Career Advice

Crew Turned Business Owners Share their Advice for Starting a Company

21 June 2022By Sara Ventiera
Sam Wheaton and Matthew Hyde of Seahub Software at their first boat show after launch
Sam Wheaton and Matthew Hyde of Seahub Software at their first boat show after launch

Written by

Sara Ventiera

Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer and former stewardess who covers food, travel, and other topics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating Well, and BBC Travel.

When lifelong friends Sam Wheaton and Matthew Hyde found themselves working on different yachts docked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the same 12-month period, they did what most crew do — they griped about work at the pub.

The two engineers, who both hail from a small country town in Australia and spent three years living next door to each other in university, often found themselves discussing how inefficient and annoying the planned maintenance systems on board were. For Wheaton and Hyde, however, those conversations took an unusual turn. The pair realized that they could offer a solution to many yacht engineering woes by creating their own planned maintenance software designed specifically for yachts.

Many crewmembers come up with brilliant ideas for post-yachting business ventures. Whether related to the industry or not, getting a company up and running is a complicated process that requires lots of time, research, and planning that deters many would-be entrepreneurs from taking the plunge.

We talked to former and current crew around the globe to find out how they got their shore-based business off the ground — as well as their top tips for anyone else looking to get a start in entrepreneurship.

Seahub Technical Director Matt Hyde accepting Australian Marine Industry Award in 2019

Seahub Software

From the time Wheaton and Hyde started to have serious conversations about starting the business in Fort Lauderdale, it took the pair about three years to get Seahub Software to market. The customized cloud-based yacht maintenance system creates a maintenance calendar and digital record with reminders and other important notifications to help crew stay on top of important chores.

It began with about a year of bouncing around ideas while remaining on their yachts. Then, once they got really serious, it took another year of designing and building the software, which they made their full-time job. Wheaton, who studied international business at university, worked on the business plan while Hyde, who has a tertiary engineering background, focused on the wireframing. “We put all of our eggs in one basket,” says Wheaton.

The pair’s complementary skillsets gave them a good start, but they quickly realized they would need a mentor to push the ball forward on turning Seahub Software into a viable business.

They used their personal networks to find others who could give them advice. Wheaton’s brother put them in touch with a friend who works for a bank in an investment role to help evaluate their numbers and the overall business plan, which was a crucial step in turning their great idea into a sellable product.

Matt Hyde, Tom Burland, and Sam Wheaton

Next, they brought in backend developers and a project manager to get the thing built. For the next two years, Wheaton and Hyde used their personal savings to pay those salaries and support themselves. It was a scary and very stressful time and they regularly questioned themselves and what they were doing. “I had these huge expenses every month going to other people, thinking I have done all of these ridiculous charters working until 3 a.m. all to give it to other people,” says Wheaton. “But there are very few businesses that don’t require a huge investment like that.”

Fortunately, the team was successful in bringing on vessels quickly to start paying back their personal investment. And once they signed on the first half dozen yachts, the annual recurring revenue that came from licensing agreements helped to stabilize and grow the business. Wheaton and Hyde have been able to hire multiple full-time staff.

But they are now looking into bringing investors to help further their growth. There is a level of certainty in their business model through those contracts and annual revenue projected from those agreements, which Wheaton has learned is very helpful in terms of finding outside money. “It’s important to understand what investors want in early stage businesses and tick those boxes,” Wheaton adds.

Marya and Martyn Walker of Marvin's

A Georgian Café

Although Wheaton and Hyde chose to use their own money to get off the ground, there are a lot of other business owners who do not feel comfortable self-funding.

When Capt. Martyn Walker and his wife Marya decided they wanted to buy a café near their home in Nashville, Georgia, they went straight to the local bank to look into options. The manager who had helped them get their mortgage — and already knew their financial ins and outs — offered the Walkers a business loan in exchange for moving some of his retirement accounts over to his bank.

Walker is grateful he didn’t dip too far into his personal savings. The restaurant was doing just fine supporting itself with Marya running the show while Martyn was off temping or doing deliveries. Then came COVID-19.

The couple voluntarily shuttered their doors in March 2020 because they did not want anyone catching the virus at their restaurant. Two months later, however, when they decided to reopen, they struggled to find staff and customers, many of whom came to the area to drop kids off at schools, were not coming back in nearly the same numbers. Revenue was down around 60 percent, says Walker.

“We didn’t buy that place to get rich, that wasn’t our goal,” says Walker. “The idea was for me to still do five, six, eight deliveries a year [that] would pay for us to live.” But with each new variant, the couple has been forced to pivot and fight to keep their passion project afloat.

They weren’t depending on the business as their entire source of income, but they love the connection it has forged for them in their rural community and Walker feels like hosting restaurant customers is not all that different from entertaining yacht guests.

Fortunately, they’ve been able to restructure their loan to make the payments more manageable while the world hopefully gets back to some sense of pre-pandemic normalcy. But this pandemic, its economic uncertainty, and larger global turmoil support Walker’s decision to keep his savings separate from the business — a lesson he learned from paying attention to the business endeavors of the people who owned the yachts on which he worked.

Walker advises other crewmembers aspiring to become entrepreneurs to do the same:

“If you’d worked 20 years on yachts and you put $100,000 in bank, put $50,000 into a business, and it wasn’t working and you started using the $50,000 you got left and it still doesn’t work, you’ve lost everything you’ve worked for on yachts. All those weddings you missed, all those birthdays you missed, all those long hours. Borrow the money where you can and in the worst-case scenario, you declare bankruptcy.”

Alex Kempin of The Money Dock

The Money Dock

Walker isn’t the only captain or crewmember to start a business while keeping a toe in the yachting industry. As Bosun Alex Kempin began to earn more money in his yachting career, he started looking for ways to grow it. As he began to learn the ins and outs of investing, in 2019 he decided to start a website, The Money Dock, about his financial journey and how it relates to yachting.

Fairly quickly, other crewmembers began messaging Kempin for advice. He saw an opportunity for a coaching business. But getting to the point where he felt comfortable charging money took a bit of time and a lot of effort. “I think a classic thing with people who start their own business is they undervalue their skills,” says Kempin. “Once you charge the first two or three times, you feel more comfortable doing it — you’ve got to value your time.”

During his downtime on the boat, he began setting up one-hour sessions with other crew who wanted to tap into his hard-earned knowledge. Kempin charged $100 per session and within a few months was earning an extra $500 or so per month on top of his bosun salary.

Then, COVID-19 hit. He decided to go home to New Zealand. People across the world were losing their jobs, the stock market crashed, and he lost momentum with his coaching business. Kempin took a local boat job in Auckland, but without the benefits of international travel, he was not enjoying his yachting career nearly as much. He wanted to make a change.

The bosun had looked into trying to monetize his website, which got a fair amount of traffic, but not enough consistent page views to earn a living from Google ads or affiliate links — a task much harder than many realize.

Success doesn’t have to be your business turning into an empire,” he says. “It can be you earning a full-time job off the back of what you’ve started — I think people might be too rigid in what success looks like.”

Instead, he emailed numerous investment companies in New Zealand to pitch his website and services as an investment educator. One of about a half a dozen took the bait. “It was right time, right place,” says Kempin. “I was basically a passion project of the CEOs.”

Kempin has since been working full-time as a financial educator. But, in his spare time, he still runs his own website and he’s now in the process of creating an investment course geared specifically toward yacht crew. His experience in coaching more than 100 crewmembers has given him an understanding of the general flow of how such a course should be modeled. He plans to sell somewhere between eight and 10 modules on his website and market it through his Facebook pages.

Although Kempin is still working out the exact business he would like to run himself — and he still considers getting back on a yacht to travel some more — he’s satisfied with the success he has achieved in making his dreams come to fruition so far. “Success doesn’t have to be your business turning into an empire,” he says. “It can be you earning a full-time job off the back of what you’ve started — I think people might be too rigid in what success looks like.”

Whitney Fair

Airbnb in Florida

For former stewardess Whitney Fair, success is being able to work for herself in several different capacities. She teaches yoga, performs in an underwater show, works as a voice actor, and runs her own Airbnb complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Airbnb is my main job, but with me being an artist, it’s important to have creative outlets,” says Fair.

While her other gigs require special skills and talents that don’t have much to do with yachting, Fair has been able to apply her yachting education to her vacation rental business. After her cleaning crew goes in, Fair double checks to make sure each unit has been reset to her white-glove standards. She provides baskets of snacks, coffee, bottles of water and, often, treats like local craft beer to ensure guests feel welcome and at home. “I already had an eye for detail, but yachting kicked [it] into full throttle,” she says. “I like to go above and beyond and provide the little touches that make a stay memorable.”

Renting out real estate is certainly nothing new for yacht crew, who often will buy a place while traveling and get someone to lease it and pay the mortgage while they are working on a boat. Fair, however, figured out a way to get into the business before being able to buy her own house — a task that has become much more difficult as home prices have soared past their 2008 peak in many parts of the globe. She partnered up with a property owner to lease out his entire compound to her to run as a vacation rental.

“I already had an eye for detail, but yachting kicked [it] into full throttle,” she says. “I like to go above and beyond and provide the little touches that make a stay memorable.”

Just one year into her business and Fair is beginning to see the returns, not just financially but in growing opportunities. She is currently in talks with other property owners to begin managing more properties. “I started with one unit and moved into three,” says Fair, who credits her growth to the care she puts into the properties and guest experiences. “Because I already had a good relationship established with my landlord, he was willing to take the chance and team up to do this.”

And just like all the other crewmembers who have used yachting as a segue to entrepreneurship, Fair took a chance on herself — and succeeded.

This feature originally ran in the May 2022 issue of Dockwalk.

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