To understand the next part of this story, we must to travel back in time. It’s the 1980’s, and Phil Herring is at the Baths on the island of Virgin Gorda, that iconic wading grotto familiar to anyone who has cruised the British Virgin Islands. At the time, Phil is a Seattle-based ad man who is there on business, working with a Seattle client who leads cruises there.
When Phil saw the sailing vessels anchored outside the Baths, he was smitten. After he returned to Seattle, he enrolled in sailing courses, and persuaded Bly Berken, a long-time friend, to buy in with him on a Hunter 35.5.
We now fast forward to 1996: the Internet is just getting traction as a vehicle of information and a place of commerce. Phil’s ad agency is staying on the leading edge of that, persuading their clients that they can use the Internet for marketing and sales. Phil is now spending a lot of time online, which is by itself, a concept that has just become possible. The rest of the time, he’s sailing.
At this point, Phil owns, and later will live aboard, a Hunter Passage 42. Not everyone lives in Seattle, where there is a thriving designing, racing, and cruising community. Just about anything you’d need for any boat can be found within a five-mile radius of the Seattle’s Ballard Ship Canal. In his off time, Phil begins to wonder: how could the Internet help boat owners like myself?
When Phil looked online, he saw nothing there that would help him maintain and repair his own boat. Just to see what would happen—and because he could– he built a website called HunterOwners.com and plugged in a “forum,” which allowed users to create their own open conversations on a topic of their choice. The interface was clunky and required some savvy to use, but it was there.
Phil let the site simmer a few weeks- actually, he sort of neglected it– while he went on vacation. When he came home, his voice mail was full and the forum had blossomed in users and traffic. For the first time, Hunter owners from around the world could now talk to each other about problems, challenges, and solutions, and they seemed eager to do so.
And as Phil read the questions, he saw an opportunity. Every sailing boat is a complex assembly of systems: hull, deck, rigging, spars, anchors, sails, engines, toilets, refrigerators. There are systems to get water out of the boat, and systems to bring it in. And these systems are themselves assemblies of idiosyncratic components built by many different companies. Some of these components are manufactured specifically for marine use, others are adapted to it. If you’ve been boating for any length of time, you are already familiar with this, perhaps painfully so.
Walk into any automotive store in search of, say, windshield wipers. You’ll be directed to a large book that names the make and model of your car, and leads you to the appropriate part. You do not need to know which manufacturer originally made the part, or call the dealer or the factory to locate it. Now: try to do the same for the stern light that your boat came with, because some misguided skipper hit it with his anchor.
That disparity was Phil’s “aha” moment: Nobody was selling boat parts by make and model. The best you could do was contact the boat builder, and talk to someone who was there when your boat was built, assuming they remember or know how to locate the origin of the part.
This was a job that the Internet could do better. And a way into the marine business, something Phil had been yearning to do.
He persuaded his friend and partner Bly to quit advertising with him. Together, they started Sailboat Owners.com, supplying parts to sailboat owners via the Internet. “We had to feel our way along in the early days,” Phil commented. “There was nobody to copy. Custom canvas was an early success. We thought custom parts would be the way to begin.”
“One of the reasons we began with custom work was that we had a hard time convincing the parts suppliers that the Internet was a viable method for selling marine parts. Yanmar, for instance, just laughed at us. They said, ‘we’re not going to sell a Yanmar part unless we can have a direct conversation with the buyer.’ But by the early 2000’s, a number of distributors –including Yanmar–recognized what we were doing.” Sailboat Owners.com became an online chandlery with 40,000 items, adding Catalina and other sailboat makes to its online catalog.
Meanwhile, the owner forums on Sailboat Owners.com multiplied in number and specificity. In addition to providing forums that encouraged and enabled owners of similar boats to talk to one another, and post their own modifications or work-arounds, the site began to feature Q and A’s from guest experts: Rodd Collins, the marine engine and electrical specialist, and Peggy Hall, whose expertise in marine sanitation systems has earned her the sobriquet of “Head Mistress,” became regular contributors. New owners with old questions would be referred to materials that these experts have posted on the forum years before. Sailboat Owners became a resource and a reference point, as well as a discussion host. And one click away? A parts store catalogued by sailboat make, model and year.
Then the 2008 recession came along, and Hunter’s hard times became Sailboat Owners opportunity….
In part 3 of this blog, how Hunter’s hard times became Phil’s opportunity.