AquaMobile Inc. is one of the five semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest. (Check out the other four here.) The 2015 contest drew more than 3,300 entries, and a panel of judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant – and a suite of secondary prizes – will be announced in September.
When Diana Goodwin decided to dive into entrepreneurship, she went head first – right into a swimming pool. The 31-year-old founder of Toronto-based AquaMobile Inc. launched her first learn-at-home swimming school 12 years ago while she was still a commerce student at the University of Toronto.
"I was the only instructor at first, but as I got more customers I started getting people to teach for me," says Ms. Goodwin, whose business offers swimming lessons in customers' private pools. "That was my first taste at running a business."
Ms. Goodwin, who also worked as a swim instructor and lifeguard during her high school years, continued to run her business part-time while she worked as a management consultant with Bain & Associates. In 2010, she signed up for the MBA program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Chicago.
"I worked then on making my business something I could scale," she recalls. "I wanted it to be North America's largest at-home learn to swim school."
From its origins as a part-time university business, AquaMobile has grown into a full-fledged enterprise with about 750 instructors serving Toronto and parts of Florida, California, Arizona and Texas. While most of AquaMobile's students are children, about 10 per cent are adults learning to swim or training for an event such as a triathlon.
"Our roster of instructors includes a couple of former Olympians," Ms. Goodwin says.
As part of her expansion strategy, Ms. Goodwin commissioned the development of a custom-made technology platform that allows customers to go online, key in their pool address and be matched with an AquaMobile instructor in their area.
By comparison, AquaMobile's competitors can take several days to find a match. The instructor then needs to call or e-mail the customer to schedule lessons.
"With us, customers immediately see the profiles of instructors who can travel to their home, check their availability and book the lesson right online," Ms. Goodwin says. "This technology is an important component of what makes AquaMobile successful – it enables us to scale and expand to different regions."
AquaMobile's revenue has doubled each year since 2012, and came in at $500,000 last year. The company is on track to doubling or even tripling its revenue this year, Ms. Goodwin says. Lessons start at about $48 for a 40-minute session.
"There are 10 million private pools in the United States alone, and that doesn't include pools in condos and apartment buildings," she says. "That translates into a lot of potential for growth."
To achieve her goal of building AquaMobile into the largest school of its kind in North America, Ms. Goodwin says she needs to have at least one full-time employee to recruit swimming instructors, plus another employee to look after marketing and advertising.
Finding good instructors is challenging, especially in the United States, where most instructors teach swimming part-time and do something else full-time. Having a dedicated recruiter will help AquaMobile find good instructors willing to stay and commit, Ms. Goodwin says.
She also needs to put more money into advertising to build buzz around AquaMobile, especially during the weeks leading up to summer.
"We're a seasonal business; even in places where you can swim outside all year-round, most people hire us during the summer when their kids are out of school," she says. "We only have one shot during the year to make a big splash, so we need to ensure we have sufficient resources to invest in marketing and advertising."