Just off its maiden voyage, marina reservations startup commandeers largest competitor | Crain's Boston

Just off its maiden voyage, marina reservations startup commandeers largest competitor

Boston-area boaters daydreaming of the sea breeze may have a long wait for winter to thaw, but a Providence-based marina-booking business could give them something to look forward to while they shovel out their driveways.

Dockwa, Inc. recently acquired its main competitor, Marinas.com, for an undisclosed amount, creating an online directory for mooring reservations spanning 15,000 marinas, yacht clubs and shipyards from Maine to Miami. The sites allow boaters to reserve a spot for their watercraft via app or web browser—nothing too technically dazzling in 2017, but something sorely lacking in the decidedly traditional world of marina management, says CEO Mike Melillo.

Friends were telling us how frustrating it was to make reservations for their boats,” Melillo said, remembering the company’s origins in 2014. “I said, ‘How could this be possible?’”

Born in Tampa, Fla., Melillo has been around boats his whole life.

“By no means am I a hardcore boater,” he said. But it didn’t take a salty dog to sniff out the opportunity for an entrepreneur in the boat reservations business.

Melillo started walking the docks, asking boat owners and dockmasters what they needed at their marina. At the Newport Yachting Center, Melillo bought dockmaster Tripp Messinger a beer and picked his brain about the business. Messinger later became Dockwa’s account manager.

The company's key insight was that most marinas were still using pen and paper to keep track of their reservations. Many didn’t even have a computer. In addition to digitizing their bookkeeping, Dockwa began devising a system to help manage what proved to be a surprisingly complex inventory. Unlike hotel rooms, which are either available or not, marinas have to accommodate a wide variety of vessels. A 1000-foot dock, for example, can shelter three 333-foot ships or 10 boats 100 feet long.

“Really what you’re doing is you’re playing Tetris with these guys,” Melillo said.

Add in the famously fickle weather of New England, which 80 percent of Dockwa’s customers call home, and the simple business of mooring boats becomes a complicated equation. The company’s co-founders solved it by spending time with marina managers, building a customer base in the process.

“If we weren’t walking on the docks and meeting them in person,” Melillo said, “90 percent of our customers wouldn’t even know us.”

Along with co-founders Matt Fradette, John Nagro and Tyler Kneisel, Melillo officially founded the business in May 2015. Less than two years later, they’re acquiring Marinas.com, the world’s largest online directory for marina reservations.

In a statement, marinas.com owner Pam Harris said Dockwa was "poised to take [marinas.com] to the next level."

The merger expands Dockwa, until now primarily focused on the Northeast and Florida, to a global presence. For now, Melillo said, marinas.com will continue operating as a separate site. 

Dockwa’s acquisition also sets it up to hire more employees. Twelve of its 16 workers are in Cambridge, the rest in Newport. Melillo said they plan to nearly double the workforce by the end of year, to as many as 30 employees.

Whether they’ll stay in Cambridge, however, is an open question. Melillo said he would prefer to keep Dockwa’s base of operations in Newport, where overhead costs are lower. But over the next 18 months there’s a “high probability” the company will shut down its Rhode Island office.

“I have to go where the talent is,” Melillo said.

Dockwa is already preparing for the next “100-day sprint” of regional business between May and August, when Boston boaters depart for Maine, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and other popular summer destinations. In the meantime, Melillo is focused on year-round accounts in warmer climates, and finding time to visit while the snow piles up in New England.

February 16, 2017 - 12:07pm