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Advice for those who’d make boats their life

I was having dinner recently with an industry veteran when he shifted the trajectory of our conversation and said, “You know, Bill, you and I are stuck in this industry. We’re lifers. We’re not going anywhere.”

I was having dinner recently with an industry veteran when he shifted the trajectory of our conversation and said, “You know, Bill, you and I are stuck in this industry. We’re lifers. We’re not going anywhere.”

I wouldn’t use the word “stuck,” but his conclusion about spending most of my career in this industry is true. The conversation brought a couple of questions to mind. If I had it to do over, would I follow the same course into recreational boating? Would you? Although there are easier ways to make money — and more money — I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that I made the right choice. Consider me a happy lifer.

The majority of people working in the industry were drawn to it through some connection to boats and the water. The gateway might have been fishing (as in my case) or water-skiing, sailing, racing, kayaking, tinkering with engines or a host of parallel avenues.

The common denominator (and common currency) is boats, sun, wind and water, and if those things get your pulse running, you just might be in the right profession. For those contemplating a long run in boating and who are not yet lifers, let me offer a few observations.

Boating is an activity with a large trove of hard-earned traditions and practices, especially concerning the elements of safe, well-found boats. Those should be kept top of mind. As we move forward, we all need to remain cognizant of the lessons of the past — what worked and what didn’t.

Why repeat the mistakes of our antecedents? As the late media visionary Marshall McLuhan once said: “We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror.”

And no less a guru of innovation than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said in a commencement address at Stanford that you can’t “connect the dots” by looking forward. “You can only connect them looking backward,” Jobs told the newly minted graduates. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

We are living in a period when technology is outpacing tradition by a country mile. With the rate of change continually accelerating — Moore’s law just turned 50 — it is important to keep a foot in both camps. The sea and the tiny ships that we build to play upon it demand nothing less.

Having said that, beware of inertia and laziness masquerading as tradition and business as usual. Conversely, everything that glitters is not a breakthrough. Develop a discerning eye for contrivances and claims wrapping themselves in the mantle of innovation. When they fail to live up to their breathless expectations, these products and purported “improvements” only serve to frustrate customers.

Remember, we are in an age when reliability and functionality are new interpretations of luxury. The standards of quality and service for boating are being compared every day with those in other industries.

And it’s not just about creating great products. It’s also about building well-run companies, where the focus is squarely on customers, product quality and a motivated work force.

Don’t be afraid to break from the herd occasionally and strike out in a new direction. Take a chance. As a successful professional in another field once told me, “Look at where people aren’t going today. That’s where you need to be.”

Big-picture numbers are important, but demographic trends, participation figures, new- and used-boat sales, and so on only tell part of the story. To really understand our waterlogged world, you need to spend time at the granular level — sandbars, boat shows, marina barbecues, waterfront bars, yacht clubs, regattas, fishing tournaments, social media channels. Anywhere the tribe gathers to play and talk about boats.

You need to watch how people use their boats and listen to their complaints and aspirations. What do they like about their boat? What doesn’t work so well? What are they thinking of buying next, and why?

Our industry is a wonderful collection of innovative niche builders and service providers, understandably bewildering to the newcomer but also to veterans who have grown comfortable in their own small corner of the world.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Read about trends and developments across related and unrelated industries. Find time at the next boat show to delve into those sections that you usually speed past. Attend conferences, push outside your comfort zone and by all means get out on the water as often as possible.

And remember, you’ll encounter more than your fair share of dirty weather, given how susceptible boating is to discretionary spending. That’s just part of the lay of the land.

Along the way, try to connect a few dots.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue.


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