Q&A: Charles Bacon, The Waypoint

Q&A: Charles Bacon, The WaypointThursday, February 03, 2011 by Rebecca

Charles Bacon is a chimaera. A geophysicist, sailor, systems expert, entrepreneur and internet veteran, his online booking engine The Waypoint launched last month at the London Boat Show. Here's what The Waypoint does, how it's revolutionising sailing and why this is truly a start-up to watch.

Tell me about the business

In essence, The Waypoint is a planning tool for boat owners and a vacancy management system for businesses. It's an application that allows marinas to track who's coming, how long they're staying and when they are leaving. It also comprises a boat owner interface. They can switch it off or fully automate it, use it to make berth bookings and put their home berth online.

How's it going?

I formed the business last year with my co-founder James Steward. I met James working on a government contract. He's the internet expert, while I'm the go-to guy for systems and boating. We launched at the London Boat Show a couple of weeks ago. It's been nuts. The product has been two years in development: working on the requirements, identifying problems and how to solve them at a price that suits our target market.

Sounds challenging...

It was. We had to find exactly the right people to work on the development. It's a web application but it features a lot of automation so it really has to run like clockwork. We also have to input lots of exotic languages. This wasn't something we could just buy off the shelf.

What's your background?

I'm a physicist by trade. I've worked in government contracts on high tech defence projects. I was involved in e-borders, that ill-fated government tracking system. It was a data mine that tracked everyone entering and leaving the country, an anti-terrorism initiative. It was supposed to be ready for the Olympics but it was cancelled last year.

My specialism was geophysics but that got me into sonar systems, radar, that sort of thing. I was working for the Navy military - hi-spec radar systems: they had to be covert, only use so much energy. That led to some interesting trips on some very exotic vessels.

Is that how you became interested in sailing?

I've been sailing all my life.  My earliest memories are those on the water with my father.

What about the web side?

I've been on the internet since the eighties. Back when the only access was through FTP and gofer and all the sites were text-based.

How did you put the two passions together?

I sail - I own a boat. For years, I would go past rivers and empty permanent moorings while visitor moorings were packed solid. I thought, if only the tenant of that permanent berth had a simple way of telling his marina he was away, I could use it overnight as a visitor. Every year, I waited for someone to come up with a solution but no one did. Then LateRooms.com took off - people don't phone up to book hotel rooms anymore; they book online. But you still can't book a place in a harbour on the web - it's still all over the phone. So, I thought: "I'll do it".

Who's your target market?

Anyone with a boat! All sizes, all shapes. Although berthing is a bigger issue for larger vessels in particular. You can pay £7-8,000 a year on berthing for an average size yacht.  But if you have to leave your yacht somewhere for a month because of bad weather or work commitments, rates double in price as you pay visitor rates as well as your home berth mooring.

In theory, if marinas and harbours could encourage all their permanent berth holders to go cruising and then re-let all their empty home berths to visitors, their income could be increased significantly. Our more conservative models show that with normal traffic, harbours and marinas could see a 15% uplift in revenue.

It's up to them to incentivise the boat owners to use the system. If they pass on a cut of visitor takings, like a royalty, to the owner, it would be incentive for them to cruise longer and make more of an asset that usually just costs them money.

Who's interested so far?

The Waypoint has been live since the January's Boat show. We have five businesses signed up and we're in talks with MDL, Premier, Dean & Reddyhoff and Quay Marinas. They know it's the way forward and are excited.

We're already trialling The Waypoint with BWML, which owns 18 locations - it's using our kit with four at the moment. We've also just signed up a new £3.2M marina development in Roydon, Essex, which will be using The Waypoint as their main method of managing their marina vacancies.

What's the revenue model?

Except for our commision, we aren't charging for the service this year. At the moment, it's just important to raise awareness and get harbours using the app.

Next year, we will start charging an annual fee. And the plan is to take an additional 15% commission on every booking. We've already built the functionality that allows us to take payments automatically online, so owners can pay for their berths using their mobile phone on route.  And you can cancel bookings up to 48 hours in advance for no extra charge.

One interesting thing that came out of attending the Boat Show was that if you offer a service at zero cost, people don't value it. We're currently playing with the figures to offer a variety of plans: annual subscription should be more and transaction costs should be reduced or visa versa, otherwise some businesses, operating lots of visiting boats, would end paying a fortune. They've told me "Charles, I'm not letting you take such huge sums off me." So I'm leaning towards having four levels, starting at free and increasing to a £345 fee per annum with a reducing royalty commission.

How are you raising awareness?

We're using social media as well as above-the-line marketing. We're planning to spend up to £18,000 a month on ads. The Waypoint is going to be purely business-facing for the next three months. Then we'll become boat owner facing. We're also looking to raise investment: £500,000 to take the company international.

And finally, can we have a sneaky peek at your five-year plan?

We're only in the UK now but we need to scale up quickly. We're aiming for Germany, the US, Sweden and then Europe. The UK, in boating terms, although prestigious is very small. By the end of our five year plan we aim to have a 35% market share of all the territories we're active in and this should bring in £14m after tax turnover.

Find out more about The Waypoint.