What do you do when you have a passion for something and cannot find a local outlet? Why, you create a business of course. That is exactly what Nicole Moga did when she opened Boat Pittsburgh. Nicole, an avid boater originally from Ohio, came to the Pittsburgh area to study Graphic Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She wanted to get back on the water, but could not find rental pontoon boats on any of our 3 Rivers; occasionally, she was able to rent from a private owner, but that did not satisfy her as a long term solution. She realized if she had this need, others may as well. Nicole had always been keeping her eyes open for a chance to run her own business, so she viewed this as a potential opportunity worthy of further exploration. Need + Opportunity = Boat Pittsburgh.
The journey from concept to launch took about 2 years. Nicole set out about 18 months prior to write the Business Plan for Boat Pittsburgh. While doing research for writing an effective plan, Nicole found the local chapter of SCORE, an organization that provides free tools and resources for budding entrepreneurs. Nicole worked with SCORE counselor Bob Grant whom she credits as an advocate, offering encouragement and feedback while being readily available to her to vet ideas and offer suggestions she didn’t even know to consider.
Bob recalls thinking favorably about Nicole’s concept for her start-up business. “She had a background in boating, was very energetic, showed a lot of desire to succeed and was willing to do the work. These attributes will serve her well”. She did a good job researching the industry and the local market. Bob’s most salient piece of advice with her business plan development was to expand on her background and passion. “You are the business when you are a start-up” and banks need to understand who you are before they would be willing to lend financial support. Bob, a former banker, also assisted Nicole with providing several resources including templates for developing financial projections and other business documents
Boat Pittsburgh has 2 Cypress Cay model pontoon boats, 22 feet long, outfitted with 60 horsepower motors, named “Thing One” and “Thing Two”. The boats each seat up to 10 (with 8 being optimal) in a comfortable, living-room like setting that is more social than some of the other watercraft on the rivers, allowing for sightseeing, fishing, sunbathing, picnicking and enjoying the company of others. A renter needs to be 21 with a valid driver’s license; if born after 1/1/82, a Boating Safety Education Certificate is also required. Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) are provided for each member of the boating party. And just like on the road, it is illegal to drink and drive.
Nicole continues to refine her marketing efforts for Boat Pittsburgh. She initially thought the 30-something, young urban professionals would be the first adopters of her innovative offering, but found this was not the group that would embrace her concept. Rather, families and adult groups comprise the bulk of her rental market. Hourly rentals or block of hours are available, with 4 hour increment rental being the most popular, particularly for families with children. Nicole’s pricing strategy was developed in conjunction with an accountant who assisted her with the financial projections and helped determine a structure that would entice and incentivize a renter.
Some of the legal aspects of the boating business remain a challenge. She received help from 2 attorneys on setting up policies and identifying practices that would minimize liability. Another challenge was to find dock space with available slips that also had a public area where Boat Pittsburgh could transact the business aspects of renting their boats. Most marinas in the area are Members Only with locked gates. They initially looked at the Millvale area as there was a nice waterfront park; unfortunately, the Borough Council did not want power boats off the launch area. With this setback, Nicole scrambled to find another area with a similar set-up. She was able to find launch area in Sharpsburg, also on the Allegheny River, part of the Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone (ARTEZ). Boat Pittsburgh operates from a non-permanent structure there. Renters can access the “Pittsburgh Pool” of 25 navigable river miles bound by three locks.
Nicole recognizes the challenges of running a seasonal business and the need for work/life balance, a lesson every new entrepreneur must learn. As she stated “in my head I can work 7 days a week” but that isn’t realistic. She also said she knew it would be a challenge, but “didn’t realize how big a challenge”. To her credit, Nicole won’t let this challenge be her last. She continually looks for opportunities to sustain her business. “I’m willing to try anything that people will want.”
For more information on the Pittsburgh SCORE chapter, a resource partner of the US Small Business Administration, please visit them at www.pittsburgh.score.org. SCORE is a business counseling/mentoring organization providing free counseling, resources and advice to people who are in business or want to start a business. SCORE also provides free or low cost workshops on various business topics. Volunteer counselors are experienced owners or managers of businesses that volunteer their time to help small businesses succeed.