A Q&A with Delphine Braas '14 of Sailo, the online boat rental marketplace that connects renters, boat owners, and licensed captains to make every trip on the water memorable.
When you first launched, how did you get the word out?
Press was important for us, especially at first. We were fortunate enough to be featured in TechCrunch, Maxim, and Fox Business, which led to the first customers who tried the platform and booked our first boats. Word of mouth was also very important and we got a lot of early adopters from our network, friends, and, of course, the Columbia community.
What approaches should every startup explore in telling their brand story?
Most startup founders have great stories about why they started the company, and in my experience it helps to share that story – after all, especially in the beginning, your brand is your founding team. In our case, our CEO Adrian Gradinaru '14 discovered and fell in love with sailing while working in Palo Alto. He did not understand why such a beautiful hobby was perceived as unreachable, and wanted to make boat rentals simple, accessible, and enjoyable by applying technology to a relatively-antiquated market. He then convinced technology buff and friend Magda Marcu, fellow engineer Bogdan Batog and me, his fellow Columbia classmate, to join him in this mission to grow the industry.
What types of marketing strategies work best for Sailo and how do you acquire new users?
Search engines have proven to be the best marketing channel for acquiring new users, so we prioritize SEO and paid AdWords. Additionally, we have started focusing on YouTube videos, which are great for both raising awareness and also for SEO. We market to our existing users through social media, email marketing, and referral programs. It is also helpful to have good press, as it increases brand visibility and recognition. As we have grown, press in publications like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Fox News and Fortune have been instrumental in our traffic growth.
Have you made any branding mistakes that were important learning lessons?
It is important to refrain from defining specifics about the company early on, as you will almost certainly iterate and pivot in that first year. In our case, we started out as the “Airbnb for Boats,” focusing on private boat owners and affordable boats. However, since then Sailo has become a more premium brand by working with professional boat owners and targeting a younger, more diverse segment of the market (young, affluent professionals in large metropolitan cities). Now it is all about access to information and exceptional experiences.
What were some of the most important considerations in building the site and app? What would you do differently next time?
Design and user experience are at the heart of everything we do. With two engineers on the founding team, our vision has been to differentiate ourselves by having the best technology from the beginning. In product terms, this means the platform responds to the complexity of each transaction, and the user is presented with a simple and logical flow that adapts to his or her needs. (Check out our website and iOs mobile app.)
What would we have done differently? There is a great temptation early on to solve too many problems at once, so having a stronger focus on core features and a strict project management process would have significantly improved productivity.
What is next for Sailo?
Since we started operations in spring 2015, we have grown our fleet of boats from 100 (in NY and Miami) to close to 5,000 boats across the US, the Caribbean, Europe and a few other locations around the world. At this time, we have boats in over 40 countries and 260 cities. We will continue to focus on using technology to make boat rentals easy, safe, and accessible, and foresee that our fleet will be over 20,000 boats worldwide by the end of 2017.
Special thanks to the Marketing Association of Columbia for their collaboration on this article.