Mentoring puts hovercraft on the right track

Mentoring puts hovercraft on the right track 24/10/2008
Peeter Tarmet

Peeter Tarmet takes part in a European Social Fund business mentoring project in Tallinn, Estonia and learns how to better run and market his business.

Starting out

“I thought that setting up a business offering hovercraft rides was such a good idea that people would be running to visit us, but it wasn’t true. Fortunately, the mentoring programme gave me the support I needed, because I learned about marketing, and without that the company wouldn’t exist.”

Peeter Tarmet lives in Saku, in the lush countryside outside the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and now runs the country’s only leisure hovercraft entertainment. In 2007, he decided he no longer wanted to spend his life making furniture, as he had done since leaving university eight years earlier. “I wanted to do something new. Before, I always worked alone, in a dusty room. I didn’t see daylight very often and I needed a bit of fresh air,” he explains. “If you are by yourself, everything is your own responsibility, and if you are sick there is no business any more.”

The Idea

Peeter hit upon his big idea while watching the Discovery Channel on TV. “It showed small hovercraft that can travel on both land and water. I thought: ‘We don’t have that in Estonia.’ I wanted to do something new.”

It was a bold step. Peeter and his wife Birgit have two young children, Ken, 12, and Kendra, 10. With each hovercraft costing €16,000, they had to take out a loan to cover the purchase. “Up until then it was just talk, we weren’t risking anything. But when we went to sign for the loan it was a break point. We had to take a decision and we couldn’t go back.” With his business partner Kalmer Kallasmaa, Peeter invested in three small craft, and within months they had launched their rides, aimed at tourists and local people alike.

Hovering over difficulties

But it was not all plain sailing. “People didn’t know about us,” explains Peeter. “With a new thing, it takes time.” He found he wasn’t getting the clients he hoped for. “We thought, what are we doing wrong? Why is it not working? There were lots of questions.”

To find the answers, Peeter turned to Enterprise Estonia’s Mentoring Programme, co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund. Initially, he wanted to know more about leadership, financial management, and marketing. But a meeting with potential mentors convinced him that marketing was key. “What’s the point of being a better leader or managing money well if you can’t sell anything?” he points out.

His chosen mentor, Kadi Elmeste, is a marketing expert in the town of Pärnu, and she showed him how to make presentations and choose the right outlets for publicity. “Everybody offers you advertising, but it’s not cheap, and if it doesn’t work you are losing money,” he explains. Before long, he had secured a deal with Estonia’s biggest travel agency, Estravel.

“It was very good for me to get this education, because when I made furniture I didn’t need any selling or marketing skills. I had more buyers than I needed.” Indeed, Peeter feels he has found his vocation: visiting and making presentations to clients, promoting his new business. “I am no longer working alone,” he says with satisfaction. “It’s a new thing for me, and I like this job very much. I meet people and can communicate with them. Maybe I have discovered a new person in me who likes to talk. Each time I do a presentation it gets better.”

The partners are developing a multilingual website, since they can offer their services in six languages: Estonian, English, French, German, Russian and Finnish. Currently about 25-35% of the clients are from outside Estonia.

A bright future

“In the future we have big plans,” he announces. The next step is a bus specially fitted with sauna and catering services. The existing site already incorporates facilities for archery, and a seminar room. The aim is to provide an all-in package so that at the end of the day visitors have somewhere warm to relax, enjoy a sauna, a drink or a meal, and even get a ride home.

“We want to improve the quality of our services and make our clients comfortable, because if they are comfortable they will come back,” Peeter explains. Eventually, he hopes to construct a permanent leisure centre offering conference and catering facilities and a range of sports and entertainment activities. “Without the specialised knowledge I gained through the mentoring programme,” he muses, “I don't think I would be where I am today.”