Camp Native CEO David Woodbury describes Spearfish, S.D., as a place with “the least amount of tech startup activity in the country.”
So why did he leave the booming tech ecosystem of Seattle to build his startup there?
The answer is simple. It made good financial sense. Camp Native is an online marketplace for searching and booking outdoor accommodations, like campsites and yurts. The startup drives business using a telemarketing approach, one that benefits from a larger team of workers.
Woodbury started considering locations where he could get more hiring bang for his buck. He wanted to find a place with a strong outdoor community, where Camp Native would be a good fit. Spearfish kept coming up.
He reached out to the Spearfish Office of Economic Development, which was unsurprisingly eager to have a growing tech company set up shop. The department offered up a $25,000 investment and one of its board members came on as an angel investor, participating in the startup’s seed round.
By October 2015, Camp Native was officially a Spearfish company.
“It’s really paid off,” said Woodbury. “We’ve had no turnover … we’re higher, pretty significantly higher, than the going rate of this type of work. In a market like Seattle, or really any major market, the wage that we pay would be, maybe, considered on the low end. That was really the motivating factor, to extend the resources, get more impact of the investment that we had been able to generate.”
Camp Native has raised $1.35 million to date, some of which came from the Spearfish economic office and a local angel. The company is also planning a Series A investment round.
Woodbury says the move has been beneficial in a number of ways. Employees get outdoors as much as possible. He and his wife have cut back to one car, and they bike most places. Camp Native has been able to hire more employees and rent a much bigger office space than would be possible in a metropolitan hub.
But it hasn’t all been easy. Aside from missing great Asian food, Woodbury says he and his team are under “a bit of a microscope” in the 12,000-person town.
“Within two months of moving here, I’m the keynote speaker at the Spearfish Economic Development Gala in front of 150 people who’ve lived here their whole lives … it can be a little bit intimidating when you think about from that standpoint,” he said. “When you live in a city like Seattle you can pretty easily disappear if you’d like to.”
Is a headquarters that far off the grid a disadvantage when courting investors? Woodbury doesn’t think so.
“Big investors are starting to seek out entrepreneurs who intentionally do things to decrease burn, to lower cost of operations, but obviously do it in a smart way,” he said. “I think the Camp Native model, as far as how we operate this business, is we get a lot of impact for the amount of headcount that we’ve been able to bring on. We’d probably have half the headcount if we were operating somewhere like Seattle or the Bay Area.”
Camp Native plans to use the Series A cash to grow from 14 employees to 25 to 30. Not everyone on the team will operate out of Spearfish. The company’s CTO and SFO stayed back in Seattle. Woodbury thinks it’s important to maintain a presence on the West Coast, primarily to secure engineering talent.
Before the exodus, Camp Native participated in Seattle’s 9Mile Labs startup accelerator. The young startup acquired some accolades here, including top prizes in the Microsoft Lunchbox Pitch Competition and Seattle Angel Conference.
That momentum, Woodbury says, has kept conversations with a few dozen investors going, even after the move.
Woodbury and his team want to catalyze startup activity in Spearfish. They hosted a Startup Week there and are actively engaging with the community to foster conversations about innovation.
“If you’re in Seattle, or the Bay Area, or any of the major tech startup hubs, everybody’s striving for these billion dollar valuation companies and here, or any small town around the country, if you built a $10 million tech startup company and created 50 jobs, it’s hugely impactful to that community,” said Woodbury. “Certainly we’ve got higher aspirations for Camp Native than that but, hopefully, by us doing this, we’re spurring on some innovation from other individuals in the community to start thinking, maybe, a little differently.”