Early #MiamiTech startup Boatyard makes big waves as part of MarineMax

By Ellen Forman 

Boatyard was founded by Nathan Heber as a way for boaters to find rentals and enjoy hassle-free time on the water. As his entrepreneurship journey morphed over the next 15 years, Heber, one of Miami Tech’s early founders, grew his company with a central theme: maximizing the joy of boating. 

Today, Boatyard has maintained its entrepreneurial spirit – and its Fort Lauderdale base – as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Clearwater-based MarineMax, the world’s largest marine sales and service company that acquired the startup in March 2020. The team has grown from five in its pre-acquisition days to 20, spread across four states and six countries. 

CEO Heber remains in Fort Lauderdale and says he’s here to stay: “I couldn’t be in a better location for a marine tech startup.”

New at Boatyard this year is software-as-a-service (SaaS) customer experience portal that connects marine service professionals directly to the customers they serve. The portal, also accessible via app, is designed to help their customers manage their boating needs, giving them more convenient way for boat owners to interact with their preferred service professionals. 

Heber cited a statistic that 90 percent of service problems in the marine industry are related to a breakdown in communications. Using the portal, which can also be accessed via an app, bridges that gap. A customer can request service, keep a credit card on file, chat with service employees, approve estimates, and see the status of the work on their boat, all in a 24/7 communication tool. It’s a leap forward for an industry where missed phone calls and unseen messages can lead to delays – and too many days off the water.

“Until we launched this, industry relied on a ‘contact us’ form,” he said. Customers, he said, don’t fill them out any more, fearing they’ll get spam, or they’ll get ignored.  “We’re increasing trust and transparency between marine business and both boat owners.”

Being a part of MarineMax as a wholly-owned subsidiary has been transformative for Boatyard, creating what Heber calls “the best of both worlds.”  Boatyard was MarineMax’s first company in its New Wave Innovations division, designed to drive new ways of thinking within the company. It has since been joined by Boatzon. 

“Our ambition is to connect all the different marine stakeholders to a digital platform that connects a boat owner to everything they need for their boat,” he said. “We want to be the digital pipes that connect the industry.”

The MarineMax network serves as a strong “test kitchen” for the Boatyard software. When new features are built, they’re immediately deployed to tens of thousands of MarineMax customers. 

Working closely with Shawn Berg, MarineMax’s chief digital officer, Heber and his team continue to innovate.  And being part of a corporation has freed Heber from the endless cycle of raising money every six months, “which has done great things for my mental health.”

As someone who saw the early days of Miami Tech – “I remember when you could fit all of us in a room,” he said. “I don’t think anyone thought it would get to where it is today.” 

Heber now serves as a mentor for Yachting Ventures, a tech accelerator in the marine space in based in Europe, and mentors many South Florida entrepreneurs informally. 

“In the first few years, I made every mistake I could in tech,” he said. “Now I know my way around.”  

His general advice: “You’re going to be wrong with many assumptions about your business,” he said. “Don’t make the same mistakes twice. The ones who succeed are not necessarily the most well-funded, but those who have the grit to push through the walls that get in the way, to bring their vision to reality.”