Kevyn Townley – Little Ferry Company

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Kevyn is the founder of the Little Ferry Company in Perth, WA. Born and bred in New Zealand, Kevyn – like a lot of young New Zealanders tend to do after leaving school – headed off to Europe to seek fame and fortune. A couple of years later, broke and just a little disillusioned, he settled into a more sedate career in hotel management that ultimately lead to moving over to Western Australia and getting involved in the remote services industry – managing villages and townships associated with the resources industry.

Fifteen years later, after stints in northwest Australia, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, China and Mongolia, he headed back to Perth to settle down and enjoy a more sedate life with his wife Jay and daughter Ellie.

But like any true entrepreneur, Kevyn hasn’t let a career get in the way of his empire-building aspirations. He has built up an impressive portfolio of entrepreneurial ventures, including…

  • Developing Advertising Street Murals (1,200 sqm).
  • Message-in-a-bottle (a novel way for holiday-makers to stay in touch).
  • Rickshaws in Fremantle.
  • Commercial operation of the Perth Zoo Merry-Go-Round.
  • Fresh Muffin service to Perth CBD offices.

Hopefully, the next big venture is about to unfold… After moving to South Perth, Kevyn was impressed by just how beautiful the city and the Swan River looked on a beautiful clear day – which Perth has so many of. And so, the idea of the Little Ferry Company was born…

We all have great ideas, most often in the shower! The true test of a good idea (once you’re out of the shower) is to don the other hat, that of the cynic. “Why won’t the idea fly…? What are the killer obstacles?”

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

Kevyn Townley

We moved into South Perth a couple of years ago and have a very nice view of the river and the city from our upstairs balcony and we are within walking distance of the South Perth foreshore. Almost every day you are reminded of the rare beauty of the river and the city and, ironically, just how under-utilised it is. Apart from the large commercial ferries that take people upstream to the Swan Valley or downstream toward Fremantle, very rarely do you see any commercial vessel cruising the river and enjoying the unique city views.

I originally thought that it would be good to put a small water taxi on the river so that tourists and evening diners could begin to appreciate the river and the access that it gave to so many of the city riverside venues. But in making some general enquiries online about boats and different styles I happened upon the idea of electric water ferries. There was just something magical about the idea from the outset. The mystique of electrically powered boutique ferry boats cruising the Swan River just seemed to fit in with all the excitement that was being generated with the development of Elizabeth Quay and Perth becoming a genuine international destination.

I would let the idea ruminate for a while and then return to test my original assumptions and every time.. it just got more exciting. It just seemed like one of those ideas waiting for someone to champion.

Some have passed comment that Perth is not big enough to warrant regular ferries linking CBD destinations. But, this will not be a commuter based service. Its about showing tourists and locals alike a perspective of our river and city that previously has not been available – unless you hop aboard a big old diesel driven passenger ferry. Ours on the other hand are small, boutique vessels (twelve maximum passengers), that are designed and built in the old Edwardian style of passenger vessel with no pollution of air, noise or water. They will be luxuriously fitted out, giving passengers a truly magnificent experience of the river and the city – complimented with live commentary from the Skipper as you cruise along.

Could you explain your business model to us?

Two vessels will deliver continuous service – operating everyday charging approximately $25.00 per passenger for an, ‘All Day/All Stops’ ticket or, for those looking for shorter journeys, $7.00 between jetties.

We will also operate pre-booked chartered cruises that will address a vacant niche in the current market. They will provide small groups (less than 12) an up-market personalized experience of the Swan River and access to focal points on its foreshore.

The target market is reasonably broad and reflects a mix of local, intrastate, interstate and inbound international tourists.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

We have four months before the completion of our two electric ferries and we will be launching in mid November. So, apart from currently sitting my Coxswain’s Ticket for driving the vessels – five weeks at TAFE – my days are filled with working through the key mobilisation tasks like…

  • Setting up accounts and suppliers.
  • Completing exhaustive licensing/permitting agreements with various local government and State authorities.
  • Marketing the business: website development, social media engagement, securing joint sponsorship agreements, etc.
  • Finalising the legal aspects of operating a commercial marine operation.
  • Securing funding – which I have been largely unsuccessful at…
  • Developing the safety operating systems for the vessels.
  • Working through the various operational aspects of the business such as: fares, timetables, function packages (for evening charter work), employee agreement and handbook, POS systems etc.

I’m most excited about getting everything right for the launch because I know that getting it right at the beginning makes it a lot easier to maintain that benchmark. Not only in the sense of the tangible/practical things but in capturing genuine customer service… getting people to recognise us for the whole experience not just the boat part or the sightseeing part…

How do you make ideas happen?

We all have great ideas, most often in the shower! The true test of a good idea (once you’re out of the shower) is to don the other hat, that of the cynic. “Why won’t the idea fly…? What are the killer obstacles?”

Most ideas have good reasons why they wont work or are not financially sustainable. It’s the one’s that pass the first litmus test of why it wont work that get my attention. I then revisit the idea and run a few scenarios and stretch it a little. If by the end of that scrutiny it still holds excitement and looks like it may be achievable then I make the final assessment… Can I put 100% into this? There can be many reasons that may prevent me from being able to or wanting to put everything into a particular venture at any given time.

If the answer to that question is, ‘yes’ then I jump in! I progress through a fairly standard ‘mobilisation’ process trying to tick the big ticket items off first working through to completion of the process.

I have found that as the venture starts to build its own energy and excitement, things begin to happen of their own accord.. you stumble upon the right people at the right time to help make things happen. That is the magic about entrepreneurial venture – there is no other way of putting it, its real magic.

What does your typical day look like?

Currently my typical day consists of getting our little daughter off to school in time before heading off to TAFE to complete seven hours of lectures on marine studies for my Coxswain’s ticket. After dinner I settle down to three or four hours of working through the mobilisation schedule for the business.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

There are two issues that have caused most angst in putting the business together:

  1. Dealing with the various government bodies/agencies. The Little Ferry Company crosses over several jurisdictions in terms of State and Local Body governance. Rarely is there a seamless link between them so you end up with extended approval processes and in some instances decisions that contradict. Pulling the whole thing together in a timely and logical fashion is very challenging.
  2. Funding – The bank has been very supportive but outside this direct form of funding I have struggled to attract alternative forms of financial support. This is a reflection of my own inexperience in this area of business start-ups, but it would be helpful if there was more information freely available for novice fundraisers.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

Whilst there are a lot of sites online to support entrepreneurs, I believe there remains a niche for a website that focuses on entrepreneurs sharing their experiences. There is nothing that makes a bigger impact than reading about someone else’s personal journey, sharing their triumphs and their stumbles.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?

A company that I think is exceptional in the area of tourism is: Two Feet and a Heartbeat.

This is a company started a few years ago by a couple of young blokes in Perth, taking walking tours around Perth and Fremantle. They have gradually built up their business to based on genuine customer care. They seem to really love what they’re doing and it shows.

What about internationally?

A company in Vancouver operate similar ferries to the Little Ferry Company and have been doing so for a number of years now:

They have a very typical entrepreneurial story to tell about doing it tough in the early years before finally breaking through and making a very successful business model.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

A core element of our business model is to run complimentary cruises for not-for-profit/charity organisations on every Monday evening. We will run the boats with volunteer skippers and we want to become an integral part of Perths social support network. 

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea?

We’d love people to hop onto our crowdfunding page which kicks off on the 17th July. Details of the page will be posted on our Facebook, Twitter and Website. Even if they don’t want to contribute $$$, we’re as interested in their comments and critique (we don’t pretend to have all the answers.. J ). 

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be? 

Is there a website that simply lists all the various professional disciplines that support business start-ups – i.e. those that have specific and genuine experience in this specialist field – not generalists?

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant? 

Bookshop Café, Millpoint Rd, South Perth


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