Turning a personal passion into a business is an exciting endeavor—whether you’re an avid book collector, have a knack for makeup, or, like James Morro, owner of Urban Kayaks in Chicago, love being on the water. But, of course, once you decide on that vision, the real work begins. And that’s the path that James and his partner Aaron set off on in 2011. It was through a passion for kayaking—paired with clear communication, a dedication to operations, and an excellent customer experience—that their business has thrived in a competitive marketplace.
For context, let’s start with Chicago. For those not familiar with the city, it’s built around a river and has always been home to water transportation, from the Chicago Water Taxi to the famous Chicago Architecture River Cruise. And in recent years, the Chicago Riverwalk has been fully developed, complete with a walking path, restaurants, shops, and activities—including kayaking.
When James and Aaron were just starting off and did an analysis of the market, they immediately knew they’d have to elevate their offering well above the competition to survive and thrive. If you’re in the experience business and want to enter a crowded market that is primed to become even more crowded, it’s important to identify your unique selling points, the ones that will wow potential customers and get them to choose your business.
One of the most impactful ways James’ team has done this has been through excellent customer service from beginning to end. The team recognizes that people are there to have a great time, and they take their job seriously. “It’s not just the tour guide who delivers the tour who is responsible for whether or not someone has a good time,” James said. “The process starts with the person who answered the first email or phone call. It’s also about the person who helped them put their life jacket on, the person who told them where the restrooms were.”
This week’s Yelp reviewer Michelle S. thoroughly enjoyed her experience, and she shares that it was not only fun, but she appreciated how responsive and helpful James and his team were. As we’ve heard before, consistent and reliable communication will always set you up for success.
That being said, having successful lines of communication with customers doesn’t always come right away. When Urban Kayaks first opened, it wasn’t easy for guests to find the meeting location because it wasn’t on Google Maps yet. To operationally help with this, they made sure they were always available to answer the phone so they could help guests navigate their way to the right spot. Even after they officially gained a spot on the map, they never let up on their original mindset. Phones are always answered, emails get a reply right away, and the customer experience is seamless and enjoyable.
Check out these other lessons from the episode:
Keep an eye on reviews of the competition—both positive and negative. James and his partner take their own reviews very seriously, but they also check out the reviews of their competitors to see what is working and also what’s not.
Good employee training results in an efficient business. When you first launch a business, you’ve worn all of the hats and done many of the jobs that make your business run. Be sure to share that knowledge when training your employees. You know how the work should be done, and they can learn and hone their skills with your guidance. The energy and time spent on training is an investment that will help your business grow and become much more efficient.
Enjoy yourself. Especially in the experience business, people are patronizing your business because they want to have a good time. It’s your job to make sure they enjoy themselves, and if you’re having fun, it’s contagious. As James put it, “Your job is what these folks are paying to do for fun. If we’re not having a good time, if we’re not out there smiling, friendly, enjoying what we’re doing, we’re doing the wrong thing.”
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from James and Michelle, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 28 transcript The importance of learning from the competition
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it. This week as we get into summer, I wanted to feature a seasonal business, Urban Kayaks located in Chicago—one of the best places to spend summer in my humble opinion.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
MICHELLE: Being told that we had a small class, but that they were going to accommodate us in a different way was really nice. When we got there, we had to figure out who wants to do a tandem? Who wants to go alone? And they were also really accommodating with that as well.
They did a short trial of, “This is how you move. This is how you’d use the paddle. It’s curved this way so you can use the flow of the water to get you somewhere instead of just being still.”
The best part of it is that I got to see the city that I know and love from a different perspective. It was really nice. You smell these amazing restaurants and everything that was right on the riverfront. There’s this great place, Sweet Home Gelato, and you can smell the amazing aromas as you’re paddling, so we definitely stopped by after. You just witnessed so many great things about your city from a different perspective.
EMILY: That’s Michelle. When her best friend was looking for a fun and safe way for them to celebrate her birthday last summer, she stumbled upon Urban Kayaks, a kayaking service located by the Chicago Riverwalk. As someone who had never gone kayaking before, Michelle fell in love with the experience Urban Kayaks offered. Let’s hear Michelle’s review.
MICHELLE: Really easy to book kayaks and enjoy an outdoor activity while the weather permits! My girlfriends and I booked an intro to paddle board on the Riverwalk, but we ended up getting rebooked due to our class being small. It was no worries! My girlfriend and I did a tandem kayak, and really enjoyed it!
You must walk all the way to the end of the Riverwalk, upon arrival you will check in, do a panel assessment, get fitted for a life jacket, watch a video about kayaking, and then wait in line to begin! Was a little confusing on where to go, but overall the staff was helpful!
Great way to get an arm workout, enjoy the views of the city, and witness proposals!! Beautiful wedding photos along the riverwalk as well!
EMILY: Kayaking along the river has long been one of the popular activities for Chicago residents and tourists visiting the city in the summertime. Let’s hear how James and his friends decided to become entrepreneurs and a part of the riverwalk kayaking scene.
JAMES: Aaron was my best friend from high school. We had just recently graduated from college, and Aaron had been working at another kayak company in Chicago as a manager in college, and I was back for the summer and helped him out.
I got to thinking, “Are you enjoying yourself because this seems like a pretty fun way to spend your time. And if you are, maybe we should consider looking at doing this on our own.” I thought that there were a lot of ways we could make improvements to what was going on. This isn’t of course to suggest that he wasn’t doing a good job managing. I just thought if we were in charge and making the decisions we could do a lot better. He said, “Yeah, actually I am enjoying myself. Let’s give it a shot.” We were young, we were just out of college, and why not take a stab at it?
It was 2010. We set out on that adventure. He was working for that other company that summer. I basically lived on his couch and wrote the business plan. We went through everything together, dotted the I’s crossed the T’s, went to Colorado together, lived together, worked as ski instructors that winter out in Colorado while we continued to plan the business. And then executed that following summer.
Despite many delays and some hardships we were able to open the business. We opened a summer business, August 22nd of 2011. That was pretty stressful, but the great news is this was back when Groupon was like a single thing. You put up one item for the day and everyone has to buy it or they lose their chance. Aaron had a relationship with the Groupon manager because he had ran a Groupon for the company he was managing and assured them that we could deliver on the product. Our Groupon launched the day we opened the business and we sold 8,000 kayak tours in the first eight hours.
It was a very interesting day, very stressful, but also exhilarating. It was great to know that we were going to see some immediate return on this year of time and investment that we’d put in. So we worked our tails off that fall. We put 6,000 boats on the water with just the three of us, carrying every single boat up and down the ramp. And the rest is history.
EMILY: Back in 2010, the Riverwalk was not nearly as developed as it is now, and coordinating and navigating a huge load of tours was no small endeavor. The team at Urban Kayaks realized early on that it was crucial to address customers’ questions, no matter how they were asked. And people had all kinds of questions! How do you get to the business, is there a nearby place to park my car, and do I need to bring anything? The list goes on and on. Sometimes people would call and sometimes they’d send emails! Urban Kayak’s key to success was consistent and direct communication. And communication has been a pillar of their continued success.
JAMES: We would spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone with customers driving around, trying to get to us. That was probably one of the more stressful elements of the location that we ended up with, which is an amazing spot, by the way. The city has poured over a hundred million dollars doing the Riverwalk development, blowing it out, making it a big deal. That increased visibility has created more awareness and that over time has gone away to a degree. People can find us more easily. You can Google map us now, but back then you couldn’t. The Riverwalk just didn’t exist unless you knew what you were doing. It was a challenge for sure. And we spent, again, a lot of time on the phone trying to help customers get to us. So that was definitely complicated.
Communications are something that are very important, one of the things that we addressed upfront. One of our competitors was very hard to get in touch with, when you called their phone, it’s an automated system. You get sent on one of those death loops and you never get a human being on the phone. And we knew right away that no matter what, we had to answer the phone, someone had to talk to a human being because if you can’t talk to a human being, you’re going to get frustrated, you’re going to get upset. You’re not going to get the answers that you need quick enough to solve the problem. Not only are you going to lose business because people are going to just disappear, but the customers that you do have aren’t gonna be able to find you, or they’re going to be at a problem.
So we dedicated ourselves from day one to never installing a fully automated system. We use a phone system now where it’ll route you to the phone at each location because we need a filter of some kind. But for practical purposes, a human being answered the phone and always has. So that’s been key for us.
Then the other side of that coin is making sure that we’re very responsive to emails. People can send an email. You’re going to get a response within a couple of hours unless you send it at midnight. We understand that in order to provide really good service that starts before the customer even gets to you.
EMILY: From a humble beginning with just three people, Urban Kayaks has scaled up and now has a full crew of around 50 staff members each season. Besides ensuring consistent communication with customers, a key ingredient for delivering great customer service is being able to communicate your business’ mission and vision to your employees as well. Let’s hear how James makes sure his staff is aligned on their customer-centric values.
JAMES: I’d like to believe that we have a really great understanding as a group that everything everybody does from start to finish is how you create the customer service experience. It’s not just the tour guide who delivers the tour, who is responsible for whether or not someone has a good time. If the process starts with the person who answered the first email or phone call from that person, the person who helped them put their life jacket on, the person who told them where the restrooms were. Being responsive to customers and all of those things create the whole customer experience. And that is something we really drive home with all of our staff: our success as a business, their success, these guys are out there earning tips all day long, they’re lifting boats for customers, they’re doing all the things to make the customer experience good. All of that stuff matters at the end of the day. The tip that gets handed to the guide at the end of the trip might depend on whether or not that person felt like they got helped with their life jacket appropriately. That might be the difference maker.
So we impress that upon the staff. We make sure they understand it. We have the benefit of our job is what these folks are paying to do for fun. If we’re not having a good time, if we’re not out there smiling, friendly, enjoying what we’re doing, we’re doing the wrong thing. I tell my staff, “If you don’t enjoy being here, don’t be here, because this is as good as it’s going to get for a summer job in Chicago.”
Unfortunately we’re seasonal. I wish we had Florida weather and we could run year round and people could really do this as a full-time thing all year long, but this beats so many things you could be doing. So if you’re unhappy, take the time to find a way to make yourself happy in life and go do it. If you’re going to be here, you’d better be enjoying yourself and that bleeds into the customer experience, because our staff are enjoying themselves. They’re having a great time and they enjoy working for us.
We’re not evil bosses. We were 25 when we started the business. We’ve lifted every boat. Everything we’re asking them to do, we’ve done, we’ve figured out how to do it in the most efficient way, and we’ve passed along that knowledge. We’re creating an environment that’s productive, but it’s also enjoyable. That rounds it out for the customer. I think they feel that when they come to the shop that everyone who’s there is having a good time. That’s the most important.
EMILY: When COVID-19 hit, Urban Kayaks was impacted just like everyone else. In March 2020 it didn’t look like they would be able to operate that season. They didn’t start their usual process of sourcing and hiring employees, and when the city gave them the green light at the last minute, they jumped into gear and worked to fast track the hiring and training process. In the moment, it was chaos, but in hindsight James found silver linings. He realized the nature of the business allowed Urban Kayak to bounce back sooner and stronger. The team has also strived to build more on-site amenities to provide a better, more rounded experience for customers.
JAMES: The biggest struggle was the fact that we didn’t get to open until the middle of June and we didn’t hire and we didn’t train. Normally we do all that stuff in April and May. We had developed a great reliance on the hiring and training processes that we put in place. It turns out when you have to hire 40 people in a week, those processes need to be tightened up significantly. You need to be able to onboard and train and develop staff faster than we were capable. We have worked hard to put ourselves in a position to be able to do that.
Last year in particular was remarkable. We have never been busier. We expected to be very slow. We didn’t expect to do very well. It was the busiest season we’ve ever had by close to double. So it took us by surprise and we were catching up and scraping start to finish. We got 48 hours notice from the city that we could open and went from closed, thinking, “We don’t even know if we can open,” literally hadn’t hired a person until 4th of July busy in a day. It was pretty incredible. We give our returning staff a lot of credit for showing up and helping us with that because if they hadn’t stuck it out with us and got it out, we’d have been in quite the pickle. If you wanted to get on the water, we were it. It was just a sort of remarkable confluence of circumstance that led to us being just unbelievably busy.
This year, we will have better temporary signage and better temporary positioning of customers. We’ve got more flexibility with some of the stations and the places people go to create a better flow of traffic for the customers. We’ve worked on all those things. It’s taking its sweet time and we are working very hard on it. There are still improvements to be made.
EMILY: Painting an honest picture of her experience, including the confusing aspects, was important for Michelle. But the way Urban Kayaks addressed the scheduling hiccup by proactively reaching out to rebook her and accommodate her group’s needs is what motivated Michelle to share her experience.
MICHELLE: I get really cautious when I write reviews because everything relies on networking. Every business nowadays relies on your customer service. I never want to bring anyone down if things get a bit confusing. I want to let other people know as a first timer, this may be your first time experience, and it can be confusing and it’s honest, but the fact that they were helpful makes me want to come back, makes me want to go there again.
Actually, I’m trying to book another kayak trip and take my boyfriend there. So that’s the value of having good and positive customer service is that I will remember that you valued us enough to rebook us, to accommodate us, and I will come back.
EMILY: Urban Kayak’s beginning wasn’t long after Yelp’s, and James and his co-founders knew that their presence on online review sites mattered.
JAMES: By the time we started our business, we knew at least that you needed to have a Yelp. You needed a presence on these sites and it was important to gain traction. We pushed that stuff early and often, because we understood the value of it. It’s funny how it’s changed. When we started using reviews, we used it to help develop the business because we were looking at other companies’ reviews and then the focus was on making sure that we were getting the kind of reviews we wanted and that we weren’t making mistakes.
Now that we’re an established business and we have an established review presence, we don’t stress as much. We used to get a bad review and it was panic mode. Everybody freaked out, called the customer, we gotta fix this, and we gotta make it right. And now, if you get one bad review, you can use it. It becomes more of a tool for us to make sure that we’re addressing mistakes. If we get a bad review that’s specific to a certain employee, it gives us access to that information to deal with it. We still obviously reach out when we get a bad review to customers to see what we can do to help, but we don’t panic about a bad review anymore. We just look at it and say, “Was this our fault? Can we address the problem and can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?” It’s nice to not feel like every single review is the end of the world.
Every review matters so much. One of the things I never do is I never ask someone to change their bad review. I’m never, “Hey, we’d love to have you out for a free kayak ride. Can you remove that one star review?” That’s not what I do. If we did something wrong, I might give you a free kayak ride, but I’m never going to ask you to change your bad review because the bad reviews are important too. If a customer comes back and we make it right and they decide to change their view or change or remove it, great, that’s good. But that’s not my goal. My goal is more to just fix the problem.
EMILY: Engaging with critical reviews and looking to see how you can make things right is a great way to turn an unsatisfied customer into your biggest fan. But James brings up a great point about not asking a customer to update their review. That’s not why you’re doing it right? You want their experience to be exceptional, and you want to fix it because you care about your customers. And this rule applies to Yelp and reviews in general! You may not know this, but it’s against Yelp’s terms of service and content guidelines to solicit or ask for reviews. This doesn’t just mean paying for them. It means sending out email campaigns and telling your customers to write your Yelp reviews. Don’t do that! You want it to happen naturally. One way you can encourage customers to share their experiences online is to send a follow-up email with all of your social media accounts and online listings and let customers share their feedback on the platform of their choice.
Before we move off of reviews, something unique that James brought up was how to leverage other business’s reviews to help your own! A tactic we haven’t yet explored on Behind the Review.
JAMES: One of the ways we did that was by looking at the reviews on Yelp for that business and another competitor that already existed. Not so much looking at what they were doing, but looking at what customers didn’t like. Finding their negative reviews, looking for the things that customers had a problem with, figuring out how we as a business are going to address those up front, making sure that we understood what people were looking for when they came for this kind of experience, and making sure that we were in a position to deliver.
We had the benefit of being plugged in young, understanding that this information was available to us where other business owners, even five years before, wouldn’t have had it. So we were able to take advantage of that. Over time, we’ve spent a lot of energy and effort examining how to make the business more efficient, how to devise the labor. And so that’s how the business grew.
EMILY: As Urban Kayaks grew, so did its competitors. To close us out, I wanted to hear how the team addresses and navigates the competition.
JAMES: It is a competitive space. Within the kayak industry, we’re out there, we’re trying to be better, but at the same time, it’s important that all of the businesses operating kayak tour and rental companies are meeting certain standards of safety, certain standards of operational awareness, and to that end, we’ve worked hard to bring everybody in together to make sure that there aren’t massive outliers. When we got to the river back in 2011, the kayak tour and rental operators were not well loved by the other users of the river. There were effectively no communications between them and the large tour boat companies. There were a lot of problems, safety related issues. We addressed those on the front end and worked really hard.
Our organization was part of the development of the Chicago Harbor safety committee. I served for two years as the human powered craft sector representative, and then I was actually elected president of the Chicago Harbor safety committee and served two years in that capacity. During that time, our company wrote down the basic outline of what we do and shared it with the other operators so that they understood where we were finding success from a safety standpoint and how they could improve their operations to be better neighbors on the water.
That’s led to better outcomes across the board, because what all of us do impacts all of us collectively in a real sense, especially when it comes to safety. That’s been an important part of our development as a business and we share what we think we need to, but not necessarily everything.
Other tour companies are using certain keywords and you might want to target those keywords for Google ad words campaigns, so in that sense, maybe it’s a little bit competitive because you’re trying to make sure that you’re reaching the consumer in the first place.
But in my opinion, the best way to do that is to just be organically good, to have great reviews and to show up number one in the non-paid space. That’s always our goal. We do our best to manage and navigate that space, but we try really hard to run our operation, focus on what we’re doing, and know that if we do well by our customers, then that’s your metric biggest ticket to success.