Meet Will Hutchison and Nate McCarthy
By Tami Larson
Proof Lab is no ordinary surf shop. In August of 2018, Surfer Magazine called out Mill Valley’s Proof Lab – the iconic surf and skate shop anchored in Tam Junction – a “beloved community hub and one of the country’s best surf shops” while posing the question, “Is this the most interesting surf shop in the world?”
The Proof Lab compound is proof positive that a combination of passion, determination and commitment to community can lead to authentic brick and mortar success, even in today’s digital age. The Proof Lab compound encompasses various businesses under its master lease – complete with a surf and skate shop, an outdoor shop, a coffee shop, a restaurant and beer garden, music and art studios, a native plant nursery, a skate ramp and even an eco-conscious Bio Diesel fueling station. This month, Mill Valley Living is stoked to unravel how Proof Lab co-founders, Will Hutchison and Nate McCarthy went from making surf videos and t-shirts, to creating a genuine, “community hub” for Mill Valley residents. But their overall vision and objectives stretch way beyond their retail operations. Will and Nate are also dedicated advocates of sustainability, the environment, education and giving back.
Photo by Jack Wolford
Many in the surf community are intensely aware of ocean preservation and the environment. Similarly, skateboarding, having stemmed from surfing, is rich in freethinkers, creativity and independence. Surfing and skating are both board sports that share the need for balance on water and land, as well as sharing cultural values and lifestyles. Whether riding a surfboard or skateboard, you are totally free to be the architect and designer of your own path. Will and Nate, both Marin natives, grew up surfing our local Bay Area waters, so it seemed only natural that as their friendship matured throughout their youth, in and out of the water, they would eventually join forces to create their own path culminating in a multipurpose public space that brings people together by offering a range of activities and encouraging social gatherings. Today, Proof Lab is the nerve center and unofficial headquarters of the Marin County surf and skate scene and more.
Will and Nate originally opened the first Proof Lab in a 600 square foot space on Poplar just off of Shoreline Boulevard on the way out to Stinson. A year later in 2004, they decided to take their passion for surfing and skating to the next level by pooling their resources together to purchase Marin Surf Sports. Their mutual desire to follow their passion, while respecting the environment and ingraining themselves in their community, fueled their dream of starting their own business. With no employees, they each worked shifts at the store in between surf sessions while working other jobs. Through their dedication, enthusiasm and proven street cred, their business started to flourish. So when the opportunity to take over a large, vacant warehouse space, previously home to a machine shop came up, Will and Nate trusted their gut and went for it. The name “Proof Lab” was inspired by Nate’s original t-shirt company, “Proof”. Their vision for the physical shop was for it to house their “Proof Projects”, hence “Proof Lab” to showcase their videos, t-shirts and art shows. Originally focused on hard goods, surfboards and wetsuits – almost like a board locker, their shop soon morphed into so much more. As they explained, “Having all that space to fill, we decided to fill it with cool stuff. It coincided with our evolving priorities in life”.
Proof Lab’s mission statement was and is “To build the best surf/skate/outdoor shop” and “To develop a more sustainable retail model focused on community building and connecting people with the outdoors”. Clearly they have succeeded! While Proof Lab is the core surf and skate shop filled with hundreds of boards, wetsuits, clothing ,shoes, buckets of wax and lots of surfing and skating groms, Proof Lab Station – its name inspired by its location on the site of a former gas station – embodies more of an outdoorsy/camping vibe – an outdoor/workwear apparel and accessories shop, adorned with local artist’s murals on its exterior. Proof Lab Station staff can also set you up with a pump if you are looking for 100% locally recycled BioDiesel B99 grade fuel. A second Proof Lab shop with a targeted skate and apparel focus, is located in the former Triumph skate shop on 4th Street in San Rafael, a venture Will and Nate embarked on to carry on Triumph’s legacy of serving Marin’s skate community.
Proof Lab’s sense of community is evidenced by their partnerships with their fellow tenants under Proof Lab’s master lease. Will and Nate felt compelled to clean up the neighborhood as the rest of the space on the compound had been vacant and covered in weeds for quite some time before they partnered with their neighbor, Alpha Dog, with the goal of potentially creating an art garden and experimenting with classes, sustainability workshops, and a pumpkin patch. But what eventually stuck was the CNL Native Plant Nursery and the Mill Valley Pottery Studio, both locally owned businesses with sustainably oriented missions.
Dan Dufficy, a true nature lover and friend of Will and Nate’s who grew up surfing with them, runs the CNL Native Plant Nursery. Through his experience as a landscaper working with native plants, Dan’s nursery has empowered him to educate our community while providing a platform for him to launch an all organic California native plant nursery. When Proof Lab partnered with Equator Coffee – a perfect fit for the coffee loving Proof Lab owners and employees – to build the space out together in 2013, Dan landscaped the Equator space entirely with California native plants to show our community the appeal of native landscaping. He also created a native plant curated living wall at the entrance to Proof Lab. Another friend of Will’s and Nate’s, Jennie Dito opened the Mill Valley Pottery Studio, located inside the gates of the nursery which has been there since the beginning with Proof Lab, Lucy Alexander currently operates the studio specializing in pottery and ceramic education for adults and children and collaborates with Tam High students in ceramic arts along with offering open studios for all to experience the joy in creating individual pieces with clay. Rounding out the artistic elements of the Proof Lab compound is the Magic West Music School. Brothers Alexi and Dmitri Glickman teach children and adults how to jam, solo, record and read and write music.
Hook Fish Co. at Proof Lab Beer Garden was born out of a desire to create a community gathering space. People generally tend to informally gather at surf shops as a social meeting point so they sought to create a space where you could actually sit down, have a conversation, hang out and meet people – but with structure. The Beer Garden is now the “hub” for such meet-ups. It features a whopping 40 drinks on tap including the best local beers, ciders, kombuchas and non-alcoholic drinks. It’s a great spot to maybe hang out and watch surf movies, listen to guest authors, or attend fundraisers to support local causes, while Hook Fish never fails to serve up delicious fresh, sustainably caught fish.
Adding to the distinctive flavor of The Proof Lab surf and skate mecca is the indoor skate park housed within their 10,000 square foot building. The Proof Lab team is looking forward to resuming skate lessons and special events, including Ladies Skate Nights on Wednesday nights soon. As Will and Nate explained, “The skate park came out of our wanting to be retail experiential and interactive – not a traditional mall type of experience, where you can’t do anything, learn anything or try anything. We wanted to make a place where a kid can actually go and do stuff.” Their commitment to Marin’s skate community goes way beyond their stores though. Without hesitation, when Paul Austin of Play Marin asked Will and Nate to help out with revitalizing the Marin City Skate Park, Proof Lab both raised and donated funds to help make the park bigger and better over time. They’ve since partnered with Play Marin on their summer camps and equipment donations, including most recently, a nice supply of skateboards. Proof Lab also played a significant role in coordinating the fundraising and construction of the Harrison Dunnett Mill Valley Skate Park, as well as contributing to the refurbishing of skate parks in Fairfax, Bolinas and San Anselmo.
Big Dog Surf Camp is yet another mainstay business supported by Proof Lab. Will and Nate grew up surfing alongside Ian “Big Dog” Glover who has operated his popular surf camp for over 10 years now on their grounds where surfers, lifeguards and EMT’s who love to surf as much as the kids lead the aspiring young surfers on epic all day surf lessons at Muir and Stinson, along with surprise swimming hole excursions capped off with ice cream at the end of the day.
Will and Nate have cultivated a team of loyal team members who they adamantly credit with Proof Lab’s ever growing success. Harley Pearlman, the General Manager of the overall Proof Lab business at large for the past eight years and former owner of Triumph, Sarah Dreyfuss, the General Manager and Buyer for Proof Lab Station, Cody Enger, the Surf Department Manager and Brad Uhlhorn, their longest running employee and Receiving/Inventory Manager.
Harley also met Will and Nate back in the day through surfing. As manager of the day to day operations and 30 plus employees, Harley could not emphasize enough how incredibly gratifying it has been to help build Proof Lab over the years with Will and Nate. “To build something that’s really unique not just within Mill Valley but really within the whole state and broader surf and skate community has been a great experience.” People in the industry come from all over to check out Proof Lab and continually remark on how there’s nothing else out there like it. Harley credits Will’s and Nate’s organic process in staying grounded in the community as a driving force for their success. He also praised the Proof Lab staff– “How our staff worked through and handled Covid was amazing. We are incredibly fortunate to have them as staff, especially when you consider they are young people coming in every day, and putting on a happy face to deliver outstanding customer service during a time it was not easy to do.”
Brad initially volunteered his time at the beginning of his Proof Lab journey, with the intent of learning as much as he could about the retail environment. Will and Nate quickly recognized Brad’s acumen for inventory management so now, 10 years later, he told us, “Along with the opportunity to develop an inventory management system for a rapidly growing business from the ground up, it has been the incredible sense of community I feel working with the Proof Lab team and the Mill Valley businesses and residents that roots me here.”
Will and Nate, along with their team, embody the beauty of accomplishment in coming together and legitimately respecting their community and environment to create something special. “This was the plan all along, to build more than a surf shop, to build a community.” and they are grateful for the unwavering support from our collective community – the residents, parents and kids who continue to support this exceptional, independent retailer. The unwavering customer loyalty to shop directly with them is a testament to their staying power. As Proof Lab continues to build on their community hub, Will, Nate and their team would like the residents of Mill Valley to know how much they appreciate the support.