On The Dyrt road: Co-founders of camping app gain valuable startup insight while living remote vanlife

The Dyrt co-founders Sarah Smith and Kevin Long work from the back of their van during a months-long road trip that has them working remotely on their Portland-based startup. (The Dyrt Photo)

Caught up in the grind of running their startup for the past several years, Sarah Smith and Kevin Long lost sight of the very thing they set out to help people do: go camping. The husband and wife co-founders of Portland-based The Dyrt are changing that by taking remote work truly remote.

Smith and Long have set out on a months-long, cross-country road trip in their van, working in campgrounds and RV parks and desolate locations along the way to experience the community of users that they serve and better understand and tweak the product that has become the No. 1 camping app on the App Store and Google Play.

“The Dyrt is all about making it easier for people to go find campgrounds,” Long said during a video call with Mekhato as he and Smith settled in Durango, Colo., for a week. “Our whole thought was, ‘Let’s go actually live this as founders after over half a decade of building this platform and this community; let’s go live this for the next six months and let’s make the product be the thing that we use to find our experiences.’”

Meeting a variety of different users — back country backpackers, RVers, tent campers, vanlifers and more — Smith and Long are learning how people use The Dyrt, what they like about it, how they find campgrounds and more.

“It’s really fun to be on the ground and getting this feedback,” Long said.

The trip comes after more than a year in which working from home or remotely has become the new normal for many, especially in the tech industry. The Dyrt’s own policy is that employees can work from anywhere, as long as they have a strong enough signal to do a video call.

While full immersion into building the startup has taken time away from camping, Long and Smith have managed to build a successful little company, and with more people traveling closer to home during the pandemic, The Dyrt is growing like crazy.

The startup now employs 40 people, and the app lists 40,000 campgrounds and dispersed camping spots. That huge database includes 2.5 million user-submitted pictures, videos, reviews and tips. It took The Dyrt five years to get to more than a million pieces of that content and in the last 11 months they added 1.4 million more.

The Dyrt PRO app unlocks additional features and discounts for $36 a year. (The Dyrt Images)

The company is also building out a cell coverage feature for campgrounds across the U.S. that has already received input from 34,000 users who have voluntarily shared their service provider and strength of coverage through the app. Long called it a more accurate collection of data than what the carriers can report about their over coverage areas.

“The trajectory is just exploding,” Long said. “We’ve gotten very good at basically finding those people who love to review. It’s pretty awesome.”

The Dyrt has raised $12 million to date while big players in the camping vertical such as Hipcamp, Outdoorsy and RVShare have raised over $100 million.

“We are a very capital efficient, scrappy startup compared to other players in the space that have just been raising ridiculous amounts of money,” Long said.

Kevin Long behind the wheel of The Dyrt van. (The Dyrt Photo)

Smith and Long didn’t share how many users they’ve attracted, but Long did say they’re selling a $36 Dyrt PRO membership every two minutes. That yearly package unlocks additional features and discounts within the app such as trip planning, downloadable maps to make WiFi connectivity unnecessary, and map overlays for camping on dispersed land such as national forest or Bureau of Land Management areas. And The Dyrt partners with more than a thousand campgrounds across the U.S. at which PRO subscribers get a 40% discount.

Using the product and talking to people about it on the road has provided invaluable insight on the road for Smith and Long. Smith, for example, logged a tech ticket for the design team after a review for a dispersed site was generating a pop-up with questions not related to dispersed camping.

“The fact that I could experience it myself and say, ‘This would make it a lot better,’ is important,” she said.

“We do user interviews all the time. Our design and UX team is interviewing people all the time,” Long added. “That cannot replace the founders taking the product and going out and using it for their real existence.”

Sarah Smith, Kevin Long and their dog, Brandy. (The Dyrt Photo)

With two little work areas in the van and their dog Brandy snuggled at their feet, Smith and Long say they’re having fun living the much-celebrated “vanlife” for the first time. But it’s not all as dreamy as some founders, CEOs and other remote workers would have you believe in photographs on social media that depict more play than work.

“It looks like a really great Instagram moment, right?” Long said. “Here’s the hard thing: we’re running a super fast-paced startup that’s growing at a phenomenal rate and I’m on a computer for 10 hours a day, six days a week. We are going to some places, and I’m leaving and I’m like, ‘That didn’t count as visiting that place. I literally sat in this van on this computer.’”

He said it’s important to remember that the demands in your personal life and work that you have at home will be the same demands on the road.

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“No one cares if you have some problem with internet connection, that’s your problem,” Long said. “When I’m at home, I wake up and I’m good to go. When I’m rolling into a new town, Sarah and I have to research cell service, we have to have water for the week, electricity, battery power. And we need to get to places a day early just to test it and run Zoom calls with people to make sure I’m good to go. And if it doesn’t work, we gotta be ready to pack up and go drive four more hours and find a new spot.”

Knowing how each person functions as a spouse and as a co-founder helps. They’ve learned over the past month, for instance, that one person at a time in the van’s kitchen is a good rule. And the nicer summer weather allows them to get apart, outside the van.

“We’ve already been through the ringer for seven years at The Dyrt. So we kind of already sorted it,” Long said of the couple’s relationship working together. “If this was the beginning of a startup world, I would suggest having a house, then once you sort all that, then go crunch it down into a 19-foot van as step two of the process.”

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