Gen caught up with Justin Hales, CEO of Camplify. Camplify was borne out of the 2014 NRMA Slingshot Jumpstart Program - a corporate accelerator run by Australia’s largest breakdown cover provider. This high-tech accelerator provides seed funding and a mentoring program to enable talented entrepreneurs to build remarkable, innovative companies. Our peer-to-peer caravan hire and RV sharing service was developed by an Aussie team of camping & caravanning lovers who saw a need for something new. The idea came from CEO Justin Hales’ childhood love of caravanning.
Justin and his family used to holiday in their 1980 touring caravan every chance they got. However, on one of these trips Justin’s family were ran off the road and had an accident. After this experience, his parents made the decision to sell their caravan and finish their love affair with caravanning. As an adult, Justin wanted to recapture this love affair. For him though, buying a caravan just wasn’t an option. Justin decided we would develop an effective and innovative way to link holidaymakers with caravan, trailer tent, motorhome or campervan owners. And so, Camplify was born.
In less than two years, Camplify grew to over 20,000 members in Australia and has connected thousands of holidaymakers with private owners of caravans, motorhomes and campers. We have paid out millions of dollars to Aussie RV owners and now we’re determined to do the same in the UK! The UK has over 800,000 registered RVs and the majority of them don’t get used for more than 2 weeks per year.
Watch our interview across three parts below or read the transcript below:
Gen George: Hey gang.
Gen George here from tamme. Today we are in St. Albans
Justin Hales: Albans.
Gen George: This is awkward already. In the United Kingdom just outside of London. And today I'm here with Justin the CEO of Camplify.
Justin Hales: Hi. I'm Justin.
Gen George: And you know where we are.
Justin Hales: St. Albans, heading back to Australia tomorrow.
Gen George: Short flight?
Justin Hales: Yeah, 25 hours.
Gen George: So, how did you guys get started with Camplify?
Justin Hales: So we basically identified that there was a opportunity if you'd like. It was actually my wife who said that, "Oh we'd like to get on it." On a Caribbean holiday. We had the dogs with us.
Gen George: Do you have a small dog? Big dog?
Justin Hales: Border Collie. Medium size. She said, "Go sort that out." I said, "Okay, good idea." So I went and Googled everything. I found that there was a bunch of really small [inaudible 00:00:59]. No one who was really doing it in a big way. It was a couple of big motor home companies but their commercial terms were quite challenging and difficult. So unless you wanted to hire something for seven days and pay $200 a night, then there wasn't anything available.
Gen George: You could get a hotel for that.
Justin Hales: Yeah, exactly. So, I thought, oh, there must be something here. I'm a big fan of AirBnB and I have the flexibility of having so many different options. And so many different types. And so I thought well, it would be great if there was an AirBnB of caravans and motor homes and there wasn't. So we started it.
Gen George: Awesome. And what did the first ... From that idea of hey, we need ... We should try and test this out to going live and getting your first customer. What was that journey?
Justin Hales: It was a really compressed journey. So we ...
Gen George: You've still got no gray hairs.
Justin Hales: We basically had the idea. Within two weeks, a friend of mine who runs a business accelerator ... he said, "well do you have any ideas that fit a road trip type thing?" I was like, "well that's pretty close." And so I was like, I think I should apply with this. I spoke to him about it and he said, "yeah, that's a great idea. You should do it."
Gen George: Yep.
Justin Hales: So I literally put together a pitch deck, a website, rented some AdWords, got some people to sign up all within two weeks.
Gen George: Awesome. Did you have any experience about this kind of space prior to this? Like tech, startups, websites?
Justin Hales: Yeah, tech a little bit. For about 10 years, I ran an IT company.
Gen George: That will help.
Justin Hales: Yeah. We were kind of the first IT company that did [inaudible 00:02:46] services in New Castle. We kind of went through that evolution of taking a business from traditional box build up to actually providing services to customers. And then after I left there I went to a mining software startup that had just gotten on the stock exchange when I went there. My role was to kind of help customers replace spreadsheets in their business with the software.
Gen George: Yep.
Justin Hales: And do that in a global manner with customers around the world. A good mix of running tech businesses and then actually being involved in a software startup as well.
Gen George: Yep, fantastic. Hind site is a funny thing, especially when you get started in startups. Most people are like, "Oh my gosh, what was I doing in the first year?" You actually had experience in that. What do you see a lot of startups doing ... start up founders in that first sort of six to twelve months of getting started?
Justin Hales: I think it's interesting ... I was listening yesterday to a podcast about a company called Justin TB.
Gen George: I've never heard of that.
Justin Hales: They actually pivoted and became Twitch.
Gen George: Twitch, okay.
Justin Hales: They're an online video platform for people who play games and record themselves on screen.
Gen George: Oh right. Yeah.
Justin Hales: So they were sold to ...
Gen George: It's amazing how big that is.
Justin Hales: Yeah, huge. I think it's something like 2% of all internet traffic is that. So they sold to Yahoo a few years ago for a couple billion dollars.
Gen George: Chump change.
Justin Hales: But they are talking about, and it's the same thing I've found, is that they spent their first two years of the business actually just trying stuff, talking to the customers, finding out [inaudible 00:04:32]. What could they focus on. They spent so much time just chatting with the customers and finding out what is it that you want? What can we build for you that's something that you'd actually use? I think that's something that a lot of startups need to spend more time on doing is actually talking lots, and lots, and lots to their customers and finding out well, do I need to build that feature out? What are they going to use? What are the things that actually is a benefit to them.
Justin Hales: Just because it's a great idea doesn't mean anyone will actually use it.
Gen George: Exactly. It's concerning that a lot of people have that misconception that you can build a site with all the bells and whistles and what suits you ... You're going to push it live and a million people are going to turn up tomorrow and want to pay for it. It doesn't happen, to be very clear. What are the things that you think people should be doing I guess ... Sorry. What are the successful things that you do see people doing? Is there any specific case stories that you've seen?
Justin Hales: Yeah. I've seen lots of people that actually survey their customers regularly and find out ... look at the data in terms of what the customers are using it for, for patterns. We try to do that as well, look at patterns in the data and see what is it that the customer is actually using this thing for. And is that actually a niche market that we should focus on? Why? And how do we get more and build more around that?
Gen George: There's a startup here in London called Employ. They're recruitment, hospitality based marketplace. They literally email out their ... To their customers, their business customers and candidate customers every week and say, "Hey, here are the top ten requested features so far. Vote for which one you want pushed out this week." And then they will prioritize every week based off what their customers actually want rather than what they feel would be cool to have.
Justin Hales: Yeah, and I think when it comes to marketplace businesses, it's all about community right? That's basically what you're doing. You're building your community that uses the product.
Gen George: Well you hope they do. So then, you've gone live. You've got your first customers. What was that journey from that stage to I guess the growth stage?
Justin Hales: So I guess, for us, we kind of were launched in a very dodgy way for a bit. So we didn't ... we launched that sort of first version of the software, if you like, almost 2015. We started the [inaudible 00:06:51] program in January 2015. For that time, until we launched, it was basically just like a marketing website. This is what Camplify does, sign up here and we'll let you know when we're ready to launch. That was it.
Gen George: Yeah.
Justin Hales: And then, when we launched, we launched in a very concierge manner. People say, "yes, we want to list." We take them through our form, forms would come to us. We would go and code up their listing. When someone wanted to hire, we didn't have that many listings. We had way more demand than we had supply.
Gen George: Yeah.
Justin Hales: So we literally made them go through and answer 16 questions before they could even see the [inaudible 00:07:36].
Gen George: Just to make sure?
Justin Hales: Yeah. When customers got through it they were like, "Just give me anything." We'd go and find them something. They'd hire it, and away they'd go. We had a huge amount of customers drop off, but it didn't really matter because we had nothing for them to hire.
Gen George: Yeah.
Justin Hales: So, for us, it was just about trying to maximize what we had.
Gen George: It's okay, I was the matching algorithm at One Shift as well for the first period of time. I think there's a club going of people.
Justin Hales: Yeah, yeah. So it was quite slow. From August 2015 until about August 2016, the growth was really hard. It was a real slow growth, but it was quality engaged users when we had them.
Gen George: Yeah. And it meant that you weren't paying for a system to be built that you didn't even know if people were going to use.
Justin Hales: Correct.
Gen George: It meant that you could just get something out and get traction so if you were going to raise or whatever, you had those numbers there.
Justin Hales: That's right. So we learned a lot about our customers at that time. We learned a lot about what they want to use it for, the proper customer. So then, August 2016 was when we launched our platform that we run today. And we coincided that launch with an insurance offering. One of the things that we learned is that this thing doesn't work if you don't have insurance. You have to have an insurance policy that helps your customers and makes it easy for them.
Gen George: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Justin Hales: So we went ahead and sourced that as well.
Gen George: Great.
Justin Hales: And we launched both those things together. And then sort of from that point ... I think at that point we had about 150 listings on the platform. Fast forward to August last year, I think we're up to about maybe 600. Now we're up to about two and a half thousand. We saw a lot of growth very fast once we did those things.
Gen George: Yeah, fantastic. What are the sorts of things that you measure to determine, are you guys heading down the right track?
Justin Hales: That's basically three key metrics. It's listings, booking inquiries, and then total transaction value. So we can look at it and say, well, we've got this many listings. That's giving us this many booking inquiries, and then that's converting this many dollars. That's really all we care about.
Gen George: Yeah.
Justin Hales: And then we ... As we are on this growth path, as long as we grow in those sorts of things, we're fine.
Gen George: Sorting stuff out.
Justin Hales: Sorting stuff out. But, at some point, we'll need to look at conversion optimization so we can increase those ... The gap between those things. At some point.
Gen George: I know that you've been specific about your lifetime values and making sure that your tacks are in place. So you probably don't look at them as metrics in the moment, but you've set it up in a way.
Justin Hales: We do. But we look at them, I guess, probably on a monthly basis and just make sure that we're staying in line with what we expect to see. We know how much a customer generates us, and as long as we are positive in that way ... We're not spending over what our customer actually costs us in terms of what they'll return, and we're find.
Gen George: Perfect. You know, what does the future hold for Camplify? You guys are here in the U.K.. You're in Australia. What's next?
Justin Hales: Yeah, so, I think there's still ...
Speaker 1: Hi guys, part 2. So what were we actually talking about? [crosstalk 00:00:04]
Speaker 2: What's next, I think.
Speaker 1: Yeah, what's next, yes. You're in the U.K.
Speaker 2: So we're in the U.K. We're in Australia.
Speaker 1: About three years old now?
Speaker 2: Yeah, three years old. So we really still have a lot of market penetration to go in Australia. That's what we're going to try and do next. We have way more demand than we have supply still. So I think-
Speaker 1: What are you doing? What are some of the tactics you guys try to solve for that?
Speaker 2: It's difficult because it's all a bit of onboarding owners. You've got to find the right owner, you've got to get them on the platform, then you've got to train them to get up to speed with what they have to do. So it takes time and money to do all those things. For us it's just getting that done as quickly and most cost effective as possible. We have some plans to get a lot more of these things on the platform.
Speaker 1: Well I hope so.
Speaker 2: I think like the last six months we've done something like $19 million worth of inquiry but we've only been able to actually satisfy about 4 million. So there is a lot there to go. And it's still growing. I think this time next year there could be more around 30 million. For us we're just focusing on getting more product on the platform. Right product in the right areas, all that kind of stuff. The U.K. it's much the same. We've grown significantly. We're up to about 500 [inaudible 00:01:37] but we just need more. We need more product to be up with satisfying the demand. Glastonbury tickets went on sale on the weekend.
Speaker 1: Yes, saw that.
Speaker 2: I think we've already had like 50 bookings for Glastonbury. I think if we had another 500 we could have them booked out. It's just about getting the right stock. And then next we're looking at a couple more countries. We're [inaudible 00:02:00] more continental Europe and also in New Zealand as well.
Speaker 1: What was your decision process around the countries that you've chosen to go out into?
Speaker 2: We looked at lots of different markets, we looked at lots of different ... do we go to the U.S. now or not.
Speaker 1: Do you think that that's kind of glamorized rather than the right business decision?
Speaker 2: I think for us it came down to we didn't want to operate in three time zones at once.
Speaker 1: Wait, you sleep?
Speaker 2: Yeah, so we were like, "Let's just expand into Europe because that's pretty much the same time zone." And we can sort of focus on that at the same time as we can the U.K. And there's a huge market there that's not serviced. So combine Australia and the U.K. together and it's probably double that for Europe. So it's a big market. The U.S. is a huge market but to do the U.S. and do it effectively you've got to have huge dollars, huge [inaudible 00:03:02]. So we would need to raise a significant amount of money to really take it on really effectively.
Speaker 1: [inaudible 00:03:09] raise, what, 400 million to enroll that 29 new cities over a 12 month period. That's a big team and a lot of cash.
Speaker 2: That's right, exactly. And for us we wanted to make sure Australia stabilized, U.K. stabilized, now we've got Europe coming aboard. And then we can look at the U.S. after that.
Speaker 1: As a leader, you've got two different teams, here in Australia ... back in Australia and here in the U.K. How do you manage that? How do you make sure you're getting the right people, people you trust, keeping the culture right and you're tackling these sorts of challenges together?
Speaker 2: I think getting people you trust is very important. So my U.K. team, we've got a great nucleus to the team and we're going to grow that team pretty soon I think. But you've got to have the right core people who can understand your vision, agree with your vision, and then be able to go and execute it. And you've got to give them autonomy to go do it. So for me it was more about finding people that I get along with, that I can have a bit of fun with, and who buy into my vision. If I can get those things, then they've just got to be able to execute. So that's what we look for. When we found people here it was about finding people who knew the industry really well, really well connected and then were able to go out and execute that plan. And now, we've pretty much transitioned in ... So Australia is very similar. So that team goes and does the same thing in Australia, and I sort of flow across both if you'd like.
Speaker 1: Well you can go to the beach for a swim or a pub lunch in the U.K.
Speaker 2: Yeah, that's right.
Speaker 1: So how do you then, as a leader, ensure that you're continually developing and staying ahead of the team and keeping up with the business?
Speaker 2: That's one of those things that I think a lot of people struggle with.
Speaker 1: Alexis is watching. Can you say hi?
Speaker 2: Hello. I think that's one of those things that you struggle with when you move from running your own small marketplace or business, whatever it is, to then becoming a CEO.
Speaker 1: Suits and ties, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah. But I think my ... Fortunately for me, I've been in management leadership positions, ran teams, ran global teams so it kind of just comes naturally to me. But I listen to a stack load of podcasts, I read lots of books.
Speaker 1: What are your go-to podcasts and books that you recommend people watch and read and listen to?
Speaker 2: Well, The Startup Podcast is probably the one I love the best.
Speaker 1: And why is that?
Speaker 2: It's just they talk to so many founders. They talk to lots of founders that have failed, lots of founders that have succeeded. Their whole show is about them starting a podcast. The whole thing is lots and lots about different founders, different ways that people do things and what worked, what didn't work. It also has this stress anxiety that you have as a startup founder as well; you can feel those people going through it like, "That's not just me." So that's probably my favorite one.
Speaker 1: Definitely. And what books ... Do you think there's any go-to books to read?
Speaker 2: I've read every single probably lead, startup methodology book there is ever been written. Lots of marketing hack ones. What we do, really, is about two core things. That is building an effective platform by marketing the crap out of it, and hacking that market as much as we can. So that's kind of what I focus on is that marketing sort of thing more than anything really.
Speaker 1: And for, I guess, a business like yours that started in Australia, the Australian mentality for more investors and mentors and whatnot is do great in Australia, make a great small business and then think about going overseas.
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 1: You guys have obviously expanded to the U.K. Did you feel that pressure to be better in Australia before you left? When did you make the decision?
Speaker 2: We always planned to do that in the first place. And when we started the business through the business accelerator, that was our goal was to make it successful in Australia, find our customer, find our market, build the platform and then take it overseas. So we always did that from day one.
Speaker 1: And then how did you structure things? There's a lot of obviously banking issues, trying to set up a bank account from afar is always interesting. We've used transfer [inaudible 00:07:44] it's borderless account API which makes things easy no matter where you're transacting in the world. How did you approach it?
Speaker 2: We're really lucky, one of the people on our Board is a fantastic person named Steph Hines. She has an accounting practice, but she also ... I think she was the first person in Australia to use Xero for an accounting practice.
Speaker 1: She's got some strings to pull.
Speaker 2: Yeah, so she does lots of conferences and lots of stuff. She's on the Board of lots of startup companies. And so when we say, "I want to expand in the U.K.," she's like, "Great, go talk to this accountant over here. They're do everything for you. And just take their advice. They'll come back to me; I'll make sure it's all set up all properly." So, great.
Speaker 1: Sold. [inaudible 00:08:31] Well, for any startups out there who are looking to open up and operate overseas, you can literally set up a transfer-wide borderless account in minutes and start transacting, and accept money in a local bank account and then bring it back to your Australian one or whatever. Depends where you run from.
Speaker 2: It's getting a lot easier, that's for sure. I think a couple years ago we started looking at, it was-
Speaker 1: [crosstalk 00:08:51]
Speaker 2: Way harder. But I think it's simplified a lot now, that's for sure.
Speaker 1: Yeah, especially with that FinTech Bridge I think it's just become a little bit more acceptable rather than us crazy convicts coming over with a passport, right?
Speaker 2: Yes. I remember when we set up our Barclay account and we were ready to start transacting and they said, "Well, we've never seen Justin." So I had to fly from Sydney to London.
Speaker 1: Is Justin real?
Speaker 2: Go into the bank account, show them my details and they're like, "Cool, done." That was it.
Speaker 1: That is crazy.
Speaker 2: Ridiculous.
Speaker 1: We had complete walls up so we just went online. But I think that's also good as well working with other tech startups. Because I think everyone just assumes there's going to be stuck-ups, assume that you can't just always physically be there and hand over a passport. Don't ask to fax something. There's all those things that ... It's crazy. So did you guys look at flipping or doing a subsidiary or what process did you take?
Speaker 2: Yeah, we set up a subsidiary company that's wholly owned by the Australian company. And who knows what we'll do in the future, but for the moment that works.
Speaker 1: And have you found any of the benefits here in the U.K. [inaudible 00:09:57] the setup, the R. and D. tax incentive? How did you approach all those sorts of things?
Speaker 2: I can give sort of advice around that, but we looked at the ... I'll get the acronym wrong, but whatever it's called-
Speaker 1: CEIS?
Speaker 2: Yeah, that one. So to be able to be a tax benefit for anyone who wants to invest in us from here. The R. and D. stuff we looked at and it actually made a lot more sense to R. and D. in Australia than it does here.
Speaker 1: Interesting, why did you find that?
Speaker 2: The incentives were a lot better in Australia than they were here in terms of what you actually got back. So I think our tax refund had we have launched it here and not in Australia would have been a lot less. We weighed up all those things and looked at different grades on that kind of stuff, but what we actually did was went to the Department of [Inlay 00:10:51] Trade in Australia for the U.K. and spoke to them. Told them we wanted to launch. They helped us out a huge amount, actually did this whole research project for us, and gave us a 60-page presentation on the R.V. industry in the U.K.
Speaker 1: So where do people go talk to-?
Speaker 2: I'll send a link.
Speaker 1: Thank you.
Speaker 2: But they basically did all this for us, all this stuff, and then as soon as I came to the U.K. I went and met with them in London.
Speaker 1: They connect you with everyone?
Speaker 2: Yeah, and they were like, "Cool, what do you need from us? Do you need bank accounts? Do you need lawyers? Do you need whatever?" And they helped me out with everything.
Speaker 1: Fantastic. Where you are today, trying to take that next step, expanding across different countries, how are you going to keep the culture, do you think, to keep up with this?
Speaker 2: I don't know yet. That's the answer to be honest.
Speaker 1: Maybe go on some camping trips together?
Speaker 2: Yeah, maybe. It's difficult when you sort of cross worlds like that. I think that what we've done today is ensure that the key people in the business understand and believe what we're doing. And we encourage them to go have lots of team lunches and all that kind of stuff. But it is difficult when you-
Speaker 1: Well, it's a relationship, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Speaker 1: It's not set it and forget it.
Speaker 2: That's right.
Speaker 1: It takes work.
Speaker 2: Yeah, so we have lots of team meetings and that kind of stuff. But not being face to face is difficult. We do make every single person that comes to work for us eat a big spoon of Vegemite.
Speaker 1: You're horrible.
Speaker 2: So someone here today ... One today.
Speaker 1: Can I film it?
Speaker 2: Yeah, doesn't matter whether they're home, they're in Australia, or the Philippines or U.K. or wherever [inaudible 00:12:30].
Speaker 1: Cruel and unusual punishment. Mental health is obviously a huge one in startups and isn't spoken about I think enough than it probably should be. How do you make sure that your team's in check, also making sure that you're in check? What do you do?
Speaker 2: I think for me personally it's about having people on my Board who I like to talk to. And not people that are just there for me to deliver results to, it's people like she can help me. And so whenever I've spoken at a company about investing and that I would put someone on the Board, and that's where the conversation goes to as well. How can that person help me? I don't want to have them on the Board just to able to say-
Speaker 1: Bean counter.
Speaker 2: Yeah, here are those numbers. The people we have on our Board are a really good mix of people that have been there and done that before with startups or have lots of industry experience or whatever it might be. And I quite often call them at 10PM at night and [inaudible 00:13:32], "What do you think I should do about this?" And so that's really important to me. And then also just my network of other founders that I talk to all the time. We have a group of us that goes out for breakfast once a month and just has a chat. And then the team, it's about me bringing that down [inaudible 00:13:55] to senior managers and being that person they can talk to about things. Understanding that they have personal lives that affect everything that they do in the business as well. And then making sure that those people then bring that down lower as well to the people that they look after.
Speaker 1: That's awesome. And startups always seem to question when's the right time to bring on the Board? Is it going to hinder their ability to completely stuff some things up and just keep moving, moving, moving, or is it going to be actually giving them that advice and helping them-
Gen George: So you have board from [inaudible 00:00:02]
Gen George: So you have board from [inaudible 00:00:02]
Justin Hales: [inaudible 00:00:03] So, of course we raise money so early, we just report it straight away. The thing I like about Boards is the fact that I like to be held accountable for things, so I know that every month we have a board meeting and I'm going to agree with things that I'm gonna hit during that month. And so, I like to be working through those and then taking those KPRs and bringing them down to each person in the business. So that they've got things to focus on that all reflect up towards what I'm looking for.
Gen George: Yep.
Justin Hales: And then, you know at the end of that month having a meeting and saying well how did we go in terms of the goals. And if we didn't hit them or other things that, well what do we need to do next time?
Gen George: What can be done better?
Justin Hales: Yeah, so I really like having it because I like being able to count.
Gen George: And something we ask everybody is if you could have a superpower what would it be?
Justin Hales: That's a good question.
Gen George: And it doesn't have to be start up related, you know.
Justin Hales: I think at the moment, teleportation. [crosstalk 00:01:03]
Gen George: Ah, we do get a lot of that!
Justin Hales: Yeah so, if I could go from here to Newcastle instantly.
Gen George: Are you saying you're not enjoying the 24-25 hour flight?
Justin Hales: I don't.
Gen George: And if any startup can help you with something, you know, what can that be?
Justin Hales: Ah well, we're about to raise some capital.
Gen George: Great.
Justin Hales: If anyone's got any connections with anyone whose involved in marketplaces or travel, tourism, commerce stuff.
Gen George: Yeah.
Justin Hales: Yeah, I'd like to have a chat with them.
Gen George: Fantastic, and how can others reach out to you if they need some help or advice? Justin@camplify.com.au.co.uk.
Justin Hales: Linkedin, [crosstalk 00:01:44] twitter, whatever. Well, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it. And, I'll see you all next time. Promise not to like jump out into three sections.