Taking the Plunge

A diving-equipment manufacturer's success is a lesson in what can happen when vision and execution mesh with a refusal to compromise

For many aspiring business owners, the challenge of transforming a simple idea into a cash-generating reality remains a mystery as deep, dark, and dangerous as an underwater cave. That's an analogy fabled diver Jarrod Jablonski can appreciate, especially since the co-founder of Halcyon DIR Dive Systems in High Springs, Fla., holds a slew of underwater world records -- including one for venturing an astonishing 18,000 feet into an uncharted labyrinth that twisted and turned to depths of around 300 feet.

Going with your instincts, but always thinking things through when you do, is also the philosophy Jablonski and partner Michael Carmichael embraced when they enshrined the initials "DIR" in their outfit's name. Hard-core diving buffs know those three letters stand for Doing It Right, a credo of the sport that the duo insisted would be the foundation on which they built their business. As seasoned divers never tire of telling novices, when you're in a cold, dark, alien environment and drawing each breath from the finite supply of air in the bottle on your back, you can only be as safe as your equipment.


  For those who enjoy diving but aren't fanatics -- the sort, say, who prefer nothing more challenging than hand-feeding fish on Caribbean vacations -- the distinction between the minimalist, streamlined gear Carmichael's outfit manufactures and the more traditional varieties from industry leaders like Aqua Lung and Scubapro may seem academic. But to many professional divers, those seemingly small differences are the reason Halcyon stands out from the pack.

For example, Halcyon insists that quick-release buckles should be made of nothing but metal, even though rival manufacturers use less expensive plastic. New York-based dive master and underwater tour guide Randi Eisner, who uses the plastic variety herself, explains the difference: "According to Halcyon, it's a potential failure point because the plastic pieces could break." But because every diver's choice of gear is, as Eisner adds, "entirely subjective," Halcyon has found a dedicated and thriving market for its specialist wares.

Much the same approach is represented by Halcyon's metal air-tank supports -- even though, once again, many divers prefer plastic. "The drag created by a soft, free-flowing back plate goes against DIR philosophy," notes diver Mark Wike. In this case, while Halcyon might have sacrificed sales to consumers concerned about comfort, it won the loyalty of those who share its own, uncompromising definition of what constitutes "the right way."


  Divers can -- and do -- spend hours debating the relative merits of the DIR approach. But in the meantime, Halcyon's policy of casting a narrow focus on the purist market appears to be paying off, with sales up some 40% in 2002.

So what's the lesson for would-be entrepreneurs? Well, as Halcyon's success proves, if an entrepreneur discerns a niche market, takes care of the smallest details, and dives right in, getting in over your head need not be half as risky as first impressions make it seem.

By Alison Ogden in New York

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.