Lessons Learned: Your Boat Club CEO and Co-Founder Luke Kujawa
[Editor’s note: This story appeared in our April issue.]
After two decades on the retail side of the boating industry, Luke Kujawa’s optimism was sinking. During his time working at boat dealerships, he saw folks come in to buy a boat, only to abandon it not long afterward. “In the first year, they’d use it 30 or 40 times,” Kujawa says. “Often by the fourth year, it didn’t leave the garage.” In many cases, customers are turned off by the level of maintenance and repairs that come with ownership.
So Kujawa and his business partner Michael Jellish decided to try out a new venture: renting boats. In December 2009, the two launched Your Boat Club, which sells annual memberships for boat rentals on 20 popular lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois (including new locations this year in Mankato, St. Cloud, and Ely). The business is aimed at customers who want to get out on the water without a firm commitment—a market segment that’s grown substantially in recent years, especially among millennials, Kujawa says. The company also offers one-time daily rentals, a newer service that’s now one of the fastest growing parts of the business. Your Boat Club’s 2019 revenue hit $13.9 million. While the lakes were frozen over the winter, the company began enrolling 2020 members. Kujawa walks us through his nautical pivot.
If a job is changing or business is changing, you have to get up and dust yourself off. It’s easy to give up if you get your butt kicked. Perseverance really is key.
Find the right partner
Having a trusted business partner is key for any new endeavor, says Kujawa, who was friends with Jellish for years before they launched the boat club together as equal partners. “We have different roles, and we’re good at different things. Our skill sets match up really well together.
When is the right time to add more personnel? “It’s challenging,” Kujawa concedes. Since he launched Your Boat Club, he’s been strategic about expanding his workforce. For instance, he’s made sure only to add new workers when the volume of business warranted it. “If you’re too busy to ever find the right person or train the right person, you’re never going to be less busy. You have to focus on working on the business.”
Of course, Your Boat Club is busiest during the summer, but there’s plenty of planning to do in the off-season, too. Kujawa takes advantage of the slow months to draw up marketing plans, evaluate new locations, and build out his fleet of boats.
Leverage your existing skill set
Rapid changes in the marine marketplace weighed heavily on Kujawa. “There were times when I wanted to leave the industry completely,” he says. Instead, Kujawa found a way to continue using all the knowledge he’d accumulated over the years. “When you have a toolbox in a specific segment or industry, look at other ways you can leverage those tools,” he says. “When people hit a wall or rough spot, I encourage them to not forget about the experience they have.”
Grow locally first
Your Boat Club has 20 locations across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. “We do have a pretty aggressive growth strategy,” Kujawa says. “A lot of that is focused here. Once that market is established at a level that we’re happy with, then we will proceed to looking at other regions.”
Your Boat Club customers don’t need to worry about boat repairs, but Kujawa does. With more than 22,000 boat rentals each summer, there’s a good deal of risk involved. To protect its investment, Your Boat Club provides extensive training for members. For Kujawa, it’s a small but effective way to manage risk.
Understand the competition
Kujawa says he’s carved out a unique niche locally, though there are a couple other major players nationwide. Still, he’s less concerned about other boat rental companies. “Truthfully, one of our biggest competitors is time,” he says. So he’s focused on persuading folks to try renting a boat instead of spending an afternoon at a Twins game. That informs his marketing messaging and helps refine his vision.