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The Balmain Boat Company disrupt their market

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Today’s smartest start-up companies disrupt their market by solving customer problems in ways competitors haven’t yet dreamed of.

Some entrepreneurs search for ways to innovate in their market and improve accessibility, but for others like digital strategist, Nicole Still, and industrial designer, Andrew Simpson, co-founders of flat-packed boat retailer, The Balmain Boat Company (BBCo), it was all down to chance. After meeting at work they started throwing around ideas on how they could collaborate on a hobby project.

People sitting in two boats on waters edge

Some entrepreneurs search for ways to innovate in their market and improve accessibility, but for others like digital strategist, Nicole Still, and industrial designer, Andrew Simpson, co-founders of flat-packed boat retailer, The Balmain Boat Company (BBCo), it was all down to chance. After meeting at work they started throwing around ideas on how they could collaborate on a hobby project.

To decide whether the business was a sure go, Nicole had to prove it was easy enough for others with no boating experience to build a rowboat from their laser-cut, sustainable wooden panels.

“We’re focused on the customer and not the tech and make boat building accessible to everyday people,” explains Andrew, who is also an avid sailor.

“If it wasn’t easy for me, then we weren’t going to go ahead. I built my boat, ‘The Fairy Penguin’ in just a few weekends and rowed it to Cockatoo Island for its maiden voyage,” says Nicole.

Since starting at the end of 2010, the BBCo has expanded its range to consist of a Classic Rowboat, the Pilot for “the more serious wooden-boat builder” and the Sailboat. But it took a year to make sure their initial design was easy for anyone to build at home.

The ultimate DIY project

“We’re the ultimate DIY project so we had to make sure our customers could build our kits to completion and get them on the water with friends and family,” says Andrew.

It wasn’t until eight months later that they had their first sale. Not that this disheartened the creative duo, who see it as their job to boost people’s confidence. 

“There’s self-esteem in building a boat – people are taken aback. It’s re-engaging with something that people have been doing for thousands of years – it’s almost a lost skill, but people today are still so proud to build a boat,” says Andrew.

And seeing their boats on the harbour and hearing a chuffed customer’s adventure is what’s most satisfying for Nicole and Andrew, who say they’re in the business of story-telling as much the business of boats.

“One of my favourite boat builders is Vince. I met him at a bar right after he lost his job in finance a few days before Christmas. He asked me what I do and he ended up building a boat with his dad for our instructional video. He told me that building a boat gave him the confidence that he could do anything. A month after his maiden voyage in his boat, ‘Henrietta’, he left for South Africa to become a game ranger,” says Nicole.

For both Andrew and Nicole (who has lived away from her family in America for the past 10 years), family is what anchors the business, and lets them do what they love. “I make design decisions on what I think my family would like. It’s always easier to design for your family than some imagined customer. We want to make parents and grandparents look like legends,” says Andrew.

Timely expansion into the USA

It’s family that has helped their expansion to America last June, where Nicole’s dad, a retired builder, fulfils all the American boat orders from his basement in Loveland, Ohio.

“It was important to me that we create a product with a purpose that can stand the test of time and be passed on to the next generation. Dad completed his first Balmain Boat and put it in the water the same week his first grandson, Abe, was born. Originally, he was going to auction the boat he built. But after Abe was born, Dad hung the boat in his garage and said he was saving the boat to take Abe fishing when he was old enough.” 

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