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In conversation with Jelte Liebrand: The tech-savvy navigation entrepreneur

by Mark Jardine 6 May 05:44 PDT
A conversation with Jelte Liebrand © Savvy Navvy

savvy navvy is the boating app that puts all your essential marine information in one place: tidal graphs, weather forecasts, automatically updated chart data, routing, GPS tracking, marina information and more. We spoke to founder Jelte Liebrand...

Jelte was a software engineer at Google so we asked him about his experience of being on the inside of 'big tech':

"It is probably one of the best places as an engineer to work. I got in to Google via an acquisition as I was working as a Director of Engineering at a company called Quickoffice, which made an office suite for mobile phones that caught the attention of Google ChromeOS.

"Google is big, but it behaves like a smaller company. It also is a company where the engineers are king; you get paid very well and you get treated very well - you're not just a number, your opinion counts. If you want to try something out, you can try it out. If it's crazy and radical then build what you want to build, so as an engineer it's fantastic.

"There is an element where the big organisation is different from the start-up I came from, as a start-up is far more stressful. Before my time at Google I was an insomniac, whereas in my years at Google I have never slept so well in my life - it's a very different environment!

"So, it's a great company but, having come from the start-up world, I did miss that excitement."

Jelte got into sailing when he was eight years old and his grandad taught him the difference between "stuurboord" and "bakboord" (he's Dutch). But it wasn't until he took a sabbatical at Google and took part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, that the idea for savvy navvy started. Once back from the race, and while Jelte continued working on Google Docs, Chrome, Surveys and Maps, he became more eager to do his own thing:

"When I did the Clipper Race, especially down to Panama, it was really strategic with the wind dying and shifting ocean currents. I was down below, trying to figure out the best route through it all and was dumbstruck how much of that I had to do myself. I was on a multi-million-pound boat with laptops and computers onboard, with GRIB files and sliders which I could move backwards and forwards, pretending to be a meteorologist, but it seemed crazy to me because at the end of the day, especially coming from Google, for the computer not to be computing the route for me, with me doing it myself and the computer showing me a pretty picture, was mind-boggling. That's where it all started from.

"When I came back to Google after the race, I wondered to myself how much of that was a Clipper 70 in the Pacific problem, rather than an every day sailor issue. So I spent a lot of time afterwards, talking to other sailors asking how they did their navigation, and it was eye-opening to find this was a common problem. People who could be enjoying so much more of their sailing weren't because the routing was too difficult or intimidating."

So as an engineer, Jelte asked the obvious question of why he was doing a specific task that computers are inherently much better than humans at, letting the computer do the heavy lifting while you can have your eyes out of the boat, enjoying the experience more:

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying 'get savvy navvy and you never need to learn how to do this', just as you don't drive on the motorway without getting a driving licence; you need to understand what navigation is. But, a computer can compute millions of different combinations of routes, which manually you'd never be able to do.

Having decided to quit Google and take the plunge starting savvy navvy, the question was how to fund development:

"I don't think I'd thought that through!" he laughs.

"If you'd asked me at the time if I understood all the different funding vehicles out there then - such as bootstrapping, Venture Capital (VC), Business Angels, crowd-funding, loans and grants - I would have told you that I did, but there are so many little nuances about the different vehicles which you have to understand. I thought we'd start by bootstrapping and then just get funded!

"Coming from Google opened a lot of doors for me, I was invited to do a pitch at an ex-Google pitch day with a lot of VCs in the room. We had a number of discussions and even got close to a deal with one of them, but in the end we walked away as we had a different vision of what savvy navvy would become to how they would have liked it to be.

The whole process taught us how VCs really require hyper-growth from the companies in their portfolios. There's nothing wrong with that, but it also didn't feel right to change our business model to accommodate that. There is a lot of room to build a sustainable business with a lot of return, without becoming the next Facebook.

It is clear that Jelte, as an entrepreneur, wasn't willing to hand the direction of the business over to a VC, due to the business model with VCs and the hands-on approach of many Angels:

"These are things we had to learn the hard way, as we wanted to build a sustainable business, leading us to finance savvy navvy through bootstrapping and ultimately crowdfunding, with a handful of angels who've 'led' these funding rounds. There are Angels who are hands-on, but bring something to the table and others who just want regular updates. Picking the right Angels to carry a Crowdfunding round is what we found to work best.

"The crowdfunding was amazing, not just because of the number of people who were willing to invest in our product, but the enthusiasm, comments and feedback we received, was the first big moment where we said, 'Ok, we're really onto something here'."

With this belief, Jelte and his team had all the motivation needed to push forward with development:

"We had launched our beta version prior to crowdfunding as a free version with the clear message that it would become a pay-for product. Knowing that our early adopters were happy to invest in savvy navvy gave us huge encouragement."

There are other apps out in the market which do a similar thing, so savvy navvy had to have a differentiator:

"The biggest thing which we have said from the start, and learned more and more as time has gone on, is that the apps out there can be great for one particular aspect of boating, but they perhaps lack a cohesive solution for people being out on the water. For super-detailed charts Navionics is a great product on many levels, but if you want to do weather routing then you'd switch to PredictWind, iSailor or NavX - each one focuses on a little bit of the puzzle. If I'm going from A to B then I want to know all the factors which are involved - the hazards, the anchorages, the marinas - all in one place, and that is where we come in.

"The other key is making savvy navvy intuitive. I believe sea navigation apps are where land navigation was 10-15 years ago before Google Maps became ubiquitous."

So, it all came back to Jelte's Clipper Race experience, seeing some great tools available, but a lack of integration:

"If a tool comes with a 400-page manual then something is wrong."

Recently we have seen an explosion in boating participation, to get out to sea, enjoying the freedom and fresh air. For those new to boating, they want their apps to act in a familiar way to what they are used to.

As of last year, savvy navvy have also added motorboat functionality which users have taken to quickly:

"It's been a massive boost. Part of our roadmap has always been to add support for motorboats - we started with sailboats as that's our background. When we added the functionality at the end of last year, we saw an amazing uptake in people using the app and converting to the paid version as it was clearly what they were looking for. We know this from user studies, A/B tests and collecting data from within the app, checking that it is doing what it is intended to do.

"First-time boaters expect their experience to be the same as what they're used to on land, and when it's not, that's where we come in, making novices' experiences better."

Helping make first-time boaters' experience as familiar and seamless as possible is in the interest of the whole marine industry, as any way we can help keep them in the boating lifestyle is beneficial to us all, whatever type of water activity they decide to do:

"Absolutely. First you might be paddleboarding, then you might try kitesurfing or dinghy sailing, then you might be buying a boat. Anything we can do to make those steps less intimidating and remove the barriers to entry, the better it is for everybody in the industry."

With savvy navvy being an app, developments and functionality upgrades are happening all the time:

"As I mentioned earlier, we do a lot of A/B testing to make sure what we're putting into the product works, and the whole pipeline was developed from the ground up to do that. We can roll out features to subsets of the users to get their feedback, which means we can update the app on a daily basis. It's a constant development process and is absolutely crucial."

savvy navvy has taken an inclusive approach with regards to working with marine industry organisations, such as insurance companies and marina management businesses:

"We work with a number of different organisations; as a young business in this industry we like to collaborate with other players. We don't proclaim to be able to do everything ourselves, and working together with others helps the whole industry get better. When it comes to insurance companies, anything we can do to help people make the right decisions when they go out is a good thing and can help with reducing claims.

"If we can help people understand what the tide is doing and when they should and shouldn't be going out, all of this helps achieve better boating. We're not saying 'Don't learn how to do this', but we can help you make fewer mistakes, fewer human errors. The tie-in with insurance companies is an obvious one for them, and for us it is a great way to get to boaters."

Talking to Jelte as an entrepreneur, I had to ask him where he saw things going with the marine industry and savvy navvy in the next few years:

"I think there are a lot of really exciting things happening right now: seeing the development of electric engines in the marine environment, with exciting players such as X-Shore in Sweden and Pixii in the UK, which is fuelling the move towards smarter boats. Rather than just having a wind vane and a depth sounder, we're moving towards, dare I say it, a 'savvy boat'. The possibilities of tailoring individuals' routes due to their preferences, such as not wanting to sail above a Force 4 wind or wanting to avoid upwind sailing, gives smarter solutions to your boating, leading to even more enjoyable experiences for boaters. There are a lot more exciting and customisable solutions that can happen. I believe that within five years we'll see far more of these new and innovative features and developments coming together."

"I am a big believer in collaborations, with smaller companies trying to disrupt and breathe life into this industry. That's the exciting future I see for the marine leisure industry."

Find out more about Jelte, his team and savvy navvy here...

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