The first boat Pierre Le Poulain listed when he co-founded Samboat was his own. It was 2014, and Le Poulain, then working in Paris, France, wasn’t spending enough time on the sea. He wanted to sell.
Then, Le Poulain met Nicolas Cargou, a marketing professional. The pair clicked instantly. “He convinced me not to sell my boat,” Le Poulain tells Red Herring. “Instead, he showed me that I wasn’t the only one having this issue.”
After a bit of research Le Poulain and Cargou discovered that the vast majority of boat owners use their vessels less than 15 days each year. They had an idea. Within weeks, alongside third founder Laurent Calando, they launched the first version of Samboat.com, a peer-to-peer boat and yacht charter company.
Today Samboat lists over 21,000 boats, and has over two dozen employees at its Bordeaux office. Last year it received over 34m booking requests.
The peer-to-peer boating industry has become a competitive field. But with a solid base in France, and plans to expand into other popular European territories, Le Poulain, Cargou and co are confident they have what it takes to sail into first place.
The European boating industry is worth over $24 billion, and employs 280,000 people directly. Almost all (97%) of those in the market are SMEs, meaning that there is a huge opportunity to connect them with the 36m-or-so people who climb aboard a European boat each year.
Digital disruption, however, is not all plain sailing. The average boat owner is aged over 50, and the average renter, according to Le Poulain, “isn’t much younger.” A big part of Samboat’s model, therefore, is education and awareness.
Neither has dealing with regulation been easy. Licensing laws differ across European nations. In Croatia, for example, whose Dalmatian Coast is a sailing hotspot, it is forbidden to rent through the peer-to-peer sector. That prompted Samboat to open its website to professionals, who now drive a large segment of its booking requests.
That division of the market extends to Samboat’s competition. Nautal, Zizoo and Sailogy operate in Spain, Germany and Switzerland respectively.
Despite each company’s consistent growth, Le Poulain is happy they’re bringing a spotlight to the peer-to-peer boating market. With each year comes added recognition that online platforms offer boat owners an added revenue stream while their vessels lay otherwise unused.
And besides, Samboat has the biggest fleet of any P2P boat startup – and a commanding position in its native France. It has built that form on a breadth of options available to renters, and trust.
“We implemented several tools and processes to increase the trust of our service,” says Le Poulain. “From a specific boat insurance when renting with us, the use of trusted third parties for deposits, manually checking boats, ID and licenses, to the setting up of a local ambassador network, we are constantly improving to build a trusted community.”
The next step is scale. Bordeaux is one of France’s biggest boating markets. Samboat quickly extended into other areas, such as the French Riviera and Brittany. After those its team is eyeing a share of the Spanish, Italian and English-speaking landscapes.
Speed is of the essence: Airbnb, the P2P industry’s “300lb gorilla”, according to Le Poulain, offers nights on docked boats already. Having ditched its own dock service Samboat is now focused on “classical” boats: RIBs, sailboats, motorboats and yachts.
Other opportunities have occurred organically. “Currently, we are not looking to add other kind of vessels, but we are looking for experiences related to boat renting,” says Le Poulain. “For example, one of our boat owners is offering whale watching to everyone renting his boat. This is amazing and this is the kind of niche we want to expand on in the coming months.”
With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see why Le Poulain and his cohort are bullish about Samboat’s future. Their goal now, is as simple as it was when he met Cargou in Paris, almost four years ago: “Our mission is to provide the pleasure of yachting to those who do not have the chance of owning a boat.”