On Board for Success
Meet the minds behind United Marine Systems / SHIPSHAPE
Whether you’re new to the marine industry, have a passion for the sea, or like to take your boat out once in a while for a quick ride of the waves, it’s always reassuring to know you have a support system ready to help out in case of unprecedented issues.
That is exactly what the team of specialists at SHIPSHAPE provide, and then some. With its founding members being boating veterans Merrill Charette and Talha Bhatty, the talented team has made their name among the industry as a whole, after a humble start at a marina in Charlestown, Massachusetts. We sat down with Merrill & Talha with a set of questions, and gained insights into an industry that truly needed an innovative set of minds to bring boating into the 21st century. Let’s begin:
Can you tell us about your background?
Merrill: Talha & I started United Marine Systems in the beginning of 2019. After assessing the needs of the marine industry at the time, we came up with our first physical product called the Dinghy Thingy, which is a multi-tool of sorts for dinghies. That fared us well and we got featured at the Newport Boat Show, and following that, the Boston Boat Show. That’s where we got our feet wet in the marine industry.
Talha: Before the conception of United Marine, we were both living the life of a ‘live-aboard’. I’d been living on my boat for around 8 years, and Merrill was well into his fourth year, so we already had the capability of boating and our marine experience was powered by pure passion. We are avid sailors and boaters, so it made sense that we’d glide into the marine industry naturally.
Why did you choose the marine contracting business?
M: I’d like to think that the marine contracting business chose us. Over the years, we’d made connections through Newport and Boston, along with having our own repairs on boats. We met the most brilliant boaters, sailors, entrepreneurs, engineers, detailers and so on, and we knew there was a gap in the marine industry wherein other people didn’t have access to the same level of professional craftsmanship these contractors were bringing.
Many people within our own communities didn’t have the connections or the access we had, so we started off by connecting other contractors to boat owners. We also expanded into several projects at marinas, including installing a kilowatt of solar power on a million dollar catamaran. We also did detailing, we had connections with electrical, welding, divers, engine repair professionals.
T: So it seemed like a logical progression to provide other boaters in the area the kind of access we had. And naturally lead that expansion towards helping boaters connect with contractors nationwide. The credibility of these contractors was integral in our creating this directory, so we made sure that only the best-reviewed contractors were available for support to other sailors and boaters across the US.
What has contributed to your successful track record in acquiring users?
T: The marine industry is very niche. A lot of contractors receive business through word-of-mouth, or recommendations that come through a lot of laborious research. Because of that, a lot of boat projects don’t end up getting done for years, since people aren’t able to find relevant resources to find solutions for their specific problems. Our aim, from the beginning, was to bring boating into the 21st century through the use of technology and innovation. Modern solutions to marine problems, since there were clearly millions of boaters in the U.S. alone who have difficulty finding qualified servicemen for their boats.
Since we have social media, vlogs, Facebook, YouTube and everything that the internet has blessed us with, we recognized the effectiveness of using that to connect people who have a marine-based need with relevant resources. Because the industry is so niche, the communication was missing and that’s the gap we are trying to fill.
What are the goals and long term vision for ShipShape?
M.: The goal is to make an impact within the marine industry by keeping people out on the water. Much of the marine industry is reliant on an operating boat that stays operating, so we aim to keep their adventures going smoothly so the marine industry is able to progress. We want boaters to be able to find service professionals in their area easily, and our long term vision is to be able to do that on a global scale, not just for the U.S.
T: If you’re a boat owner anywhere in the world, you should be able to find somebody who can help you with whatever boat issue you might run into on your boating adventures, and you should be able to do it online, especially in this day and age. That’s what we aim to do for our global marine audiences.
How is ShipShape different from other well-established marine contracting websites? Why choose ShipShape?
M: We stand out because no one has created an online, national platform to find service providers. Essentially, every marine contracting website is geographically isolated and only has to deal with certain select businesses. There has never before been an all-encompassing platform with a directory of over 2000 professionals, and 180 different services and brands within regions throughout the United States.
T: We dove deep into the requirements of boaters and sailors, especially for when they move online, and came up with a highly curated user experience that caters to their needs. We examined thousands of websites and came up with an optimal solution to what a great user interface is supposed to look like. It’s simple and clean, and caters to both tech-savvy users and those who are just now starting out with creating an online presence.
We’re always evolving and adding new useful features that other marine-focused websites haven’t thought about. When a new user joins Shipshape, they’re not in a ghost town, they have access to 2000 contractors that we have preselected, gone through their profiles, given them more content tagging abilities than their own websites. On the whole, it’ll be easier for people to find what they need, wherever they are across the U.S.
What are the biggest challenges you faced while starting up?
M: Our client base is made up of two groups, boat owners and marine professionals. However, when it comes to appealing to each market, we had to build a system that takes into consideration the tech-savvy boaters side, and the marine contractors who might not strictly have an online presence, and operate their businesses more through word-of-mouth and recommendations. We had to build a platform that’d be easy to understand, and that we’d be able to guide our clients throughout the experience of onboarding. Having to figure out how to balance that has been one of the bigger challenges faced so far, along with trying to build initial traction, especially when there is a whole community of contractors that don’t necessarily have a web presence.
T: Since we are well-versed with the technology, we knew that the kind of content we wanted had never been curated in the context of the marine industry. Initially, it was laborious to find marine service contractors. They almost don’t want to be found. The industry relies solely on word of mouth at the moment and we’re trying to get everyone on the same page. So perhaps that is the biggest challenge we faced. But we’re ecstatic when we say we conquered it. Merrill singlehandedly went through thousands of websites and called up people individually, guiding them through the process and getting them onboard. So the perseverance paid off in the shape of our directory.
Any advice for marine entrepreneurs or people who’d like to start their business?
M: Because the marine world is niche, and many people consider it behind the times – especially when it comes to modern web-based businesses – now is the perfect time to jump in. There is room to grow, experiment and recognize the gaps that can be filled innovatively and with creativity. The marine market is also on a major uptrend, allowing changes within the industry to really happen.
T: Bootstrapping has become a mantra for us and we try to use that whenever we can. We know our strengths, but we also recognize that there are creative geniuses out there who can do a better job, and we’re always ready to learn and adapt and connect with them. We have experts from the marine industry who have taught us so much already, so our advice would be to always want to learn more, to do better, to absorb information and if you have a passion for the marine industry, pursue it with us!