Keep it simple. Think about how to start your business with the minimum viable product. There are always extra expenses that will come up so don’t spend all your capital right away. For example, if you’re designing a physical product, order the minimum quantity possible from a manufacturer at the beginning because they may give you low quality if you don’t know what to look for.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marielle Chartier Hénault. Marielle is the founder of AquaMermaid School, a unique swimming school where people learn how to swim with mermaid tails. She followed her dream and decided to merge her passions for swimming, fitness, and Disney princesses into a fun and sportive school concept. Marielle is a certified freediver, monofin swimming instructor, and a business undergraduate from HEC Montreal University. She has an executive background at Bell Telecom and has gained entrepreneurial experience having owned a window cleaning franchise. Known for her creativity and positive energy, Marielle is an action-oriented person, led by the happiness around her. AquaMermaid was founded in Montreal in 2015. It started with one school and now has grown to over 10 locations by offering licensing to other mermaid entrepreneurs. AquaMermaid produces and sells mermaid tails and is hosting a conference to help people become professional mermaids.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
As a kid I was always thinking of little businesses and ways to make money. I was the kid with the lemonade stand, but I wanted more. I started a window cleaning business as a youth which clarified for me that I really want to own my own business. It led me into studying business in University.
I’ve also always been active and loved swimming in my parents’ backyard pool. I loved Disney princesses and Ariel was one of my favorites (of course!). I used to pretend to be a mermaid. With the name Marielle which rhymes with Ariel and my love of swimming, it was a natural fit!
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
The catalyst for me was being laid off from my previous job. I always knew I wanted to start my own business but I didn’t know what to do. Fate intervened…
Around the same time, a photographer I knew was looking for a model for an underwater mermaid photo shoot. It sounded like fun and I love swimming so I said yes. I absolutely loved the experience! At the pool I put on the mermaid tail and immediately felt like I had transformed into a mythical creature. People were smiling at me and wanted to take photos with me. I felt like a superstar and they loved it too!
A few weeks later I saw a video on social media of a mermaid tail school in Germany and this is when I got my eureka moment. I realized how I could share that amazing feeling of transforming into a mermaid with others though opening a mermaid swimming school.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I knew I loved swimming like a mermaid, I saw other people’s reactions to it, and I knew there was already another successful mermaid swim school in the world, but I wasn’t sure how to make it work here. To minimize the risk, I started my business with the minimum investment of time and money possible. I started with the minimum viable product to test it out. When it worked, I focused on making it better and bigger. My advice on this is to not assume what people want. Test your idea to confirm people are willing to pay for it.
I also recommend being adaptable. I started my business with the idea of it being a swimming school but I quickly started to manufacture and sell AquaMermaid branded mermaid tails because people told me they wanted to buy them. That really helped me diversify my business.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Choose a hobby you will not get bored of quickly. You will need to do it mainly for free for a while before you can really start making money at it. Give the business time to grow. Start working on your hobby as a business on weekends and evenings until you make enough money to do it full time.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
You need to evolve with your passion. Keep learning and creating unique opportunities out of it. For example, I travel around the world to different mermaid conferences and competitions. My business doesn’t make money from me going, but I love travelling and meeting other mermaids. Sometimes you need to do it with friends just for fun with no money involved.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I enjoy managing my own schedule. If the work is done, I don’t need to stay in the office until 5 p.m. just to “put in the time.’’ I also love that the harder I work, the bigger my company gets and it all comes back to me.
One downside is there is nobody to tell you what to do or to make sure you put in the work every day. It takes a lot of self-discipline and self-reflection. It can also get pretty lonely working on the computer from home.
(to overcome the drawbacks) I found a mentor that has a business that is bigger than mine. My mentor guides me when I don’t know what I should do next. I also joined local entrepreneur groups for accountability and socialization.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I envisioned I’d be swimming in a mermaid tail all the time, but I almost never swim in my tail for work. I do go to the pool when the mermaid classes are running, but I’m supervising and making sure everything is running smoothly and the mermaids are having fun. Most of my work time is behind a computer doing marketing, logistics, and customer service.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
So many times! It took me about 2 years working full time on my business before I was able to pay myself a salary. I thought this would never work, but my coach told me that I was doing everything that I was supposed to.
One of the problems when you start is that you make many mistakes and it can be expensive, but you need to re-adjust as fast as possible. The longer your business exists, the harder it will be to fail. You just need to survive longer than the competition. I lived at home with my parents until I could afford to pay myself.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was being interviewed by the media and told them I was planning to open a mermaid school in another city soon. The next morning my face was on the first page of the newspaper saying that I was opening a new school in Toronto and it was not true! I only meant sometime in the future, not right away! I lost all this great visibility because I was not ready to take bookings.
Lesson: Make sure to be really careful when you talk to the media. They always want a scoop. It did work out in the end as it forced me to push hard to open a school there when it would have taken a lot longer on my own schedule!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through AquaMermaid I really try to empower young women to be active and feel comfortable in their body. I want every mermaid to feel beautiful and that they belong in our AquaMermaid pod.
Every class I see the students’ faces light up the moment they swim in the tails for the first time. It brings a bit of magic into people’s lives. It’s really therapeutic for many adults who just want to live their childhood fantasies.
Plus it’s a great way to stay active for people who don’t like “working out”. It’s so much fun you hardly notice the effort! Mermaiding is a great combination of fantasy and fitness.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t expect to make money right away. It took me 2 years of hard work before I could pay myself a salary.
- Hire an accountant from the beginning. It’s much easier for everyone if you keep all your bills and business expenses in order. Owning a business is stressful enough so don’t add more stress by being disorganized.
- Keep it simple. Think about how to start your business with the minimum viable product. There are always extra expenses that will come up so don’t spend all your capital right away. For example, if you’re designing a physical product, order the minimum quantity possible from a manufacturer at the beginning because they may give you low quality if you don’t know what to look for.
- Don’t take advice from people who do not run businesses. Your friends & family want to help, but most of the time they have no idea what they are talking about related to entrepreneurship and new businesses.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to inspire more female entrepreneurs to start their own business! I want to share all my work and learning from my business and offer it to other women to open their own mermaid school or run a mermaid business in their own city.
I offer licenses for women ready to become a mermaid entrepreneur. It comes with less risk than starting from scratch because they get to use the business system I’ve already tested in multiple locations.
I’m also hosting a conference for mermaid entrepreneurs to learn all about the different aspects of owning a business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. If you want something just go for it! Don’t worry about what other people will think. Consider what could be the worst thing that could happen if it fails. Most of the time it is not that bad.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to talk to the president of Zumba, Alberto Perlman. It is hard to find success stories from fun, unique fitness businesses and I would love to learn how he scaled and built the Zumba brand empire.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.