BY GREGORY ZELLER
Keith Cooper’s goal is not immodest: He’s looking to forever change the recreational boating world as we know it.
The way the Long Island native and his partner, Amityville High School chum Todd Brice, see it, boaters have plenty of options – digital included – for reserving transient boat slips away from their home ports. But they mostly involve advance planning, which according to Cooper sails in the face of recreational boating’s true spirit.
“They work great,” he said, “if you’re planning a cruise three weeks out.”
He got into boating partly to see where his mood takes him on a given day, Cooper noted, and believes many boaters share this desire to boldly go where they haven’t gone before. But in a $121 billion world populated by 88 million recreational boaters (the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s 2013 U.S. numbers), reservations and schedules still rule, and following the wind without advance docking plans often leaves boaters high and dry.
“The thinking is, if you get a late start or decide to just go somewhere new, it will be too late to reserve a slip, so why even bother?” Cooper told InnovateLI. “We’re changing that thinking.”
To do that, the entrepreneurs are floating SlipFinder, a two-market app for boaters and dockmasters designed to provide super-simple bookings for boats on the go. Co-founders Cooper, who boasts a lengthy sales background, and Brice, owner of Amityville marina Yacht Service Ltd., foresee a water world where researching, booking and paying for slips is done in real-time from tablets and smartphones.
“Boaters get caught in a rut,” Cooper said. “They wind up going to the same places, dropping anchor in the same cove over and over. We’re trying to change that behavior. A lot of people got into this to explore new places, and this will help them do that.”
Cooper and Brice have so far invested about $100,000 of mostly their own money, with the lion’s share dedicated to design and programming and the balance reserved for marketing.
The process couldn’t be simpler. Boaters enter their boat dimensions, destination, length of stay and other criteria, then choose from a list of available slips and pay directly through the app. SlipFinder handles the actual booking, collects a fee – 10 percent of the slip charge, according to Cooper – and pays the marina.
“There are four buttons on the app,” Cooper noted. “We kept multi-generational boaters in mind and made this as simple as possible.”
The partners have already brought aboard a full-time operations manager and a crew of five commission-only sales reps – all Long Island-based boaters – and have been spreading the word to marina owners along the Eastern Seaboard. Interest is strong; the concept appeals not only to adventure-seeking boaters, but to dockmasters who, thanks to that common too-late-to-try mindset, often find themselves sitting on empty slips.
“It can be a beautiful day, and a marina on Fire Island can have 15 empty slips,” Cooper said. “That doesn’t have to happen. We have well over 100 marinas verbally committed to this or very interested. We’ve created a real demand and we’re eager to start signing these guys up.”
Several dockmasters have expressed an interest in seeing SlipFinder in action before they’ll commit, Cooper noted, and soon they’ll have their chance. The app has been approved for download through the Apple Store and will be available soon for Android devices. The partners had hoped to hit speed by the start of April, but slowed down to replicate some of the smart-device functions for desktop applications, at the request of several dockmasters.
“Our thinking was it would ge great if the dockmasters could just manage this right from their phones,” Cooper said. “But we’ve encountered scenarios where someone might want to handle it from their marina office, so we’re adding functionality for the marinas to be able to do everything you can do on the app right on the website.”
The plan now is to have SlipMaster live by mid-April and at full sails by mid-May. In additon to the desktop functionality, Cooper and Brice are already planning future add-ons – Cooper cited “social aspects” and functionality helping marina owners market themselves to targeted boaters – but the partners believe they have a hot property now and they’re not going to let the 2015 boating season sail by.
“By May, marina owners are going to be busy and it’s going to be harder to get them signed up,” Cooper said. “So many startups fall into the trap of trying to get everything perfect before they get it out. There are a few essential things we want to clean up, but otherwise, we’re not falling into that trap.”
After building momentum through word-of-mouth and online advertising, the partners may eventually seek VC funding to market SlipFinder to broader audiences and add new funcitonality. The endgame, according to Cooper, is to create “an entire network of SlipFinder boaters and dockmasters.”
“For marina owners, this will really fill in the gaps with real-time transactions,” Cooper said. “For boaters, it’s going to make them much more active. It’s really exciting to think about changing the way people use their boats.”
What’s It? Mobile app for boaters and dockmasters providing real-time slip-booking for transient recreational boaters
Brought To You By Cofounders Keith Cooper and Todd Brice, Amityville High School grads with professional backgrounds combining sales and marina management
All In $100,000, self-funded, for design, programming and marketing
Status Setting sail in April on Apple and Android devices