RFEA – The Forces Employment Charity has teamed up with TechVets to host a free online event focused on helping...
Boat building for beginners
‘Being a member of the Forces can feel like you’re on the open ocean,’ says regular Quest contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of Lincolnshire-based specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man.
At the age of 45, I discovered sailing. I’d never tried it before, partly because I swim like a fridge! However, as soon as I tried it, I fell in love with being alone on the open water. It’s given me my sanity back. No phones, no social media, no demands from my business. It’s the closest to flying I’ve felt since leaving the RAF.
Why do I tell you this?
Being a member of the Forces can feel like you’re on the open ocean. You’re part of a crew, all working hard together, on a non-stop journey. But eventually, when your time’s up, it’s your turn to leave the ship – and you won’t be pulling in to port to do so.
The only way to leave is to be lowered down the side into open ocean. Then you’ll be alone in your rowing boat, and you’ll watch your friends and colleagues steam off into the distance without you.
Leaving the Forces to start a business takes it one step further. You’ll need to build your own rowing boat, and have it finished, before they lower you down into the water.
But what do you know about boat building?
If you’re thinking of starting a business, you need to build a boat, from scratch, that’s going to stay afloat. But what do you know boat building?
In my flying career we’d recce massive container ships, fully laden, in rough seas, yet somehow staying afloat. This always amazed me. How something made of heavy steel could stay afloat in such a rough sea.
Fortunately, when you start your business, you’ll not be building something massive and heavy. Your single-person business will compare to a 15ft wooden boat, hand crafted in your spare time before leaving the Forces, using tools and skills you’ve researched and studied.
Most of us have never been shown how to build a boat, so you’ll need to learn fast, otherwise you’ll be getting wet feet!
Steve’s business, the Car Key Man, is a specialist auto locksmith company covering Lincolnshire. Launching in 2004, Steve spotted an opportunity to solve the problem of replacing lost and stolen car keys. The company now offers workshop facilities as well as a mobile service. Recognising the needs of concerned vehicle owners, it offers free consultations to find an affordable solution to the growing number of car key problems.
To stay afloat, you’ll need a few basic things …
- Instructions: Unless you’re incredibly creative and experienced, you’ll need drawings, with dimensions and assembly instructions. You have these resources at hand with resettlement courses and the internet. There’s so much good advice out there now, start making plans as soon as you can.
- The correct material: What’s the best wood to make a boat from? Softwood? Hardwood? How thick do the beams and hull need to be? Likewise, how much money do you need to make your new business work? What equipment will you need? Mine needed around £50,000 of investment, and how I spent that money was important.
- How do you fix it together? Maybe you’ve bought a ready-made kit that just needs fixing together, such as a franchise. Great stuff. But is it screwed, glued, nailed, or both? Your business is kept together by systems, your skills and the processes that you put in place. Dealing with enquiries, getting out quotes to prospects, and talking to customers and suppliers. These are your glue, screws or nails that will keep everything together.
- How are you going to waterproof it? What’s going to stop the water coming in through the gaps? Even the smallest leak will sink the largest of boats. It’s just a matter of time. How do you make sure you’ll stay leak free? Bailing out water is exhausting! If you spring a leak, you’ll need to start bailing out. This works for a while. However, you can bail out only for so long. If all you’re doing is trying to stay afloat, you’ll not have the time or the energy to sail your boat or enjoy the view.
- How are you going to move the boat? Oars, a sail or an outboard engine? I compare this to advertising.
Using oars is like word of mouth. Slow and steady, you can trust oars to get you where you need to be. However, if you’re going any distance, it’s going to take a long time. Perfect for a Sunday splash on the boating lake, but will they move your new business quickly enough?
A sail is your website. Hoisting it means you’re in business. Once you get some traffic to the site, it will give you leads and hopefully customers. However, it takes time for a website to work, just as it can take time for you to learn how to use the sail correctly and get some speed.
In my early days of sailing, in a light wind I’d go nowhere, while more experienced sailors around me would manage a good speed by carefully setting the sail correctly. This is the same as your website. Getting leads from your site depends on your visitors calling you. It’s tricky to learn, but essential. My site now gets 25,000 visits a month and is growing, but in the early days it was a tiny number.
Lastly an outboard motor. As big as the boat can handle, it will speed you along, cutting past other sailors without any problem. This is like paid advertising. There’s no doubt that if you market yourself correctly, using Google AdWords, leaflet drops, Facebook ads and radio, to name a few, it will get you moving fast.
But it’s expensive. Think of your total budget as the fuel in the tank of your outboard engine. The faster and longer you run it, the quicker you’ll use up your budget. Then you’ll need to spend more on fuel. Having a heavy motor on the boat, which you can’t afford to run, becomes nothing more than ballast, slowing you down. So, before you sign up to anything, consider your long-term budget.
Car Key Man YouTube Channel
Navigation. Where are you going? Do you have a plan, other than just staying afloat? If you’ve read my story,* you’ll know I had no idea what I was doing and can’t remember even thinking about navigation. It was enough for me to just keep my feet out of all the water that was coming in. I was in deep debt. Think about it before you cast off, because when you’re out at sea, you need to know where you’re heading, otherwise you’ll go around in circles.
Lastly, what have you got in preparation for rough seas? It’s going to happen. I didn’t believe anything could go wrong for me. I’m the eternal optimist. However, things will go wrong. Things you won’t have any control over.
The financial crash of 2008 is the perfect example, as is the current turmoil around Brexit. When the sea picks up, you need to know the waters won’t overcome your tiny boat. Maybe this will mean putting extra insurance in place, having a reserve of money, or having friends and family to call on to help bail you out with time or money. Whatever it is, making plans for bad weather is vital. I didn’t, and it wasn’t fun to be out in a storm, with a boat half-filled with water, trust me.
Read Steve’s regularly updated blog at:
This is building your business. Choosing the correct materials, making sure they’re a good fit, that they all work together. Sometimes, the thought of setting sail will be overwhelming. Other times, it will feel like most natural thing ever.
Good luck. Being at the helm, steering your own course and racing in strong winds is exhilarating, rewarding and will push you to the limits. The rewards are amazing, so what’s stopping you?
Get in touch
Tel: 07832 147601 or 01522 514141
* Read all of Steve’s previous articles on our website. Go to and search ‘Steve Bulleyment’.
RAF Reserve Gary Forder is living his childhood dream of serving in the Armed Forces, and enjoying all the benefits and...
… so says Peter Granger, who in this feature discusses his CNet resettlement training and how it helped to shape his...
Case Studies See all
Cyber studies: Jasmine Eyers
Thanks to a partnership with IBM and the Corsham Institute, SaluteMyJob is able to offer Veterans and Reservists free training in two of IBM’s key cyber security software products – ambitious...Read more »
From RAF to tech innovator
Life as an RAF engineer taught me the value of operating in the air. I've drawn on this to help develop our drone business, says Elaine Whyte, now UK drones lead at PwCRead more »