Mike Melillo of The Wanderlust Group

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Mike Melillo (co-founder and CEO) of The Wanderlust Group, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of The Wanderlust Group – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

Like most startups, the idea for The Wanderlust Group’s first product, Dockwa, came out of a personal experience with a few buddies. We tried to get a hold of a marina and there was no website or phone number to call. When we finally tracked down a number, all we received was a busy signal. After dozens of attempts, we decided to do something else that day. The experience really struck me – if these businesses have 10-weeks out of the year to make money, how could they afford not to answer the phone or have a website? So when I learned that the average boat left a dock ten times per year, our focus became, “What if we could help people take one more trip?”. There are very few businesses in the world that if you are able to help customers accomplish a task one additional time in a full calendar year, a motion that every other hospitality vertical has already defined, you could grow the addressable market by 10%.

I started looking into it and it turns out boating is a $47 billion dollar industry that, at least on the marina side, has been largely cash-based and unstructured for its entire history. It felt like a digital marketplace waiting to happen. We believed, and it’s turned out to be true, that if you digitize, you can unlock a lot more growth and help these operators simplify their lives. For example, today 65% of our bookings happen after 5pm, when a dock office would have otherwise been closed. We help these marinas capture that interest and streamline the process of sending contracts, taking payment, and communicating with their boaters.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

The technical hurdles are precisely where the opportunity was. Marinas are unique. Unlike hotel rooms, the spaces aren’t uniform. They are like giant Tetris boards with availability that shifts based on who’s on deck and who’s at sea. The reality is, software is usually pretty lousy, in general, and especially for nuanced and dynamic environments like marinas. The mistake software companies in the past made, and continue to make to this day, is trying to tell the expert (the dockmaster) how to manage the inventory. We decided to flip it on its head. Instead of telling the expert how to do their job, we wanted to help them do the things they hated about their job – chasing payment, answering phone calls, sending receipts, and taking down information into a notebook. By solving all the problems software was actually capable of solving, we added value. Dockwa will never catch dock lines. Period. Our job is to do everything we can for operators to spend their days out on the docks and not in the office in front of a screen.

Our biggest competition is cash and check. It is an old school industry and offline payments still rule the day. But when we start small, when we show marinas one simple change that can make their operations infinitely easier, we tend to break through.

What does the future hold for The Wanderlust Group?

Our mission is to grow boating. We believe the world will be a better place if people are able to spend more time outdoors, connected with nature and each other. The irony for us is that we actually want you to get away from your screens. The less time you have to spend on our products to accomplish what you need, the better.

We want to democratize access to the waterfront. Historically, it has been difficult, stressful, and often times next to impossible to find a place to tie up for the night. When you digitize boating, something amazing happens: the barriers to boating fall, marina operations get streamlined, and growth for the entire industry becomes demystified. By powering the connections, transactions, and data, I really believe that Dockwa can become the touch-less wallet of the boater, the core operating system of the marina, the data source of the industry, and the marketplace of countless others. Today, we are starting to progress from a simple transaction app and management software to a vibrant marketplace.

What started on water can then become the digitization of the outdoors. By expanding into camping and other verticals, The Wanderlust Group can begin to build the infrastructure for a disjointed outdoor industry.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Rhode Island?

We launched out of Newport, RI because it was the sailing capital of the world. We wanted to be infused with that culture and wanted everyone from our engineers to our support team to understand the challenges and motivations of boaters and marina operators. I believe Providence can be a tech hub similar to Austin, TX. We have the universities, the culture, and the landscape to be a remarkably desirable destination for businesses and families alike. But states need to embrace the fact that, especially in light of COVID-19, business is borderless. We have employees in nine states right now. The states that offer the most compelling advantages to companies building new businesses will do very well in the future. The states that stick to the status quo will see an erosion of talent, quickly.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I started my career as a catcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. An atypical background for a tech founder, I know, but baseball actually taught me a lot about how to run a business. For example, in baseball, if you fail seven out of ten times as a hitter, you can still make the hall of fame. It’s important to remember the misses are just part of the game. This is true too in building a company. The early days of building a company are a grind, and misses are abundant, but it only takes a few key decisions to make the difference. Just keep showing up.


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