This week ISB talks to Daniel Da Silva, founder of charter-boat agency Any Boat, a small business that recently topped two categories – business excellence and service excellence – at the ABA 100 awards.
ISB: I understand this is not for your first venture by any means, tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey that preceded Any Boat.
DDS: I started out after school as an apprentice plumber, but the money was dreadful and quite a few family members had worked for Energy Australia over the years so I joined them, initially working in their call centre and then working my way up to becoming a business analyst.
At this time, aged 22, I started a small business on the side selling computers to friends and colleagues. Through this venture I met a serial entrepreneur, JP, who had businesses in the UK, the US and Australia. I left Energy Australia and started a vending-machine business with JP that we ran out of my Grandfather’s business premises.
In the early 2000s we sold the vending-machine venture and JP suggested I join the internet revolution, selling gold online. When ASIC ruled decided they didn’t want this type of business in Australia I moved to Europe and ran the business from there, making a great success of it through developing a great website that achieved a really high SEO ranking. Gold trading began to be overrun by hackers, however, so I got out and returned home to Sydney.
ISB: And that is when you started the new business – tell us about that, and why boats?
DDS: I had always been around boats, loved seeing them on Sydney harbor and had a passion to get involved. I had a look at the existing businesses and saw an opportunity to apply the knowledge I had acquired about online businesses to this industry whose existing players weren’t exploiting website expertise in their marketing or operations to anything like its full potential.
In 2008 I built the Any Boat website and approached boat owners about chartering their boats for them. I had deduced that the most successful boats were those that allowed people to bring their own food and drink on board, and permitted bucks and hens parties – many didn’t – and followed that model. In 2010 I bought my own boat, The Neptune, and grew the business from there.
ISB: How did you fund buying the first boat of your own?
DDS: When the gold business was at its height I had bought a house, so I sold that and rented, using the capital from the sale to buy the boat. I also got my deckhand licence to reduce my staff costs, just paying a qualified captain to drive the boat.
ISB: You clearly have the website and SEO down pat, but how else do you market Any Boats?
In the first year I spent $16k on a Yellow Pages campaign, but I don’t think it generated one call! The boats themselves have great character and great stories – I bought The Dolce Vita, a beautiful Italianate boat that has featured in TV shows and movies, and people specifically request to charter that boat.
ISB: What has been the biggest hurdle in getting the business to where it is now?
DDS: This is a seasonal business. In the early years I didn’t make enough money through the summer to sustain me during the winter. I was still learning about the boating industry, as I learnt more and met more people I was able to meet every request for a charter I received.
The other issue was the fact that that banks were very nervous about boats and see them as a liability. It has taken years of successful trading to show my bank manager they can be a valuable asset, and they now support us by allowing us to borrow to grow the fleet of boats we own outright, and in April 2016 I bought a small marina near Luna Park.
ISB: Finally, what lessons have you learnt that you could pass on to others with an idea they’d like to turn into a business?
DDS: You have to do a little bit of everything all of the time – if you focus purely on marketing, for example, but can’t service the requests that campaign produces due to operational limitations, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
The other thing is being quick – everyone charges the same rates on the harbour so the trick is to have a really good website that pulls in customers and then service those requests the second they come in so people don’t go to your competitors.