The Important Pivot That Built This One-of-a-Kind Travel Marketplace

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This story appears in the December 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Travel can spark unexpected businesses, and Alyssa Ravasio started hers after a failed trip to Big Sur. Her story, as told to Ashlea Halpern:

I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve of 2012 somewhere quiet and beautiful, but I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find a campsite by the ocean. There are websites for county parks, state parks and other federal land, but there’s no easy way to search them. Eventually, I found Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur, Calif. I arrived and began setting up my tent, and then realized everybody had a surfboard and a wetsuit. I walked to the beach and saw one of the most beautiful point breaks of my life. It was so frustrating, because I could have brought my surfboard — but I’d spent hours reading about the campground, and not one source mentioned this perfect wave!

Related: 5 Steps to Carving Out a Niche Business

That’s when I decided to build a web platform that would connect people more easily to nature and camping.

I had no funding or savings to hire someone to build the site, so I enrolled in Dev Bootcamp, a three-month coding program that cost $ 9,000. Speakers came in each week, and I always asked the same question: “Should I launch my own company or spend a year working as an engineer somewhere first?” Reddit and Hipmunk cofounder Steve Huffman’s answer was the most inspiring. First, he asked if my company would solve a problem I have. Yes, it would. Then he asked, “Is this a problem other people have?” Yes. His last question: “Will people pay you to solve this problem for them?”

“I discovered a bigger problem: I’d set out to make a database of campgrounds, but America has a shortage!”

I thought back to doing five hours of research to find Andrew Molera State Park. I totally would have paid for an easier way. Others will, too, I said. I had my answer: Launch the company.

Related: 5 Helpful Pre-Launch Resources for Online Startups

I recruited a friend and my siblings and started with California parks. We read state websites and reviews to create an organized data set: Are there showers? Can I bring my dog? We compiled it onto a website called CaliforniaCamping.ca and went live in June 2013…but nobody came. It was demoralizing. Was this a horrible idea? No, I decided: We just needed to add more campsites. We rebranded as Hipcamp, and as we worked, I started to fundraise — first casually, accepting small checks from friends, until I was able to meet some angel investors. We hired a team of 40 writers, building out huge data sets and expanding state by state. Two years later, in summer 2015, we had coverage countrywide.

As we grew, however, I discovered a bigger problem: I’d originally set out to make a database of campgrounds, but America has a shortage! State and national parks have only limited, reserved spots, and they book up six months in advance. If I could create more campsites, Hipcamp could be more than just a listings site: It could do bookings, where we’d connect campers with locations.

We started reaching out to private citizens who own tons of land. Many were receptive: They don’t want to subdivide, sell or develop their property, but they would like to make money off it. So we partnered with them to create entirely new places for people to get outside — camping, hiking, fishing, you name it. The property owners set a price, which ranges from $ 10 to $ 300, and we facilitate the transaction and take a commission.

Today Hipcamp has a full-time staff of seven and a mix of offerings. We have 1,700 private-land sites that people can book through us, and we add hundreds by the month. We also have more than 285,000 listings, which include state and national lands; the government controls the bookings for those areas, but our comprehensive database is great for SEO, and it’s how a lot of people discover us.

Related: An Online Marketplace Brings Made-to-Order Goods to the Internet

Website traffic also tells us a lot about where people want to camp, so we can focus on finding private lands in that area. It’s a creative way to crack the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of marketplaces. And that’s why our biggest initiative for 2017 is reaching more private landowners, especially those living in rural areas or who are disconnected from the internet. We have some ranchers who’ve made more than $ 40,000 this year. It creates great value for them — and, we hope, doubles as a conservation effort. When people can make money off open land, there will be more open land for everyone. 

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