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24 Comments

I sold my bootstrapped sharing economy platform for RV camping for 7 figures. AMA!

Like Couchsurfing for RVers

In 2012, I launched Boondockers Welcome, a platform where RVers can find hosts who will let them camp on their property for free while traveling.

My co-founder is my mother, who has been RVing since 2000 and had previously self-published some travel guide e-books and had a devoted audience. I had a background as a computer engineer, and learned web development while building the first version of the site.

We were completely bootstrapped. The team was just the 2 of us until 2019 when my mom retired and I hired someone to take over customer support, newsletters, blog posts, and social media, and we had a short stint with an engineering co-op student from the local university in early 2020.

Growing Pains

In 2012, the site launched as a Drupal CMS site with some custom modules. We continued with that stack until 2017 when we launched a totally rebuilt version using Django.

The platform functions as a two-sided marketplace for hosts and guests to connect, but we charge an annual membership rather than per-night. Guests are free to stay with as many hosts as they like during the year. Hosts do not earn any money for letting guests stay.

Our initial business model charged $25/year for an annual guest-only membership, or $20/year if you were also able to host. We had originally assumed that all hosts would be RVers themselves who would also want to use the system as guests on their own travels.

As it turns out, many people loved hosting and wanted to continue long after they stopped RVing. We changed our business plan at the same time as our tech stack to allow hosts to join for free. "Guest Privileges Subscriptions" were $30/year, with 50% off for hosts, or free with credits earned after hosting other members. In 2019 we increased our prices to $50/year.

The Acquisition

In May of this year, we were acquired by Harvest Hosts, another alternative camping platform for RVers. They had raised $37M in VC funding a few months earlier. At the time of our sale, we had over 2700 hosts and 12,000 guest members. Almost half of our members were also Harvest Host members, so it was a very well-suited pairing.

Our purchase was all cash, with 85% up front and the remainder paid out monthly over a 6 month transition period, during which I have stayed on as a consultant. That transition period finishes up in a few weeks.

AMA

Being an Indiehacker was not something I set out to do, I often call myself an "accidental entrepreneur". But now I know I'm an Indiehacker for life.

Ask my anything!

Other Interviews

  1. 3

    How many people were on your team, and how did they take it?

    1. 6

      We had one full-time contractor who worked remotely from the USA. (We're based in Canada.) Because our team was so small, it was impossible to wait until the deal was done to tell her, so I told her during the due diligence process, and she was able to help a lot with collecting the information needed for that.

      Before we signed the LOI I made it clear that I wanted our contractor to be kept on if possible - as our customer support person, she has an amazing working relationship with our hosts and guests, and has a lot of knowledge that would be valuable to the acquirers, plus she is just a fantastic person and hard worker with a wide range or skills, including a background in marketing. Our acquirers agreed that she was an amazing asset and made her an offer to come work for them as a full-time employee (with things like health benefits that we, as a Canadian company, could not easily offer), which she accepted. She stayed as the customer support person for the product during the first few months of the transition, but is now on their marketing team and has a few people reporting to her, so it was a great career move for her.

      I don't think she was shocked by the revelation of the offer, we had a great working relationship and I was always transparent with her that while I loved running the company and had no immediate desire to sell, if the right offer came along I would have a hard time saying no.

  2. 3

    Congrats!

    What was the sale price compared to the revenue or profit?

    What was the ownership percentage for you and your mother? 😅

    1. 3

      My mother and I were still the only shareholders, at 50% each.

      The sale price was a generous revenue multiple that I'm not in a position to share exactly, but given that we had very strong growth in a market that was taking off like mad due to the pandemic, it was well above the 3x - 4x profit multiples that are typical for smaller SaaS businesses.

      We had not been looking to sell, so the acquirers knew that we would need a generous offer to even consider it.

  3. 2

    Two-sided marketplaces are notoriously hard to build, especially for bootstrappers. If you start another business, would you build another two-sided marketplace?

    1. 4

      Almost certainly not!

      That said, we had several great advantages that worked in our favor, and if I were able to reproduce them I'd consider it.

      Namely:

      • we had an engaged audience already (purchasers of my mother's e-travel guides) who were excited by the idea and were happy to seed the host side of the marketplace in exchange for a lifetime guest membership. We were quickly able to get to 200 hosts based on that audience, and many of them are still hosts today.

      • we were pretty much the first people in this market, and managed to build a decent moat because of it. Hipcamp and similar marketplaces came along several years later, and were well funded but ran on a different business model (hosts charged per-night). Our hosts were not interested in making money, they wanted to host as a way of staying part of the RV community. A few copycats came and went over the years, but our first-to-market advantage meant we couldn't really be touched.

      Without those two unfair advantages, and the ability to play the long game while waiting for the market to catch on to the value you're providing in a new product, it's way too hard for a bootstrapper to be successful in this kind of product.

      1. 1

        Thanks for responding to this question, amazing insight on how you got your 200 hosts from that audience!

  4. 2

    Considering the heavy overlap in users between your platform and Harvest Hosts, why do you think they were interested in an acquisition?

    1. 2

      Harvest Hosts had about 2500 hosts on their network, but all farms, wineries and other local businesses that would welcome RVers. Out network of hosts was all private individuals, so while there was a large overlap in guests, there was very little overlap in hosts. Acquiring our hosts allowed them to double the size of their network. They are now offering membership to Boondockers Welcome as an "upgrade" from their original Harvest Hosts product.

      They had a much larger customer base than we did, so while half our customers were also their customers, only about 5% of their customers were already our members, so they have a very large base to upsell to now.

      1. 1

        Thanks, that makes sense.

        Are their plans to merge the two systems, or keep them running separately?

        Btw, I've been seeing a lot of their IG ads in my feed, so I must be their target audience somehow (don't have an RV, but follow some #vanlife and camping accounts).

        1. 2

          We've actually spent the first 4.5 months after the acquisition working to make sure their platform had feature parity with ours, and we merged all our hosts and customers to their platform about 2 weeks ago.

          This means that all the code I've written over the years is now defunct. 😢I had also just released a mobile app in January which has now been deprecated in favor of their app. This was a bit heartbreaking for the engineer in me, but the business person in me totally understands why it makes sense to have one platform.

          And yes, being a #vanlife follower will almost certainly make you an advertising target!

  5. 1

    Great story, Anna! Love hearing more details each time I read / hear about it!

    1. 1

      Thanks, I wasn't much of a sharer when I was knee-deep, but am enjoying the sharing part very much now.

  6. 1

    Congrats on the exit!
    How did Harvest Hosts approach you to purchase the business? Or did you reach out to them? What did this whole process look like?

    1. 1

      We'd had an informal partnership with Harvest Hosts for years, offering reciprocal discounts, since many RVers would have membership in both programs. The original founders were an older couple closer to my mother's age, but they sold to a great savvy younger RVer named Joel Holland in 2018 who had significant experience founding and growing a tech company. Joel maintained the relationship, and he and I hopped on a call once a year or so just to chat. He had made overtures that he might be interested in buying in the past, but I was definitely not ready, and he hadn't pushed.

      However earlier this year it was clear that the RV industry was getting a huge influx of cash. Joel took a bunch of funding, and the same firm that invested in him had courted me earlier in the year (but I was not interested in the VC track and made that clear). Joel reached out and was a bit more insistent this time that I give it some real thought and "name my price". My mother and I spent a lot of time talking it over, trying to decide if selling was really what we wanted, and chatting with some advisors. We ended up coming up with a number that we knew would be a great exit and that we'd be really happy with, and gave that to Joel, and they pretty much met it.

  7. 1

    Love the story, thanks for the share! How did you go about finding out about host/guest needs? Email? button on website to submit requests? via feedback forms?

    1. 1

      For customer feedback, we never got around to implementing a very formal process outside of the old "contact us" form on the website.

      We do, however, have a very active Facebook Group, where hosts and guests chat with each other, and this is a gold mine for learning more about how customers really feel about the product and how they used it in their daily lives. For some reason, people seem much more inclined to talk about your product to other users than to you - I think they like to vent in a forum where they feel confident they'll be agreed with by others in the same boat. While we tried to make clear that the group was not a support channel, it worked really well for keeping our finger on the pulse of what both hosts and guests wanted from the product.

      1. 1

        That makes sense, easier to describe problems in a safe space of peers rather than in a more (potentially) confrontational way.

  8. 1

    Are there any changes you wish you'd made earlier, that would have helped boost your purchase price?

    1. 1

      I almost certainly should have increased prices again, even at $50 it was a great deal for our members, and that would have definitely made a big difference in revenue which would have translated to a higher purchase price. I probably would have raised them in 2020, but even with RVing taking off because of the pandemic, we had a lot of members who were stuck on one side of the US/Canada border, so it was difficult to justify.

  9. 1

    Wow. What a story. Congrats Anna.

    I am sure there would have been a lot of struggle over the years to grow the app. What motivated you to keep going for so many years?

    1. 2

      It started as a fun side project that I coded while on maternity leave, with no real expectations. The support requirements were quite low, and for many years it stayed as a side project that I only really worked on 6-10 hours a week. Not putting too much pressure on it and never expecting it to be a giant exit made it pretty easy to keep going.

      When my youngest started school full time (I had quit my day job a couple years before, but for family reasons rather than business ones), that was when I rewrote the tech stack and relaunched. Having something new to learn and apply myself to was a lot of fun. Whenever I got bored or struggled to stay the course, the secret was always to just find something new to learn about and implement. Thinking of the business as always an opportunity to learn rather than just earn made me much more motivated to keep going.

      I also became involved in the MicroConf community in early 2019, and that really helped with motivation, as did reading posts on IndieHackers!

      1. 1

        Thank you, Anna. I like it. "Thinking of the business as always an opportunity to learn rather than just earn made me much more motivated to keep going."

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