Summer camp has gone high-tech since Alan Sherman presented a rained-in adolescent's whining letter to his long-suffering parents in the '60s novelty hit Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh. These days, while most campers still write home with old-fashioned ink and paper, their parents have it easy. If their child is at one of the 1,200-plus camps served by Bunk1.com, they need do no more than call up the Web site of Junior's home away from home and scan the daily uploads of snapshots that capture what their pride and joy has been up to. They can e-mail reminders about the importance of oral hygiene, pass on news from home, and generally soothe the anguish of separation anxiety.
For that comfort, they can thank 32-year-old entrepreneur Ari Ackerman, a Kellogg graduate who turned an MBA class assignment into a business plan, then a pitch, and now, a booming online outfit. "I was a huge camper," Ackerman recalled last week, "and my initial business dream was to open my own camp." Instead, he recognized that the Web had opened a potentially lucrative niche. So he turned down the offer of a job in Corporate America, and hit the road to sell his vision. It was a gamble, but as Ackerman explains, one that paid off. "Over the last three years," said New York City-based Ackerman, "we've doubled revenues every year."
Ackerman spoke recently with BusinessWeek Online Small Business Editor Roger Franklin about spoting opportunities, avoiding the mistakes that doomed so many other dot-coms, and what it's like to post 20,000 pictures a day of kids having fun.
Q: So how does Bunk1.com work?
A:Basically, on member camps' Web sites, there are links that say, "Click here for camp photos and camper e-mail." Via that link, parents are able to log in and see the pictures and send e-mail to their kids.
Q: How did you come up with this idea?
A:I was in graduate school at Kellogg, Northwestern's Business School, and I had a venture-capital class, where I wrote a business plan. You see, I loved my own experience at summer camp and I kind of enjoy using technology and working in technology arenas. So the Bunk1 idea was a nice combination of the things that I really enjoy.
So I wrote the business plan and presented it to some venture capitalists from Chicago, who liked it. [The proposal] won this award at Kellogg. And then, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to pursue the idea after I graduated. I actually had a job opportunity at Procter & Gamble that I deferred for a year to see if I had something camp owners would take to.
Q: And they were immediately receptive?
A:I thought they would be, but who can be sure? The week after I graduated, I got into my car, drove around the country, and started meeting camp owners and saying, "Hi, I'm Ari, and I have this concept. What do you think?"
Initially, I'd call before showing up, but I found they were more hesitant to meet with that approach. So I just started turning up at camps, and they were much more willing to listen once they saw me in person and realized I was a normal guy. I started in Chicago, drove all around the Midwest, all through the Southwest, and ended up in Los Angeles, and then drove back across the country. I guess I logged at least 5,000 miles.
Q: That's one heck of a road trip.
A:It was a lot of time behind the wheel, but I knew I was starting a real business, so it was fun.
Q: That covers the pitch to the summer camp owners. Did investors need persuading?
A:Not really. Initially, I had just a little bit of money, but then I started getting some from some of the camp owners themselves, who saw the potential and jumped on board pretty early. But to be honest, I didn't take that much money, a little over $1 million.
Remember, this was at the height of the dot-com craze, when that amount was next to nothing, just small change. And thank God we did start out that way. We had a competitor from Texas who, by his own account, spent $9 million dollars on a business that was only around for 16 months.
Q: So what did you do right that he got wrong?
A:Well, we always focused on building technology that worked. We weren't really into the glitz and glam, even during the Internet boom.
Q: Were you tempted to chase megabuck financing?
A:Well, I was offered money and the chance to go that route. But my reaction was always, "Why should I give up a percentage of my company?" I knew I was signing up camp owners pretty effectively, and that I was building a great brand name in the camp industry. Word-of-mouth was great. So my choice was pretty clear: I'd build a business slow and steady -- and make a profit quicker. Q: If a camp wanted to start something like this on its own, what sort of investment would be involved?A: It would be basically impossible to do what we do, economically and practically. I mean, they can build simple photo areas where parents can come and see pictures. But we have so many features that make us unique. First of all, we're password protected, so we're compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. And also, it's a safe environment for camps to show their pictures.
And we do all the customer-service things, in terms of questions that parents have.... Also, you can buy the pictures on T-shirts, mugs, and all kinds of fun stuff -- there's just all kind of things you can do with our photo gallery that a one-off site couldn't provide.
Bunk1 is at, like, 3.0 already. This is basically our fourth summer providing pictures and e-mails. So it's a pretty advanced system, and you'll see even more improvements soon. In the e-mails that parents send to their children this year, they can include pictures. That's kind of a fun little extra we've added.
Q: And it's a deliberate policy that the child has to reply to e-mails via snail mail?
A:Absolutely deliberate. I don't want to disrupt what I call the integrity of the camping experience. I don't want the kids sitting on computers writing back. I want them writing letters, and I want them out in the fields with their buddies, playing ball, and really experiencing what camp should be all about.
Q: Say I own a camp, am I paying you to be part of Bunk1?
A:In some cases, the parents pay, but that's not always the case. The camps have the choice whether to pay us directly or to allow the parents to pay a fee to log in, check out all the stuff, and send their e-mails.
Q: What do parents think?
A:We get probably about 330 to 400 e-mails a day -- 75% along the lines of "Thank you so much for keeping me in touch with my child." We have a search engine where you can find a camp for your child. We have a staffing service where counselors can find jobs, and where camp directors can find those counselors.
So yeah, we try to kind of maintain a great camp Web site throughout the year, like a one-stop Internet shop for all camping needs. The B2B market isn't as exciting as some of the other things we do, but it's important all the same. For example, we have an area where, if a camp owner wants to sell his camp, we can find prospective buyers. And we have companies that advertise to camp owners.
Q: And recruiting –- if some kid wants a summer job as a counselor, he sends a resume to you?
A:What happens is, we have an online form that he or she fills out, and it's put in the Bunk One database for staffing services, and then camp owners pay a fee to log in and to see those resumes.
Q: Where are you looking to go from here?
A:Well, we're doing all kinds of different brand extensions. I started a Web site called CampAlumni.com that allows former campers to reunite, similar to what Classmates.com does.
A: What do kids think of your site?
Q:They absolutely love it. At the beginning, if I had any fears at all, it was the worry that kids wouldn't want their parents to see pictures and know what was going on away from home. But it turned out to be the exact opposite: I've never heard -- knock on wood -- a single complaint from a kid, or from a parent who said his kid looked unhappy in a picture. And bear in mind that we have between 15,000 and 20,000 pictures a day, sometime more.
I rent about 20 extra servers for the summer to host all the pictures that we have. You can imagine what goes on here over the summer -- complete insanity, which is great! Parents will log on not just every day, but four or five times a day. We're like Yahoo! during the summer -- and I'm not kidding