Most customers pedal for 15 minutes before giving way to the Suzuki outboard motor and settling in for a drink or socializing with friends. For my part, I took in views of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial as the boat puttered along.
The operation, inspired by the trolley pubs that have popped up across the country, is flourishing even as the coronavirus pandemic cuts into its season.
The company grossed $309,000 its first full season, from April to November 2019. Through late September and with five weeks to go, it’s racked up $300,000, even after delaying the season until June 5.
Next year, the owners plan to expand the season from March through November to capture more spring tourists and cherry blossom gawkers.
Altogether, the owners say they have grossed nearly $634,000 since launching their project. They reinvested much of that into the business, acquiring a second boat and setting aside some cash for upgrades such as flat-screen televisions. They also have repaid early investors (family and friends) with a 10 percent premium. This year, Walten and Maher each expect to collect a $25,000 payout.
The biggest operating cost is staff, which includes two full-timers and 10 part-timers. Fees for daily docking, overnight slip fees and winter storage come to about $10,000. Next is insurance, which totals between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. They have $70,000 in debt, for the purchase of their second boat.
The pandemic has clearly hampered business. In addition to the shortened 2020 season, the owners implemented passenger limits (12 instead of 16) and now require reservations. Paddle Club has been most popular with bachelorette parties, families, corporate teams and birthday celebrations.
The front of the 31-foot boat has a lounge for passengers who prefer kicking back to pedaling. They are allowed to bring their own coolers to limit contact points between groups throughout the day, Walten said.
Groups of eight can rent the boat for $350 Monday through Thursday and $450 Friday through Sunday. Prices increase for larger groups.
The pair had been celebrating Maher’s birthday at the Wisp Resort near Deep Creek Lake, Md., in January 2018 when they came up with their business idea.
Maher had been on a trolley pub ride in South Carolina two years earlier, which got them thinking about a water version.
“How cool would it be to bring the concept of a trolley pub, where you bike around a city while enjoying drinks with your friends, to the water?” Maher said.
They started crafting a business plan the next month and lining up investors.
Their research led them to Cascade Cycleboats, a boat manufacturer in Bend, Ore., that had exactly what they wanted.
“We didn’t know anything about boats, but we knew how to market and we know how people liked to have a good time,” Walten said. “We knew we could get butts in the seats.”
The partners pooled $30,000 of their own money and pulled an additional $120,000 from investors.
In August 2018, they flew to Bend, plopped the boat onto a trailer and hauled it east behind a Ford F-150 pickup.
They hired a videographer friend to record the trip and posted it on Facebook and Instagram in the early days to help publicize the business. The two social media platforms are still the main advertising vehicles.
They got their permits and planned to make their first commercial cruise on Oct. 4, 2018. The alcohol license was approved two hours before the first tour, said Walten, who picked it up on his electric scooter.
Passengers currently supply their own beer, wine or nonalcoholic beverages, but the owners hope to sell their drinks once the pandemic restrictions end.
They recently invested $30,000 in a food boat business that will ferry hot dogs, sandwiches and ice cream to Paddle Club boats and private boaters on the Potomac.
The two business owners have been dreaming up ways to make money much of their lives.
Walten took an entrepreneurship course in high school and subsequently started a leaf-raking business. Cash from that venture was spent “on gas and fast food, like any good high school kid.”
Maher bought hundreds of “Get Rowdy” sunglasses and sold them to his high school classmates at $5 a pop after spending less than $1 for each.
They also formed a separate company called Bear 3 Digital, which makes videos, photograph displays and graphics for clients such as real estate companies and restaurants looking to boost their businesses online.
“I have been saying since high school that Jack Maher was going to make $1 million off something stupid, and I would like to be right there with him,” Walten said.