On Starting A RV Membership Service With Over 2,700 Hosts

Anna Maste
On Starting A RV Membership Service With Over 2,700 Hosts
Boondockers Welcome
from Elora
started January 2012
2
Founders
2
Employees
395K
alexa rank
30.9K
followers
1.94K
followers
market size
$2.9T
starting costs
$27.3K
gross margin
20%
time to build
6 months
growth channels
Referral Program
business model
E-Commerce
best tools
Canva, Python, PostgreSQL
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
30 Pros & Cons
tips
1 Tips
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Hi, I’m Anna Maste, CTO and co-founder of Boondockers Welcome.

Boondockers Welcome is a platform where RVers can connect with hosts who let them stay on their property for a few nights while traveling. However, unlike Hipcamp or other similar platforms, our hosts let guests stay for FREE!

Our guests pay us an annual membership fee to have access to our platform where they can connect with our hosts. Our hosts are not interested in generating income from sharing their property -- most of them are RVers themselves or aspiring RVers, and they enjoy meeting other travelers and sharing in their experiences. Plus, with every guest they welcome, they bank credits they can put towards their own members when they’re ready to travel.

We currently boast over 2700 hosts across all of North America, with several dozen overseas in Europe and Australia where we’re actively looking to expand.

on-building-an-information-platform-for-travelers-with-over-2-700-host

What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

In 2010, I was on 1-year maternity leave (yay Canada!) from my job as a senior software engineer at a tech company when my mother, Marianne Edwards, approached me with a proposition.

You can start small and stay small, or you can start small and grow big.

She had spent much of the previous 10 years RVing throughout North America and had built a significant following for her Frugal Shunpiker’s Guides to RV Travel that she sells online. She knew that RVers were always looking for safe and affordable (ideally free!) places to stop for a night while traveling, and that RVers often invite each other to visit their home base almost immediately after meeting each other on the road. We were familiar with the Couchsurfing community and how successful it had been and wanted to build a similar community for RVers.

While I built the Boondockers Welcome platform, Marianne enjoyed time with her grandsons and worked on recruiting our first hosts from her network. The site was built in bits and pieces over the span of about 20 months, during baby naps of two maternity leaves and evenings when I returned to my day job. In early 2012 we finally launched. For the first 6 months, we offered a lifetime founding membership for anyone who offered a host location. At the end of that, we had 200 hosts and turned on the switch to start charging new members (with a discount for those who could host) and waited to see what would happen.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

While we were met with a lot of enthusiasm, growth was slow at first - we didn’t have the budget for advertising, and we hadn’t yet learned to harness the power of social media to its full potential. But those who joined the community and used it became converts, telling all their friends and leaving testimonials that made it hard for anyone to second guess giving us a try when they started traveling.

In 2014, I quit my day job, and divided my time between raising my young children, and working on the business while they were in preschool and kindergarten. Once my kids were both in school full-time and I was able to focus more hours a week on the business, I spent a year rebuilding the website from scratch, with a more flexible tech stack. The rebuild included significant feature additions and changes to our pricing model that made the platform much more appealing and easier to sell to our customers.

We launched the rebuilt version of the website at the end of 2017. At that time we had around 800 hosts, many of whom were also paying guests, and about twice that many paying guest members who were unable to host.

From there, things started to pick up speed quickly. RVing as a full-time lifestyle had really become fashionable, and we were discovered by some very popular YouTubers who signed up as affiliates and have done an amazing job of promoting our brand to their audiences. The experience that our community provides to traveling RVers is sometimes hard for potential customers to imagine, so these unfiltered first-hand accounts of how other members have used and loved our platform have been a great growth vector for us. Two years after launching the newly rebuilt site, we had grown to 2,000 hosts. In the interim, my mother retired, we hired someone to handle our marketing, customer support, and social media, and I took over the reins of the business.

While COVID has been devastating for so many, the RV industry boomed during 2020, and we rode that wave as best we could. As many full-time RVers became stranded during the lockdowns in the spring when campgrounds closed, RVers with the land came to our site to sign up as hosts to help others in need. And once the summer arrived and RVing became the safest way to travel, every open campground found itself full, and we again had people flocking to our platform to find our welcoming hosts. Suddenly the mainstream media was interested, with Travel + Leisure magazine writing a feature on us, and mentions in Smithsonian Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We probably reached “ramen profitability” in 2017, and now are profitable enough to pay me a very competitive salary and have dividends to share with my now-retired co-founder.

Our cost of goods is quite low, with our salary for one customer support/social media staff being our biggest expenditure. However, our customer LTV is unfortunately also quite low - while we have many customers who are regular RVers, many travels extensively for a year or two and then settle down again. This means that we’ve had to find ways to grow that don’t involve high customer acquisition costs, so we’ve built our community almost exclusively by SEO, social media, affiliate, and email marketing, and word of mouth. It means that growth is never meteoric, but ensures that we are always profitable, and here for the long haul, which gives credence to the community that helps us immensely.

Our blog gets about 15,000 pageviews a month, and our weekly newsletter listing our newest hosts goes to over 27,000 subscribers, up 35% in the past year. Our Facebook Page has 38,000 members, and we have a very active Facebook Group with over 10,000 members. Our YoY revenue growth for the past 3 years has been just under 100%.

We’re continuing to grow by striking partnerships with some important players in the RV industry, and are beginning to work explicitly to expand our host base in Australia. We’re currently beta testing our long-awaited mobile app and expect it to be released in February of 2021.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

For the first five years of our existence, we really underutilized our email list. We would send sporadic emails to our list, but they were long and often assumed that the reader was already a customer rather than aspiring to become one. With our site rebuild in 2017, we built in a way to easily populate a newsletter with a list of the hosts who had joined that week. Our weekly newsletters are now super easy to throw together and provide content that both current and prospective customers love to browse through and use to plan future travel.

Similarly, we didn’t have a blog at all until towards the end of 2018, what a missed opportunity! We’ve since found that guest blogs really help build our SEO while reducing the amount of time we need to spend writing content, and that’s been a huge help in continuing to build that customer acquisition channel while keeping our costs to produce content low.

From a business perspective, I suffered from a lot of imposter syndrome for the first few years. I constantly felt unqualified to say I was an entrepreneur while I was simultaneously home with my young kids. I finally started participating in some communities for bootstrapped tech companies and started to feel like I was perhaps more successful than I was giving myself credit for. I’m now an active member of the Microconf community and look very much forward to when COVID ends and I can attend another in-person event, as I’ve found that community very supportive and educational.

We had fortuitous timing with our product - the broad availability of mobile internet has resulted in the emergence of the “digital nomad”, which means that RVing is now accessible as a lifestyle for those not yet retired, and there was nobody else in the space of sharing economy camping at that time. Since then, HipCamp and Outdoorsy have come into the picture, and there have been several attempts by others to build a similar community of hosting RVers, but we have a significant first to market advantage, and the lure of making money by renting out their spots on HipCamp has never been something that’s caused our hosts to abandon ship.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We’re big open source nerds here.

Our tech stack is Django/Python/Postgres/Nginx/FreeBSD and is hosted on Digital Ocean servers. (Shout out to my husband, Ed Maste, who is the Director of Project Development at The FreeBSD Foundation, and is always around to answer my pesky questions.) Our code is hosted in Github, and we use Github actions for CI tests, which keeps our costs very low.

Our mobile app runs on React Native and communicates with our main servers via a self-built API.

We use Send In Blue for our email campaigns - they offer automation sequences in addition to a marketing email and are reasonably priced based on emails sent rather than a list size.

We use Graphite and Grafana to store and display both server health and business metrics, which is very helpful in planning for growth from both a technical and business perspective.

I love Notion for our internal Knowledge Base and Project Management - it’s so versatile, it easily does the job of 3 tools in one.

For customer support, we started using FreshDesk’s free tier years ago and it saved us a lot of headaches. We’ve now upgraded to a paid plan and are generally happy with them.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The Startups for the Rest of Us podcast and the related Microconf Connect community have been a huge influence on my growth as an entrepreneur. I find the podcast infinitely more easy to listen to than many other podcasts, and the tactical advice offered by Rob and the other members of the community is unrivaled elsewhere. I also quite enjoy listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast for inspirational stories and interviews with other successful entrepreneurs.

My top 3 most influential books are probably:

  • Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, which really helped me solidify my best customer acquisition channels and made me stop trying to chase methods that didn’t have the ROI I needed.
  • Built to Sell by John Warrilow, which made me double down on systems and procedures to keep our business practices and software healthy and ready should we ever decide to sell.
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear, which just gave me a kick in the butt to be better at adulting every day, trying to balance running a business with a family, and not letting my personal health gets thrown by the wayside.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

You don’t need to go big or go home. You can start small and stay small, or you can start small and grow big. Boondockers Welcome was a side-project for years before I found the time to go all-in - this early start, slow growth ended up being the secret to our success, since we entered a nascent market that investors had no interest in, and were able to establish ourselves as the only player in the space even when we were barely working on the business.

And don’t be afraid to call yourself an entrepreneur, even if you’re not working on your business 100% of the time. You can be both a full-time parent (or a full-time employee) and an entrepreneur, and not lump yourself in with the Avon Ladies. Your business can grow even with only 5 or 10 hours a week if that’s all you can find to spend on it. And every dollar it generates is worth more than just a dollar because you’re building an asset that you may someday be able to sell.

Where can we go to learn more?

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Anna Maste   Founder of Boondockers Welcome
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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