With sailing charters and “Airbnb for boats” comprising the latest wave of the sharing economy, it seems that watersports and activities are a hot segment in travel. The newest emerging startup to target water tours and activities is FishingBooker, which focuses exclusively on facilitating the booking of fishing charters worldwide.
Born out of the co-founder’s avid fishing habit, the startup solves the problem of dealing with a disparate and disconnected group of charter captains and boats which do not have any share practices or ability to book online.
This complete lack of transparency meant traveling to a faraway port only to then find out the trustworthiness of the captain. And since the charter was already booked and paid for via direct bank transfer to the captain’s private account, there wasn’t much of a chance to see a refund if things weren’t as promised.
FishingBooker solves this issue with its product, basically an online travel agency of sorts for fishing charters.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
The founder, Vukan Simic has been a passionate fisherman ever since childhood. He was lucky enough to have visited some of the best fishing destinations in the world.
Before each trip, he would get frustrated because he had to make dozens of international phone calls just to get trip rates from the local charter captains at his destination. Booking a fishing charter also involved making a 100% deposit via bank transfer to the boat owner’s personal account. Another problem he faced was that there was no way to tell whether a captain combination is good. Imagine booking hotels online without reviews!
After graduating from university with a major in Software Engineering, Vukan was determined to start a business before applying for his first job. After several successful experiments that involved testing the charter fishing market with online ads, he validated the market and jumped at the opportunity to launch FishingBooker.
The website was up and running in a matter of weeks, and the first customers started rolling in immediately. At this point, Nemanja, Vukan’s friend from high school, also a software engineer joined FishingBooker and played a key role in assembling the core team needed to achieve traction.
Our first online transaction was in November 2013, and we’ve been growing ever since.
What is the size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
The team is now 7 people strong. Vukan Simic is the CEO and founder of the company. Nemanja Cerovac is CMO, and he brought in other key people, such as Luke, our head of service, Dino, who is in charge of business development, and Dean, our content strategist.
Please share your funding arrangements.
The company has up to this point been entirely bootstrapped from booking revenue. A small personal investment by the founder covered the initial startup costs.
What is your estimation of market size?
Fishing is the most popular outdoor activity in the United States, with over 48 million Americans practicing it at least once per year.
A report was published in 2013 by the American Sporfishing Association, estimating angling travel expenditures in the United States at $21B / year. The report goes deeper into based fishing guide salaries, which totalled $1.1B last year. If a captain’s salary is 40% of their average trip price, you get a market larger than $2B just in the USA.
Number of registered fishing charter captains in:
Miami Metro Area, Florida = 200+ Tampa Bay, Florida = 100+ Singapore = 60+ Sydney, Australia = 50+ Dubai = 50+
The average cost of a full day fishing trip according to our data is about 830 USD, so it’s a large market with an expensive service to power it.
There are a few startups and businesses that have been around longer than us, but we managed to outgrow all of them in less than ten months. Also, unlike others, we have customer care agents on standby 7 days a week. We also make sure to establish a personal connection with every single customer, which boosts loyalty and contributes to our 50% booking-to-review publish rate.
Revenue model and strategy for profitability?
Our business model is commission based. We take a small percentage of each successfully referred fishing trip to the captain. This commission is deducted from the trip price itself, to make sure that the customers are getting the best price every time.
An interesting fact is that we were profitable during the first six months – something that we decided to sacrifice in favour of growth and market expansion. Now we are focused on creating a worldwide supply of vendors and establishing a firmer presence in the United States.
What problem does the business solve?
Booking a hotel online has become very easy with websites like Booking.com. At the same time, the problem of local business ratings has been solved by companies like TripAdvisor.
This is not the case with fishing charters.
Problem #1 is that finding and booking a fishing trip online, especially if you’re travelling abroad, is a hard and time consuming process which involves international phone calls, bank deposits to personal bank accounts of captains and finally, not knowing what you’re going to get when booking.
FishingBooker makes planning, booking and reviewing your next fishing trip quick, fun and hassle-free.
Problem #2 in this market is found on the vendor side. Considering the average price per trip, charter business websites are often very low in quality, many of them not being updated in a few years. That’s why we give captains the opportunity to create a free, professional listing on our site, manage availability, get clients and earn credibility through reviews in one place.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
The initial idea evolved from Vukan’s own problem: whenever he would travel to a premier gfishing destination, he had difficulty finding and booking fishing trips. This resulted in a few sub-par experiences with captains and became the objective of the new startup. We did try to run shared fishing trips in the beginning, only to find out they are a logistical nightmare to plan out effectively.
Why should people or companies use the business?
FishingBooker is useful because it helps anglers make better decisions. It also enables them to discover and book fishing trips which would otherwise be accessible only to locals and very well connected individuals.
According to a recent study which was conducted on Lake Michigan, over 56% of customers used online research as the deciding factor to make a fishing charter booking. This implies that most fishing trips are booked or discovered online, and FishingBooker gives captains the tools to effectively showcase and promote their business to a worldwide audience without paying anything before they are actually making money from their listing.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from PR)?
As mentioned before, most anglers do their research online prior to booking a charter. This is why search is a very important channel for us to reach customers. Once they have decided to book with us, our job is to make sure they have an amazing experience and recommend it to all of their friends.
Charter captains are registered small business owners, which means that it isn’t hard to contact them directly and pitch your product. Once you start sending bookings to the first few captains which signed up in a particular city, their colleagues are quick to find out and list their boats as well.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
We see FishingBooker as a comprehensive online community of charter captains and organized information about fishing, where half of the world’s fishing trips are planned and booked through us.
Scaling a marketplace and maintaining the quality of vendors listed is rarely easy. That’s where I anticipate challenges once we grow in the global market share.
We also rely substantially on efficient and high quality customer service. Scaling from a few agents to a customer service department can be difficult.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
Charter fishing is a mid-range to luxury tourist activity and yet it has no global players regulating the booking process and ratings of vendors. Captains don’t have access to resources or knowledge for proper online marketing, and that’s where FishingBooker helps them out.
While most people fish without renting a captained boat, the number that do is large enough to create a worldwide problem that’s worth solving.
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style… and why?
AirBnb on the vendor side because we noticed a large amount of problems requiring similar solutions during our journey to product-market fit. We noticed that thinking like them made us solve problems better.
On the customer side, definitely Booking.com. They are obsessed with the customer always getting the best price available online and tweaking their ranking algorithms to maximize user satisfaction and revenue.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup, and why?
I’m afraid it’s a bit early for getting into specific companies as we’ve got a long journey ahead of us to develop the company we set out. That said, we do think we could be interesting to the major travel booking / review websites, as well as large players in the fishing equipment retail industry (all multi-billion dollar companies), as they already have a direct channel to customers and could easily monetize our inventory.
Describe your startup in three words?
Book Fishing Worldwide
FishingBooker is the latest entry in the continued emergence of specific OTA/T&A plays for verticals in travel. This makes sense, especially in this direct use case of booking fishing charters, as this group is passionate and dedicated to pursuing the hobby – this means that the demographic is willing to spend money. At $830 per average day trip, this is also a very lucrative market for a middleman broker to dominate.
The main challenge is to on-board the captains, and make the platform useful to those fishermen looking to book charters. The likelihood of the captain demographic being tech-savvy to do this on their own is low, given the fact that the majority of these operations are decentralized and based on foot traffic bookings. If they were already well-connected, then this service would not be needed.
Once sufficient captains are on-boarded, they must be vetted to the point where bookers absolutely enjoy the trips and recommend to friends. These word-of-mouth recommendations can then travel through the niche community, and boost bookings overall for the startup.
NB: Fishing boat image courtesy Shutterstock.