Mariners Learning System joins with 150 partners to sell its boating education programs
Capt. Bob Figular likens his business, the Mariners Learning System, to outboard manufacturers.
“They don’t care whose boat they’re hanging off as long as they’re hanging off a boat, and we don’t care which educational partner’s website a consumer uses to sign up for one of our courses,” says Figular, who has sold online boating education programs to 25,000 students in the past five years.
Mariners Learning System establishes partnerships with marine companies that allow both to make money by selling its online education courses, which include Coast Guard-approved captain’s license courses. The key to the business model is co-branding with a partner, Figular says. Mariners Learning System gives the partner the online tools, such as ad banners targeting a specific audience, to create its own Web page and promote the courses according to its market. If a boater signs up for a course through that partner’s co-branded website, the company earns a commission. The partner pays nothing to participate.
“I’m not in competition with my partners,” says the 51-year-old Hopewell, N.J., resident. “I want to write those quarterly commission checks. [One] month we wrote over $8,000 in commission checks. That meant my partners were doing well and so were we.”
Figular’s business began in 2000 as a classroom-only program and was called the Mariners School. But it gradually became clear to him that many students were struggling to learn in the classroom setting, and he wanted to find a way to make his curriculum more consistent.
“Although my instructors were working off the same lesson plan, there was a difference in the quality from one classroom to another,” he says. “It was just the inherent differences in the instructors.”
The answer to both challenges was to take the curriculum and put it online. This gave Figular more control over the content and allowed him to deliver it in alternative ways, such as video, audio, text and combinations of these tools, he says. So in late 2006 Figular began to develop an online curriculum, and after he got Coast Guard approval he began to offer courses online in early 2008 (in addition to classroom courses).
But there was a problem: The name Mariners School was becoming a stumbling block in the promotion of his online co-branding business model, which hinged on recruiting educational partners.
“If a sailing school was interested in expanding its course offerings to include captain’s license training it would not be interested in promoting another ‘school,’ “ Figular says. “I needed to develop a brand. I went back to the drawing board and came up with Mariners Learning System. By forming a strategic alliance with us, that sailing school could now offer Coast Guard-approved captain’s licensing courses using the brand name Mariners Learning System.”
Figular’s business, which adopted its new moniker in 2009, now had access to potential students it likely would have failed to reach with conventional marketing strategies.
“The name change was made to better align and reposition my organization with our new business plan and strategies, and had nothing to do with a change in our online course content or materials,” he adds.
A mother’s advice
Mariners Learning System’s origins go back to Figular’s decision to sail around the world in the late 1990s when he was 38. He had retired after selling a digital printing company.
“When I sold my company I went from having 2,400 people working for me to none,” says Figular, who still sails the 43-foot Catana 431 catamaran he had built for the circumnavigation. “When I worked for a living, time was my enemy. When I retired, I had too much of it.”
While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard he had a chance to sail on singer James Taylor’s brother’s catamaran and “fell in love with the idea of sailing around the world.”
During Figular’s 2-1/2-year sojourn, his mother died.
“One of the last things she did was write me a note that said follow your dreams and get your captain’s license,” says Figular, who dropped out of school at 16. “I wanted to be a captain since I was 5 years old, but because school never went well for me and I heard how difficult a time it was to get a license, I never went for it. I didn’t believe enough in my abilities.”
Figular followed his mother’s advice. He went to a school and earned his license. However, that classroom experience troubled him. “Yes, they taught me how to pass the test,” he says. “But every time I raised my hand and said, ‘Why?’ I was basically told to shut up and sit down and just write the correct answer down.”
So Figular in 2000 set out to create a program “that actually taught the information and explained the whys and hows,” he says. He launched the Mariners School in 2006. “Within the first month we had already done $7,000 in business, and I knew I was on to something,” says Figular, who grew up boating and fishing in Toms River, N.J. “We were teaching understanding, not memorization, and it was making a difference.”
Despite the early success, Figular saw room for improvement. It was difficult for some students to sit behind a desk for eight hours and learn in the classroom, so he decided to record audio and video of his classroom teaching and allow students to work their way through the material at their own pace. After nearly three years, the Coast Guard-approved material went online. (The only classroom courses still offered are for government agencies, he says.)
Mariners Learning System offers a suite of licenses and endorsements, including the popular “six-pack” license. Students must take a proctored exam in a classroom setting to receive a Coast Guard captain’s license, according to Mariners Learning System director of sales and marketing Capt. John Luchka.
“You would be required to test in one of our approved testing centers or a Coast Guard regional exam center,” he says. “[Mariners Learning System] testing is a two-step process where you complete an online exam for each module. Once you have passed the module exams you’re qualified to take a proctored exam in one of our approved locations. Once you pass this proctored exam you are mailed a certificate of completion, which the Coast Guard will accept in lieu of taking its exam.”
Based in Princeton, N.J., Mariners Learning System now has 150 partners, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, marine retailer Defender Industries and BoatUS. It’s up to the partner to determine how much promotion it wants to include on the initial Web page and in other areas, Figular says.
On the Water, a Massachusetts company that publishes a fishing magazine, placed a vertical ad for Mariners Learning on its home page with a fishing-themed banner. A video of a screaming fishing reel catches the eye. Clicking on the reel takes you to the co-branded website, which has an On the Water banner at the top. Most of the page is about Mariners Learning System.
BoatUS offers free boating education classes through the BoatUS Foundation, but it has no courses for earning captain’s licenses.
“[Mariners Learning System] has provided a bridge for members who want to take that extra step for additional learning opportunities,” says David Mann, BoatUS membership programs manager. “There are a lot of [BoatUS] members who want to get their captain’s license, whether they intend to boat commercially or just want more education.”
BoatUS may be the best-known partner, but Rutgers University was the first. “I was interested in getting the course approved for military members. I am a veteran,” Figular says. “I believe in giving back. I had been working with the [federal Department of Veterans Affairs] for two or three years and was unable to get approval unless I partnered with a university. Rutgers had a directive from its president that they needed to adapt to the special needs of military members returning from war.”
About 18 months after Figular completed the partnership with Rutgers, Mariners Learning System received VA approval, allowing qualified past and present military personnel to use VA benefits to pay for the courses.
“We started selling worldwide to military members,” he says. “Many wanted to take our online program while still in the military in preparation to return to the civilian world. That’s how Mariners Learning System really began.”
The federal Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Naval Academy also have approved the Mariners Learning System courses, Figular adds.
Mariners Learning operates in a 4,600-square-foot building. The company employs five full-time workers (including Figular’s 25-year-old daughter, Nikki) and nine part-timers. Figular anticipates adding five full-time employees in about 15 months. Last year, he brought aboard Luchka.
“I build the relationships for our educational partnership programs, among many other duties,” says Luchka, who also operates a charter fishing guide business (www.longrunfishingchar ters.com) in New Rochelle, N.Y. His business is a Mariners Learning partner.
Depending on their promotional efforts and size of the company, partners can make a commission of 10 to 30 percent on a sale. Figular points out that his partners make a commission even if a customer learns about the program through its co-branded website, but later enrolls via another partner’s site or the Mariners Learning System site. “It’s all done through programming,” Figular says.
The Consumer Reports-style marine publication Practical Sailor last year selected Mariners Learning as its “Best Choice” for Web-based captain’s courses, commending the multimedia approach, which addresses various learning styles.
“The program is very well integrated and professionally done,” editor Darrell Nicholson says. “I think the toughest subject you have to learn is the navigation material. They have a video tutorial, and having the ability to go back and watch it again is a real advantage.”
Contact: Mariners Learning System, (866) 732-2278. www.marinerslearningsystem.com
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.