By Karen Axelton

photo gondolaEver since I moved to the Long Beach, California, area years ago, I’ve heard about the gondola rides in Naples—a waterfront part of Long Beach where homes are built on a network of canals like those in  the Italian scene above.  Earlier this year I got to witness gondola rides live when I visited a home in the area. But I had no idea the gondola company was run by an entrepreneur until I read an article about it in my Auto Club magazine, Westways.

Mike O’Toole started Gondola Getway in 1981 when he was still a student at USC. The business was a marketing project, but when he graduated in 1982, O’Toole bought an 18-foot replica gondola, put an electric motor on the back, and started doing cruises on the canals with just one boat.

As the business started to grow, he found a business partner, David Black, and added a second boat. But soon, the business required even more expansion and in 1984, O’Toole went to Venice, Italy, to observe how real gondolas were built. He came back and began building gondolas that would easily be steered by one gondolier with an oar.

Today, O’Toole has 10 gondolas and as many as 30 employees who take passengers on romantic cruises through the canals.

“I didn’t think I’d be doing this for the next 25 years,” O’Toole told Westways about the business he started as a student.

That got me thinking about how many successful entrepreneurs get started by accident. But was it really an accident? O’Toole grew up on the canals of Venice and learned to sail as a kid. He ended up creating a business that enables him to do what he loves.

And lots of other people love it too. When I watched gondolas going by, my first thought was how joyous everyone was. The gondola passengers and their gondoliers were beaming (no wonder, since O’Toole says an average of one marriage proposal a day takes place on the boats). And everyone in the homes up and down the streets overlooking the canals lit up, smiled and waved with excitement whenever a gondola went by.

Some people make fun of that saying “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” I’m not sure how much money Gondola Getaways makes, and it’s not the kind of business that can become the next Starbucks or McDonald’s. But it warms my heart to read about a business owner doing something that makes him happy—and makes everyone else happy, too.

You can find out more about O’Toole at the Gondola Getaway site.