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.”
Interviews by Emily Washcovick
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from James and Michelle, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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