The First Crowdfunded Private Island: How We Convinced 140 People To Invest In Our Island [Belize]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Marshall Mayer, and I run Let’s Buy an Island along with co-founders Gareth Johnson and Jodie Joyce - to our knowledge, the first crowdfunded private island in the world!
What started as a fantasy I think many of us had as children turned into a reality by creating a brand, telling our story, and convincing over 140 people to invest their hard-earned cash with us.
We have managed to buy an island in Belize and have enough funding to develop it into a boutique resort. We expect to open for business in 2023.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Gareth and I came up with the idea after probably a few too many drinks! Gareth had bought the URL about 10 years earlier on a whim, but we were throwing the idea back and forth one night and thought we should just go for it.
We reached out to some friends and family and agreed if we could hit a critical mass of early investors, we would fund a business and buy an island. Somewhere. Of some size. We were careful not to promise the moon if we couldn’t deliver, but we were aware that some islands out there are quite cheap… just not necessarily the tropical paradise most people imagine.
There wasn’t much to lose. We convinced a few initial investors to commit funds, called in a few favors, got our website up and running, and started contacting more people and looking at options for islands to buy.
However, in the end, we raised enough money to purchase what we think is the perfect spot! Tropical, easily accessible from shore and an international airport, but remote enough to feel isolated. The property will comfortably fit 20+ overnight guests once fully developed and can accommodate an event space for over 100 guests.
We both have a strong interest in micronations so our initial idea was actually to create our own country (why not!?). Any credible country has land and what better way to create your own country than on an island? We dreamed of owning a private island but for most people, financially this just isn’t a reality. This is when we had our brainwave moment - lets a community fund it.
Our founders are all travel enthusiasts so this was extremely helpful in garnering interest and logistical proximity to potential island locations. We did everything on a budget and invited other investors along for the fun and their valued opinions.
We eventually settled on Coffee Caye in Belize by putting our short list to an investor vote. We were fortunate - after voting on Coffee Caye, we were able to negotiate a fair price and get the island for our group!
Take us through the process of designing and planning your offering.
Planning out the business initially was almost an exercise in multivariable calculus (a class I’m proud to say I barely passed in high school). When you don’t know where your island will be, how much development will cost, what local labor costs are, what market rates for overnight rentals are, what tax rates will be, how people will access the property, and how much demand there is for tourism, you have to plan for every eventuality and make sure you can confidently project positive returns.
But as we zeroed in on our final property, the pieces began to fall into place, and as we finalized our property in Belize, things are looking great for our future!
Describe the process of launching the business.
We had the domain name for some time and a makeshift website. A short way into our journey, a new investor of ours suggested we have a branding overhaul and update our website, as well as a concept summary video and listed affiliations. This gave us real credibility and professionalism which is key to gaining investors beyond the family and friends' reach.
We launched our new website and issued a press release to a selection of contacts and steadily increased our investors.
Our numbers stagnated during the Covid-19 pandemic as international travel was off the agenda so therefore few people were thinking about owning a private island. As the world started opening up, CNN ran a story on us and this was subsequently picked up by a variety of news outlets and we quickly sold most of our remaining shares.
Today, we only have 4-5 available shares left!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Engagement is everything. We engage with our investors and citizens daily through social media posts, engagement in our investor Facebook group, and posting new content.
We do a lot of engagement via our public Facebook group here. We also post regularly on @letsbuyanisland on Instagram.
We also see huge spikes in site hits when we get press coverage, so send out press releases and accept all the invitations to provide quotes and interviews that we can do.
I also advise you to plug away as much as you can to get some press coverage. Tell people about your product, send it to them, demonstrate your services and give them a unique and interesting angle to create a story.
Finally, we send out regular newsletters to our mailing list, which now numbers in the thousands. Engagement is key. We consider ourselves an open book of a business. Nothing we are doing is a secret.
We want to be successful, of course, but we welcome people to see how we’re doing it and be a part of it. We’ve found we get the most engagement by asking our supporters, citizens, and investors to participate in the process!
While our investors get the final say, we regularly solicit ideas from followers on social media on things like where to buy our island, design ideas, flag designs, etc.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are currently applying for permits to build on our island. In parallel, we are talking to content generators such as TV and photographers, so watch this space for some exciting things in the pipeline.
Our design plans are in the works - we are planning to build out a boutique hotel, and restaurant/bar, and to have some watersports on the island like kayaking, scuba diving, and sailing. We want to be a place where tourists and Belizeans come together and meet, socialize, and enjoy the island
We have a large waiting list of interested parties and will launch fundraising for our second island in the coming months.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We have learned a lot about launching a business. Overall, it needs attention - all the time.
We had some good luck in terms of outlets picking up our story, but we were unfortunate in the timing of Covid-19 at a critical point in our business development.
If I had to do this again, I might structure things a little differently on the back end. It doesn’t make a difference for our investors or our guests, but for admin purposes, it would be very helpful to have made some changes to the legal structure of the company.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are really back to basics at the moment and are largely run by ourselves and others volunteering their time and conducting processes manually.
As we grow, we will engage with more tools to ensure we continue to run a more slick operation.
We can be found on Instagram at @letsbuyanisland, on facebook, and on our website.
If you reach out to us on the website, we’ll make sure you start getting our newsletter, so you’ll be aware of all the latest announcements and news from our project!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
As a small group of co-founders, we inspire each other. Gareth has built a successful travel company, Jodie has a successful legal firm and I have a long and varied career across investment banking, technology, hospitality, and humanitarian aid.
And we get lots of inspiration from our investors, a dedicated group of travel enthusiasts with varied careers and lots of great ideas!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
We purchased our island in late 2019 and then were swiftly curtailed from developing our project further by Covid-19. We never gave up though and now we are developing our first island. The message here is - don’t give up! You’ll go through ups and downs, slow periods, and fast periods… there are years when nothing happens, and days when years happen!
Part of the reason we were successful is that our idea is unique. We are the world’s first crowdfunded island. What makes you unique?
I also advise you to plug away as much as you can to get some press coverage. Don’t be disheartened every time you are ignored - it will happen a lot. Tell people about your product, send it to them, demonstrate your services and give them a unique and interesting angle to create a story.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Our first island is fully funded, but we are always taking applications for citizenship and creating a mailing list of those who are interested in our next island project! Drop us a line at [email protected] for more info!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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