#LearningCurve: Deep jump into sea of success

Pro Dive owners Michelle and Louis van Aardt
Pro Dive owners Michelle and Louis van Aardt
Image: Brian Witbooi

Pro Dive couple’s passion for sport, mutual support and hard work turns Bay business into ‘diving destination’

It was a mutual love of the ocean that brought Louis and Michelle van Aardt together – and after 21 years as the owners of Pro Dive, it is also the key to their success story.

How and when did the business start?

Louis: We met when we were both doing our diving instructor’s course and eventually decided to start a business from home. It took a long time for the business to grow.

Michelle: We had a temporary lease for three months at our premises near the Red Windmill at the beachfront. We thought we’d start a small diving charter operation, but the lease was extended and we kept going. That was 21 years ago.

After the first two years, we opened a shop in Walmer Park while keeping the beachfront premises, and after another eight years, we moved to our current premises in Main Road, Walmer.

Louis: We also opened a branch in Plettenberg Bay 10 years ago.

What is your core service?

Michelle: Everything to do with scuba diving. We’ve gradually added components of the business, starting first with teaching diving, then expanding to equipment, which was followed by the servicing of the equipment, and then the travel office. We haven’t been sidetracked though, as scuba diving remains our main focus.

What makes your business unique?

Louis: We are running it as a couple, so it is a family business.

If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they start?

Louis: They shouldn’t (laughing). We only have two days off in a year. There are many industries where it is easier to make a living. I get up at 4am to go to the beach every day and decide whether we can dive that day. You must have a passion for this, or you won’t make a success of it. It has to come from your heart.

Michelle: I think if you have a shoe shop, you can have guidelines and systems, but there are many factors like the weather at play. It is quite complex. You have to plan your day on the spot.

What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced before even getting off the ground?

Michelle: It was difficult to get credit. If you don’t have a history, you need someone to take a gamble on you. Today, it is probably virtually impossible to do.

How did you fund the business?

Louis: We started very small, and everything we earned was plowed back into the business.

Michelle: We worked 10 times harder with the little we had. When you do that, you realise how little you need if you use your equipment correctly and look after it well.

What are some of your biggest challenges day-to-day?

Louis: Our business model has changed a lot since the arrival of the internet. We have to keep up with technology and the way people are doing things, instead of fighting against it. When we started out, we didn’t have e-mails or GPS technology; I had to use landmarks to identify diving spots. Now our training is done online and people only come to the dive centre for the practical part of their courses.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received about success?

Louis: My dad used to say to me: “No matter what you do, you have to enjoy it and success will follow automatically.

Who is your target market?

Our target market is professional people from a higher income group, but that is not our only market. We want to teach everyone.

How do you measure success in your business?

Louis: Being happy in what we’re doing; for me, that is success. I also enjoy seeing other people enjoy it. When they come up after a dive and I see the look on their faces, that is enough satisfaction for me.

Michelle: Once you’ve learnt the sport and seen the sharks swim by, it can change a person’s life forever. It is unbelievable how these magical moments we share with our clients can enrich a life.

What kind of advertising do you do?

Louis: We mostly rely on word of mouth and the internet. I also do overseas shows, and will be in Paris [this week] for a show, promoting the Bay as a diving destination.

What are some of the best practices that have made your business successful?

Michelle: You have to consistently give good service and work hard. You can’t do any of this at half-mast.

How many people do you employ?

Louis: We have a staff complement of 19 people throughout the different divisions, though it is more seasonally.

My dad used to say to me: “No matter what you do, you have to enjoy it and success will follow automatically.
Louis van Aardt

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your business journey so far?

Michelle: When you start out, you expect things to run perfectly, but you realise that you’re going to make mistakes and lose money sometimes. That makes you a better entrepreneur in the long run.

At first, you take it personally, but it makes you smarter the next time around. The lesson is not to be scared.

I think we have a good balance between the two of us, because I’m more cautious and Louis is bold and more likely to grab the bull by the horns.

You have to be quite compatible as a couple if you work together, but we have different portfolios in the business, and we’ve never really known it any other way.

How important has mentorship been in your journey as entrepreneur?

Louis: There wasn’t really anyone to mentor us. It wasn’t an easy road, but you always have to be hands-on.

Michelle: Diving looks like a fun business, but people don’t always understand how important it is to look after your equipment. Because we started with nothing, we had to look after what we had. That discipline is important.

It has also helped being two of us, so that when one wants to give up, the other one is there for encouragement.

What has been the greatest challenges and advantages of running your business in Port Elizabeth?

Michelle: The weather is definitely a challenge. The Bay is established so there are enough people to sustain the sport, but it has a small-town feel. You can build up relationships.

Louis: There is a huge social side to our business as well. Our customers have become our friends.