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Henri-Lloyd 2020 HLRC LEADERBOARD

Get on the Water with Borrow a Boat

by Mark Jardine 7 Nov 2019 04:00 PST
Matt Ovenden, founder of BorrowaBoat © Mark Jardine

We caught up with Matt Ovenden, founder of BorrowaBoat.com, recent sponsors of Southampton Boat Show and industry innovators, about their plans to make getting out on the water accessible to all.

Mark Jardine: 'Powered by Borrow a Boat' is the title for the Southampton International Boat Show, and you are making your name in the UK market through this sponsorship. First of all Matt, could you tell us about your first experiences with sailing?

Matt Ovenden: I was lucky enough to grow up boating, it was the norm and I was on boats from age 2 onwards, mostly motorboats initially but then I learned to sail at about 10 years old. We had a Dart catamaran and my childhood is full of memories. Every weekend we were on the water and I think when you've had that, it stays with you. That played a role in my gravitating back towards boats later in life.

Mark: What do you feel it is about getting on the water that is so important to anyone's life?

Matt: There is definitely a poignancy to boating, people seem to remember it. Maybe there's something about being in a confined space with a certain about of people in close proximity. The fact there's a danger element to it. It sticks with you - boating is memorable. There is definitely a move towards it these days, as we're living through an age where we are all becoming addicted to our smartphones and our work follows us home by email, we can't escape social media. There's more awareness of mindfulness and mental health as well. People want something outdoors, in nature, that's contrary to screen-time and I think that's what's behind the 'experience economy' and the renewed interest we are seeing in boating.

Mark: This isn't your first business. You've been a serial entrepreneur and created other businesses. What do you think you've gained through that, that you've brought to Borrow a Boat?

Matt: I've had 3 businesses over the last 10 years, various different types, consultancy, a wind farm, development business and working to make eco islands more sustainable. Business in another part of the world. I guess when I was thinking about starting Borrow a Boat, I know I had some core skills. I knew how to build a team and put a company together with a clear plan and execute the plan, and those common skills can apply to any industry. For me, I wanted to change industry. I consciously wanted to get into these amazing trends we are living through, the app economy, the sharing economy, the experience economy. I wasn't sure at first it would necessarily be in boating, boating was on my mind as I was considering buying a boat for my young family and I was thinking about how our lives revolve around our smart phones and what industries have adapted to that, and which ones have yet to be, and boating came to mind. I decided not to buy a boat but to bring boating into the 21st century instead led by the app economy and the sharing economy. That is why we started Borrow a Boat in 2016.

Mark: Some people would think that although you were inspired by buying a boat for your children, that starting a new business with four young kids is madness!

Matt: They would! We also had a massive house renovation going on through that! I guess we don't do things by halves. We live life passionately. We loved having the kids and want to do more with them, I want to create wonderful memories for them and us, and that's why we want to go boating with them. There's a link between wanting to get back to it and doing it with them.

Mark: So, it was actually 'I want to get my kids out on the water' but the whole idea of owning a boat, the hours you have to put in and the economics of it when free time is scarce, did it just not make sense to you?

Matt: I did seriously consider buying a family-friendly catamaran in 2016 after exiting my last business, but even though you can afford it, it doesn't mean it's a good idea. I couldn't make the investment case look good on paper and that concerned me. Then I thought, let's look at Charter instead. I've got four young kids, and I have no time to look after this boat. I don't want to be down there cleaning it and scrubbing the hull. What I needed was to pick it up ready, clean with fresh towels on it, use it, then give it back for someone to sort out at the end. I thought I'd need to spend a fortune on boat management, then I realised that is essentially what charter is!

I looked around and saw that charter was very inflexible at the time. They are generally 7 days only, quite expensive, lack of flexibility and transparency, no easy place to compare charter. I was aware that charter had a long way to go, and also that there were lots of boats sitting in marinas not being used. These are under utilised assets and the sharing economy is about unlocking the value of under utilised assets. There was a combination of things that made sense to put together.

Mark: This is using models that have been so successful in our modern, online area.

Matt: Airbnb, all the way through to Spotify and Netflix, it's all about making everything accessible online...

Mark: ...and providing that for the boating world.

Matt: That's right, we are living through the smartphone revolution, it's been forecast that Tech is going to disrupt every industry over 5-10 years. We have banking on our phone, music, TV, property, flights, travel, past-times, hobbies, everything is there. There was an inevitability about boating - it needed to be there, but no-one was making it so. The timing was right, and there were one or two people around the world trying this but no-one was doing it in the UK. I thought 'let's be the ones to do it and bring accessibility to boating.

Mark: Do you think, as an entrepreneur, if you see something that isn't right, do you feel you have to disrupt the industry?

Matt: You see it as an opportunity. If someone's going to make a huge success out of something, in my case I thought it might as well be me. I have a great team, I know something about boating, there aren't many people that are as well positioned as that, so I thought I'd be a fool not to. In every problem there is an opportunity.

Mark: How initially did you fund this business?

Matt: We self-funded initially, got enough boats on there, spent a few months out in the Med talking to charter companies, researching and figuring it out. We launched with a few thousand boats, and launched at the London Boat Show 2017. It went very well, and there was an overwhelming reaction from all corners of the industry, companies were supportive, manufacturers saw that it might help them sell a boat if they thought that the boat they sell might be able to offset its own costs, and it's an easier purchase for someone to make, it works for charter companies as we can drive bookings, the marinas like it because they are complaining about falling footfall, with fewer boats being sold year on year which effects every aspect of the business. It gets more people on the water and using boats that aren't usually being used. We took bookings straight away on the first day of launch. After that positive affirmation we did an angel round of funding on the back of that.

Mark: Do you think it was your success at London Boat Show that led into Southampton Boat Show being powered by Borrow A Boat?

Matt: That was the beginning. We did the Southampton Boat Show in 2017 and 2018, it's a show I'm very familiar with and some people have a view that as a tech company you should sit online and do google ads and don't engage the industry because you don't need to - there is an arrogance about it. I thought having worked in different industries and having brought change and innovation, you can't change an industry without working with the industry. I knew I had to be here and for the industry to see the opportunities that works for all of them. I think they have. The reaction to London saw us picking up funding, growing. We did our big public funding on Crowd cube which was very successful, we aimed to raise £235,000 and we raised £500,000. We then reworked the tech, took on more people, grew through 2018 with a very large crowdfunding round at the end of 2018, going up to £600K but ended up raising £1.5 million. That turbo-charged us into 2019 and we picked up VC investment as well, as we laid out the ideas of the industry finding new models for boating and getting on the water. This has led to us sponsoring this year.

Mark: How many countries are you available in for charter?

Matt: We list over 22,000 boats which changes almost daily as more boats come on every day. We have picked up quite a lot during the show. There are over 70 countries, all over the Med, Caribbean, UK, Northern Ireland, Europe, Africa, Madagascar, Indian Ocean, Maldives, Seychelles, South East Asia, Thailand, Japan, Australia, USA, French Polynesia, Pacific rim.

Mark: While you're an online and app business, you're taking bookings here at the show?

Matt: Yes - we're meeting our customers face to face! There's no better place, there's probably the biggest concentration of boaters in the UK. We've got boat owners and charterers here. Yes, we do our online thing all year round, but we get to meet people here.

Mark: Do you believe BorrowaBoat will be hugely beneficial in the industry, as in it will give people their first experience on the water?

Matt: Absolutely. I think BorrowaBoat is seen as the future of the industry. There was a big study in 2018 called the Futures Report, which came out with some huge findings. They said people aren't going to buy boats in the same way, this is a decline that we've seen since the 1980s when boat ownership peaked. People will still buy boats but never in the same quantity that they used to. That doesn't change the fact that 1 in 3 people want to go boating. Leisure boating is here to stay. Something has to bridge that gap; people want to get on the water but they don't want to own a boat. Charter has got to become more flexible and accessible, and that's what we are doing. W are also bringing new boats into Charter. It helps the charter companies, helps the manufacturers, the industry, the marinas, that's why the industry has rallied behind us. Some people who were sceptical about us are now working with us, and the industry is fully supportive, which we are delighted about. They wanted to have us as sponsor of the show and have made it their theme - promoting accessibility.

Mark: Fascinating insight into BorrowaBoat - many thanks Matt.

Find out more at www.borrowaboat.com

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