The Global VC

Things That Don’t Scale: Boatbound Shares 4 Surprising Ways to Turn Random Strangers into (Paying) Fans

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500 Global Team

500 Global Team






A lot of founders or would be founders don’t have the time of day for things that “don’t scale” despite what’s been published on the subject.

The most opened 500 #distrosnack emails are the ones that contain subject lines with a quant inflection.

Fewer people want to hear about hitting the sidewalk. And still fewer want to actually do it.

And yet, that’s exactly what some of the most successful companies at 500 and elsewhere have done.

Solidarium offers their artisans (the sellers that list items in their online marketplace of handmades) a direct line to the CEO.

Totspot’s founder went to Bay Area families’ homes — more than 60 of them — to sit in their living rooms and chat about their kids’ almost new yet already too small stuff.

And, in what’s become a folk legend of “things that don’t scale,” Airbnb went door to door in New York, taking pictures of people’s apartments to put them online.

Some of those conversations must have been a little awkward, almost as awkward as staring down a mysteriously rising CAC, or a dismal activation rate.

But the teams that succeed are the ones that can slog through the trough of awkwardness to reach the slope of user insight and rabid community.

I recently spoke with Craig Battin, head of marketing at Boatbound, the company that connects boat owners — and their largely unused boats — with people who don’t own boats, but want to be on one.

Boatbound is a 500 company that has experienced YoY growth of 1100%.

Earlier this year, Boatbound participated in the 500 Distribution Program that brings a 500 Distro Hacker-in-Residence on board as an in-house marketing mastermind / growth slave for a 2 – 4 month engagement period.

But I’ll be honest. I wasn’t super excited to hear another marketplace story about balancing supply acquisition and demand creation.

I wanted to hear about the BOATS, the very physical side of their largely online business.

It turns out Craig had a few stories about boats, but even more to say about the highly effective, non-scalable, physical methods they used to build a rabid 2-sided community of users and fans.

Here’s the list:

1. Direct Mail

CRAIG: We mailed postcards to several thousand owners of a specific boat brand. Direct mail, and print in general, is really hard to track, even if you use URLs with a code. Most people have realized that they don’t need to enter a special URL to visit the site.

In fact, our estimate is that 90% of people visiting the site as a direct result of that mail aren’t using your special coded URL. I have a few examples suggesting it works, but not hard data. But our hunch is that paper is still relevant when marketing to an older crowd (in our case, boat owners).

Attribution is a hard enough problem with digital. When you include print and offline, it’s only more so.

One thing that helped us was slicing our data by the specific offer. We were doing a lot of things at the same time, including PR and online acquisition campaigns. We ran various campaigns around specific boat brands. When we saw an uptick in those specific brands being listing, that gave us some idea as to what was working.

TAKEAWAY: Tailor the medium, not just the message. In Boatbound’s case, marketing to boat owners — who are generally an older demographic — means direct mail is a valid channel to test.

2. Meet in person

CRAIG: Meeting people in person has made a huge difference. Any owner that was willing to meet us, we’d take them to coffee or lunch or drinks or just chat. These were people who already had their boat listed on our site, so we reached out to them and asked if they’d meet up with us whenever we were in their area. We’d be in that market for several weeks and would dedicate a big portion of time to those meetings.

This simple outreach converted many of these people into super owners on the seller side of the marketplace.

There’s another side to “meet in person” that some companies overlook, or at least don’t have a systematic approach for. In every city where we were launching, we’d pay visits to every tech company, startups and even a few investment banks that would say “yes” to a quick Boatbound visit.

We knew these offices were full of our first adopters, so it was a great way to spread the word that we had arrived. We never showed up empty handed, and everyone went nuts for the swag we passed out.

TAKEAWAY: When you’re early, no meeting with a user (or potential user) will ever be a waste of time. As a founder, don’t forget your peers often = your customers, and don’t show up empty-handed.

3. Events & parties

When there are big events at Fort Mason, our team will go and hand out hundreds of coozies.

When we were in Seattle for our market launch during SeaFair (it’s the biggest boating weekend in Seattle), one of our awesome boat owners had special access to the “logboom,” an area on Lake Washington where hundreds of boats tie up for the weekend to watch the hydroplane races.

He offered to take us on his boat so that we could pass out swag to the boaters. We hadn’t planned or prepared for this. But, typically, brands pay a lot of money for access to this area, so we didn’t want to miss out on such a great opportunity to pull off a massive activation campaign during a huge boating weekend in a key market. So, with just two hours of notice, we stuffed our rental car full of as much swag as it would fit and headed down to the dock.

Once we got out to the logboom, we discovered that a very popular beef jerky company had asked our captain to pass out packets of jerky to the crowd. However, the jerky packets were too light and couldn’t be thrown far enough to reach the boats, so we started stuffing them inside Boatbound koozies, wrapped a few of them up in Boatbound shirts, threw in a captain’s hat, and instantly had nice little bundles of goodies that could be thrown 50-60 feet. This went over extremely well. I never thought I’d see thousands of people screaming “WE LOVE BOATBOUND” in exchange for jerky and koozies, but that actually happened.

TAKEAWAY: Hyper-organize around offline promotions, but be ready to cook up “hackish” solutions on the fly and leverage Task Rabbit.

CRAIG: People are trusting other people they don’t know to take care of their really expensive assets. That trust is hard to build, and it helps to have a face (or a team of faces) to connect that to.

Organizing events from top to bottom is really challenging, especially when you’re trying to track results, learn from each market launch and individual events, and then incorporate those into future launches and events, all on a very tight budget.

To pull it off, you have to get hyper-organized (which ends up translating into late nights after running around a city all day), have insane levels of energy from your launch teams, and most important of all, have creativity. We thrive because we have a team made up of people who can cook up “hackish” solutions on-the-fly, adapt quickly, change direction on a dime, and solve problems at the last minute, even when it seems impossible.

In cases where our team was spread thin managing multiple city launches at once, we would sometimes hire Task Rabbits to help pass out swag at big beachside and boating events. This worked really, really well, and allowed us to blanket areas in a short amount of time.

Another takeaway for us — what we learned in Seattle and elsewhere — was the importance of local evangelists and how they can help build trust in local markets.

4. The extra mile

Every weekend of the boating season, a group of us (i.e., most of us) go out to the three major marinas in the SF Bay Area (and sometimes up to Marin and Sausalito) to surprise our renters at the dock with goodie baskets that we put together for them.

The goodie baskets typically include a captain’s hat, a Boatbound tote bag, t-shirts, koozies (so useful to have on-board), a sticker (great for putting on the windshield or mast of a boat to identify it as part of our community), and a keyfloat (a must-have part of any boat keychain).

When we meet renters at the dock, we also always bring several captains hats – those are incredibly popular. In the winter months in SF, we’ll include Boatbound beanies, as it can get chilly out there on the bay.

SUSAN: Is it just me, or did you also notice how incredibly thoughtful these goodies are?

In my own marketing career, I’ve done the swag thing and have been to plenty of tech conferences where I’m up to my ears in it. However, I’ve never gotten the feeling that the company giving it to me was worried about my ears getting chilly in a few hours.

Boatbound’s swag excels and delights at a critical moment (right before a renter’s first outing) because of 3 layers of relevancy:

a) timing — the renter gets it at a critical moment right before their first outing doing this strange new online boat renting thing

b) content — thoughtfully tailored to be memorable, branded, and actually useful(therefore not thrown away, and more likely to be seen/noticed by future users)

c) personal — the goodies are delivered to the dock by the actual people who make happen. This (considerable) extra effort connects users to Boatbound in a way that makes dormancy and churn recede like a distant shoreline.

TAKEAWAY: Swag is supposed to make people like you, not think you’re more annoying. Make it good: relevant timing, useful content, personal exchange. 

SUSAN: Craig, what advice do you have for how to systematize something like “go to the marina on Saturdays and Sundays with goodie baskets?” 

CRAIG: The biggest challenge in doing things that require hands-on participation is that often, you have to ask team members to take time out of their weekends/mornings/evenings to do these things, so it’s important to distribute responsibilities as evenly as possible.

As far as figuring out how to build a process, it’s important to keep an open mind, test a few things, define what success/failure looks like, just like with any online acquisition strategy. When something does work, then it’s time to figure out how to make it a regular part of your broader marketing strategy, and get the appropriate budget allocated for it.

Because almost everything moves quickly at startups, it can be easy to forget that some things just take time. I think many early-stage companies start to see traction on the acquisition front and feel a need to push really hard to maintain a specific (and probably blistering) pace without pausing to see how newer cohorts of customers behave over the course of a few weeks, or even 2-3 months.

So we’ve focused a lot on retention part of AARRR upfront, by building not just a user base but a fan base.

Boatbound is the first and only fully insured “pier-to-pier” marketplace for boat rentals in the US. Find Boatbound on AngelList and check out their site at

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500 Global Team

500 Global Team