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Camping Business Case Study: Silver Ash Campers

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So, we’re officially living the dream. We’ve moved from rainy London to beautiful sunny California. We have a new camping business renting out fabulously fitted small campervans for people to enjoy “the ultimate American roadtrip”. Given our circumstances once or twice over the last year we’ve heard the question “So, how did you get to where you are today?” (along with “Are you hiring?”). Like most business start-ups we began with a dream. In order to turn the dream into reality we needed an unholy blend of good luck, bad luck and sheer bloody-mindedness. In our case this was topped off with the sort of insult to everyday life that kick-starts you into action. This is our story.

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This is a guest post by Heidi Nicholl, Silver Ash Campers, USA

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Where we are today…

We are in the first year of setting up our camping business of campervan rental. We live in beautiful Monterey California and we rent what are called truck campers with fabulously refurbished, vintage-looking interiors, which we revamp with a high level of environmental-commitment (think natural latex mattress toppers, 100% recycled dinnerware, organic cotton sheets etc). If you’re not familiar with them (most people aren’t – including Americans) truck campers slot onto the back of a standard pick up truck (we’ve got them locked into place so its basically like a one-piece campervan).

They have fixed full sized double beds over the cab, decent kitchens, toilet and shower, and are a similar size to driving something like a Mercedes Sprinter. Our business model is to fit into the kind of premium-economy rental market where a young family, couple or single person can rent and enjoy a camping holiday in one of our vans knowing that everything is provided. We’ve got one set price – no extra mileage charges or adding on a rental charge for bedding or towels etc. We want people to be able to book a trip and enjoy both the beautiful interior – along with the amazing American outdoors – knowing that we care about the environment and we care about our customers.

The dream and why we decided to do this…

In our case we already had a business that was doing fine (we run an indoor archery club in central London – how we got into that from being a medical ethicist and an art conservator is a completely different story). We knew that we weren’t ever going to make our fortune from the archery club unless we expanded aggressively, and we knew that there were enough flaws with the business model that it wasn’t a path we wanted to take. What we did love was working for ourselves and, once the business was fully established, being able to work on it from anywhere. This included working from campsites. When we first started thinking seriously about Silver Ash Campers a couple of years ago we had a small campervan (aka ‘the archery-mobile’), we absolutely loved the outdoors, we had a small dog who loved to camp and hike and as long as we could get a wifi connection we could work. What we really wanted to do though was to spend more time camping and incorporate this into how we made enough money to live. As Asher is Californian we were also toying with the idea of one day moving back to the States and living a more outdoorsy life. We also suspected that campervan rentals might be a better business model than the archery club, or at least might avoid the most frustrating parts of the bad business model that made our lives painful.

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Chasing down the camping business dream and deciding when the time was right…

We spent a lot of late night / weekend / hiking conversations going through the ins and outs of renting campervans, mainly thinking of the business as an excuse for us to do lots of camping. We loved the idea of writing suggested routes and therefore needing to check them out ourselves. We also loved the idea of writing a book with photos taken by us, detailing all the amazing journeys that we could do in 4 nights, a week or longer from our imaginary base points. At this point we were still up to our eyes finessing our existing business, getting married and buying a second dog. The second dog was the first thing that changed everything. A second rescued schnauzer he was a metaphorical bomb that went off in our lives (if you want to see our 2x mini schnauzer “camping dogs” we have a blog piece introducing them). We just barely held on while this (wonderful, adorable) sad, abused little creature ran rings around us.

camping with dogs

When we finally emerged from the fog of sleeplessness and the need to be constantly alert 2 or 3 months later we wanted to camp.. and couldn’t. My tiny Romahome was perfect for a single girl, just fitted a couple (we got engaged in it camping beside the Rhine on a perfect holiday), was very squashed with one fairly-well-adjusted dog and impossible with two people and two dogs. Especially if one of the four was a needy lunatic. This pushed us into deciding to buy a new van and, once we had decided to buy something, it seemed like a good time to test a truck camper and see if it was possible to make it beautiful. We bought one. We tinkered. We went camping. TicTac coped.

Paying for the dream…

This is a big one. For us we have a bit of a horror of owing money and don’t have the kind of family situation which would allow us to tap our nearest and dearest. I’ve been through more business courses and seminars than frankly any one person should have to (I don’t have an MBA but I’ve done lots of reading and I got involved with all the free classes I could find in London). As a result of this I have an absolute horror of trying to ‘pitch’ to investors, especially for the sort of lifestyle business that we want, that deliberately doesn’t have a defined ‘exit strategy’. I know enough corporate pitching words that I definitely didn’t want to try and string them together with the words ‘campervans’, ‘beach’ and ‘nice life’ in the sentence.

We therefore set up a medium term plan of trying to save a specified sum of money that we estimated would be enough to enable us to buy 2 or 3 campers, do them up, pay for (cheap) premises and do some initial advertising and allow money for the basics like a good website. We estimated that it would take us 2 to 5 years to gather the money. This plan was radically changed through both serendipity and adversity. See below – ‘The Push’.

From dream to reality, and the final push…

Our existing business had a sudden, unexpected boost in August 2012 from the London Olympics. We worked inconceivably hard and banked money. It was one of those perfect dovetails where you’re working too hard to spend anything. Once things calmed down we lent ourselves – as representatives of the new business – the money to buy a truck camper (which had already been imported to the UK) and began recording any money spent on it as a loan to the new business. We came up with a business name so we knew what to call the entity we were lending money to (we started as Silver Dollar campers but this evolved into the much softer Silver Ash Campers as we wanted a more natural earthy feel). We had some spare time when everything finally calmed down so that we didn’t feel that we were taking on too much. The early stages were all still very conceptual though – it was really about trying to very gradually make progress toward the idea of moving over to America in a few years time.

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I’m not sure when we started to realise that we were really gunning towards making this a reality but the idea gradually took firmer root as the first camper became more attractive. At this point we were still planning on staying in the UK for another couple of years. This was particularly due to the fact that we hadn’t raised anywhere near the ‘minimum to get properly started’ amount. We had about two thirds of the money and part of that was going to be needed for a tax bill. At the start of 2013 we decided to go to California on a holiday / recce for the new business and to help celebrate Asher’s Dad’s sixty-fifth birthday. Three weeks before the ‘holiday’ (that forever more will be known as the ‘not-a-holiday’) Asher’s Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. In two hours we decided to be serious about the business, move to California and just do it.

Our plan and vision…

So, our plan. Asher is American and had camped in the US as a ‘normal’ part of life but had mainly camped in tents. Heidi is British but has spent a lot of time in America. I have camped in tents but no longer had all the gear needed and definitely didn’t want to try and take a full camping set up on an international flight. On a trip to California a few years ago I investigated the possibility of camping but I found it difficult to rent the sort of campervan that I wanted to drive and take a holiday in. What I was looking for was something easy to park and drive, something that I could cook in and something where I could sit comfortably and read in the evening. In the US RV hire is split between behemoth RV’s – a built-in ice-maker is not a positive selling point for me – and tiny car conversion things which just have a mattress in the back and a camping stove. I did end up renting one of these and discovered that I was constantly cramped and yet still had to cook outside (not great when I went up into the mountains and there was snow on the ground). It just wasn’t a great solution for me. There are a handful of companies that rent VWs but while I love looking at them as much as the next person (possibly more) I’m wary about the mechanical issues and was worried about a breakdown (it or me) while on the road.

When Asher and I came to sit down and really discuss the idea, we wanted to find something that would fulfil my criteria. We wanted something that we could rent if we visited California, something that we’d be comfortable taking over to Grand Canyon or up the coast to Astoria (Asher is a big goonies fan!). When we started to throw ideas around we knew that we didn’t want to buy something that was actually vintage as we’re not mechanically minded (this is an understatement) but we love the vintage look and we are both quite craft / artsy-oriented. We also discovered that as we’re keen archers we both knew some crazy hunters and fishermen – a few of whom had truck campers. These are utility vehicles, very well suited to an outdoor lifestyle but really missing out on the beautification factor that I wanted to see. They tend to have ‘wipe-down wallpaper’ (for wiping up blood in case you need to butcher your deer out of the weather – yeurgh) and the kind of upholstery that can disguise a fish-gut spill. However, they are fabulously designed with the built in beds, decent kitchen, proper sized fridge (well proper sized for British people anyway) and bathroom that I wanted. This was when we started along the road of wondering if we could buy a couple of these and make them beautiful.

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Why the dream WILL work…

It’s really tough to stay focused and enthusiastic when you aren’t making any money! We try and counter this by coming up with achievable goals. Social media is great for this, picking up likes and followers helps to spread the word and is something that we can measure and work on in these early days. There’s also a huge sink-hole called ‘everyone knows more than I do’ it’s really important to stay aware of the specialist skills that you can bring to your business to make it great. I always have to remind myself that everyone else that’s further forward than I am will have acquired their skills along the way.

We started with a clear idea of what we wanted to rent and everything ultimately comes back to that. We knew what we would want to rent, we couldn’t find it so now we’re trying to supply it. It also comes down to wanting to learn the things that we don’t currently know, or didn’t know when we started. Next month we’re going to a seminar on ‘counter skills for renting autos’ in Phoenix Arizona. This definitely wasn’t somewhere I would have pictured myself eight years ago when completing a PhD in medical ethics. As unlikely as it seems for me to be taking the class I’m hugely looking forward to knowing new things when I walk out the door two days later. I definitely believe that wanting to learn and plug the gaps in your knowledge is equally as important as what you already know. I always want to be an expert on things that interest me and harbour a sneaking resentment for people that know what I want to know. I try and turn this into a positive by hoovering up the information where I can and then passing it onto others.

Our progress so far…

We set up the official company in March of this year. We bought our second camper in July and we’re still in the process of refurbishing it (but getting closer by the day!). To be fair I’ve had to return to England twice, we’re learning how to run our existing business from afar and we’ve had to set up a new life 5000 miles away from the old one. To say nothing of the family illness that kick-started us over here back in April. We launched the website in September and we’ve had more than 2,500 hits in the first month. We haven’t had many concrete enquiries and we haven’t sold any holidays yet. However, most people book holidays in January (apparently!), we are following our plan and we plan to launch on Airbnb in the new year. We’re optimistic that we have a great product so at the moment we’re working methodically on driving hits to our website. We’re doing this by trying to bring people along with us by sharing our story and our progress through articles like this – through our blog, facebook, twitter, pinterest (I LOVE pinterest for a business that involves camping with a vintage feel) and instagram accounts.

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What you get when you live the dream…

We set our own timetables. If we need to take time out we can. We’re testing our Suggested Route 2 (Monterey to Grand Canyon via Vegas) next month in our second finished camper. We’re taking lessons with our SLR cameras so we can take amazing photos while we’re away. We have pyjama meetings every day where we set our daily and weekly agendas. We try and spend as much time as possible cooking and eating well. We walk the dogs beside the sea twice every day and take them to obedience training (soon to be agility classes) at 11.30am on a Monday – can’t do that with a 9 to 5. We go for lunch in a local restaurant once a week (we’re trying to work through all of them) and sit there for as long as we like. We’ve got an awesome truck camper that will soon be exactly as we want it with duck-egg blue check cushions edged in pinstripes of lime, sunshine yellow striped scatter cushions and duck egg blue striped curtains with tie-backs. The cupboard doors will be ice-blue and we’re putting stone coloured polka dot Cath Kidston tiles on the floor. We’re offering people the chance to rent our campers exactly as we want to use them and we’re investing in something we really care about.

Oh, and right now we aren’t hiring, but we’re hoping to get busy over the summer so send us your resume around March.

Credits: Heidi Nicholl, Silver Ash Campers, USA

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