NOSTALGIA is a lucrative marketing tool, the astonishing might of Pokémon GO a recent case in point.
For Kurri Kurri kid Justin Hales, nostalgia for his childhood holidays drove him to create Camplify. The caravan-sharing start-up that is backed by the NRMA and recorded ten-fold growth in revenue and profits in the past year has its sights firmly fixed on global domination.
“Every single holiday for me was camping with my extended family, and most of Kurri, near town beach on the breakwall at Port Macquarie,” recalls 36-year-old Hales of his youth.
“With caravaning you feel like you’re escaping. It’s something different. It’s about family time. You don’t usually sit around and watch TV – you play board games, cards and spend time together.”
Hales’ road trip to Entrepreneurville began in November, 2014, when he and his wife Sarah were toying with ideas for their Christmas holidays.
The couple tried to find a caravan for rent without success and yet Hales couldn’t help but notice about 50 caravans parked along the streets in his neighbourhood of Georgetown.
“I thought it would be great to have something like AirBNB for caravans,” he says.
As fate would have it, Hunter-founded business accelerator Slingshot had launched Jumpstart, one of its eight-week programs for startups, this time in partnership with the NRMA, which was scouting for ideas to benefit its members.
Hales and his brother-in-law Tim Chaston hastily threw together a business plan for Camplify, an online platform they envisaged would enable holidaymakers to link with caravan owners to rent their road van and together “share the joy of camping”.
Within days they were asked to pitch alongside 350 other start-ups and next thing they were one of eight startups accepted into the Jumpstart program.
Slingshot co-founder Trent Bagnall, who once employed Hales in his former mining softwares solution company Qmastor, was impressed by the Camplify crew’s consideration for the consumer.
“Simple things like caravan owners driving the caravan to the campsite rather than the renter having to tow the caravan to the holiday showed they’d thought deeply about the value proposition to customers,” says Bagnall.
By the end of the Slingshot program, two of Camplify’s co-founders had dropped out and Hales had acquired another in Josh Fischer, now the company’s chief operating officer. For all the good that came from Slingshot – expert mentoring from global tech leaders – it brought a new stress.
“We didn’t understand that we were going to have to leave our jobs,” says Hales, who at the time was earning in excess of $150,000 per annum.
The gamble seems to have paid off, though Camplify’s road has not been entirely smooth.
In August 2015 the company launched its “terrible” first website – in geek speak, it was their minimum viable product – and were beset with operational woes and complaints from their “early adopters” – caravan owners seeking to rent their vans and the holidaymakers keen to hire them.
“It caused a lot of pain for us and our customers, we didn’t understand the customer enough and what they really needed, but the best part was that it gave us the opportunity to get all their feedback and build what they needed,” says Hales.
At the end of the same month, more than $500,000 they had raised via angel investors and venture capital dropped into their bank account, in addition to the $100,000 the co-founders had chipped in and $30,000 from Slingshot.
Working in the basement of the Conservatorium of Music in Auckland Street – Camplify’s co-founders are all University of Newcastle graduates and they’d begged the uni for some cheap rental space – Hales was pulling 80-hour weeks.
But he was in his element.
A few years earlier he’d realised that his ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his parents and put his Bachelor of Education to use was futile.
Working his way up through the ranks at Dick Smith Electronics, he “fell in love with business, growing businesses, hitting sales targets, marketing products.”
“Being a really good sales person and achieving something for your customer and making them feel good is really addictive,” he says.
By December 2015, Camplify had 96 caravans available for hire and was trying to add to its fleet via old-school cold-calling and digital advertising.
Its belief in the shared economy potential was confirmed but their online platform was still problematic, so Hales and crew spent six months to refine it before relaunching it in June, 2016.
The new website gave power to the people, allowing caravan owners to list their vans easily and holidaymakers to hire them, with their “quality product” including what Hales says is the best roadside assistance possible via NRMA, top insurance cover and more besides.
In addition, the company asked a Central Coast company to develop ElecBrake, a wireless controller that removes the need for holidaymakers to spend up to $1000 to have an electric brake controller fitted to their car in order to tow a van.
Camplify will be the Australian distributor for the ElecBrake, which costs $450 and is attached to caravans, thus allowing multiple cars in a group to tow during a caravan holiday.
“The ElecBrake will probably achieve another 30 per cent more hirers because it relieves the burden of cost to the first time hirer,” says Fischer.
By December, 2016, Camplify had 15,000 potential hirers signed up to its platform and its van stock has leapt from 96 a year earlier to more than 1000.
It charges a 15 per cent booking fee to customers hiring vans and a 5 per cent commission from owners and people are “voting with their feet”.
Camplify is attracting repeat hires and owners are jumping through hoops to hire out their road vans, and in many cases investing in multiple vans to cash in on a potentially solid yield.
“We have 30 per cent of customers who have got their first van and realised that the return is so good that they can go and buy a second or third – they might start with a camper trailer and then buy a caravan so it gives them a few options for their family too,” says Fischer.
“Initially we thought if we could achieve owners the payment of their insurance and rego and send them on a holiday then that was a goal.
“To now get them at a point where they are making $20,000-$30,000 per year on an asset of $50,000 that is otherwise sitting on their lawn, that’s an amazing return on investment.”
Lambton couple Warren and Gina Irvine signed up with Camplify soon after paying $30,000 on a Jayco Outback Dove in February last year.
Their hopes of making enough to cover their van’s running costs have been far exceeded, and though their Camplify earnings wouldn’t quite meet potential mortage repayments, "it’s early days”, says Mr Irvine, who charges between $90 and $100 per night for their van.
“We’ve got it hired out from Christmas to February and everyone who’s hired has been great,” he says.
Camplify’s goal in Australia is to become the biggest road van rental fleet and it’s one that NRMA president and Novocastrian Kyle Loades says is in line with the motoring authority’s own ambition to grow its travel business.
“Camplify has the potential to expand well beyond Australia,” he says.
In fact, Camplify is poised to launch in the UK within months and Hales aspires for it to be in up to six countries in the next few years: “We want to be the biggest road van community in the world,” he says.
Hales sees new entry points for their platform and its supporters, for example mums and dads who invest in a van to hire it during events like Tamworth’s Country Music Week, or folks who simply need a caravan in their driveway for extra accommodation.
“It’s a huge market and it’s getting bigger,” he says.
The Camplify co-founders remain consumers, hiring vans during their increasingly infrequent holidays, keeping their pulse close to their heartland and vox-popping families in caravan parks.
“If you don’t know your consumer, it’s hard to appeal to them,” says Hales.