Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Alex Shirley-Smith and I am the founder and inventor of Tentsile Tree Tents, the world’s first range of portable treehouses. This new category of product blurs the boundaries between play and adventure and combines the versatility of a hammock, with the comfort, security and multi-person occupancy of a tent.
We started out in 2013 with our flagship model Tree Tent, the Tentsile Stingray. A 3 Person, 4 Season, suspended tent that can be put up anywhere, by anyone. The tensioned structure can hold up to 880lbs / 400kg, but weighs just 21lbs / 9.5kg in the bag.
Our products offer a new way to experience the outdoors, in pure comfort and zero environmental footprint. There is no better way to hang out with your friends.
We were lucky enough to be able to start and grow this company with no capital investment. We made 2 Tentsile Stingrays in the beginning, we sold 2 and with that money, we made 5, then we sold 5 and made 10 and so on. In the first year we sold 50, the next year we sold 500, in the next year we sold 5000 units and they year after that we sold 17,000 Tree Tents!!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am a qualified architect that specialized in treehouses for the most recent part of my career.
This was a childhood dream realized, as my love for treehouses was born when I was 6 years old and saw the first glimpse of the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. I knew from that early age that putting people in trees, could be the only long term solution to saving the world’s forests.
From treehouses, I moved into tensile structures made from fabric materials, trying to create the biggest amount of usable space, using the least amount of materials. By combining the engineering practices of suspension bridges, with the biomimicry of a spider’s web, I was able to create space, made from pure tension, that created a 3D structure that could hold the load of a human.
After creating a prototype in 2010 and refining the design, I set about sending out photos of my invention to some of the “green’ design forums on the internet. One of them (https://inhabitat.com/suspended-tentsile-hanging-tent-provides-a-portable-safe-haven/) published my photo and description and overnight, my basic website was overwhelmed by 40,000 hits and 2,500 emails. That was when I knew there was a market for a collapsable treehouse and a new way to elevate people’s outdoor experience.
It was fortunate that I had this moment of viral interest as my funds had depleted completely (due to the prolonged prototyping process) and I was on the verge of having to go back to work in someone else’s architectural practice. We never took funding, we retained all control and grew our business from there, organically and steadily over the next 5-6 years.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In the end, we had to take our manufacturing to China.
This is where all waterproof fabrics come from, and we had to take it to the source of the raw materials. After 6 months of working with an outsourced factory, they repeatedly kept getting the details wrong and making mistakes in the structurally crucial areas, so we decided to take the plunge and buy our own. This gave us full control over product quality, production timelines, and working conditions. It is not an easy route. It is not an easy thing to set up a factory in China. They don’t like Westerners coming over and setting up their own shop! Luckily for us, we were able to poach some of the best workers we had met at the current factory and, by offering them better working conditions and pay, they gladly followed us out of the door!
Try to put yourself in new situations and to make time to talk to others. You never know where the next big break might come from.
Besides the huge cost implications of buying a factory, there are the other hidden costs of bringing a product to market to consider. IP, shipping, import duties, personnel, IT, etc etc. IT builds up fats and before you know it, you have a vast army on your hands all needing your precious resources to be able to continue the tasks they have been put in place to perform.
Our design process always starts with finding a problem we need to, or have been asked by our customers, to solve. People wanted a more lightweight Tentsile, - so we invented the Flite; a two person hiker Tree Tent, made with weight saving in mind. Big enough for two, but small enough to pack around. Soon after the release of the Flite, the hiking community heard about the lighter model and soon, people wanted a single person Tentsile - so we invented the UNA. We try and focus on the feedback we receive through our emails and social media, and then put into action a plan for solving that problem.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We were pretty lucky when launching. We took no capital loans, no investment. We made the tents ourselves on the kitchen table, using a domestic sewing machine.
When we got the shape right, we managed to find someone who had a stronger machine and worked with them to make a final design.
It was at this point we went up and down the country ( UK ) to find some one willing to put our tent into production. No one would help us. The tnt maker said that our tent wasn’t a tent, the sail boat makers said that our tent wasn’t a sail… in the end we were lucky enough to find a small family run paragliding company and they agree to fit some small scale production into their weekly run.
They made us 5 tents a week, but we soon had more orders than they could fulfil… So we had to look further afield. This is when we sent a sample tent off to a Chinese factory and ask them to quote us. That was when things really took off….
Now we are producing upwards of 1200 tents per month and selling through some of the best known retailers in both the USA, and EU. REI were the first big retailer to take us on. It was not easy getting in. Unknown UK company with a new category product, only 1 year old, unproven and with no credentials. They took a chance on us. It gave us all the credibility we needed, and soon we had BackCountry, MooseJaw, MEC and a slew of others taking our calls and replying to our emails ( which had been going unreplied until then).
Kickstarter, is a good way to launch a product / idea. If the public do not like it, you have lost nothing in trying. If they do, you have just got yourself the $$$ needed for the first production run! We didn’t take that advice. Our Kickstarter campaign fell flat on its face. August 1st is the worst time of year to do a campaign. No one is at their computers for a month!
The building blocks of starting a business sound simple, but it is in the action of doing that the problems arise and will need constant attention and energy to solve as you progress. Problems you didn’t even know existed. How much is shipping? How much can we offer retailers at wholesale and still be left with enough margin to afford to run the company.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have put a lot of time and energy into our social media resources over the past years. Growing our Facebook and Instagram accounts have been crucial in building a dialogue with our fans.
Developing a close communication style with our customers and followers, to assure them that we are an organisation that is listening and reactive. This instills confidence that they are dealing with real people and a company that takes their Customer Service seriously.
We have not used much in the way of Facebook Ads or Google Ad Words until recently, and are still assessing their performance. What we do know, is that Amazon does work but only if you can make the process efficient enough to warrant their charges and those of any third party you may choose to manage it for you. We are currently on our 3rd Amazon partner in 3 years, so we are still finding our feet and best route forward with this project. It is expensive, but having a presence on Amazon is a must these days.
Getting your SEO right, will help drive traffic and is really tough in a crowded market. How to make your company stand out from the crowd? You need to be sure to include the most relevant search terms, as well and highlighting the USP of your offering. Keywords used for searches and putting time into refining your copy is important. Not a word out of place and not a search term wasted. This really is an ongoing process that never stops and also never takes priority because of how time consuming it is. Important to take some time though… 2 hours a week..?
We have managed to bring returning customers back through our product range’s accessories catalogue. If you have a unique product like ours, it is easy to make sure you have the right pieces to add to and expand the customer’s potential experience. We have carefully considered how our products are used and how we might be able to add further value to customer, if they came back over time and expand their Tentsile collection.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we are pleased to be turning over a monthly revenue of approx. $50k, and have a profitability of around 20%. We run distribution through to major hubs, one the US and one in the EU, we have a factory of our own and have still not taken any capital investment. So far, all organic growth.
We have two bricks and mortar stores in the US, and we run our customer service out of one of those as well as the US headquarters. In Europe, we are located in the UK, where our team has it global headquarters,and we also have a small testing facility out in Sweden.
In 2020, we are planning to launch upgrades across the whole ranges based on customer and retailer feedback we have received, and new product ideas we want to implement. This is a really exciting time for us, but also a huge challenge. All of our literature, brochures, set up videos, manuals, photography, etc, will all have to be updated, which poses particular challenges for the Ops and Marketing teams.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the most important things we have learnt is to invest in your IP. Especially in the country of origin and the biggest markets.
If you own the IP that your company depends on, you are in the strongest possible position. Not invulnerable though. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you will win every battle, but be aware that by not owning the IP, you will have a harder mountain to climb should the worst happen.
Friends and family will all too often tell you what you want to hear. And that can be dangerous...
Luck will always play a part in what you do and you will need to make your own. Nobody will make luck for you. That means, keep and open mind, talk to many people and always be open to other people’s ideas and experiences.
Try to put yourself in new situations and to make time to talk to others. You never know where the next big break might come from.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We used Shopify to launch the business and get our products out to the public.
The platform is comprehensive for anyone trying to sell physical products, which shipping, stock management and all manner of app add-ons available to make any store work really well. They have grown with us to be able to cope with nearly all our needs as a business going from start-up to small business mode.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have not really listened to or read any relevant material on this subject. When I read or listen, it is to stop thinking about business. All my gathered experience comes from talking to others and by doing.
I am aware that I am probably missing out on a raft of knowledge, by not reading up on the subjects related to my business, but as a 42-year-old dyslexic, I know how I am best able to process information and that is through conversation and action.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Setting up a business is not for the faint of heart. It is not for anyone looking to make a quick buck. It has been a long ( and sometimes painful ) slog, so you had better be doing you really love to do.
The cliche, is to say “never give up”, but the truth is, that you had better ask advice from a wide variety of sources on whether or not your idea is a good one. Friends and family will all too often tell you what you want to hear. And that can be dangerous...
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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