By GREGORY ZELLER // An Aquarius with a waterborne name, born to two Pisces, Marina Montes has been treading aquatic allusions all her life. She finally decided to just go with the flow.
After finishing law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and passing the North Carolina and New York bar exams, Montes – the 2011 Miss Long Island pageant winner – skipped a law career to start her own business. She’d made some keen observations at Chapel Hill and during undergraduate work at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, and “couldn’t shake the void in the market,” she noted.
“I always taught swimming lessons on the side,” Montes said. “And I noticed this really great need.”
Considering her name and all the familial water signs, starting a swimming-lessons business “was just meant to be,” she noted. Even her parents – Dad’s an attorney and Mom’s a nurse practitioner at Stony Brook Medicine – got into the swim, despite the fact their daughter had invested so much time and tuition in her law education.
“With both of them being professionals, they wanted me to pursue something with a strong academic background,” Montes said. “But I think they were really excited about the ingenuity of starting a business, and they couldn’t be more supportive.”
The entrepreneur launched Huntington-based urSwim in 2011 and her first “real season” was 2012, meaning the company – which also rents out professional lifeguards for private events – is now diving into its fourth swimming season.
By far, the busiest part of the business is teaching youngsters to swim. Montes has no children, but “I have 300 of them” through the business, she noted, with clients as young as 9 months.
There’s also a thriving business teaching older folks some strokes; the company’s senior-most client, according to Montes, turns 72 this year.
That adult marketplace is swimming with potential. A recent Red Cross survey showed that while 86 percent of Americans think they know how to swim, only 56 percent can actually perform five “water competency” skills – jumping into water over their head, floating or treading water for one minute, circling around to identify an exit, swimming at least 25 yards to reach it and then exiting the water.
The nation’s lack of sufficient swimming skills often has tragic consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Americans on average die from drowning every day – the numbers naturally spike in the summer – and children under 4 have the highest drowning rates.
Statistics like that are why Montes dreamed up the notion of sending instructors to the students’ homes, or another pool of their choosing.
“Children are learning to be safe in the pool they swim in most often,” she said. “If they mostly swim in grandma’s pool, they learn in grandma’s pool. Our clients get one-on-one time in their own environment, which makes them very comfortable.”
urSwim’s rent-a-lifeguard service for private parties and commercial events is also kicking. Even Montes, a certified aquatics instructor, is hiring one of her staff to keep an eye on things when she hosts a pool party later this month.
“This is the fastest-growing part of the business,” she noted. “Once people realize we offer this service, it’s a no-brainer.”
Others are recognizing urSwim’s no-brainer appeal. Montes launched the business in part with $2,500 in seed money she earned in a North Carolina business-pitch competition; last week, she was among the more popular presentations at LaunchPad Huntington Pitch Night, and while she hasn’t received any local VC funding yet, there is interest, according to the entrepreneur.
Whether or not the Launchpad pitch generates investments, Montes said she’s always happy to interact with other professionals, particularly other startup owners.
“I by no means went through business school,” she said. “I appreciate feedback from people with different perspectives – especially people who developed their own companies on Long Island and can provide mentorship as I grow mine.”
Montes found the LaunchPad event especially promising because such efforts are common in North Carolina, where “they really try to get young professionals to move and build their businesses.”
“This is so needed on Long Island,” she said. “A lot of young professionals want to stay here, but the cost of living and running a business here is by no means cheap. It’s nice to know someone is willing to provide access to resources to help us grow our businesses.”
Growth is definitely the plan. Montes’ company – which boasts one other full-time employee, one part-timer and eight instructors, including the CEO – is developing an app that will increase customer access to urSwim’s services, hopefully ready for download by 2016. And Montes is looking to raise about $50,000 in VC to not only grow on Long Island, but to expand urSwim into a warm-weather region – most likely, southern Florida.
“I want to expand the model to a geographic location that will allow us to extend our season by 15 to 20 weeks,” she said. “The problem with a seasonal business is you really don’t have any room to make mistakes in terms of marketing or investing. It’s important to have those extra weeks to see what is and isn’t working for our clients.”
However, the entrepreneur was quick to note: urSwim will always be a Long Island company. She’s even in the process of assembling a “local advisory board” to further her understanding of the Island’s business climate.
“My roots are here,” Montes said. “I’ll always headquarter our corporate office on Long Island.”
What’s It? Swimming lessons in your own pool
Brought To You By Miss Long Island-turned-attorney-turned-aquatics instructor Marina Montes
All In $10,000: personal investments plus $2,500 from a North Carolina business-pitch contest, spent mostly on marketing and insurance
Status Keeping afloat