Andrew: Hey, they’re freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixer G, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses.
I’m so excited about this interview that I think I overwhelm Sarah Dusik my guest today. Um, here’s the thing. What Sarah created that I’ve watched from a distance is this company called Under Canvas and. They put up these gorgeous, beautiful tents near national parks that let you be part of nature. But at the same time, if you’re like me and you love nature, but you’re also a little bit afraid of it, they give you some distance from it, meaning, You don’t have to go and dig a hole before going to the bathroom.
They have full flushing toilets. You don’t have to go for days without showering. They have real mean, showers with warm water and, and that are comfortable. You get all those amenities, but at the same time, you’re not in a hotel room that’s adjacent to, I don’t know, a parking lot. And somewhere down the road from the national, uh, national park, you’re out in nature.
And to me, that is beautiful for a couple of reason. The part of me that loves nature, loves that I could be there and feel connected to nature and disconnected from my everyday life. The part of me that loves business thinks what a, an amazing model. She doesn’t have to put up hotel rooms, she puts up these tents and she could buy land, which is a little bit away from National Park, so it’s not as expensive as it would be if it was.
I like that you’re nodding as I’m saying this, Sarah, because when I get into the Commerce of beauty, people sometimes feel turned off. But I like that you marry the two of them with, uh, under canvas and you sold the business. And today you are running Enigma Ventures, which is a venture firm that invests in women in Africa.
I invited her here to talk about how she built this business, and I could do it thanks to two phenomenal, uh, companies. The first, if you need a developer, Go to lemon lemon.io/mixergy. And the second, If you’re at all curious about how to set up a decentralized, autonomous organization, I want you to know I’m creating a podcast with origami that you should listen and see how these token based communities, not always token based, can work.
Anyway, go to join origami.com/blog to see that podcast first. Sarah, good to have you here.
Sarah: Thank you so much. Really great to be here. Excited to be here.
Andrew: Sarah, I read this old Forbes article with you where you said that the business could do a hundred million a year and that it could be worth $500 million. You sold it. How close to those goals did you get where? What was the number?
Sarah: Pretty darn close.
Sarah: we sold, we sold in 2018, for over a hundred million in 2018, and the company’s worth a lot more than that.
Andrew: They have grown it since you, beau and, and also frankly, the whole idea of camping and glamping is so big that you have the founder of Airbnb saying, Please put this type of thing on our platform. Right.
Sarah: Correct. Yes. Uh, yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean, I, I, I mean, We were fortunate enough to have this idea, um, a decade ago, uh, more than a decade ago. And, um, at the time, the glamping industry did not exist. The whole idea of ecotourism was not very well developed. Um, the idea of staying in a tent that was a hotel.
Not happening in the us. we were very fortunate to be the front runners of this idea, um, and to be helping people think about bridging the divide between experiencing the outdoors, but yet doing it in, uh, relative comfort and ease.
Sarah: that we would be a bridge, we could be a bridge between the outdoors and, you know, the average, the average person.
Andrew: The first place that you located was where,
Sarah: Uh, we opened our first national park camp in Yellowstone in.
Andrew: And this was a lease to own deal. Am I right about that?
Sarah: It was, Yeah, that’s exactly right. Yeah. And at the time, we had no idea whatsoever that anyone would want to pay any kind of money for sleeping in a tent because it was brand new, right? I mean, people had their own tents and would go camping. Um, but the idea of charging money for people to sleep in a tent that you’ve put up for them was a completely.
You know, crazy idea at the time
Andrew: And so how did you know that this was a good idea? Where did it come from?
Sarah: I didn’t
Andrew: So why do it?
Sarah: Other than the fact what happened and why under Canvas came into being was I fell in love with Africa 20 odd years ago. Um, and I came to work in Africa, um, as an NGO worker in my early twenties. I fell in love with the continent. I fell in love with the safari experience because like you, I, I am not a crazy, you know, adventure.
I am an outdoorsy person, but I don’t consider myself brave in the outdoors. I need some, I need some support around me, Um, and. The safari experience in Africa does just that. It allows you to be out on in amazing, incredible places, but yet you are so well taken care of and you’ve got an amazing, comfortable bed and beautiful furnishings and incredible showers and baths and you know, it’s just lux.
It was amazing. And, um, I, I was lucky enough to marry an amazing Montana man, and when I arrived in Montana with, Um, I, I could see the connection between Africa and Montana and big wide open spaces and amazing wildlife and big skies and sunsets and all the rest of it. And he, he’s a great outdoors guy and I was nut.
And so the idea of trying to build our own bridge for our. Was where we started, and then this idea of, gosh, we could recreate the Safari experience in Montana and see if anyone would like it. So that’s where the idea came from.
Andrew: Wife and I did that. And by the way, you’ve got something that’s putting alerts up in the background with that ding. If you can find a way to turn it off or go on do not disturb, I think it would help the, My wife and I did one of these African safaris and I went into it thinking this is gonna be a curated, overly manicured experience.
It is not. I mean, they really want the land to be preserved, the animals to live as they are. Human protection and they’ll take you on a Jeep for a drive around. And then when you’re done driving around, you go into what is kind of a glamping tent, because that’s what they set up over there. And it’s, it’s a beautiful experience.
And so you said, I wanna bring that to the world. Outside of South Africa was the first iteration of this called sage safari’s. Like an upscale safari style bird hunting experie.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s right. That was, that was the first iteration of Under Canvas. Um, and so we started with four tens on my, um, my husband’s family’s farm and ranch. Um, and. We started with this concept of could we create the recreate this luxurious idea of being out on the prairie in Montana. And what we discovered was that people loved our, loved our tents.
People absolutely fell in love with this idea of staying in these beautiful tents.
Andrew: Can you
Sarah: they didn’t fall in love with, well, they didn’t fall in love with coming to stay on the pre Montana
Andrew: Oh, they did not. Why not?
Sarah: Oh, it’s too remote. It was too far. I mean, really serious, hardcore, middle of nowhere. Um, beautiful. Um, but that, that business, as much as we loved it, um, was just the precursor to doing something else with, with tents.
Andrew: So the tent that he set up, he, from what I understand, designed the early tents himself, right?
Sarah: Yeah. All of our, all of under canvas tents were, were designed by my husband. Yes, that’s.
Andrew: You know what, Sarah, I’ve tried to buy. I’ve got five acres, not, not nearly as much as your husband’s family has. I have five acres here in Austin. There’s a spot that’s just completely secluded and is beautiful that I would like to go and set up. I thought about getting a tent as beautiful as yours. All I could find are Yts, and YT is a whole other type of experience.
It doesn’t have the same luxury that you’re talking about. What did he, how did he design the first ones? What did they look like? How did they.
Sarah: Um, so we always call them safari tents. So they’re, they’re effectively wall tents. Um, um, but you know, you put a deck under them. Um, they have, you put some beautiful furniture in them. They have a, our tents all have an suite bathroom in them. So you’ve got your bathroom and your bedroom
Andrew: But he built his own bathroom into the first four tents that you set up. He did.
Sarah: Yes, yes. Yes. He’s just that clever, what can I say,
Andrew: But it wasn’t one of these like, uh, bucket type of toilets. It was a flushing
Sarah: Oh no, no. Flushing, toilet. Um, full, full shower. Everything. The whole nine yards.
Andrew: Wow. We, Okay, so he set this up. You had people come in, how, from where?
Sarah: We, we did what everybody does, and you post and you put things online and you see what happens. Um, and you start to see what interest you get from, from people who are visiting your site and finding
Andrew: where? Where did you, Where did you get people to come to your site? Did you buy Google ads? Did you I don’t think that
Sarah: We did very little advertising. We did very little advertising under Canvas. Still does very little advertising. Um, we effectively levered our own Facebook page and built a website, um, and started, um, Getting people talking about us. That was, that was my strategy. Could we get people to talk about the tents and could we get people to talk about the experience and, uh, and fall in love with it as much as we.
Andrew: Okay. And so you saw they didn’t really like the Montana part. They liked living in the tents. You seemed to enjoy hosting. You then went and you rented space. How much space did you rent for the next,
Sarah: Very little. We rented about 10 acres initially, so very little. Um, and eventually bought the ranch that we, um, that we rented land on originally. Um, but over a period of time. So that was quite an exciting day when that happened.
Andrew: And this time when you rented space away from Montana, you put the tents up, what was nearby and what was the experience like on your property?
Sarah: So we rent, we, we were still in Montana, but we just moved our. Tiny, tiny operations and, and created a larger operation down in West Yellowstone in Montana. Um, and we created, you know, there’s a, there’s a rest. There was a restaurant, there was a communal tent, there was fire pits. People just sit outside of beautiful flowing river, you know, the river literally running through it.
Um, beautiful mountain vista, so totally spectacular property.
Andrew: And so were people coming because they wanted to go for hikes or just spend time on your property?
Sarah: I think people were coming to stay with us because they were visiting the parks and, and, you know, largely still today, the, the parks are the major attraction and we provide, you know, an enhanced experience of, of visiting a national park or, or a monument.
Andrew: How much money did it cost you to get that first setup? I.
Sarah: Oh, I can’t remember. . I have no idea.
Andrew: that you borrowed $40,000 from friends and family, and that’s where, that’s how you got started.
Sarah: that’s how we started. Yeah. That, that we, we, that was, that was the initial capital that we put into under Canvas and got going. So that was, that was all we had. So we had tried to start another business in the UK before we, we started. A sage safari effectively, and, um, the great financial crash rolled around in 2007 and 2008, completely wiped us out.
We lost pretty much everything we had, so we had one child at that point in time. Her six month old baby and no jobs and no income, and we’d lost everything in our previous business. And my husband, the man that. Amazing man that he is said, Let’s go start again , and let’s go to Montana and see what we can figure out.
Um, and that was what we did. And we borrowed $40,000 to, to create the sage Safari Safari experience. Um, and we got going again and we lived off food stamps and, uh, I mean air, I mean literally
Andrew: Sarah, you are on food stamps. As you were building as, as you were building stage safari, which became under canvas.
Sarah: Yes, we had absolutely zero, nada, nothing. I mean, and I remember going to try and claim, uh, free child healthcare for my, my, my six month old and being told that I didn’t qualify. Because my in-laws had given us a car. And I remember thinking, How poor do you have to be
Sarah: I’m being at the bottom of the pile right now, and this is our situation.
Feels pretty, pretty tenuous and I’m not qualifying for. Free child healthcare. And, uh, it was, it was a scary time. It was a really, really scary, difficult time. And, and so when I meet entrepreneurs today, um, as you said, I, I run a venture firm, so we’re focused on investing in, in female entrepreneurs. You know, I, I can relate to the.
Horrible, terrible, difficult times. It is when you start filming from scratch and you give up your day job and, um, you’ve, you know, you’re trying to make money and you’re not making money, and the, it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard.
Andrew: I wonder why, why you continued. Why didn’t you say, Look, we’re gonna go and get jobs. We’re gonna go and, and figure things out, and then come back.
Sarah: everyone said we should do. Everyone said to us, including our families, Please, please just go get jobs,
Andrew: And you didn’t because.
Sarah: Um, we didn’t because. Um, I think we were thinking we’re trying to build a better life for ourselves, and we’re trying to build the life that we want. We’re trying to live true to our values, true to who we believe we are, and we’re, we’re trying to do something that’s not been done before. And when you have something that like burns a hole in you.
There is nothing you can do, but do it right. Whatever it costs you, however hard it is, when something’s in you, you just gotta try and go make that happen. And that is why we did not go and get jobs.
Andrew: What was that that was in you? So I’m looking at your career development. If I look at LinkedIn, it’s just showing two different positions. It was under Canvas and now Enigma Ventures. But in my research I saw that you were relief workers. I think for eight years, Sarah, you were a relief worker before you got burned out on it.
Then you created this property development company, which had to lay off all 10 people back when the crash happened in 2008, and then stayed safari. What, what’s the through line? What’s the thing that made you say, I am Sarah and I’m not adjusting it by taking a job, by giving up on my, my, my beliefs.
What’s the thing that you believed in that strongly
Sarah: I think at the core of my being, I’m a pioneer and both my husband and I are actually, and we love going where no one has gone before. Um, and. He’s, he’s, he’s the much stronger inventor than I am, the, the creator than I am. But I think just this sense of, um, both passionate about travel, both, both passionate about making a difference and feeling like we’re contributing, uh, to making the world better.
Um, and feeling like, um, we were on a mission. On a mission, um, and driven. To do something not done before and driven to, to feel like we were contributing, um, towards building our world.
Andrew: And when you came up with Sage Safari, did you two sit down and say, Okay, what’s our next idea? Property development didn’t work out. What do we see? And then throw up a few ideas. And this was you did, What are some of the ideas that you threw up that you decided we’re not going to pursue?
Sarah: I think that was the only idea we really came up with, to be honest.
Andrew: But it was through an attempt to come up with good ideas.
It was sitting down and saying, What do we start? What’s the next big idea? And then this came back to you.
Sarah: Yeah, and I, I think, I think that the nebulous of the idea was also thinking about, alright, how do we own a living for ourselves? What does that look like? Um, how do we start, how do we start small and try and make something happen? And I, and you know, often entrepreneurs are always thinking about making something big happen, uh, which is great.
You have to think big. Um, but I think we often sometimes also forget that we’ve gotta start small to make something big happen. There’s no making something big without starting small. Um, and that was really the nebulous of just, let’s get going and see what.
Andrew: All right. I wanna tell you about my first sponsor. Um, Sarah, do you know much about dow’s decentralized autonomous organizations?
Sarah: I do not.
Andrew: You do not. Okay. Here’s how they work. They’re basically these organizations where the people who are part of the community own it and through tokens often, uh, get to make decisions.
They vote and they decide, and they, and they carry out. I’m super curious about this. I launched a new podcast to help me understand this. It’s through origami and, and origami creates these dows. And I just wanna tell you, Sarah, about one of the people that I interviewed. It’s this guy who was working at Bankless, which is a publishing company.
They were doing well, about a million dollars a year. Everything was good as they were writing about crypto because crypto, uh, was growing. And then they said, Let’s try a Dow. And what the Dow initially started to do, Also contribute, uh, to this crypto movement by writing about it. They created tokens. They created this community.
The people who had tokens got to vote, and of course they voted it first on creating more content sites, and that worked out well. Then they said, Hey, you know what? I know we were empowered to just create content sites and we’re doing them. Why don’t we also vote to see if there’s any in. Any interest in creating a consulting company?
So this Dow created a consulting company to help companies go into crypto, and then they voted on doing this and that, and they just kept growing and growing and we’re talking about in about a year. Bankless Dow. The Dow that was owned by the community of readers and listeners and fans of this publishing company is now bigger than the original publishing company, and it is extended way beyond what the publishing company could do.
This is one of several interviews that I have done with people. who are building Dows, and I’m doing it just to explore this new space, just like I did in the early days of startups, when there was this idea that, you know what, a startup could actually go up against a big company. And it seemed ridiculous.
And people said, Your product not a, I mean your feature, not a company. And these features like Dropbox, like others, ended up being bigger than the companies
Sarah: being huge.
Andrew: be a feature of. That’s what it’s about. I’m not here to sell you anything, I’m just here to tell you if you’re interested.
Listen to these stories, and I make them as interesting as the, the stories here on this podcast. And I just realize I should create a, a better url. And so I’m gonna create it right now and then we’ll build it before, uh, this podcast episode launch. It’s gonna be on join origami.com/podcast. Join origami.com/podcast.
Okay. The first thing worked for. Again, it was just you doing Facebook and getting the word out. At what point did you say, you know, it’s time to go build a second one? Oh, actually, no, I’m sorry. Before we get to the second one, here’s the thing that, that I heard helped you grow. Somebody reached out to you and said that there is a conference or some big event, and can you host them?
Am I right? And you said yes. Tell me about what was this event?
Sarah: Yeah, so that was the leap actually for us between Sage Safari and Under Canvas. Um, and Under Canvas would never have happened without this big amazing event. And we got a phone call. And you know, I often say that, you know, entrepreneurship is a lot of grit. A lot of skill and a bit of luck, and we leveraged our, our lucky moment in that we got a phone call from folks who saw our amazing tents and said, We want your tents and we want your tents at a music festival in New York.
Can you bring 150 tents? Now we had four tents, Um, and this was our moment to say, No, no, we, we don’t have 150 tents or to say, I’ll figure that out and I’ll bring 150 tents. And that was what we did. And we said yes to something that did not yet exist and figured out how to get that done to, to win a big order, um, to put up tents for a music festival in upstate New York, in the Hamptons in New York.
Andrew: How did you do this? These aren’t inexpensive tents. I’ll be honest with you, Sarah. Uh, I looked up what it would cost to get something that’s on the order of what you’ve done. The cheapest I could find is $5,000. It doesn’t look near. As beautiful as yours. So to get 150 of them, it’s not inexpensive and it’s also not easy.
How did you do
Sarah: moment. No. So I had to convince all our suppliers that they could wait to get paid until the, until we got paid. So it was, we were totally on a knife edge, and if we had not got paid, uh, there, we, we would’ve been. In a really tricky situation for sure. So it was definitely risky. Um, and definitely one of those moments that you’re, you know, you’re banking on making sure that someone comes through for you.
Cause otherwise you’re even more in a hole than before you started . Um, but we never made any money off that event. But, but what happened with that event was, you know, the, the folks who hired us effectively paid the cost for us to acquire a lot of tents.
Andrew: Oh, so they covered the cost of the tents. Y you didn’t have to, I I thought you were even losing money on that. They paid for the
Sarah: we may have lost a little bit of money, but, but you know, I mean, basic, we basically kind of broke even in a roundabout kind of way.
Andrew: And was this on their property? The property that they had for their event? It was. Okay. So now what you got out of it was a vision for how you can go bigger and 150 tents.
Sarah: We ended up with 150 tens. Yes. Which, which then could have connected us with the possibility of A, doing something bigger and b then, um, thinking about where are we gonna put 150 tens
Sarah: what might we do with, with more tents? Um, and that was when, that was the bridge for us between sage safari and under Canvas and creating tinted hotels around national parks.
Andrew: Okay, so then you had to start looking around for another property. My understanding was at that point, did you have one child?
Sarah: I had two by the time we, um, opened Yellowstone under Canvas. Uh, we had two children who were three and, um, six months old.
Andrew: And so you were driving around looking for locations. When I imagined something like this, I was in San Francisco saying, You know what, San Francisco’s incredibly expensive. A really tiny house costs 2 million right on our block. And then if you go down an hour, which is not a bad drive on the weekend.
You can buy for $400,000, a good three to four acres, which is a good amount of property in the Bay Area. I said, Okay, that’s gonna be fairly easy. I just go buy it. And then I put up tents. Turns out there are a lot of restrictions. Turns
Sarah: Oh, huge amount of restrictions.
Andrew: Right. And so for you
Sarah: thinks it’s super easy to throw tents up and put them in a field
Andrew: I thought that too.
So tell me about what some of the challenges were of finding the location.
Sarah: I mean, you’ve got all sorts of regulations from zoning to planning, to building restrictions, to, um, covenants on land, to, um, you know, access erode issues, sewer issues, water issues. I mean, they’re endless. Um, there are a whole lot of stars that have to align for a site to be able to be developed into an under canvas.
Andrew: And so when you did this, how long did it take you to find the right spot?
Sarah: Um, we started at the, it was pretty crazy actually because at the end of that first year, which pretty much almost killed us, um, we did realize and did start to think, I think we could do more of this. And I remember talking about it to a member of staff at the time. And he thought I was crazy
Andrew: Yeah, it.
Sarah: He said, Cuz you know, we were not the polished professional organization under canvases today.
And it was a whole lot more rough around the edges. Um, and I remember saying to him, Yeah, we’ll, we’ll figure that out and we’ll open more. And he thought we were. Definitely biting off more than we could chew, and we definitely were biting off more than we could chew. Um, but we just had this belief and this vision that under Canvas could become, um, could become what’s become today.
Um, and that could be, um, under Canvas locations all across the country.
Andrew: Can you gimme just a sense of what, like a, I think some of the places you leased were, were 200 acres, right? Maybe even the first place that you got was 200. What is something like that cost?
Sarah: I, I honestly don’t remember what we’ve, we’ve, we’ve paid for land and we have to remember, it was a decade ago. Most of it was over a decade ago. Um, but um, obviously some land depending on where it is more expensive and some land, um, relatively inexpensive and some land
Andrew: on your credit cards. You got over a hundred thousand dollars in credit card debt. Right?
Sarah: In the first year of, of, of Yellowstone under canvas.
Yes. That’s how we managed to open under canvas in Yellowstone. With credit cards? Yes.
Andrew: Wow. No sleepless nights over it because by then you figured out the model. It was, You did.
Sarah: Oh. Constantly sleepers nights for almost a decade.
Andrew: Wow. Really?
Andrew: How do you tolerate the sleepless nights? I always think, okay, there’s going to be a minute where my sleepless nights will be over, and truthfully, they come in minutes, sometimes months, and then you’re right back because there’s something, even something as small as I said to someone, I was gonna deliver this and I can’t, and now I, I have to figure it out in the middle of the night, even though I can’t figure it out in the middle of the night. What do you do to cope?
Sarah: Um, Great question. I don’t know that I cope brilliantly. Well, I will say that out loud. What I, what I will say though is cuz people often, and even now having sold the company, um, folks will definitely say to me, why. Why would you not take the easy route now? Why would you not go sit, sip pina coladas and sit on a beach and, you know, enjoy the rest of your life?
Um, and the easy answer to that question is why. You know, in terms of why take on more risk, why keep making big bets, um, is really a sense of, um, I can only describe it. A sense of fulfillment by pushing yourself to do something that you believe you can do. And as I said at the beginning of the interview, when you’ve got a dream or a passion inside of you, there is nothing that satisfies you, like trying to make that happen.
And, and so that’s why we continue to make. Big bets and take risks, um, because we still have dreams and ambitions and desires of, of things we’d love to see make happen. So, um, that’s what drives there, I think.
Andrew: Was the model, once you figured it out, was it Now we just repeat, get more locations, put them up on the website, talk more about how we’ve done it, make sure that people see it. Was it just. It just, once you figured out the model, was it just repeating and repeating it for the next say, five years?
Sarah: Not quite, um, under Canvas has probably been through four or five iterations now in terms of improving the product, improving the service, improving the food, um, really just honing. The model, um, making it a better business business model, operating it, optimizing it, um, taking better care of our staff. You know, there are so many levels, um, of, of change and improvement and you know, even if you ask the staff under Canvas who’ve been maybe with the company for five years or more, they will say an enormous amount of change has happened over a five year period.
So, I mean, building companies, big companies is really about building big teams. It’s about building systems and processes. It’s about, um, professionalizing and, you know, under startups are like babies and. Companies that become big are like grownups. And you have that whole journey in between from being a baby to being a toddler, to being an, you know, elementary student and onwards.
And so the whole process of of growing a company is really growing up in lots and lots of ways.
Andrew: and so. If we look at one of the typical locations, and I, I’ve got a screenshot here. Of all the locations that exist today, you’ve got, uh, Bryce Canyon, Acadia, Lake Powell, Mount Rushmore, Moab, et cetera. Uh, how many are there? Eight. If we take one, that’s kind of a typical one. How many tents are on there?
And then who makes food? What are the resources that are available?
Sarah: Um, so an average size camp might have 60 to 70 tents,
Andrew: 60 to 70.
Andrew: Oh wow.
Sarah: and some of the larger camps have more and some of the smaller camps have less, but probably 60 to 70 is probably. Average. Um, they have full hotel spectrum of staffing, so we have, you know, chefs, f and b managers, um, general managers, housekeeping night auditors, experience guides the whole lot.
So there’s a huge team, um, behind the scenes making everyday magical under.
Andrew: Because the guides are taking people through the property or, or
Sarah: they, they’re, they’re supporting you on property. They’re helping make plans and adventure plans for off property, um, and just being your travel, your concierge for whilst you are on property.
Andrew: And what are some of the activities on.
Sarah: Um, they, they vary, um, from location to location. Um, Yellowstone’s got some fly fishing cause we were on an amazing, beautiful river. Um, we’ve obviously got, um, guided tours that we take people on into the parks. We’ve got s’mores, we’ve got badminton, we’ve got outdoor games. We got, I mean, all sorts of stuff.
Horseback riding, I mean, stuff.
Andrew: The one thing I remember that you didn’t have, when I wanted to get together with a friend of mine for a meeting, there was no internet and it was
Sarah: No internet.
Andrew: Right? Tell me about that. Why no internet?
Sarah: Because the whole premise of going to stay at Under Canvas is that you are there to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature and the people that you are traveling with. So it’s a very intentional decision. Um, and has always been a controversial business decision because, you know, internet has almost seen as like, Human right.
You know that wherever we are, we’re supposed to have access to the internet. But one of the things I think’s really powerful about being in the outdoors is this, the ability of the outdoors to change us and to transform us. And so if we disconnect, From our normal, regular life and connect with nature and connect with space, and connect with um, people.
I remember in the early days of Under Canvas people emailing me and saying things like, We played board games with our kids in the tent at night, and we talked more to our kids in the last four days than we did like in the last year because we were all not plugged into our, our technology. So that for me is really powerful and it’s really, really healthy, um, to spend time disconnected.
Andrew: And this was intentional. I know today with starlink you can put internet in. Back then it was harder and you still, were you able to do it and you chose not to.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean our, our camps all have internet because we have to run POS systems and, you know, be able to charge credit cards and, you know, take reservations. So, um, the staff have to have internet for the business to function. So, yeah, it’s definitely possible. Um, we just never thought it was optimal, uh, and not optimal for the guest experience with what we were trying to create.
Andrew: Wow. Okay. Can you gimme the economics of like a location, just generic. I’m not looking to to do your taxes or anything, but what would a location that could hold 60 tens cost to, I guess to lease and then eventually to own, And then what does it cost to run one of these locations?
Sarah: If I told you that I would have to kill you.
Andrew: Is it really it’s proprietary information?
Andrew: It is. And it. I guess what I’m trying to understand is, are the economics better than motels? Like when you say 60 different spots, I, They are,
Sarah: Yeah. It doesn’t cost, uh, it doesn’t cost what it would cost to build a motel as to build an under campus. For sure. The economics are good. They’re
Andrew: economics are good. Why did you decide, At first what you did was you bootstrapped it, you took on debt, and you built a thing up. Eventually you sold a piece of it to, what is it, to s bj? , Um, which I don’t know, but I see them now. SJ partners, They seem like it’s like you were in the perfect, uh, the sweet spot for them to, to make an investment.
Why did you sell a piece of your business to them? Was it to get a little bit of, you know, quiet security?
Sarah: No, I didn’t sell a piece of the business to them. They invested so that we could continue to grow.
Sarah: and so they were an investor in, in the business to are an investor in the business, um, and just put capital into the, to the company to grow. And we later sold to a private, at large, much larger private equity company, um, who bought a majority share of the.
Andrew: I see. So was written up as sold a minority stake to a San Francisco investment firm for $17 million. No, it was 17 million to help grow the business. They were basically making an investment in the future of the business.
Andrew: Okay. All right. I’m curious about why you sold, but first I should say to everyone listening, if you need to hire developers, you should know you can get great developers at fantastic prices from lemon and lemon.
If you go to lemon.io/mixergy, you’ll get an even lower price. Um, go check ’em out. I love them. I even just drove around with the founder through Austin as the two of us were talking about as business. I think it’s a phenomenal business and you should at least consider them by going to. Wait, going to, uh, lemon.io/mixer, g lemon.io/mixergy.
Yeah. So why did you eventually sell?
Sarah: Um, we went out to raise more capital for the business, um, to help scale and grow. The company and, um, we ended up getting an offer that we could not turn down. So, um, had no intention of selling under Canvas. Um, but that’s typically what happens when you, when you build a great business, um, people will wanna buy it.
Um, and people often ask me about, you know, how did you, how did you prepare for an exit? And I was like, I didn’t prepare for an exit, I just built great company. So the way you built a great company and people will wanna,
Andrew: And so what happened after you sold to your life? Did things change? Did you get to finally take a breath? Did you sleep better at night?
Sarah: Um, . Well, the, the day, um, we signed the paperwork to, um, sell the majority of under Canvas. I was, it was a long, drawn out. Intense negotiation and process. And I was ready to go pop the champagne that night. Um, and I remember it was few days before Christmas, so we were all exhausted. You know, Christmas is coming ready for a big holiday and a big celebration.
Um, and both my kids had norovirus and were. We’re vomiting their socks off. Uh, and then the rest of us then spent the next two weeks vomiting our socks off . So, uh, we certainly, you know, the, the, the universe sometimes needs to keep your feet grounded with crazy moments are often, especially if you’re a parent, often also coupled with challenging, challenging parenting moments at the same time.
Andrew: And then did you eventually get to go and celebrate somehow? Pop the champagne, do
Sarah: we definitely, we definitely have done plenty to celebrate over the years. Yes, absolutely. Without
Andrew: one thing that you got to do for yourself? I, I, Is it buy a boat? No. What is it?
Sarah: No. I started a venture capital fund , so,
Andrew: was it. No fun. Celebration first and then jump back
Sarah: Well, the thing, the thing that I love to do more than anything else is travel. Um, and so, Uh, I, I love to travel, so we’ll always spend time, um, visiting and experiencing and being in crazy, wild places, and that’s the thing that I always love to do. Um, but I worked for a year post closings.
That transaction with Under Canvas, I stayed on for a year as ceo. So I, I went back to work right after the transaction happened.
Andrew: Wow. Okay. And then you said that you started a fund. Why start a fund? I, I would’ve thought you’d go and be a do-gooder somewhere considering your background.
Sarah: Um, so for me, the fund is being a do-gooder in the sense that, um, women are, women founders are drastically underfunded around the world. Um, the stats are less than 2% of all venture capital money, uh, goes to female founders. And my own journey as a female founder really just discovered it’s really hard trying to raise capital.
Um, and I really, I just knew that if I, um, I needed to get in the ring if more women were gonna get funded. And one of the things that I could do was share with others my own experiences and my journey of building a company, um, and that I potentially could mentor and help others go on the journey that I’ve been on.
And I happened to think that the companies that we build in the world, and particularly emerging markets, which is why we are in Africa, focused on Africa. SMEs are the backbone of any economy, and they are what hold a country together. They create jobs, , they create taxes that make the world go round.
Um, and actually that if we can contribute to getting more people into building businesses, you can affect your own economy and you can change a DP of a nation. Um, and we’d love to see more women. Um, Raised up, um, in big positions of power and responsibility to impact their communities. That is in nations.
So we have a really strong mission.
Andrew: women or is it also that there’s a, like, did you notice also that there was an underserved group of people if you could fund them, you could make outsized returns because everyone else is not. It is.
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I think we can do both. I think we can make out, make outsize returns and I think we can drive change, um, and impact women at the same. And I think that’s a magic formula right there. And that honestly was the, the formula for under canvas too is like, can you do good? Can you bring something good to the world and drive change?
And you know, for us under Canvas, you know, we figured out a way to develop a hotel. Um, using a 10th of the resources and, and water and, you know, waste and all those things and build sustainably and make a minimal impact on the earth. Um, and so I think business is this amazing, powerful tool. You can do great things that move the world forward.
And you can generate, um, generate income and generate wealth at the same time. And, you know, when you do those two things, we can keep the world moving forward, um, and hopefully moving forward in a better, better direction.
Andrew: Can you tell me about one of the women that you’ve invested in so far?
Sarah: Yeah. Um, we’ve made 14 investments over the last three years. Um, and bearing in mind the last three years included a big world pandemic . So we, we, uh, we didn’t stop during the pandemic and realized that businesses are gonna need capital now even more than before. Um, we’ve got some amazing women solving some really big problems.
So, um, I have one woman in Zambia. Attempting to bank the unbanked by creating a banking platform that serves some of the lowest income people in the world, creating access to credit, financial services, credit ratings, um, and trying to help them have capital to grow their own wealth by, um, investing in their small businesses.
Um, she’s amazing. I have another woman in eSport, tiny little country just right by South Africa, who is. Um, created an amazing branded chili sauce that she exports around the world, um, produced by, uh, rural, local women, um, incredible ethical, fair trade product, uh, that she’s built a great brand from. Um, and is creating an export product.
So, um, I mean, those are just two. I would, we have, I have a dozen more.
Andrew: I went through the form on your site to see if I was eligible. Frankly, I wanted to see is the form really smart or is this just a, I don’t know, just a, a lead capture thing. I wasn’t eligible. And then it said, because I’m in the us I’m a male, and I wasn’t asking, I was asking for only a hundred dollars anyway, for all those things that I filled in.
But then at the end of it, it took me to Pary. It said, Okay, you’re not, you’re not, But go to pro rey.com. Is that associated with you somehow?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Um, primary is our education arm. So primary is a for profit. Platform, Um, that health is a practical entrepreneurship school for, um, for early stage entrepreneurs. So it’s, it’s everything from how do I launch to, how do I build a valuable company to how do I scale and how do I become investor ready?
And so we’ve, we’ve put over. Over 10,000 people through, um, education, um, learning modules over the last three years, which has been really exciting because part of the trouble with raising capital is understanding what it takes to raise capital and the kind of businesses that do get funded. And if you don’t know those rules, , you can’t play that game.
And so one of the important things for us with helping women, um, be fundable is to teach women actually what it takes to get funded. And that’s the, that’s the business of primary.
Andrew: What happened when you were, I wanna close out with the early part of your career. What happened when you decided that you were going to do good in the world by doing non-profit work? By by doing relief and development work? Why didn’t that work and why did it burn you out?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I, I certainly have always been a. A save, I call it a save the world person. And I think I can contribute in making the world better. And for the longest time, I thought the only people who did good in the world were, um, people who worked for charities and non-profits. And they, you know, people who scooped up, um, those who were most vulnerable in our society.
Um, and it was a serious shock to me, um, a when I got burned out and disillusioned. Um, And the thought then occurred to me that the vehicle of a non-profit was, is not very sustainable, is not really designed for solving big problems. It’s really designed for bandaging and supporting. They’re, they play supporting roles, right?
They’re not designed for problem solving and I. Really felt a strong sense of, I think there’s gotta be a better vehicle. So it was a bit of a shock when I discovered the, the potential vehicle could be business, because business to me at that time was like the dark side and it was evil. This idea of making money.
I mean, it’s like, you know, the capitalists and they’re horrific. Um, so . So it was quite a shift, quite a mental shift for me. Um, but just realizing business really is this. There’s this powerful vehicle that, that is about innovating and problem solving. And that’s the whole essence of a business, right? A business solves a particular problem and people pay money to solve, to have that problem solved for them.
Um, and it’s therefore sustainable, um, because you create profit ideally. And so, um, that was the shift. I ended up writing a master’s thesis on that whole idea. Could business be used for good in the world? , it was before the time of impact investing and B Corpse and all, all this, you know, social entrepreneurship.
Uh, it was 20 years ago. Um, and the reality is, I, I still think today, yes it can, and yes it should. And I still think it’s maybe the best vehicle that we’ve got.
Andrew: My wife went through a similar situation. She wanted to do good in the world, and so she volunteered. And when she volunteered in the school in Micronesia, they didn’t have things like pencils. She said, Well, how could we do good if the basics aren’t even
Sarah: We don’t have the fundamentals. Yeah.
Andrew: Right. So then she, she went down a similar path to yours where she realized, well, there’s a connection between business and doing good.
And anyway, today she, she runs, um, uh, p Duties for good division. She is what is the official title, VP of Global Social Impact, I think, and similar situation, businesses have money. They have a need to do this, They have a desire to do it, and they grow their businesses by doing good in the world.
Sarah: Yeah. Wow. Fantastic.
Andrew: All right. Okay. You are at Enigma Ventures. Anyone like me should just go through the application process to see what happens when you get rejected, cuz you’re gonna get rejected. But if you’re a female entrepreneur in Africa, one to participate, go check ’em out at Enigma Ventures. And I’m grateful to the two sponsors made this interview happen.
The first, if you’re curious about Dows like I am, listen to my podcast similar to this, all about dows decentralized autonomous firstname.lastname@example.org slash podcast. And when you’re hiring, develop. Go to lemon.io/mixer g. Sarah, thanks so much for being here.
Sarah: No pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: You bet. Bye bye everyone.