Interviewing entrepreneurs kind of gets me in contact with interesting people around the World. That’s how I’ve got in contact with Patric.
Douglas, a CEO that turned his hobby into a successful business, and that is Shark Diving. I’m copy-pasting his description from www.sharkdiver.com because it’s self-explanatory for understanding his profile: “Cleaning up after his third hurricane in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Shark Divers Patric Douglas decided that there had to be a
safer way to make a living. He moved back to the west coast, where he was quickly offered a job working for a medical travel
company escorting American doctors all over the globe. He spent the next two years as one of the first American tour guides back into Vietnam, setting up a safe, unique travel route throughout this remarkable, historically rich country. While escorting 21-day tours through China, Bali, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America, his easygoing leadership and good humor made for some exciting moments on the road that would not have happened without him.”
Hi, Patric and Welcome on board! You’re running a business in which you offer shark diving experiences to your customers. From your profile, shark diving seems just like the thing you would like to do before breakfast! How did you end up doing it for a living?
Patric: That’s an interesting story. Obviously, shark diving is not something your average kid wakes up one morning and says, “I want to be a shark diver.” For me, the movie JAWS played a huge unconscious role in what I am doing now. At the age of 7, I saw that movie and spent that entire summer with all the other kids I knew staring at the swimming pool in the 110-degree summer heat. NO ONE was going into the water that summer.
Fast forward to 1999. I was 47 miles off the coast of San Francisco at a small fly spec island called the Farallons. It was cold and foggy, and here I was, watching a surfboard being towed 10 yards behind the vessel we were on. The sun poked out of the fog for about ten minutes, and just then, an 18 foot Great White came blasting out of the water with the surfboard in her mouth. From that second on, I was “hooked,” seven years later, here we are with www.sharkdiver.com.
Where is your business located?
Patric: Our main base of operations is in San Diego, California. We also travel all over the planet to different shark sites. Technology has allowed niche travel businesses like ours to be lean and mobile. For example, a shark site we used on a small island off the coast of Honduras had internet access only. With Skype, you now have phone access, and now you have your mobile office. Recently I booked a party of 6 white sharks diving from the banks of the Green River in Colorado. We were fly fishing there on a 4-day drift boat adventure down the river. The office phone rang in San Diego, routed the call to my PDA, and we booked them complete with release waivers and PayPal payments over the phone. We did a follow-up three days later from the office when we got back. That’s the long answer; the short answer is all “over the place.”
You’re offering 2 types of packages: diving expeditions and Corporate Yacht services. From the pricing presented on the websites, it seems that you are targeting 2 different types of customers. What are the differences?
Patric: Our high-end clients have unlimited disposable income and are looking for raw adventure with maximum flexibility. They are the “Adventure Barons” of our industry. We cater to these clients quite often, either building shark cage systems for their private vessels and staffing adventures all over the planet or providing full shark diving services on a leased vessel. I came up with this idea after our first season at Isla Guadalupe, Mexico, with the Great Whites. There’s a market for the super-rich and unlimited adventures—Shark Diver at the right place with the right product and the reputation to pull it off.
Our mainstream clients are our “bread and butter.” These are regular folks like you and me who have a real thirst for adventure. They are doctors, lawyers, contractors, homemakers, and more who are looking for good value and safe and sane shark encounters. It turns out most of these folks have also seen the movie JAWS and share our passion for sharks, especially the Great White.
The Corporate Yacht package is priced at $100.000 + expenses. That could scare any salesman away! How do you find your customers? What’s important when trying to sell at this price tag?
Patric: It’s a high price tag for sure, but when your personal expedition yacht is worth $60 million and carries more than $15 million in rare artwork and has a $400,000 wine cellar on board, suddenly you begin to realize what is value for some and a house payment for others. The super-rich is great clients to have, but you need to be a polished company to do it. These guys need the right kind of customer service to deal with them, and they will come back if you do a great job the first time. As far as finding customers, these are not the clients you advertise for. You rely on word of mouth to move the business forward, and that keeps you sharp, focused, and in touch with the client’s every need.
What’s the best seller and why?
Patric: Great Whites quickly followed by Tiger Sharks. These are the two species of sharks that everyone knows and fears. More has been written about these two sharks than any others, so the public understands and gets the idea of diving with them. Additionally, the value is there.
You seem to have quite good PR for your business. Do you have someone hired for this?
Patric: We have two PR companies we work with on a regular basis. They show us when and where to put out good and memorable P.R, and they cost a small fortune, but the returns are worth it. If you’re not spending at least $50,000 a year on P.R, you’re not getting the word out.
I bet word of mouth is an important promotion tool that brings you, customers. What are the special things about a vacation with you that make your customers spread the word?
Patric: Be interested in the client. It’s a basic client relationship kind of thing. Clients want to know that others find them interesting and that they feel like they are part of the crew. Also, get to know everyone’s name on an expedition. Lastly, always remember a good deed. If a client does something nice for you, remember them, send an email, call and follow up.
You’re using an impressive fleet . Operating so many vessels seems like hard work. How does this work for you?
Patric: Like any other travel company, we depend on good crews, quality vessels, and overall experiences that are the same each time and every time. We choose vessels and crews that are the best at what they do. Period. We have been through a few vessels that have failed to make the grade. In the end, you work with the best, and that translates into an easier operational burden for everyone.*
You are actively involved in the Guadalupe Island Conservation Fund. What’s your role in this?
Patric: Shark Diver started it. The idea is to leverage both the public and private sectors with big dollars into this tiny Bio-Sphere Reserve in Mexico that has a lot of needs. Currently, the Mexican lead white shark research program operates on a budget of less than $10,000 a year. My role, frankly, is going out and asking for money. We have a few PowerPoint presentations and a Guadalupe Fund video at http://www.guadalupefund.org/science-video.html. This last season we raised $9,000; we hope the raise three times that in 2008. If you run an eco-tour company on a resource, it’s paramount that you give back in any way. This seemed like the right way and won for all involved.
I’m inquisitive. What kind of investment do you need to start a business like yours?
Patric: You’ll laugh when I tell you we started this whole thing with a $2,000 website and $10,000 in shark cages. Given that we did a million on overall sales in 2007, that’s not a bad ROI.
Competition. What makes you special? Any worries about losing business to your competition?
Patric: You always have that concern. Our policy towards others in the industry is to let them do their thing. Our industry has two sides to it: the Cowboys and the Realists. The Cowboys, for all intents and purposes, come to the industry trying to be #1, pushing the envelope…and ultimately getting into trouble. Unfortunately, when they do, they usually either run and hide or try and sweep what they term “an accident” under the rug. One of our competitions had another spectacular cage breach this last season when the shark took the entire front of the shark cage off, spilling a diver into 500 feet of water. The whole thing is up on YouTube and is being billed as another “accident” Meanwhile; their website claims a “100% operational and safety record”.
The Realists understand they are dealing with a predator with 10 million years of evolution behind it and that we are just visiting their environment in life support gear, so cages and serious protocols must be in place when diving with these critters.
In the end, I maintain our industry does change perceptions of sharks to thousands of divers worldwide. Hurting the animals out of negligence or causing a diver to be hurt by pushing the envelope sets the industry back to the stone age every time it happens. As the local gov agencies usually do not act-it is up to us with the media’s help to self-regulate.
So, what makes us special? Understanding “eco-tourism” and treating the resource not as a Biological ATM Machine, and more as a sustainable resource. We also ensure the safety of both the sharks and our divers; for us, its safety and respect for wildlife are not just a tagline on a website.
You probably have to deal with a lot of suppliers, legal papers, and so on. Is this the easy part or the difficult one?
Patric: I wouldn’t say I like paperwork and ties. So far, I have managed not to wear a tie for the past 7 years and am working on the paperwork part. At the end of the day, I would rather be hiking, diving, and or fly fishing. But then again, who wouldn’t. I consider myself lucky every day I wake up.
You’re offering a special package for film crews and professional photography. You’re offering corporate services and charter programs. What’s next?
Patric: I cannot say right now, but it’s fun. We just signed an NDA on a fairly large project for 2008. I can say we get 12% of $1.8 million with unlimited potential. We also just opened a YOGA studio just to keep things interesting; this is California, after all.
Follow your passion, and money will come. True or false?
Patric: Absolutely true, or as I say, “Find what you’re good at doing and go make money doing it.” There’s a lot of talented people out there working for others; you know who you are. Go out and start something; the universe will reward you.