Stuck in the rut of running their startup for the past few years, Sarah Smith and Kevin Long lost sight of what they set out to help people do: go camping. The co-founders of Portland-based The Dyrt are changing that by taking remote work truly remote.
Smith and Long have steeped a months-long road trip across the country in their van, working at campgrounds and RV parks and desolate locations along the way to experience the community of users they serve and better understand and fine-tune the product that has become the No. 1 camping app in the App Store and Google Play.
“Dyrt is all about making it easier for people to go find campsites,” Long said during a video call with GeekWire as he and Smith set up shop in Durango, Colorado, for a week. “Our whole thought was, ‘Let’s live this as founders after more than half a decade of building this platform and this community; let’s get this up and running for the next six months and make the product what we use to find our experiences.'”
Meeting a variety of different users: backcountry backpackers, RVers, tent campers, vanlifers and more, Smith and Long are learning how people use The Dyrt, what they like about it, how they find campsites and more.
“It’s a lot of fun to be in the field and get this feedback,” Long said.
The trip comes after more than a year in which working from home or remotely has become the new normal for many, especially in the tech industry. Dyrt’s own policy is that employees can work from anywhere, as long as they have a strong enough signal to make a video call.
While full immersion into building the startup has taken time away from camping, Long and Smith have managed to build a successful little company, and with more people traveling closer to home during the pandemic, The Dyrt is growing like crazy.
The startup now employs 40 people, and the app lists 40,000 campgrounds and dispersed camping spots. That huge database includes 2.5 million user-submitted pictures, videos, reviews and tips. It took The Dyrt five years to get to more than a million pieces of that content and in the last 11 months they added 1.4 million more.
The company is also building a cellular coverage feature for campsites across the U.S. that has already received input from 34,000 users who have voluntarily shared their service provider and coverage strength through the app. Long called it a more accurate collection of data than what carriers can report on their coverage areas.
“The trajectory is exploding,” Long said. “We’ve gotten really good at basically finding those people who love to review. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Dyrt has raised $12 million to date, while big players in the camping vertical such as Hipcamp, Outdoorsy and RVShare have raised more than $100 million.
“We’re a very capital efficient and junk startup compared to other players in the space that just raised ridiculous amounts of money,” Long said.
Smith and Long did not share how many users they have attracted, but Long said they are selling a $36 Dyrt PRO membership every two minutes. That annual package unlocks additional features and discounts within the app, such as trip planning, downloadable maps to make WiFi connectivity unnecessary and map overlays for camping on dispersed lands, such as national forests or Bureau of Land Management areas. And The Dyrt partners with more than a thousand campgrounds in the U.S. where PRO subscribers get a 40% discount.
Using the product and talking to people about it on the road has provided invaluable on-the-road information for Smith and Long. Smith, for example, logged a technical ticket for the design team after a scattered site review was generating a pop-up window with questions unrelated to scattered camping.
“The fact that I could experience it myself and say, ‘This would make it so much better,’ is important,” she said.
“We do user interviews all the time. Our design and UX team is interviewing people all the time,” Long added. “That can’t replace the founders taking the product and going out and using it for its actual existence.”
With two small work areas in the van and their dog Brandy curled up at their feet, Smith and Long say they’re having fun living the much-celebrated “vanlife” for the first time. But it’s not all as dreamy as some founders, CEOs and other remote workers would have you believe in photos on social media that depict more play than work.
“It looks like a great Instagram moment, doesn’t it?” Long said. “Here’s the hard part: we’re running a super-fast-paced startup that’s growing at a phenomenal rate, and I’m on a computer for 10 hours a day, six days a week. We go to some places, and I’ll leave and think, ‘That didn’t count as visiting that place. I literally sat in this van on this computer.'”
He said it’s important to remember that the demands on your personal and work life that you have at home will be the same demands on the road.
“Nobody cares if you have a problem with your Internet connection, that’s your problem,” Long said. “When I’m at home, I wake up and I’m ready to go. When I’m coming to a new city, Sarah and I have to research cell service, we have to have water for the week, electricity, battery power. And we need to get to places a day before just to test it out and run Zoom calls with people to make sure I’m ready to go. And if it doesn’t work, we need to be ready to pack up and go drive four more hours and find a new place.”
Knowing how each person functions as a spouse and as a co-founder helps. They’ve learned in the last month, for example, that one person at a time in the van kitchen is a good rule. And the nicer summer weather allows them to split up, out of the van.
“We’ve been through the ringer for seven years now at The Dyrt. So we’ve figured it out,” Long said of the couple’s relationship working together. “If this was the start of a startup world, I would suggest having a house, then once you sort all that out, then go crunch it in a 19-foot van as step two of the process.”