Keep your vision top of mind. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and distracted as a founder. For me, it always came back to the problem I was trying to solve. I knew I wanted to make it easier to find campgrounds online. Staying true to that has always been the best course, but there often have been strong forces trying to pull us in different directions. Early on, we were under pressure to start making money so we added adventure travel to The Dyrt for a brief time such as rafting, heliskiing and guided hiking. It was too early on for us to have such a broad offering. We needed to nail the vertical of camping in the US first before we go out and win other verticals in the outdoors space.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Smith.
As founder of The Dyrt, Sarah Smith is on a mission to expand the camping community and help more people enjoy the outdoors. With over 4 million user-generated reviews and tips for US campgrounds, The Dyrt is the largest source of camping information and the Apple and Google Play App Stores’ top-ranked camping app. She has loved camping since childhood and in 2013 left a career in international education to become an entrepreneur dedicated to making camping easier for everyone.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Every weekend I would go camping with my husband Kevin, who now runs The Dyrt with me. Inevitably we would end up arguing about who was going to figure out where to camp because the process of looking for a campground online was so frustrating.
The online camping resources that existed at that time were not helpful. There was no central place to go for information, and what you could gather from the various sources out there was not very helpful. I wanted to know other people’s perspectives and see their photos, kind of like Yelp. I kept a notebook in my car where I wrote down info about campgrounds, and I kept saying “someone” should build this. Eventually I realized I was going to be that someone.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Early in my journey with The Dyrt, I applied to — and was rejected by — a pitch event where entrepreneurs would present their ideas to investors in front of an audience. I knew the person in charge of the selection committee. He told me I didn’t get selected because what I was doing at The Dyrt wasn’t interesting.
I went to the event and I remember watching the other pitches. There was no doubt in my mind that The Dyrt was just as interesting as what I was seeing on stage. I realized that I needed to do a better job of articulating my vision for The Dyrt and what it could become.
Ironically, and indicatively, the person who once said what I was doing wasn’t interesting became an investor in The Dyrt.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
As I prepared to launch The Dyrt, and created the earliest versions of it, I talked to campers every chance I got. I don’t think I met one who thought that finding campgrounds online was easy or fun. Everyone agreed there had to be a better way. Whenever I started to feel discouraged, I focused on my conviction that I was solving a problem that needed to be solved.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going so well that it’s surreal. Someone opens the app once every second, and our premium membership, The Dyrt PRO, adds a new subscription every two minutes. So that is mind-blowing. But what really struck me was going to outdoors trade shows and events this summer and seeing people spot our booth from 20 feet away and yell, “The Dyrt!” and immediately run over to meet us.
Getting to this point took a lot of patience. The Dyrt now has over 4 million campground reviews and tips, but when we started, of course, we had none, so we had to create a directory. Friends of mine would say, “Where are the reviews? I thought you were building a review site.” They had no idea how hard it is to get people to come to a website they’ve never heard of, let alone sign up and create content.
It was a slow grind at first, and the 1:9:90 rule for building an online community helped keep us focused. The idea is that 1 percent of users will create content, 9 percent of users will like or upvote content, and 90 percent of users will view content but not contribute. We focused on creating a product for that 1 percent of content creators — we still do, actually.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During the Telluride Venture Accelerator, Kevin and I were running late for one of our first investor meetings. We ran as fast as we could and arrived at the front door, dripping in sweat and out of breath. That’s when we realized that we ran four blocks around a bunch of buildings when all we had to do was about-face and walk 20 feet around the corner.
That was our first lesson that sometimes slower is faster. Don’t be in such a panic and a hurry that you are not carefully thinking through what you’re doing.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
With nearly 4 million reviews, photos and tips, The Dyrt is the largest source of user-generated campground information on the web. But it’s so much more than an archive. The Dyrt is a community of campers who want to make camping more accessible and help more people enjoy the great outdoors.
Last year, for our virtual holiday party, some of the most active members of The Dyrt community got together and created video comments to send to us. It was so moving both to see what this community means to people, and the fact that they thought to do this. I’ve never really heard of something like this. Would I ever think, “Let me find other customers of Company ABC and let’s make them a thank you video?” It was unbelievable. Several employees told me it was the best workplace holiday party they had ever been to — and they were at home, attending through a screen!
And I think part of our ability to create something that resonates so deeply with so many different people across the country comes from the fact that our growing team is 50 percent women with a wide variety of backgrounds.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Have a network of other founders to talk to. There’s so much posturing in business. Having people who understand what you’re going through and who you can be absolutely honest with is so huge. I’m part of a founder-to-founder mentoring group in Portland called Starve Ups and we would not be in business without their support..
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My husband and co-founder Kevin Long and I have such opposite skills that we make an effective leadership team. Kevin left a secure position at a publicly traded company to join me once The Dyrt started to take off. He knows how to run a tight ship and he has a brilliant mind for marketing and business fundamentals. I came to entrepreneurship from a background in education, and I have an outsider’s perspective that allows me to be really creative and empathetic in the product design and management of our team. I love trying things that no one else would try and keeping our users in mind every step of the way. Kevin recognizes the value of my approach — which is so different from his — and then uses his many skills to make it scale.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am thrilled that The Dyrt is playing a role in getting people outside more, but even more importantly, getting more people outside. The outdoors can be healing, calming and invigorating. For some people in the US, getting into nature might not have been an opportunity they’ve had. I’m proud that The Dyrt is playing a role in making it easier for anyone who wants to try camping, to do so.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Celebrate success (look back). We get so busy looking toward the next thing or ruminating on where we fell flat that we forget to take a moment to look back and see how far we’ve come from where we started. I use The Dyrt myself almost every day as Kevin and I are running the company from campgrounds. I often think back to that first tiny spark of an idea and my scrappy campground notebooks. Then I look at the product in my hand and how it’s come to life. Whatever the frustration of the day is tends to melt away with that perspective.
- Have a network of people that you can talk to. When I first started out, I felt very alone. I got so much out of joining a founder network that I wish I had done it right away. If I hadn’t gotten that peer support and mentorship when I did, I wouldn’t be running a business today.
- Have thick skin. Even if you’re in beta testing, starting a business is a fairly public exercise. You’re going to talk to a lot of people about what you’re doing, and they will have a lot of opinions about it. Feedback and crowdsourcing is important, but don’t let individual comments get to you. I still remember certain things people said that really bothered me. It seems so silly now. Remember: You’re the only one with the full 360 view of the business.
- Keep your vision top of mind. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and distracted as a founder. For me, it always came back to the problem I was trying to solve. I knew I wanted to make it easier to find campgrounds online. Staying true to that has always been the best course, but there often have been strong forces trying to pull us in different directions. Early on, we were under pressure to start making money so we added adventure travel to The Dyrt for a brief time such as rafting, heliskiing and guided hiking. It was too early on for us to have such a broad offering. We needed to nail the vertical of camping in the US first before we go out and win other verticals in the outdoors space.
- Just do something. So many people say what they want to do but never actually do anything about it. Taking that first step can be intimidating, but the trick is, it doesn’t have to be a big step. Do something — just anything — and you’re on your way. You’re not at zero anymore. For me that first step was being proactive about talking to other campers and getting a clearer picture of the problem I wanted to solve.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Kevin and I often talk about how, in the start-up world, you can have the best day ever and the worst day ever on the same day. There are so many aspects to being a founder that one part of your business can have a total breakthrough while another simultaneously devolves into a complete fiasco. On the rare days when everything is going well, we’ll say, “It’s an up day!!” knowing there’s a good chance the next one won’t be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Part of the reason The Dyrt is able to help more people, and a wider variety of people, to enjoy the great outdoors is because we’re part of a way of doing business that benefits consumers overall. The consumer subscription services (CSS) model provides an opportunity to build products and services for users instead of advertisers. The more popular a product gets, the more companies can invest in making it better. It’s much bigger than the outdoors industry, but this positive feedback loop works really well in spaces like the outdoors. Outdoors CSS companies like The Dyrt help people do the activity they’re most passionate about. That’s a powerful energy to tap into and amplify for a community.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Sarah S. on The Dyrt
- Sarah Smith on LinkedIn
- The Dyrt on LinkedIn
- The Dyrt on Twitter
- The Dyrt on Facebook
- The Dyrt on Instagram
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!