Hello and welcome to a brand new Small Business Chat with Hannah and Duncan Jones from Marine Discovery Penzance. We came across this company when holidaying in Cornwall this autumn – they run fantastic voyages on a sailing boat – a lovely stable catamaran – around St Michael’s Bay and beyond, spotting all sorts of birds and marine mammals. They’re really knowledgeable and great sailors, and although the end of the season has come along now, giving them time to reflect on their decade in business, if you’re going to the Penzance area next year, do take a look at what they have to offer. I was pleased to chat a little about business life as we sailed along (I say “along”, it was more up and down on a very lumpy day which was coincidentally my husband’s first venture onto a sailing boat … but perfectly safe!) and to invite them to take part. So, just how do you end up sailing boatloads of people around a bay full of dolphins?
Hello! First things first, what’s your business called? When did you set it up?
We are called Marine Discovery Penzance and we started in 2005, so we are ten years old this year. We run wildlife watching sailing adventures from Penzance Harbour, searching for seals, dolphins, seabirds and so on, with a touch of history and heritage thrown in. In the 10 years we have been operating we have become one of the most reputable sea safari style trips in the country.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
We were both qualified teachers and after three or so years of teaching had both more or less had enough. This was for a myriad of reasons, not least the way successive governments have systematically devalued the profession and the effect this appears to be having on society. Duncan had always been the one with business ideas, even during teacher training – we both seemed to know from the start that it wouldn’t be a “forever” profession for us. On the other hand it helped give us skills which have been enormously helpful in the development of our business, so I will never regret it. So many teachers have very successfully been convinced that it’s the only thing they can do, and that their skills are not transferable so they are stuck there until they retire or until they keel over – this is rubbish! I have enormous respect for people who are still in teaching, and still enjoying it and finding it rewarding.
Both of us felt that we would work well in a small business environment, being self motivated and willing to have a go at most things, without someone interfering from above.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
We have both always been very interested in marine wildlife, and in conservation and the environment. This was Duncan’s academic background also – his degree is in Marine Geography which combines Oceanography with coastal management, amongst other disciplines. At the time (2003) there were no businesses operating in the same way as we planned to in Cornwall and we thought there was a real gap in the market. Marine eco tourism had been operating successfully for many years in similar areas e.g. West Wales and North West Scotland.
Had you run your own business before?
No, we were utterly green. As it were.
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
We launched full time after quitting our teaching jobs at Whitsun 2005. After that first season, in the winter of 2005-6 we both did a lot of supply teaching to keep the money coming in.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
You will need to work harder than you ever thought you could. You need to forget about holidays for a few years.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
You WILL lose perspective from time to time, so listen to relatives and try not to get impatient when they tell you to get a grip! You will probably face setbacks and money worries and be exhausted. If you still want to carry on despite all this after five years, then it’s worth it. It doesn’t matter what other companies are doing – just know what you are doing, and be the best you can be, and the customers will come
What do you wish you’d done differently?
I wish I had wasted less time and angst worrying about the “competition”. It really wasn’t worth it! And me [Hannah] staying in my full time job until the end of the summer term in 2005 would have been logistically difficult, but financially helpful!
What are you glad you did?
The best thing by far that we ever did was switch from running our trips on a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) to a sailing catamaran. This immediately set us apart from the competition, broadened our appeal and our market, and added to our environmental credentials. I am also really glad we embraced social media fairly early on – it has made a big difference to our appeal.
What are your top business tips?
At the beginning at least, try and master as many skills as you can so that you can save money initially e.g. basic website maintenance, accountancy, VAT spreadsheets. At the same time, know your limits and know that sometimes it is more cost effective to get a professional to do it, rather than do a bodge job yourself. As the business grows, you need to be very careful not to let it swamp you or you will end up being a control freak – train your staff carefully and give them the opportunity to get it right rather than insisting on micromanaging them. Know that you cannot be all things to all people – find out what market works best for you and focus on it. While social media is an amazing marketing tool. if you are microbusiness it is very unlikely you be able to do it all. Pick a couple of tools and use them really well.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
We have grown year on year since we started. Even as this season ends, with the awful summer weather we have had, we are on course to surpass last year’s turnover by the time April comes. We now have a team of four running the company in the summertime, and while this may seem laughably tiny to some businesses, it is certainly a few steps up from the two of us, a RIB, a rented maisonette and a beaten up old Land Rover which is where we were in 2005.
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
The time has come now to either grow the business or streamline it. In our case growing further would mean having to buy another vessel, and take on a skipper and more staff. Streamlining would mean trying to almost narrow our appeal – a business cannot be all things to all people and all budgets. We are still thinking about which way to go, but something will change because the summer we have just had was insanely busy and we don’t want to suffer burnout.
What an inspiring story of following a dream but learning and refining what they did as they went. We certainly picked Marine Discovery to go out with because of the non-motorboat aspect, and it was the right choice. Hannah and Duncan are indeed now at a difficult point that many of us have reached but some only dream of reaching – what to do when you get to full capacity. I’ll be interested to find out what they decide, and look forward to their update next year. In the meantime, do pop over to their website or social media for lovely images from this summer’s adventures …
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources.