Lessons from sailing to help your SME tack toward success

Sailing and small business both require planning, equipment, leadership, reliable staff and an inspiring culture to win the big prize.

I have been a sailor since I was nine years old, and I think there is a great comparison between sailing and small business in many areas. The paths to success in both have many parallels, which leads me to suggest that small-business owners should start scouring the sailing clubs and maybe join a boat crew.

Some of the areas I will use in my comparison are:

  • The need for a race plan, or maybe a business plan.
  • The need for good equipment.
  • Good leadership (the skipper).
  • The need to build a consistent team (regulars).
  • The ability to celebrate successes.

I am a glutton for punishment, my wife says, and I happen to sail at two clubs. Whilst we see it as very serious, I was privy to attending the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013, and that was a level approaching perfection – one that every businessperson dreams of achieving. These boats were approaching 100km/hr up on foils and were being raced by the best professional sailors in the world.

As much as we may dream of reaching this level on the beautiful Couta boat I sail on, we do not quite achieve such performance or perfection – but we try hard. Here are some ways our efforts parallel those of a successful small business.

Having a race plan or business plan

The day before a race, our skipper decides how many people he wants to take as crew, depending on the forecast wind. Often we sail with seven, or down to five on a light day. I would compare this to looking at the economic climate and having a feel for what may be coming in the near future. All businesses should be doing this regularly, possibly in the form of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

Before we start a race on the Couta boat, we normally have a small meeting where we discuss the weather, who will do which jobs, and who is to support them. Some jobs take two people in a specific order and all this is agreed upon. The equivalent in business would probably be a team meeting, where the jobs are allocated, and everyone can see the big picture and know the jobs they need to do.

Having good equipment

Whether in business or sailing, you need good equipment. If a business is skimping on fitout and equipment required to service the customer – and just looks tired – the performance will probably mirror that look. During my days at Caltex, it was essential that we brought a new image into the service stations every so often, to keep them competitive. Otherwise, they just lost their shine and performance followed.

In sailing, this is reflected in having a good boat that will be consistent and reliable. The America’s Cup boats were the most consistent I have ever seen, relying on technical innovations to achieve superiority over their competition, which Team USA accomplished halfway through the regatta. In the Couta boats, this comes down to good design, regular maintenance and even getting the bottom cleaned every couple of weeks by a diver (not me).

Good leadership (the skipper)

A good boat needs a good skipper to win. The skipper must have a great understanding of the vessel, and be able to understand and participate in the decisions that have to go on around him or her. This does not mean the skipper has to do everything, it means they have to be able to delegate, and make sure all the rest of the crew do their jobs while giving as much feedback as required.

The America’s Cup demonstrated this to perfection, with Australian Jimmy Spithill leading Oracle Team USA as the skipper, yet taking in information from the tactician and all around him.

In a small business, this dynamic has to be in place between the owner and all of the staff. If the leaders are unsure what they are doing, this creates doubt down the chain and inevitably leads to poor performance.

The need to build a consistent team (regulars)

How often do we go into a business during a quiet time, or on a weekend, and get dismayed at the staff who are on hand? Whether it be poor service in a coffee shop or staff taking phone calls and chatting amongst themselves while the customer stands looking at them, it all reflects poorly on the business. This is why you need a consistent crew. In sailing, it is not always easy to get a regular crew – especially on a Couta boat, where you can require seven. So, it is the Skipper’s responsibility always to be recruiting and training a good talent pool to draw on as needed. Our success on Zephyr over the last few years probably came from a regular crew of five people, who all knew what was required, plus some others to add ballast and weight to the boat.

Be able to celebrate the successes

It’s good to be successful. This may mean just making a tidy profit, or it may come as recognition from others, such as in industry awards. It can also come from internal awards, such as Employee of the Month. Passing on acknowledgement of a job well done makes everyone feel better and more willing to give that little bit extra in performance that often makes a big difference.

In sailing it is similar, as it is usually a team event. Even if you are a solo sailor, you still probably rely on parents, a partner or a mate to assist you in your sailing endeavours. In a team like we have on Couta boats, there are about 20 different people who are on board at different times during the 20-race season.

So, if you can get your hands on the silverware, hold on to it and enjoy it.


Small business and sailing have a lot in common, as both rely on consistent performance to achieve the highest level of success. Maybe Inside Small Business needs to start a training program for readers and their staff on small boats at the various yacht clubs around Australia, to build up resilience.

Good luck with your business.

This article first appeared in issue 40 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine