What I Learned While Working for a Startup in the Yachting Industry

Yachts and startups are both fueled by dreams. Both things have a lot in common actually; they're fast, exciting, innovative, expensive... And precisely because there's a lot of money to be made in the yachting industry, a lot of companies flock to it. Plus, new ones are constantly popping up.

So much time, thought and planning that goes into startup projects. But there's also a lot of emotion invested in them. The fact that people are willing to invest their hard-earned cash in order get the project off the ground tells you just how much they believe in it. And when the startup doesn't have wings? When it doesn't get off the ground? When it doesn't soar like you dreamed it would? The worry, disappointment and regret are palpable.

 Artwork:  Firebird  by Dr. Seuss

Artwork: Firebird by Dr. Seuss

I have seen this investment of emotions, finances and work from the inside. I've experienced the excitement of being involved in a new business in the yachting industry from the very beginning. I learned new skills and covered random roles, as the employees of a startup often do. I worked late until I developed carpel tunnel syndrome because I wanted it to take off. I worried as we tried different strategies and they all failed. And I mourned the loss of this dream, even if not initially mine, when it was time.

It's not important what the concept of the yachting startup was, who it's founders were or how much capital was invested. What's important now are the lessons that we learned.

Marketing Strategy Focused on Success, Before Size

I came away from the experience with a better understanding of the fundamental role of a solid marketing strategy. In my opinion, the scale of our initial marketing strategy was extremely overly ambitious. Like Icarus' failed flight, this proved to be a fateful mistake.

The startup that I worked for wanted to create an online platform for boat owners worldwide. We were faced with multiple challenges: introducing an entirely new tool, marketing it to a niche target (boat owners), and trying to reach this target which is literally all over the world. 

In the book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, stresses scalability in his advice for entrepreneurs building a new company. Basically, he recommends to start small, gain a reputation for success, then scale up. 

We should have applied this idea to our startup's marketing strategy. It would have meant introducing the new tool to boaters in one geographic region, building a strong name for ourselves, then zooming out and expanding our service area. If we had targeted boat owners in one city or island, the marketing budget would have been much more concentrated and effective. Conversion doesn't happen with just one brand interaction. So, spreading our small marketing budget over the entire Med area, or worse yet, the whole globe, meant decreasing the possibility of brand awareness. Instead of aiming for small, yet scalable success, we essentially melted our wings because of the overwhelming desire to soar higher.

Competition among Colleagues, not Enemies

The yachting industry is strongly rooted in tradition and relationships. A new company entering the flock must first earn the trust of the others before it can fly. For startups in this industry, it's important to see other companies as colleagues, not as competition. Shake hands and look for partnership opportunities, not ways to cut the other guy out.

This may sound more like a morality lesson than marketing advice, but maybe it's both. It's true in life, and paradoxically also in business, that if two entities work together, they are much more likely to be successful. 

The concept of teamwork can be applied to marketing for a startup in some surprising ways. Think about companies that provide a complementary service and ways to reach their network of customers. This could look like a spot in their newsletter or a guest blog on their website explaining your innovative approach. You could invite a yachting industry influencer to use your product or service for free. Another idea is to share resources and insight with similar companies that operate in different areas.

Bottom Line

Like yachts, with a startup, it's easy to get carried away with the excitement. However, it's important to consider the scale of your marketing strategy and the possibility for partnerships within the yachting industry.