In its life, Caudwell Marine received between $80m-$100m in funding. That’s well over one billion Rand. In South Africa, that goes a very long way so it might as well have been one billion US dollars. This was no ordinary start-up!
Without further ado, here’s my amateur video that will bring it to life:
Two and a half years at Caudwell Marine felt like an entire career by itself. It’s really hard to distill all of the many lessons learned but here’s my attempt:
1. Think big…
The flagship jet was the English Electric Lighting. A beast of a machine that with full afterburner would drink 5,000 litres of A1 jet fuel in 9 minutes. That’s thirsty!
Who was the pilot you ask? None other than the CEO of Caudwell Marine, Mike Beachy-Head.
Just imagine the perspective you have on what success looks like, when for breakfast you break the sound barrier (1,235 km/h) in a 14-ton machine still in operation from the 1960s.
To this day, I have yet to meet a more fearless entrepreneur.
Lesson: Be more Mike.
2.…but never underestimate the cost of R&D.
I stand corrected, but I think Caudwell Marine was started in another form as far back as 2006. Imagine what the people would have said if you suggested that 14 years down the line, they still wouldn’t have sold anything.
My engineering friends and I used the following rule of thumb. If you think something will take 2 months, then double the unit and double the number. So realistically the task will take you 4 years. It’s scary but usually true in my experience.
Lesson: Don’t make the silly mistake of under estimating R&D costs and time.
3. People need purpose,
As an example, one day we started work at 08:00 getting the boats reading for testing. By noon we were on the water. Disaster struck and a crank shaft punched a hole in the side of the sump, completely obliterating the engine. After battling traffic, we only got back to the workshop at 18:30. With an investor demo the next morning, the pressure was on!
Like a precision team of doctors, the mechanical team got to work. Performing life-saving open heart surgery on the prototype engine. Working through the night until the patient was resuscitated.
Through incredible dedication and seeming miracles, the engine was rebuilt to perfect working order. If anyone deserves credit for the successes of Caudwell Marine it’s those gentlemen in the workshop that regularly made great sacrifices for the company. Gary, I’m talking about you!
Lesson: Give your employees purpose and they’ll do whatever it takes.
4. people need tea,
Suffice to say, it wasn’t the twin v6 3.5 litre 300 horsepower engines that lifted that boat of out the water. It was the army of people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it happen.
Looking back, if I had to attribute the success to one person, it would probably be the tea lady. Four times a day, she would uplift the spirit of the entire operation with their favourite cup of brew. To my constant amazement she’d remember how every single person of the 80-strong team liked their cuppa. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is.
Lesson: Every single person if your organisation is important. Treat them all with due respect.
5. but most importantly people need best friends.
“The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with. I mean, you don't know them, it wasn't your choice. And yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family. But probably all you have in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day. And so, when you find someone you have a connection with. And, yeah, Dawn was a ray of sunshine in my life.”
On the day in the above photo, my colleagues, Connie, Dussie and Werner were my rays of sunshine. For as long as we all live, the employees at Caudwell Marine will always have a special bond. Even those who didn’t work at the company at the same time. In the face of adversity, we always stuck together. It got us through the tough times and made the highs even higher.
Lesson: Treat your colleagues like your best friends and you’ll never work a day in your life.
6. NEVER underestimate the power of grey hair.
Lesson: Regardless of your sector or stage, always surround yourself with people with more experience than you.
7. Focus is key,
Then we pivoted and lost it. It was decided that our product was not powerful enough so it wouldn’t be competitive.
What happened? A supercharger was slapped onto both drives. With it, yes power for the V6 and V8 engines did go up to 350hp and 550hp. However, so did oil and coolant temperatures, gears failed, shafts snapped and exhausts caught fire. Hundreds of hours of validation now meant nothing and we had an unsaleable product.
To add insult to a Jaguar 4 litre v6 diesel was also thrown into the mix. As well as us trying to develop fly-by-wire and joystick docking functionality. Later we went on to build the F1 drives and even outboards I believe.
Guess which product was truly successful? You guessed it, none of them. To me, this single decision was the start of the end of Caudwell Marine.
Now that I know more about business and start-ups, I ask myself what I would have done. Even if the thesis of more powerful drives was true, I would still get a production version of my product into the market to start generating revenue. After all, that’s why they call it a minimum viable product (“MVP”). Had Caudwell Marine done this instead of ‘tinkering with the tech,’ I suspect things would have turned out very differently.
Lesson: Get to market as fast as you possibly can. You can always innovate from there.
8. detail is divine,
Lesson: No-matter what type of work you do, success is almost always hidden in the detail.
9. and health & safety saves lives.
Lesson: As much of a nuisance as it may seem, health & safety is there to protect you.
10. There will be good days and bad days, so…
Once I remember a young engineer’s first day. He sat down next to me at 8am. It was a particularly rough day in the office and “heads were going to roll,” as we were so often told. By 10am, the engineer packed up his stuff and said, “I can’t do this,” and swiftly left. Gives employee churn a new meaning.
Anyway, on a happier note, pictured above is a rainbow over Cape Point. A photo I took out the window of the boss’ Puma helicopter on a random day at work. The Puma has one of the fastest aerial ascent speeds of all helicopters and boy did he put that to test. Even tempting fate by taking it really high, stalling the engine and then auto-rotating it back to life while we free-fell back to earth. Exhilarating to say the least!
I still remember both experiences equally vividly. I could dwell on the bad days but why when between emails, we were able to pop out and experience the opportunity of a lifetime.
Lesson: Live for the good days.
11....ALWAYS celebrate the small victories.
Lesson: Don’t always look at what you haven’t achieved, take a moment to celebrate what you have.
12. Learn to weather the storm, because…
In life as it is in start-ups, things won’t always be smooth sailing. I still remember our CEO Mike saying, “it’s never easy Alex.”
Lesson: Don’t expect it to be easy, just don your protective gear and brave the storm.
13.…people take notice without you realising.
To this day, you can still see us testing on Google Earth from their 2009 collection. If you zoom in, you can even see the two pick-up trucks with trailers and support boat on the shore. Perhaps even the boerewors (sausages) that support team would occasionally be grilling for lunch!
Lesson: If might often feel like you’re just spinning your wheels but the world is always watching, waiting for you to reach your vision. Keep going!
14. Real investors walk the talk and...
Did this deter our billionaire investor? Not in the slightest. Besides our fearless driver Brett, John was one of the very few people brave enough to take the boat for a spin. Hats off to you John.
Lesson: Be more like John.
15....success is contagious.
Lesson: As the saying goes, if you’re the smartest / most successful person in the room then you’re in the wrong room.
A tribute to Mike
This is one of the great quotes from Mike’s many eulogies: “You had no limits. You were what we South Africans call an ‘Yster’. A true man of steel. RIP and may your legacy live on.”
What will your legacy be?
So, was it the greatest start-up in the world? Who’s to say but one thing is for sure, it was one of the greatest demonstrations of entrepreneurship and vision that the world saw in the last decade.
What happened to Caudwell Marine? It lives on through Cosworth Engineering with operations in Lowestoft and Southampton, UK. So perhaps one day, you’ll still be able to drive one.
A big thanks to all the sacrifices made by the men, women and families of Caudwell Marine employees. You are all incredible people that created a legacy that will last until eternity.
Alex @ The Tippy Top Blog