How iboats.com was born
By Bruno Vassel III
It was early October 1998, our first month in business as iboats.com, and we had to make a critical decision: Should we buck the conventional wisdom of the day, or should we follow what the other dot-coms were doing, like a bunch of sheep following each other bumper-to-bumper down a narrow path? Should we build an Internet business model that would cut out the dealers and sell straight to consumers online?
But before we get to that, here's another question: Why were my son, Bruno Vassel IV, and I starting an Internet business that focused on boating and water sports when my background was corporate business in New York City, and his was as a dot-com executive in Arizona? Suffice it to say that we have been avid boaters all our lives. Much like marine dealers who enter the business because of a love for boating, iboats.com has similar roots.
For many people, starting an Internet company in 1998 meant attracting millions of dollars from venture capital firms. This was undertaken based on the euphoria of the day and a wild business plan calling for a large target audience, yet with a conspicuous absence of focus on generating revenues or profits.
Or it meant you started the business on your own with your own money, sweat, and hard work. This second option forces you into a more rational business plan that actually includes a focus on sales and making money. We fit squarely into this latter camp, a typical GE-style skunk-works approach that started in an upstairs bedroom of our home with a sign on the door that read iboats.com.
But what about that decision we had to make, to either support or go around the dealers? As my son and I debated the pros and cons of supporting the dealers or not, it became clear what we both wanted to do build an Internet model with a core principle that said, We support the dealers.
After building our business for almost a year, we attended our first industry-wide meeting, IMTEC 1999, in Orlando. We rented a booth with a banner across the back that read iboats.com, the Boat Dealers Internet Solution. And we were laughed at mostly by other dot-coms who made it clear that openly supporting the dealers was not in their plans!
But drawing a line in the sand and taking a strong, immovable stance on a core principle is not always the easiest position to pull off. We had many difficult decisions to make, beginning with the following three:
(1) How do we offer an easy-to-use, powerful web site to dealers that allows them to sell used boats online, while attracting more walk-in traffic to their dealerships
(2) We wanted to give back to the dealers a portion of the parts & accessories business that had been taken away from them by catalogs and chain stores over the last 20 years.
(3) And we wanted to give the dealers solid leads, free of charge, from consumers who contacted us online wanting to buy new boats and motors.
And we had to do all this without the blessing or support of NMMA or MRAA because they were already supporting another site.
To gain dealer awareness and support we began working with local marine trades associations, such as the SCMA (Southern California Marine Association), MIAF (Marine Industries Association of Florida) and BTAT (Boating Trades Association of Texas). We offered their members discounts on our dealer web sites as well as online marketing tools to help them sell more boats.
The results have been very exciting as we see dealers selling more boats because of their involvement with iboats.com. For example, Lewisville, Texas-based boat dealer DFW Boats reported that they sold 20 boats in February and a similar number of boats again in March as a direct result of leads from our iboats-provided web site. Another example is Marina Mikes in Fort Myers, Florida, who wrote, Since signing up with iboats.com about three months ago, weve received a bunch of e-mails and actually sold a dozen boats from our new web site. Walk-in traffic and sales have also increased. Thanks for the great web site!
What we found was that helping boat dealers get more traffic, and thereby more sales, both through their web sites and their dealerships, doesnt just happen because of their having any old web site. It takes a multi-faceted and coordinated approach through a network of marine-related web sites that generate huge amounts of highly targeted marine traffic.
The popularity of iboats can be attributed to its content and user-friendly construction of all the sites in its network of boating-related sites. Consumers visiting iboats sites find the information they want and a huge selection of products available from members of the iboats dealer family. They then tell their friends and fellow boaters about them, creating the traffic that continues month after month.
Another strong reason for iboats' success is its focus on serving the needs of boating consumers. iboats makes a special effort to design sites that are easy to use by doing three things:
1. Asking what consumers and dealers want and are looking for.
2. Designing it to be easy for non-computer professionals to use.
3. Continually listening to feedback and suggestions from dealers and consumers, and then making constant upgrades.
Reflecting back on where weve been over the last three-plus years, we were rather naïve to even try to do all this, yet today we are the number one boating site online! So here is what iboats.com offers dealers today: We offer one of the best and least expensive dealer web sites available, plus tons of consumer traffic to each dealers site..