Interview with Dan Shiels '86

Posted on 4/3/2013. Interview by Howie Rhee

Tell us about yourself

A 1986 graduate of Fuqua, a father of three children ages 17, 15, 13.  My oldest wants to attend Duke for engineering.  My wife is from Sanford, NC, and graduated from Appalachian State University, later earning a masters degree in education from the University of Tennessee.  I have been in large, amenity-rich residential communities for more than 20 years and have been close to customers the entire time with leadership positions in marketing and sales.

Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?

I was one of the original members of the Duke University Conference on Entrepreneurship (DUCE) which hosted the first conference in 1985.  It was an exciting time and I'm glad to be a part of the movement that followed.  I played rugby for Duke, too.


What's your major/program and when will you be graduating?  Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.

I graduated with an Master of Business Administration.  It was a great time to be at Fuqua, we had just moved into the new building the previous year and Fuqua was ranked a top 10 business school my first year.  We had some strong support within the faculty community that really fostered the idea that start ups could be viable.  With so many from Fuqua going into banking and consulting, those of us thinking of starting a business were considered to be an interesting aside.


Tell us about your idea.

Floating homes.  Very nice floating homes.  Not just a Sears shed on floats but a full-size, luxury home on a sophisticated float system secured to a dock structure that provides water, sewer and electricity.  All for price that is 20%-40% less than a comparable land-based home.


How did you come up with your idea?  When did you come up with it?

The idea came from an unlikely combination of events.  After more than 22 years in the residential business and seeing the strong connection customers have to living near the water; when we saw the first prototype of this product we knew it was a terrific idea.  The customers who purchased the floating homes at Cottage Cove love their homes and would like to see more; however the marina owner has lost it to the bank.  Given these factors we looked for a better marina location and found one in Knoxville and we are in the due-diligence phase with two marinas in northeast Florida.


How did you meet your team members?

I worked with Richard McWhorter while at The Settings Development Companies in 2007.  Richard first saw the floating home prototype in Tennessee and contacted me about partnering on the project.  We invited Terry Aff, President of Stardust Cruisers, to join us as we became aware of the specialized knowledge required to keep a family home afloat.


How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?

It has been very helpful.  Applying many of the comments and suggestions we received from the judging to our information package helped create a much better package that is easier to read and understand.


The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges.  Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?

The feedback is the most valuable takeaway we received.  To have real people look at our package and then evaluate it is extremely helpful.  What we thought was crystal clear was not; areas that we didn't realize had such impact were magnified.  In the end, the pointed suggestions and the rewrites have greatly improved the presentation and the product.  At each stage we read the comments and applied them as ways to improve how we present our plan and how we explain it.  The feedback has been very, very important to our overall strategy.


Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful?

We only had one who was interested in talking with us, Robert Semrad, and we appreciated his time and interest.  We put a lot of value on his comments.


What advice do you have for Duke alumni / faculty / staff entrepreneurs that are thinking of starting a company?

It is a great experience however, it won't be easy. Get a mouthpiece because you're going to take some shots to the head that you won't like.  Use this competition to help you to hone your product and how to present it.  This process puts into practice the biblical phrase, "Iron sharpens iron."


Anything else you’d like to say?

We are thrilled to be in Round 3 of the Duke Start-Up Challenge.  It has been an honor to have the varied talents of the judges evaluate our plan.  We know from some of the judging that our product is not one that is in vogue right now so progressing to Round 3 is truly an honor.



Want more? Watch the videos and read the other interviews for all of the Round 3 teams in the Duke Start-Up Challenge

And join us for the Grand Finale with David Cummings ’02 for the 14th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:30pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on Facebook

Not able to attend in person?  Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel

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