From Crew to Boss: Tips for Starting a Business

21 May 2019 By Aileen Mack

Being crew can be intense and stressful, but the job comes with some sweet benefits. However, there comes a time for most when the lure of shoreside living is too much to resist. Whether it’s finding a job ashore or opening your own business, making a shift in your professional life can be daunting, but learning from those who have been there, done that can be immensely helpful. So we asked some former yachties for their advice on transitioning ashore and starting a business.

Jack Wathen, founder of Anchor Property and former deckhand, advises crew to talk to as many people who you trust as you can and get their opinions on your concept. “Just because you think something is a great idea, doesn’t always mean that it is,” he says. “Be willing to pivot the direction a lot in the early stages of starting a business. Don’t try and force it down a road you think is right, but instead allow your idea to grow organically into success.”

Along with asking others for their opinions, do your research, says Libbie Summers, former chef and creator of her food and lifestyle website, A Food-Inspired Life, and online store, the Yum Yum Smile Shop. Ask yourself what you are offering the market that doesn’t already exist and what makes your service or product unique, better, or even the best. She also notes that a brand isn’t a logo or a product. “Your core brand values are the center of every story you tell in marketing,” she says. “It keeps you real and authentic.”

While it may be hard to ask for help when starting a business, Wathen says, asking for help from experts, other business owners, and industry professionals is the single best way of getting off the ground. You’re more likely to succeed if you surround yourself with like-minded people who fill your knowledge and experience gaps.

Summers agrees but adds that you should ask people outside of your field and circle for advice because they listen differently to you. They hear important things that others close to the project don’t. When Summers was looking to partner with a retail chain, it was pointed out to her that she didn’t like the retail brand or think their brands aligned well. As she got further into the project, she realized it wasn’t the best fit and decided against moving forward, which she describes as the “best decision [I] ever made…one that would not have happened if I didn’t seek outside advice.”

Getting everything set up officially early on is key. Wathen emphasizes finding an accountant and solicitor early on who can advise you on company structure, how business tax works, and can give you an idea of your startup costs, which is crucial for avoiding nasty future surprises.

Unfortunately, Mike Nichols, owner of ChefMN Cafe in Fort Lauderdale, experienced one of these surprises in the beginning. Nichols and his partner bought their business knowing they would have to shut it down for renovations. When they were ready to reopen, they got delayed waiting for an executed contract for nearly four weeks. The setback was unexpected, and they had to borrow their apartment rent. Make sure your finances can handle these types of issues, and build in a buffer.

Nichols also warns that it can be incredibly difficult to find good help. In his experience, he has dealt with employees who “look like they pulled their chef coat out of their trunk” among other issues.  

Summers also advises that you should know how to do every aspect of your business in the beginning from accounting to shipping. “Be ready to work harder than you have ever in your life,” she says. “Some people are meant to have their boat at the dock and work on it every weekend — never going anywhere. Be the person who sets sail!” Nichols echoes these sentiments to those debating starting their own business, “Take the leap! Otherwise, you will always regret it. You can always fall back on yachting!”

After your business has opened and even when it has settled in, remember to take care of yourself, mentally and physically. Summers starts her day with a quick meditation and always makes time away from the studio, whether at the end of the day or midday, when she needs a mental break.

Don’t pin your hopes on immediate success because you will be disappointed. “Set ambitious goals but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t quite achieve them, or your goals and priorities change,” Wathen says. “Starting a business can be incredibly rewarding but also incredibly challenging, so be prepared to take the highs with the lows.”

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Nichols