Nora is the co-founder of Campertunity, the first business to introduce camping to the shared economy in Canada. This ambitious business idea was Nora’s first venture. As it couldn’t have been other way, in the process of building and growing it, Nora committed lots of mistakes, which she explains how to avoid in this interview.
Hi Nora! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
My co-founder: “Let’s make a website to help people get outside. A website where people who own land can list their land and campers can book it. It will make us millions of dollars!”
Me: “Oh yeah! Good idea!”
A few months later….
My co-founder: “We made $36.87 this month.”
Me: “We are on our way to making millions!”
Be realistic, optimistic, and know that the law of attraction actually exists!
What I know for sure is that it’s never too late to start a business, and I’m not just saying that because I’m 39 and optimistic. Based out of Vancouver BC, I have a love for the mountains and water. It’s always a privilege to breath fresh air and drink clean water.
My education is admittedly a little nerdy, as I have a degree in chemical and environmental engineering with a master in occupational hygiene. So, it’s my determination to succeed and I work hard, but, most importantly, it’s my love for nature and helping people that led me to create Campertunity.
What’s Campertunity? It’s an online peer-to-peer marketplace where users can book a campsite on private land. Basically, I introduced camping to the shared economy in Canada. Now, I’m happy to be the co-founder and to welcome landowners nationwide and campers worldwide to list their land or book a campsite on Campertunity.
As a co-founder, my role is big and all-encompassing. I handle everything from marketing to website maintenance to making sure our receipts are in order for tax time. It’s a big job to start a business and an even bigger one to maintain it. But, I love the freedom and excitement associated with creating my own project.
Who is our target audience? Campers and landowners. Landowners are anyone with outdoor space that’s big enough to pitch a tent, and campers are anyone who likes sleeping under the stars for either one night or 365 nights a year (that includes glampers). So, please sign up with Campertunity for easy campsite bookings on amazing private properties nationwide.
And, amazing properties is an understatement. We have campsite hosts who offer yoga classes, fresh Canadian bacon for breakfast, horseback riding and tours of their farm. Have you ever seen a fainting goat or a sheep being sheared? Now’s your chance. Wheelchair accessible farms are also available because getting people outside means everyone.
As we just reach our one year anniversary since Campertunity’s launch, I’m proud to say that we are growing every day, and am confident that Campertunity will be a name that’s synonymous with camping.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As background, in July 2016, while camping with friends in Pemberton, BC, I asked, “Where are we? I mean, who owns this property that we are camping on?” A friend replied, “See that house over there? This is their private property.” That same summer, Nora, co-founder of Campertunity, and I went camping in a provincial park. This time, our space was much smaller, our camping neighbours a few feet away, and our morning disturbed by RVs driving by. An experience many campers can resonate with.
We see the headlines every year: too many campers and far too few campsites. The mad-rush to book your summer camping trip in the winter and the expensive re-sale of campsites is a barrier to enjoying the peacefulness of nature.
Our camping experiences, combined with the current stressfulness of booking a campsite, and the need for a solution led to Campertunity becoming a reality.
The shared economy is growing in every way, from sharing our homes to our cars, so it’s a good time for camping to enter the shared economy. The public appreciates having options and power, which is what Campertunity provides.
Get people outside, build community, and sustain land are Campertunity’s goals.
As mentioned, I’m an Engineer, which may seem odd for someone who creates a camping website. But, for me, it makes perfect sense because after working for so many years and watching climate change destroy our earth, I understand the importance of maintaining mental and physical health. I believe one of the best ways to do that is to get outside. This is my major motivator in building Campertunity; let’s help each other and our environment.
Before Campertunity, and even during, I maintain the title of Health and Safety Director. I’ve studied and worked in various countries around the world, so I get the importance of having motivation. Thankfully, my Campertunity co-founding partner has a background in tourism and customer service. So, the two of us together make a pretty great match.
When some people reach a certain age, maybe in their 30’s, 40’s or later, they gain a freedom where they are less likely to care about what other people think and more likely to put their fears aside. There’s a serenity that comes with being secure with ourselves. With the ability to put any fears aside, I was able to jump into creating Campertunity with the thought that if this business fails, at least I can say, with pride, that I tried. That alone is hugely worth being proud of.
Campertunity is my first jump into a business but not my first risk in life. I’ve traveled the world for work and invested in real estate; I even took a risk and had a baby. I’m thankful to have had many successes, and a huge part of it has to do with attitude. What we think is what we manifest. Regardless of past failures or successes, know what you want and believe you will achieve it.
How did you build Campertunity?
The coding for Campertunity was outsourced. They say that if you’re building a tech company, it’s best to have a co-founder who is a coder, but my co-founder and I have a computer literacy of close to zero. We decided to still go ahead with Campertunity because outsourcing the coding was do-able for us and because being sociable with people-person abilities will take a business farther. If you check-out the Campertunity website then you’ll see how much we’ve been in the media.
It took 2 years to build Campertunity, with a hickup at the beginning when we hired a friend to do the coding: a guy who constantly said, “Yeah, I can do build Campertunity, no problem.” When, in fact, he took thousands of dollars from us and produced nothing. We could have decided to give up but we thought that because we’ve already spent this much money already (even though we had nothing to show for it!), we need to keep going.
On our second time around, we chose our web developers very carefully. We did interviews, fully explained what we wanted, signed a contract with them that we revised a few times, and had them follow a project charter that we designed. In the end, it was a pleasure to work with the professionalism of Bread and Butter Inc., based out of Victoria, BC, who completed the project on time. In the end, even they seemed surprised that they built Campertunity, such a complex website.
Campertunity is bootstrapped. With no investors, no crowd-funding, and no asking mom for money, I did this on my own as I’d like to keep Campertunity as a project that I can control, for now. Down the road, as we may need more money, we will consider the options out there.
Campertunity will be a huge success but we have one setback: insurance. It will cost $50,000 a year to have insurance in which we can welcome landowners to be a part of. At the moment, if someone wants to list their land, they need to get extra insurance in case a camper breaks a leg or a neck, and not all insurance companies are willing to take the risk. Canada is a cautious country and it’s shown by how our shared economy develops a few steps behind the United States. Even an Uber or a Lyft can’t be found in Vancouver.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Facebook and the media are our best friends for marketing.
At first, we were doing paid advertising on Facebook and boosting our posts here and there. But, after simply posting about Campertunity to various camping group pages, we found that we were not only getting the attention of the public, but of journalists.
Soon, we were being interviewed for TV, radio, podcast, newsprint and online media, and it hasn’t stopped exploding. Our media attention is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and with every article or broadcast about us, we gather a few dozen new users and listings. This is where our people skills come in handy because giving an interview, either on paper, phone or in-person, takes practice and a persona.
Paid advertising hasn’t been an option for us because our budget has been blown to build Campertunity, so not much can be said on that. But, with all the media attention I’m gratefully receiving (for free!), I don’t know why I would bother with paid advertising.
What about our revenue? The Campertunity website is maintained thanks to the 10% profit that is taken from each booking. With no annual fees and no cost to sign up, our motto to landowners is, “We don’t make money unless you make money.” With just over 400 users and 50 listings, with more joining Campertunity every day, we are thrilled to have some of our first bookings this summer and will continue to grow our revenue.
What are your goals for the future?
Our goal is to have 1,000 users and a 100 listings by the end of 2019. In the 5 year term, we want Campertunity to generate $100,000 per year. These are just our numbers.
More importantly, we want to be that number one option for campers and to finally fix the current problem of there not being enough campsites. We want people to experience the fun of camping on a farm and meeting people from all over the world. This is the real experience of Canadians welcoming nature lovers to their neck of the woods.
To achieve our financial, and non-financial goals, we need more staff. Even now, with two founders working on Campertunity, it’s overwhelming. We imagine boosting the economy through bookings but also by employing Canadians.
Lastly, Campertunity is all about nature and I envision partnering with the provinces and territories in Canada to help keep decrease the effects of climate change. At this time, I don’t know the details of what that partnership looks like, but I will stand by my values to ensure a clean future.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
The biggest challenge I faced was taking that first step to introduce Campertunity to the world. When the website was finished and ready to be launched, we were standing in the kitchen of my small Vancouver condo and sweating just before hitting the “launch” button. Then, I did it. I hit launch...then waited.
Before Campertunity launched, we had media attention. So much of it that we were in the newspaper and on the radio before Campertunity even had one user signed up. So, by the time launch day arrived, we had 250 people who had signed up on our landing page. Here we are, thinking that by pressing the launch button, hundreds of people are going to list their land and Campertunity is going to make thousands in its first year.
As you can maybe imagine, that wasn’t the case at all. The launch button was pressed, 3 people listed their land, and the website was almost stagnant for another 6 months. Camping season was over.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
Our greatest disadvantage is that camping is seasonal, meaning Campertunity is a seasonal business. We are busy all year round with marketing but the interest just isn’t there in the middle of December. That’s simply a reality we have to face in Canada.
Our second disadvantage is that we don’t know how to code. Although people smarts are a great quality to have, growing up in the 80’s didn’t have any advantage in learning how to code. With many tech start-ups being created by people in their early 20’s who have nothing to lose and all the knowledge of a computer, it’s hard to keep up with maintaining our own website and tweaking it to suit the appearance and functionality that we want.
And, my mistake: I wish we had started small and then grown bigger. It would have been easier and we could have gathered more attention if we focused first on British Columbia, my home province, and then expanded as we became more popular and with more revenue. But, we started big...all of Canada, and marketing to the second largest country in the world is a lot of work that’s overwhelming. We can’t reverse what we did because we already have a few listings and users across Canada, but we may shift our marketing back to BC and grow more at home.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I would have been more careful on who we hired as a web developer, considering we got burned with the first developer we used.
Also, rules in British Columbia state that a business needs to have a business licence. That’s simple, but I didn’t get a business licence right away, thinking that an online marketplace business doesn’t need a licence. I eventually got one but the time lost cost me because I wasn’t able to apply for provincial grants for education without a business licence.
When we started Campertunity, we set everything up perfectly: we had our P.O. Box ready to go, our Zendesk, Sendgrid, and whatever add on needed to help run Campertunity. But, some of them weren’t needed and after the first year, we are realizing that we don’t need a P.O. Box anymore, or even some of the helper apps we pay for. So, we are able to cut costs by understanding that it’s okay to start small and add on what we need as we grow.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
In 2018, I had the awesome experience of being a part of YC Start-Up School. From that experience, I learned that there’s a whole community of entrepreneurs out there who are not only creative geniuses, but also incredibly helpful. From YC, I was introduced to their Y Combinator podcasts, which is the first of my recommendations for new entrepreneurs. Through these podcasts, you can hear advice from the best of the best.
Second, for those who are in British Columbia, Canada, I recommend hitting-up Small Business BC. These folks are not only face-to-face assistance in helping you answer all your questions regarding your start-up, but they offer seminars (often free!) on everything from how to incorporate your business to how to market it on social media. They are pretty amazing and always friendly.
Lastly, I’m a big fan of motivational books because, as Napoleon Hill would say, “Dreams are the seedlings of reality.” Keep believing this and your business will get to wherever you imagine it to be. So, all this to say, Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” is a favorite book. Otherwise, if you’re wanting an easy read from a “rags to riches” fellow, pick up any book by Joe Girard. This guy writes simply, interestingly, and motivationally.