Story and photos by Dorie Cox
Yacht captains and crew get good at what they do. And over time, some of their systems, knowledge and skills germinate and sprout. A few take on a life of their own.
It was not the plan to start a business; it was the inability to do his job that prompted Capt. James Stockdale into action. Inefficient spreadsheets and outdated systems bungled his attempts to manage warranties and yard periods on the 80m new build yacht he worked on. With about 13 years of experience in yachting, including work as chief officer and his current position as rotational captain on the 66m Lurssen M/Y Elysian, his experience grew into project management software.
“It was a small idea to keep us sane,” Capt. Stockdale said.
This idea of yacht crew starting yacht-related businesses is a popular topic and was a draw for about 60 people who crowded into a room at the Yacht Club de Monaco to learn more during a panel discussion titled Entrepreneurship in Yachting. The event was hosted by the International Superyacht Society (ISS) and Acrew on opening day of the Monaco Yacht Show on Oct. 25.
Such business growth among former and current yacht crew has even sparked an Entrepreneur Crew Award by the panel hosts as an Acrew Crew Award category. In total, about 100 were nominated with 25,000 votes cast for a former or current yacht crew member who has set up a business in the yachting industry within the last five years.
For Capt. Stockdale, a speaker on the panel, starting a business was not the initial goal. He simply turned his “small idea” of managing a yacht into an app for everyone on the project to use. As he saw it worked, he gave it to friends and crew on other boats. And they liked it.
“I had no plan,” Capt. Stockdale said. “It was only after they talked about it and embraced it that I realized I could keep doing this.”
Even with no formal business training and little help, he realized that he could turn it into a company and Pinpoint Works was born.
He learned many lessons along the way. A couple of years into it, Capt. Stockdale can now look back and offer a bit of advice for other crew with business ideas.
“Listen to the early adopters,” he said. “It can be brutal, but I had to hear it.”
Former Chief Officer Stuart Boyd was an early user of the app; now he is a salesman with the company. Pinpoint Works also has three full-time developers.
“Choose your partners wisely,” Capt. Stockdale recommended. “And provide good customer service.”
In a similar story, the Dunnetts knew there had to be a better way to do a job on board yachts. Edward Dunnet had gained yacht experience on the 30m M/Y Al Adaid and the 50m Feadship M/Y Sea Jewel, but it was as an officer on M/Y Skat, the 233-foot (71m) Lurssen, where he met his now-wife Jess, the yacht’s chief stew. She previously worked on the 50m S/Y Galaxia. Together, they began to talk about and perfect a purchasing process for the wine onboard.
About four years ago they saw the opportunity to turn their efficiency into a business, Onshore Cellars. Dunnett, a speaker on the panel, is a finalist for the Entrepreneur Crew Award.
“We really started this without knowing a lot,” he said. “Jess and I bought wine, old Bordeaux, to sell later.”
The couple first thought they might sell wines to friends and a few clients, maybe just be personal consultants.
“Like a personal shopper,” he said. They continued to buy and found a storefront. But they also learned lessons the hard way.
“For four years, we struggled and got support from our friends,” Dunnett said. “Cash flow was a huge issue.”
As he looked back, Dunnett admitted that if they had money at the start, they might have been wasteful.
“I’m glad we did it without money,” he said. “It was very rewarding.”
Only now can Dunnett more clearly offer advice on the big picture – global markets, taxes, import/export laws and transportation. To other crew who consider starting a business, he recommended to pay attention to the location. Many businesses can be done remotely, saving time and money. But that doesn’t mean their business is easy. Jess still works onboard to help with finances.
“Take advice from a professional,” Dunnett said. “I took ‘cheap’ advice that was costly in the end.”
Former yacht captain Sam Thompson, another panel speaker, was nominated for the Entrepreneur Crew Award for his work with JMS Yachting as head of JMS Crew. He told the audience that starting a business “is a long game, a lifestyle.”
There were challenges in his quest to get off yachts and have a family life onshore.
“We were self-funded and it was hand-to-mouth,” Thompson said. They “prayed each month” that they would be able to pay the bills. During the past four years, the business got on track and grew.
“We took advice, we had to listen,” he said. “The first years were sweaty.”
An awareness of weaknesses helped Thompson get help.
“I’m s–t at administration,” he said. “The first thing we did is hire a person good at it.”
The audience, as well as panel moderator Norma Trease, a board member with ISS, told of personal hardships on the journey toward successful businesses. With a start as a yacht crew member decades ago, Trease recalled the workload and uncertainty of several of her business ventures, including an early crew management and placement agency. She called on several others in the audience to add to the conversations.
“It’s hard to step out of yachting,” said audience member Capt. Glen Allen, vice president of ISS. After 30 years he said he chose to continue work in yachting as fleet captain with Fleet Miami.
“I felt the need to be here and carry on in the industry that has been so good to me,” Capt. Allen said.
All crew, not just captains, can start businesses, Trease said, and pointed out former chef and purser, Jacqueline Lyne, now business development director with Edmiston. Former yacht engineer Pippa Nicholas spoke about several of her businesses including YachtProjects International. She works with her wife, Kim, who is the expert on the financial side, and said entrepreneurs have to prioritize their management of money.
Another ISS board member and panel host, Abi McGrath, commisserated on having some, but not all, skills needed to run a business. She knew about yacht crew, but not finances, when she founded Acrew.
Panel member Liam Dobbin ran away to sea to get a crew job. When he left work as a deck officer on containerships to go into the business world, he said it was terrifying. Now he is managing director of Wilsonhalligan yacht recruitment.
“It was a house of cards,” Dobbin said of his early years with the venture. “It was precarious, spending pennies not pounds.”
He admitted to lacking empathy because his time at sea taught him to bury his problems.
“I needed to deal with people better,” he said about his learning curve and using psychometric profiles to aid in personal communications. His top tip for entrepreneurs was to make a business plan and stick to it.
“Look at it each month,” he said. “Think: Can I? Will I? and Should I?”
Former yacht captain David Clarke told how he started Superyacht Operating Systems and later Total Superyacht compliance software. After decades in yachting and work onboard with his wife and two children, he said they needed another path when they “wanted to take the kids onshore.”
“But it was not an easy transition,” he said. He encouraged others in the room to give their ideas a try.
“Yachting is still a cottage industry,” Clarke said. “We’re all small businesses, that’s what makes this industry.”
Through all the mistakes and challenges, the panel speakers and members of the audience stressed persistence. And most importantly, don’t give up, Dunnett said. Even with setbacks, the work will pay off in the end.
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.