This Founder Turned His Part Time Gig Into A $3M RV Rental Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is John Higgins, and I am the owner of NW Adventure Rentals. We are in the business of road trip adventures, specifically in RVs!
We rent newer model clean, well-maintained, luxury Rvs. From the tiniest travel trailer to the classiest diesel pusher Class A, we have any model our customers are looking for.
We have three locations in the Pacific Northwest. Our flagship location to serve the greater Seattle area is located in Lynnwood, WA, our Vancouver, WA location serves the Portland area, and our newest location in Spokane, WA serves the eastern half of the state as well as northern Idaho.
Not only do we rent RVs, we now offer RV Repair to people who own an RV and need to have it serviced! Anything from winterizing to electrical work to collision repair, we have experienced mechanics to get your rig back on the road.
What sets us apart from our competition? Our leaseback program has proven to be a win-win for all! Most of our RVs are owned by private owners who let us manage the rentals. In return, they receive a generous portion of the profits as well as free storage and winterizing services.
We maintain their RVs, keeping them in tip-top shape, so that we can send our customers out in an RV that is sparkling clean, well-maintained, and fully stocked with all they need for a fantastic adventure!
Over the last 10 years, NW Adventure Rentals has grown from a single-unit part-time gig into a thriving business with three locations, 85+ rental units, and $3M in annual sales.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We just thought we were planning a vacation…little did we know we were stumbling smack-dab into our future business!
We would be driving from Washington to California, down 101 to visit some friends, with plenty of fun stops along the way. Hotels and restaurants for us and our five kids would have been out of our budget, so we decided to look into renting an RV. And that’s when the idea was born.
After being met with hidden fees, ratty old RVs, and to top it off, poor customer service, we decided to purchase our own used Travel Trailer and went on to have an epic vacation. But the whole trip down, I was dreaming up my own RV rental business with no hidden fees, luxury models, and plenty of helpful, friendly service.
As soon as we got home I put an ad on Craigslist to rent out our travel trailer, and was blown away by the response, realizing that there was a real need out there! The next summer we purchased another RV and I formed an LLC and built a website, all the while maintaining my position as an engineer with an avionics company.
The next year we took on our first leaseback RV, managing the unit and its rentals for the owner while splitting the profits. This proved to be a win-win situation for all, and before we knew it, we had a fleet of fifteen rental units and we were overwhelmed with all the business we were getting!
At this point, it was fish or cut bait for the business. My wife and kids were running the show while I was at the office, and I would come home from work everyday to work on all the many things that needed taking care of. It was the hardest decision I ever made to leave my cushy job with the fantastic benefits package and solid salary, but that winter I put in my notice at my engineering job and took the business on full time.
People thought we were crazy. And maybe we were! But I can honestly say I’ve never regretted that decision. Business ownership has its share of stress--way more than we thought. But that feeling of autonomy is well worth it!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I’d like to think we were that deliberate and careful with planning this business, but really, it just started to happen in our front yard, and we figured it out as we went. We tested it out with one used travel trailer, learned and improved from our mistakes, solving problems and creating effective processes as we went. This all started with a family vacation, and grew in our front yard as a true family business with my wife and kids all pitching in to help!
Because I am a very organized, process-focused person, I started from the outset to document our processes, using checklists and other tools to help the growing team follow those processes to ensure a quality product. This has helped the team to stay on-task and efficient in all that they do, and the result is a reputation for high-quality products and exceptional customer service!
You can do it! It won’t be easy it may well be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You’ll doubt yourself at times, and you have to be just a little crazy to make this leap, but you can do it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our business has morphed dramatically since its start with one used travel trailer in our front yard ten years ago! We now have around 85 units in three locations with 20 employees including mechanics, housekeepers, accountants, and marketing experts.
We didn’t start in the normal way at all. We simply took out an ad on Craigslist to rent out our travel trailer. But we decided to differentiate ourselves from other RV rental businesses by fully stocking our trailer with dishes, towels, bedding, etc. at no extra cost. Our nightly rental rate was also lower than others. We did not add on mandatory cleaning fees or any other extra costs, as that was what had turned us off originally. And business was great! We had more demand than we could handle and realized there was a big need out there for our business.
From there we went on to add units using the leaseback model, built a website, formed an LLC, and started looking for a property to rent. Finding a location was one of the biggest hurdles, which ended up working for our benefit as our overhead was very low. Our neighbors definitely were not happy with us though, as we usually had six or eight units parked in our front driveway!
I managed everything, with my wife and kids out there sending out customers and doing the washing and housekeeping. I had never worked in marketing, but soon I was learning all about Google ads, a Facebook presence, and website design. I had never worked in accounting, but my sister-in-law, a CPA, helped me set up a system for this.
Defining processes, however, was my wheelhouse, as well as anything mechanical that needed to be done on the units. I’m the kind of guy who is good at a wide array of things, but not necessarily an expert on any of them, which proved to be a good thing as we couldn’t hire anyone until year four.
A shot of our original home page from 2014!
Here is our entire fleet in July 2014, with only 5 rental units!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Word of mouth, for any business, is always the best method to attract and retain customers. And we’ve had a lot of customers because of friends telling friends, as well as good reviews.
RV and recreation shows, including fairs, have proven to be helpful in attracting interest, both in rentals as well as signing up leaseback units. This method always works better if we can bring a rental unit for display rather than just staffing a small booth.
Social media, email blasts, postcards, and billboards… have all had mixed results. Yet to be fair, we haven’t been very consistent with these. We have a new marketing team and are endeavoring to stay on top of this better going forward.
Our website development has been a twisty and turny road, with a huge learning curve. We are fairly happy with our website today, but also know that much more needs to be done to make it more visible online. Right now we are working hard on SEO and obtaining good quality backlinks to our website, with the hope that this will improve our ranking in the search results.
By far, our biggest marketing spend over the years has been on Google Ads. While this has proven to be helpful over the years, we also realized we were throwing far too much money into this as a percentage of our marketing budget. Backing off on this has helped us hire an in-house marketing specialist with a focus on organic SEO and on being more consistent with social media and email marketing efforts.
Learning to use tools like Google Analytics and Semrush has been instrumental in helping us optimize the website to maximize our web traffic.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
With the advent of Outdoorsy and RVShare, along with the millions of dollars invested into each, our piece of the pie has definitely shrunk. And yet, we realize that those companies have very little control over the quality, so we continue to promote our excellent customer service, reliable fleet, and clean, fully stocked rental units. Pivoting toward RV maintenance is also proving helpful with cash flow, especially through the winter months when rental activity slows down.
You cannot get comfortable and let your guard down, or you’ll find yourself playing catch-up before you know it!
Tools like Semrush and Moz help us to see where we stand among our competitors and how we can compete more effectively in our SEO efforts.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think the biggest challenge we have faced so far has been the advent of the large online RV Rental services that allow private owners to rent out their own RV similar to a VRBO website for RVs.
These companies, backed by $50M investments, have really changed the marketing landscape for small businesses like NW Adventure Rentals. This has forced us back to Marketing 101 and caused us to invest much more heavily in our marketing efforts, where previously we did not have to work all that hard at it.
I think the takeaway here is that any successful business owner must be alert and highly adaptive to shifting market conditions. You cannot get comfortable and let your guard down, or you’ll find yourself playing catch-up before you know it!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use quite a few different tools for this business including online rental management software, fleet maintenance software, and a custom-built website. I am generally thrifty and shy away from expensive software tools, preferring where possible to accomplish tasks with common and readily available tools such as MS Office and Google Drive tools.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I haven’t really taken the time to read books or listen to podcasts. I jumped in with both feet, worked my butt off, and figured things out as I went. That said, I have talked through many issues and challenges with trusted and respected advisors, and that has been a tremendous help along the way.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
You can do it! It won’t be easy, in fact, it may well be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You’ll doubt yourself at times, and you have to be just a little crazy to make this leap, but you can do it.
Don’t give in to Analysis Paralysis - you are unlikely to have everything perfectly mapped out before you start, and if you do, things are likely to change and you’ll need to respond innovatively to unanticipated changes. Be flexible, work hard, and forge ahead!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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