearing yuppies who race down to the beach after work as an escape. People come from all over the world to experience a slice of Sydney paradise.

So when Eugene Tan launched Aquabumps in 1999, it made sense —  daily inspiration from one of the world’s most famous beaches. But what nobody realised, including Uge himself, is that some years later Aquabumps would become a global phenomenon.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED

Uge has always had a passion for photography. As a child he created his own darkroom at home and started shooting anything and everything. Back then, it was just for fun. Actually what he does now seems to be just for fun too. Uge has an incredible knack for making his life feel like one big adventure.

His next love affair was with the Macintosh computer. He did a deep dive into everything digital. He became a graphic designer and web designer before moving into digital content. But always a surfer and beach bum. The 90s was a time when technology seemed to be innovating at a rapid pace. Digital cameras were emerging but still so expensive; a good digital camera cost $20k. Uge convinced the company he was working for to buy one and that reinvigorated his passion for photography.

“I liked digital, no more dirty chemicals. I could take a picture and the immediacy was just mind blowing. I decided I was going to take a photo a day, and email it to my friends. That’s how it all started,” shares Uge.

As Uge developed as a photographer, so did his shooting style. He started to shoot from the water, he explored new angles, he shot from helicopters, he experimented.

He was working for a digital design firm. He would get to work early, send out his daily email and then go about his business as usual.

Next came the website. Some of his mates coded up a site, in exchange for beers. There was a field on the website for people to subscribe. The audience was growing. This was pre-social media, pre-blogs, pre-everything. Images in emails were only able to be sent out as attachments. 

Until formatted emails launched. HTML emails came out and again Uge was on the front foot of the technology. He started to make formatted content. 

Next he built an online hub so that people could see more than just the daily photograph, they could see yesterdays, or the inspiration from the day before. 

But probably the biggest change for Uge, and his rapidly growing fan base, was when he put a buy button under the images. He started selling his photographs as prints. People wanted to own their very own piece of Bondi. They wanted to be part of the club.

At this point in time Uge still didn’t see himself as a serious photographer. This was a much loved hobby. He was experimenting with the prints. How to make the process of printing simpler, framing options, size options. All in his spare time. 

Demand continued to grow.

“I’ll never forget the day I received a call from a guy by the name of Mark Simo. He told me he had a little shop in North Bondi, and suggested I rent it. I was a little disillusioned at work. It was the beginning of the dot com boom. The company I was working for had just been sold to Deloitte. Large consultancies were snapping up teams of talented digital designers and developers. But the corporate world was not my thing. So I decided to take a look,” explains Uge.

No foot traffic. $450 per week in rent.

That was a big risk.

What if he couldn’t make the rent each week? His prints were selling but he was still a world away from success.

In true entrepreneur style, Uge decided to take the risk. 

He rented that little shop in North Bondi. The shop was a shell when Uge moved in. There was barely a floor, and there were a lot of problems. Uge was the only one that left his former company without a payout. He was managing a team of 30 and when the company was bought out he had to manage the retrenchments. He secured large payouts for his team, but when he was the last of the old crew standing he didn’t get an offer. He had to resign if he was going to move on.

Uge was not in a good financial position. He had no money to renovate. 

He had to figure out everything himself. 

“I had to do a floor, and I had to learn how to lay the boards down. I’d never done anything like it in my life. I was there at seven o’clock at night with a lot of lights on trying to figure it out. A guy walked past and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ I told him I was trying to lay the floorboards and he said, ‘hey, I do that for a living. I’ll come around tomorrow.’” 

Uge told him he couldn’t pay.

He came around the next day anyway. And together they did the flooring. Uge paid him with a carton of beer.

I wonder what it is about Eugene Tan that makes people want to help him out for a carton of beer?

Actually I do know the answer to that. He is just a hell-of-a-likeable guy. Laid back and fun with an old fashioned charm. He is the kind of guy that you say, ‘hey, I’d like to be part of his world, and I’m happy to do it for a beer.’ 

He hadn’t opened the shop yet. He was still laying floors, painting, sorting the electrical, all himself with a few mates. 

“I’ll never forget it, there was a point where I had to get real. Next month’s rent was $2,500. It was gonna be tough if I didn’t open pretty soon. So I forced the opening.” 

Luckily, the shop did take off. The first weekend after launching was a big success. On the very first night Uge sold $16k worth of prints. That’s when he realised this might actually be a business. It was nice to sell pictures, rather than selling his time which is what he had done for most of his life. 

He did freelance design work as he sat there day in, day out waiting for customers.

“Yeah I was doing everything. Hanging pictures on the walls, trying to sell them, doing the daily inspiration piece, shooting weddings, just doing whatever I could to make ends meet.”

Uge was working hard from sunrise to ten o’clock at night trying to make this all come together. This is no overnight success story. In fact there rarely ever is. Success is hard work and grit, until you reach the tipping point and things just come together.

DEBBIE BAKER WALKS IN.

Debbie first heard about Eugene Tan through a friend. 

“My girlfriend told me that one of her mates had just opened a gallery in Bondi and suggested I go with her to check it out. I had just come out of a tumultuous relationship. It was the last thing I felt like doing. But I decided to go. I fell in love with one of Uge’s prints. I didn’t buy it then and there, but I went back to the gallery to buy it,” shares Debbie.

“Yeah she offered me half price for it!” laughs Uge.

At the time Debbie was working at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. She was used to running big budgets and doing deals. 

Uge and Debbie spent an hour and a half talking. Sparks were flying.

“I knew then and there 100% Uge was the one for me.” says Debbie.

Soon after Debbie bought Uge the book Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr Zeus. And let Uge know exactly how she felt.

“She’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done. This is us, we’re together, forever,’” Uge relays. “I was like hold on a minute, not so fast. I was completely taken by surprise.”

That was 14 years ago. Now they have two beautiful boys, a global brand that they have built together and a lifestyle to envy.

The day Debbie walked into Uge’s shop was the day his life took a huge pivot.

THE DEBBIE FACTOR

Right from day one Debbie saw the opportunity with Aquabumps. 

One day Debbie was in the shop when a mate of Uge’s walked past. He just happened to work for Canon. The camera brand. Debbie’s ‘always on’ business brain jumped into gear. She set up the relationship with Canon, and as she was writing the proposal she thought to herself ‘this business has so much potential.’

“Just to rewind a little bit, we were getting commercial deals, but we just weren’t managing them very well. We did a content piece for Land Rover for $2,000. I remember thinking that was a bit cheap! It was a weekend away and we had petrol, fuel, cameras, all the expenses to cover. I don’t know how we came out ahead,” recalls Uge.

Debbie had left Harper’s Bazaar and was consulting to Rush magazine and at the same time was managing model Lara Bingle. She had built a relationship with swimwear brand Speedo because of Lara. Lara was the face of Speedo. Debbie pitched the idea to do board shorts and bikinis for Speedo with Uge’s photography. They loved the idea. Aquabumps had a little section in the Speedo stores around Australia. They had windows with Uge’s images and an image of a girl wearing his bikini designs. They had the Aquabumps book for sale in store and each item had a swing tag that told the story of how this guy, Eugene Tan, gets up at sunrise every day to take pictures of Bondi Beach. The brand was getting serious exposure.

Aquabumps and Speedo collaborated in this way for eight years.

“Whenever we do a collaboration somewhere there has to be a story within it. You’ve got to have press opportunities. And the brand alignment has to be right,” shares Debbie.

By this stage Uge and Debbie’s lives were intertwined in every way. Work, play, travel. Everything was together. They realised they were a formidable team.

“We talk about our projects 24/7. We love it. It’s exciting to grow something together,” Uge says.

Debbie tells me she has always been a career girl. After graduating from university, all she wanted was to have the big job. She wanted to climb the corporate ladder.

“She’s not like ‘I want to have babies and stay at home.’ It’s like ‘I want to have babies this week and next week it’s back on,’” laughs Uge.

Debbie loves working. She has loved what she has done from day dot. She wanted to work in advertising. She had started doing marketing for a florist and for Lush when she first moved to Sydney. She worked at the back of one of the stores in Chifley Plaza, and the delivery guy used to come every day. Debbie realised that his wife was a bigwig in an advertising agency. Since Debbie’s sole purpose in moving to Sydney was to work for an agency, her radar was up. She used to buy him a coffee every day and would say to him ‘Next time, a job comes up you’ve gotta get me an interview.’ He rocks in one day with the news… “there’s a job going, give me your CV”. 

Debbies’ response to this news… “oh my god, I’m forever indebted to you. I’m going to get the job!” 

Debbie did an interview with a guy named Martin. 

“I’ll never forget the day. There were probably 30 people, everyone wanted to work in advertising back then. I had three interviews. He put the offer on the table and it was only $18,000 including super. I didn’t care. I said, “‘you could give me nothing, I’d work for free.’ I was so excited to have the job.”

This was just the beginning.

Debbie worked her way up. She started in media, before moving into Account Service, and eventually became Group Account Director. For those of you who haven’t worked in advertising, Group Account Director is a pretty big deal.

After years working in advertising, unexpectedly a new opportunity came up. One of the most prestigious magazines in Australia – Harper’s Bazaar approached Debbie. 

“I got this job at Harper’s. I asked all of my peers, and they all said… ‘idiot. You’re a Group Account Director in a seriously impressive agency, you’re at the peak of your game, the next thing is General Manager, or CEO. What are you doing going and working in a fashion magazine?’ And it was a step down. Pay was a step down. So I turned it down,” Debbie recounts.

Then one day Debbie thought to herself… ‘I want to give this a go.’ She was not going to listen to everyone around her, she was going to follow her heart. She loved fashion. A week later she called the girl back to see if the job was still going.

It’s the best decision she ever made in terms of her career. She learnt so much the seven years she spent at Harpers, particularly about luxury and how to do a deal. 

Debbie would sell a million dollars worth of advertising per issue, and there were 12 issues. Budgets were out of control right at the peak of the magazine kingdom. 

“Debs was out there with the high heels, clacking around. She had an uncanny knack of doing a deal. She charmed the pants off me. And if you meet our youngest son, he’s got that skill as well, that little spark that can get people to do stuff for them, get them to agree to something that they probably think is too expensive. He negotiates just like his mum. They love deals,” smiles Uge.

Eugene shares with me that in the beginning he was quite protective of Aquabumps. He and Debbie weren’t married at the time. But as the relationship evolved and he became clear that Debbie was the one, he let down the barriers. 

“Who just walks in and says ‘you’re the person I’ll be with for the rest of my life?’ I’m much more pragmatic. Deb had come from a difficult relationship, and I wanted to see her settle down and stabilise. And she did. When she came on board with Aquabumps, she brought an element of professionalism and more structure to the deals we were doing. She had a lot more experience in being tough with customers whereas when you’re the creative doing the stuff you’re just giving everything away. Deb also brought a huge network from her luxury days at Harper’s. Deb knew everyone. One of the reasons I left the digital agency, apart from Deloitte taking over, was that I hated sitting in meetings. To me it was excruciating. I just can’t concentrate in meetings that I’m not interested in. Debs is really good at that.” says Uge.

“Generally people find it very hard to talk about money when you’re doing a deal. Yeah I love talking about money. I find out exactly how much they’ve got for the whole budget and I try and get all of it,” Deb lights up.

Eugene tells me that often a client will come to them with a little piece of this big project. They will talk through their idea of having 12 people to do a variety of things, but Deb will go ‘no, no, we will do the whole lot. We’re going to do so much for you.’

Throughout her time at Bazaar, Debbie operated almost like a mini creative agency. She had her own designer, they would come up with ideas and they would execute them. She loved every minute of it. She has a unique mix of creative thinking and business acumen.

THE PROJECTS, THE PROJECTS, THE PROJECTS

Over the years Deb and Uge have embarked on so many projects together. And these are no ordinary projects, they are extraordinary in one way or another.

A COLLABORATION WITH THE AUSTRALIAN BALLET

Debbie had the idea to shoot the Australian ballet underwater. Dropbox had approached them about doing a content piece so she was thinking big. Shooting in a blackpool, studio lighting shot from underwater in a huge diving pool. With only two hours in the water to shoot the whole exhibition, it was no easy task. She approached Australian fashion designer Dion Lee for costumes and managed to pull the whole thing together. 

“I remember not sleeping at night, trying to work out how to do this exhibition, stressed to the max. Somehow I managed to make it work,” Uge shrugs.

“I sometimes feel bad about the stress I cause Uge in producing the ideas, but he always pulls it off,” Deb grins cheekily.

@aquabumps

THE ICEBERGS ITALIAN EXHIBITION

Another big activation Deb and Uge put together was at the outdoor Icebergs swimming pool at South Bondi. They lined the bottom of the pool with one of Uge’s Italian prints. It was kind of like bringing the Almalfi to the closest thing that we have to the Amalfi in Australia – Icebergs. Canon and Santa Vittoria came onboard to sponsor the exhibition.

The event was 9 hours. Uge put a video crew at Icebergs filming a time lapse of the exhibition going in, and that night at 6pm he had to present and show the video to a star studded guest list. 

“I’m there shooting this, talking to guests and meeting the media. Deb was there setting up the pop up exhibition, bossing people around to set the bar up… do that, do this. There were 150 guests arriving. All had to be catered for. It was in summer and the north wind always hits Icebergs at that time of year. We had to get the tide right and we had to have it on Thursday because that is the day they would clean the pool. It could have gone really wrong. The thing could have ripped up, because the waves could have been big that day. But somehow, magically, it all worked,” Uge expresses with relief.

WHY EUGENE AND DEBBIE TAN MAKE THE BEST KIND OF FAMILY BUSINESS TEAM

Debbie shares that they work because Eugene trusts her implicitly. When she goes and does a deal, Uge may give her a little bit of pushback, but he always comes through. So she never has to worry. It gives her the freedom to do what she does best.

Uge pipes up… “Yes I always deliver but man she doesn’t make it easy. I might be shooting an advertising campaign for Google with my phone. I’m hanging out of a chopper with my arm, tilting the chopper like this and that so I can get my arm out a little further. I think this is nuts! So that’s when she might get a bit of blow back. I’m not going to die in a chopper, just to shoot a campaign!”

“There have been moments where I’ve gone, it’s too much. Yeah, too many projects, I’m getting pulled in too many directions. I can’t create in a space like this when it’s just frantic all the time, and with two children and a busy life.”

Deb pushes Uge very hard, often to his outer limits. But it means he is constantly learning, constantly growing. And this is exhilarating. And for this, he is so grateful to his wife.

He adds… “The deals have evolved, they’ve evolved for the full family. We are on a travel location with two kids at the bar, with mocktails on their deck chairs and Dad is in helicopters flying around creating a storm of photos and content. We do everything together.”

Working as a family gives the Tans an unbelievable flexibility. They have stretched the lifestyle part of their business to an extreme. Not many families would get to experience a life like this. 

One day Eugene Tan will sit back in his chair, looking out to his beloved beach and reminisce about a life of adventure. 

Deb was right… “Oh the places you’ll go.”

UGE AND DEB’S ADVICE ON BUILDING A BRAND

UGE – Be consistent with everything that you do. Be impeccably consistent. So every touch point with your customers/readers is well thought out and impeccable, in line with your brand. It’s hard, but it pays off.

DEB – Honour your brand positioning in everything you do, protect it at all costs – if it’s not right for you or the brand it’s more important to say no, than it is to do something for financial gain that could compromise it for the long term.

UGE AND DEB’S LIST TO INSPIRE

UGE

DEB

  • Allbright is a great platform for networking for women in business.
  • I’ve always been a fan of Business of Fashion too – probably from my time at BAZAAR – but there’s some great learnings and case studies of businesses and brands success stories.
  • The Grace Tales – for the stories and profiles of mums juggling a career and family I always feel inspired by other women’s stories and Georgie Abay who is the founder with two small children, it’s a nice reminder that we’re all in it together.
  • I have a close group of very clever mums and mates that I’ve made throughout my career and we love nothing more than chatting about the market place and every evolving world of digital, I learn so much from them —  ongoing.
  • Mad for interiors and design & travel – the Local Projects, the Design Files, Architectural Digest and Conde Nast Traveller.

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: Toby Peet, Aquabumps

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