As a child, Diana Goodwin shivered uncomfortably at the public pool, refusing to get into the cold water with the other kids. Her parents decided to try personalized one-on-one lessons in a heated at-home setting instead, and swimming quickly became a sport that would impact the rest of her life. At 19, she started her first business, a precursor to her now international on-demand swim lesson provider company, AquaMobile Swim School. Applying confidence, assertiveness and a passion for competition, Diana developed an online business concept well before internet based on-demand companies like Uber were mainstream. Driven to find success on her own terms, Diana decided to leave her position as a management consultant and dive into AquaMobile full time. One MBA later, and after many class projects focussing on developing her idea, Diana was a graduate testing her market in the United States as a little fish entrepreneur in a big pond. Today Diana continues to dedicate her professional life to ensuring everyone gets the chance to develop an important skill – swimming – by understanding and addressing the issue that some people don’t learn well in a traditional public pool space. Her at-home swim lessons and water safety Youtube videos have changed the way people are learning how to swim across North America and beyond. Diana has won a number of business awards, including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year and the $100,000 Small Business Challenge, and was most recently a finalist for the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.
I wish I knew sooner the power of networking.
Taking care of myself both mentally and physically
When setting goals, I start off very free form
I’m not a big drinker, but I love a good full bodied glass of red wine.
I enjoy striving towards the overall success of my company.
Travelling and experiencing different cultures.
I’m happiest when I'm outside, surrounded by nature
I prevail because ‘fail’ is not in my vocabulary.
I started a very rough version of my company when I was just 19.
I think the most defining moment of my career was when I quit my corporate job.
I’ve always been into sports.
Tell me about AquaMobile.
AquaMobile is North America’s largest at-home on-demand swim lesson provider. We have 1,800 swim instructors spread across 25 states, as well as Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. Our swim instructors travel to clients’ houses, condos or apartment pools and teach private swim lessons at times and days that are convenient for our clients.
How long have you been in business for?
It’s been five years now; I was doing something else before in the swim business, called Swim for Life Aquatics, but that was when I was a teenager, just starting entrepreneurship.
How did you go about starting your own company as a teen?
At the time, in 2003, the government had a program called Summer Company – I believe they actually still have it. Anyway, I wrote a business plan and they granted me $3,000, which was super helpful, to start my business over the summer. It seems like a small amount of money now, but back then it was a lot; I was 19 and it was enough to get things going, start market testing, and get my first clients.
Do you think the ‘nothing to lose’ or ‘the world is my oyster’ attitude young people often have means that youth is the time to put ideas into action and pursue entrepreneurship?
I’ve always thought that if other people can do something, why can’t I? That was my feeling in starting a business. And yes, I also think that when we’re younger we’re maybe less risk-averse, maybe not thinking ‘oh, this could go wrong’ or ‘I’ve got this obligation to my family and I need to make a certain amount of money,’ and there are less biases coming into play. But I will also say that when I started my first business as a teenager, I wasn’t thinking it would eventually scale internationally. It was really just a good way for me to make some cash and be my own boss; I didn’t want to be on someone else’s schedule or have someone telling me what to do.
Speaking of the international scale, how’d you get into the U.S. market?
We first entered the U.S. via Florida. I wanted to pick a market that I was familiar with, and I had family members that had a place down there. It was an easy location for me to test the market in a low-cost environment because I had a place to stay. We started in Florida testing things out like what’s the best way for clients to hear about us, started recruiting swim instructors down there, and then the following year we basically applied those learnings to expanding into other areas.
Let’s talk about how your business today compares to its early foundation.
When I first started it was pretty much me doing everything: teaching, marketing, bookkeeping – it was a one-woman show. Today we have a solid core team of six people and a fluctuating customer service team; in the busy season we can have up to 20 people working, but it’s less during the low season. We’ve got 1,800 instructors and we’re now North America’s largest at-home swim lesson provider so things have definitely changed. I started thinking I might have an idea that has legs, that could really take off, and I eventually had enough proof that this was something I could fully dedicate myself to, instead of working on the business on the side while working full-time as a management consultant.
How do you manage such a large network of swim instructors?
We spend a lot of time carefully curating our swim instructor team – not just anyone can join our network. There’s a multi-staff recruiting and hiring process that all instructors go through and a lot of requirements. They have to have several years of swim instructing experience, CPR, first aid certification, and if they’re doing lifeguarding for us, they have to have their lifeguarding certification as well.
How did you go about making the switch from side job to a full-time career?
It actually managed to grow a little bit on it’s own without much dedicated time from my end at first. I mean, if I could grow the business with just a little bit of effort, what could I do if I threw myself completely behind it? In around 2010, I formed the mindset that I really had something, so the following year – into 2011 – I went and did my MBA at the Kellogg School of Management, which is at Northwestern University. It was just a one-year MBA and I just basically took courses that would help me grow the business: a market research course, a business writing course et cetera. AquaMobile was basically a class project that I got to work on with a team of very bright MBA students. It was a really helpful and really supportive network, a network that I still tap into and use today.
Do you think, with the right knowledge and resources, you could’ve successfully developed an online mobile business like yours in the early 2000s?
No, there just would have been no way. That’s why back then I didn’t even think about this being a possibility – scaling on an international level – because I needed the custom tech platform. It’s not like I could just go online and say, ‘OK, I’ll pay this monthly plan and it’ll help schedule all of my instructors.’ There was no easy tool like that. Back in 2003, even a regular website wasn’t necessarily a common or a mandatory thing for a company; it was very different. When I started, I actually had to come up with the tech platform myself, because when I was transitioning to AquaMobile, on-demand businesses were just kind of beginning – Uber, for example, was still in its early days.
What does your tech platform look like today?
A customer enters their pool address and then when they’re looking to start, and then they can see all of the instructors in the area who are able to travel to that physical pool location. Clients can see bios, pictures, certifications and specialties and also real-time availability for each instructor. They can then choose and book and pay for the time slot online or they can call our customer service team, who are all current or former swim instructors too, to make their booking.
What inspired you to bring swim lessons to someone’s home?
When I was 19, I worked at a community centre teaching a group of eight kids to swim every half an hour; I would see firsthand that their confidence would take a hit because in a group setting they weren’t getting the attention they needed to help them succeed. As a swim instructor, it’s frustrating when you can only spend two or three minutes with each kid in a session – it can be hard to get through to them, especially some of the ones that maybe need more personalized attention. That’s when I decided that if people are in a more comfortable environment, in a more private setting, I think it’s easier to help them build their confidence in the water and also in everything else that they do. Growing up, a lot of my confidence came from success in sports and so I wanted to bring that to other people. Everyone’s needs are different – kids, adults, anyone – and I really wanted to take that into consideration.
What does swim coaching in someone’s home offer a customer that they wouldn’t get in a public swim space?
There are a number of things. When you’re in your own home pool, there’s less commotion and there are fewer distractions; there aren’t multiple classes, or ten year olds in the pool at the same time as tots. The instructor can focus attention and spend the entire time with a student and really show them how a skill is done and help correct quickly, so the students learn much faster and can get through levels quickly. There’s also the convenience factor; customers can pick the days and times they want to have the lessons. For families with multiple kids, juggling schedules and trying to register can be a process in itself, and on top of that if you’ve got one kid at 4 o’clock, the next kid at 5 o’clock, you could be at the pool for hours; with us that doesn’t happen.
Were you a fish as a kid or did you struggle when you were first learning to swim?
When I was little, my parents considered swimming an important skill, and it is. They first enrolled me in a group swim lesson and I floundered; the pool was cold, I refused to get in and would sit outside of the pool shivering. I was definitely one of those kids that struggled, so someone suggested that my parents sign me up for private swim lessons. There was a teacher that had a pool in her house, and it was a nice warm pool, I remember that – so my parents took me over there. At my very first lesson with her, she called over my parents, threw me in the pool water, and I popped up and swam over to the edge of the pool; from then on, I loved swimming.
Have you always been a ‘Sporty Spice’?
Growing up, pretty much every day after school I was doing something athletic. In university I was on the varsity soccer team and I was also on the varsity track & field team as a sprinter. I was always doing pretty high level competitive sports, and I did lifeguard competitions as well.
What is it that attracted you to sport?
For me, I think it’s incredibly important to stay active and to stay fit but sports for me was about building confidence. It really helped me, and I don’t just mean confidence within the realm of sports, but outside of it as well, in getting my first job or in growing my business. It’s really permeated into multiple parts of my life and that’s exactly why I want to give that to other people, because I’ve seen how powerful it’s been in my own life.
What skills have swimming or the various sports you’ve played taught you that you can apply to other areas of your life?
Aside from confidence, definitely working together as a team; there is constant problem solving that happens when you’re playing sports. It’s really just a way to disguise learning all sorts of ways to problem solve, create team building skills, all sorts of things.
When it comes to sport, some people seem to decide early on whether they’re athletic or not. Do you think this happens often?
It’s absolutely happening all the time. Some of my friends didn’t grow up playing sports for whatever reason – maybe their parents couldn’t afford it or it wasn’t important in their households. However, I know people who have turned to sport as adults, later in life as a way to stay more fit. Seeing the way their body can move and developing a deeper understanding of how the human body connects with everything can really make them start to realize how powerful sport can be.
Obviously you have a real passion for swimming, and coaching in particular; can you tell me what it is about coaching that you love?
I think for me, it comes down to seeing someone’s confidence grow once they master a skill and that sense of achievement that they get. To give someone the opportunity to master something, to achieve something and witness that powerful reaction once they get it – I love to see that. I’ve been coaching for around 18 years, but most of my focus now is more on growing the business. That’s where I spend most of my time, and also empowering the coaches that work for AquaMobile.
What would you say is a mistake that a business person or an entrepreneur could make when first starting a company?
I think the biggest thing is trying to be everything to everyone, and trying to make sure your company can serve everybody. I think it’s much better to focus on something niche and do one thing really, really well to serve specific clients really well.
Was there anything else about AquaMobile you wanted to add that we haven't talked about yet?
Yes, just one other thing – for people who don’t have their own pool or can’t afford swim lessons, we do offer a free video series on Youtube to help people learn to swim. It’s not just about keeping people with pools water safe, we want everyone to be water safe. We’re constantly adding various videos to our online database to help kids and adults learn swim skills. The current seven-part video series is geared toward kids mostly, but we have a lot of adult-specific videos coming soon!