Sarah Dusek – Co-Founder & CEO of Under Canvas

Episode 92

Remember the days when glamping didn't exist? My guest today, Sara Dusek, founder of Under Canvas, was one of the pioneers of bringing glamping to the U.S. Sarah started Under Canvas in 2009. Since then, Under Canvas has become the leading luxury camping and outdoor adventure hospitality company in the country. I've been on one their glamping trips, and it was awesome! There was warm yummy food, comfortable beds, and more while still visiting an amazing national park. Under Canvas has been tremendously successful and received a spot on the Inc. 5000 list in 2017. On today's show, Sarah talks about how she discovered and created a new business in an entirely new industry. She also talks about how she has grown the brand, the importance of women in entrepreneurship, the project that she has started in Africa, the challenges she's has come across (and how she overcame them), and much more.

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Kara Goldin: Hi, it’s Kara Goldin from Unstoppable, and I’m so excited to have our next guest here. Sarah Dusek a friend of mine and fellow EY entrepreneur and a part of the winning women program that I love so fondly at EY. She is the co-founder of this incredible destination travel company called Under Canvas.
And I encourage you to look it up if you have not been there or not heard of it. They have the most amazing kind of glamping experiences in all the places that you maybe have been to, or ones that you haven’t been to. I went last year and spent some time luckily when Sarah was there as well up in South Dakota. And I’m sure she can share a little bit more about all of her various locations.
But it’s basically it’s the leading U.S. adventure hospitality company offering luxury glamping, accommodation. They purposely have placed these places just minutes from iconic national park sites, which is so great. And in 2017 under her leadership, they received a spot on the coveted Inc. 5000 list, which is so awesome. And as I mentioned, she’s an EY entrepreneurial winning women. Which year was that? 20 …
Sarah Dusek: That was also 2017.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:01:38] 2017. Okay. Yeah. Wow. That was a big year for you. And they’ve done just so much in terms of setting a standard for ecological development while also redefining experiential hospitality. And I mean, just amazing, amazing, amazing.
So she also launched an incredible group venture in South Africa. It’s a private investment fund focused on investing in women led businesses in South Africa. And It’s called Enigma Ventures. We’re going to hear more about that. She’s also committed to helping grow scalable, sustainable businesses that have the power to transform communities, cities, and nations. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Dusek: [crosstalk 00:02:33] Thank you very much.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:02:34] It is very good to have you here. So, first let’s talk about Under Canvas. How did this all come about?
Sarah Dusek: Yeah. Under Canvas was born just over a decade ago now, and that feels like another lifetime ago.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:02:50] Crazy. Right? I can’t believe it was a decade ago. Wow.
Sarah Dusek: A decade ago. Yeah, 2009. So 11 years. We first had this crazy idea. I’ve always been a passionate Africa lover. And so our current work is a continuation of that love. And our Under Canvas work was a continuation of that love. But we had this idea to bring the African safari experience to the U.S..
And back in 2009. I know it’s hard to believe, but glamping was not a thing. Glamping operations did not exist at all across the US. And so we were the pioneers of bringing glamping to the US. This idea of being out in unique boutique, different types of accomodation. Being part of nature and being in a more sustainable and experiential type of lodging.
So we pioneered the safari experience in the US which was an incredible adventure. And one we had no idea would take us on the adventure that it did. But we spent a decade building Under Canvas. And Under Canvas is still growing wildly today. I mean, even in 2020 in COVID the worst year we could possibly have imagined. [inaudible 00:04:23] wanted to do all summer, they’ve wanted to be out in nature, be in our national parks and have extraordinary outdoor adventures. And we’ve been very privileged to be part of people’s adventurous this summer and every summer for the last decade.
Kara Goldin: So your first one was where in the U.S.?
Sarah Dusek: It was Yellowstone National park. So we pioneered a tiny little camp in Yellowstone. In 2012 was our first national park camp. And we had no idea at that moment in time whether people would be open to the idea of sleeping in tents in a national park. And obviously nice tents, glamorous tents. Tents with hot water and real beds and wood stoves and everything provided for you. But it was just an experiment. And what we discovered that first year, was that everybody loved it.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:05:24] It was so amazing. I had never been to Mount Rushmore and when you sent out the invitation to a whole group of us … And the bad lands. Those were on my bucket list to go and see. And so I took you up on it.
And I knew you weren’t right next to Mount Rushmore, but my view from my tent, I could see it at night. I was in not all of them have this view, but a few of them have these incredible views. So when there was light on Mount Rushmore, I mean it was just surreal. It was so awesome. And I just ran across a photo in my phone the other day of the Buffalo and the bad lands. And I mean that was just such an incredible experience.
And, and also just the people that we were with I’ve told so many people. And in fact, you’re on my Facebook page and people will be like “Oh my gosh, I discovered this incredible place in the Grand Canyon or up in Yellowstone or Zion.” And I’m like my friend has started that company. I’m so proud of her.
But again, the feeling. What I think is so interesting and really this just speaks to kind of the longevity of the brand that you built is when people use the word discover, it’s a very positive word, right? It’s like they’re very proud. When you have a negative feeling, you don’t say I discover something. Do you know what I mean? It’s just very natural to kind of roll up your time. I discovered something.
Sarah Dusek: [crosstalk 00:07:13] It’s a secret gem. Isn’t it?
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:07:14] Yeah.
Sarah Dusek: It’s like you almost don’t want anyone else to find out about. Because it’s your special thing that you just discovered. I totally agree.
Kara Goldin: But they all did and I tagged you on it. Because I mean It’s something that I’ve heard over and over again with my own brand Hint. Not only the water, but the deodorant and the sunscreen, I mean, people would be like “Oh my God, I discovered this.” And I mean, that is a kudos statement from the consumer. And they don’t even realize they’re saying it. It’s not even something that you could ask them, “Be sure to say you discovered it.” You know what I mean? It’s a very …
So anyway, I think it’s so incredible what you’ve built. So again Zion, the one I really want to go to is in the Smoky Mountains. I’m dying to go to that one. And I drove through there, actually, I don’t know. It was probably almost 10 years ago, or maybe a little more than that. I don’t think you guys were functioning out there yet. And just absolutely incredible.
And I also tell people that most of your sites have food and the food was awesome. And micro brews. You try and get as local food as possible and drinks as possible, which I think is just absolutely awesome. So the experience is great. If you guys haven’t seen it or been there definitely go up.
And some tents have bathrooms. Mine had a bathroom and a shower and a little stove. It was a little chilly at night. It was amazing. And the beds were super lovely and it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. So I’m happy that you helped me discover it, but it was definitely really great. So you built it into a multi-million dollar business. What was kind of the key to growth?
Sarah Dusek: Well, I think one of the things that we discovered early on in our journey was this idea of, we often talk about this whole idea of product market fit, right? It’s kind of this elusive idea of creating a product that the market wants.
And we felt like we stumbled into an area of travel that was really unexplored and undeveloped in the US. And we had this enormous white space and this enormous privilege in front of us to really craft a product that would fill a space that didn’t exist.
So when I think about what fueled our growth, it really was consumer demand. What we learned about travel through the last recession and the great financial crisis in 2007 and ’08. What we discovered about Americans at that time was that instead of traveling overseas much like has happened this year, they traveled to the national parks.
And America is an extraordinary place. We have some of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere in the world. And such diverse terrain, beautiful iconic places that are so different and so varied. And so we looked at our path to growth and where are the obvious places for us to go? And we had created a camp in Yellowstone. And obviously the obvious path for us was to keep being in iconic national places where people were going that were bucket-list places that were really iconic and were for us great outdoor destinations.
And so we built our brand around being in some of America’s most treasured places. A bit like you were saying. These places were discovered and how do we add another element of creating incredible experiences whilst being in them and experiencing them. So having a clear path to how we were going to grow the business, where are we going to be? Where was our kind of place? What was our product and what was our market fit?
And our product was our extraordinary tents and our market fit was putting them in great outdoor destinations. And in the US that meant national parks. So I think that created our path for growth and set us on a journey that quite frankly, we hadn’t planned on going on. But it was like we have an opportunity. So how do we take advantage of it and how do we build something that is beloved and helps create experiences like nothing else really does.
Kara Goldin: Did you feel like there was one particular audience that kind of drove the popularity initially? Who were your early adopters that came into try and really articulated that it was … I mean was it families? Was it millennials? Who did you think were the first people that kind of showed up?
Sarah Dusek: Our biggest consumer were two groups and they still are largely. And they were millennials and families. But when we designed Under Canvas and I say this to entrepreneurs all the time now is build a product. And if you’re understanding your customer, it’s so helps if you are that customer. And with your own journey with Hint. That was the same for us too with Under Canvas.
We built Under Canvas for our family. And so you have dogs, you can bring your dogs to Under Canvas because we have dogs. And we love traveling with our own dogs and taking them places and being out on adventures with them. We have children. I have two small boys, and they were really, really small when we started Under Canvas. So we understood the challenges of traveling with small children and how difficult being in hotel rooms can be with small children.
So we’ve built our product around us as a family and what worked for us and what we wanted to find in a resort for our own family. What became important about food, our own preferences, our own desires, our own ethos became the sort of the hallmark of what Under Canvas stood for and stands for.
So we very much were our own consumer and that drove. And I often think that helps you craft a product that other people will want. Obviously we considered ourselves to be a fairly average family. We understood, what an average family could afford to pay for a stay at a resort. We understood what we wanted when we stayed there. We understood our own desires and preferences and what mattered to us. And we crafted our business around those things.
And I think that really helped us appeal to A a wide audience and be a big family market.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. What happens when the dogs, I have been meaning to ask you this, when you go explore the national parks. Because I think a lot of the national parks don’t allow dogs in them, right? You have to-
Sarah Dusek: You can take your dog into a national park, but you can only go on some trails on some hikes and they have to stay on the path and they have to be on a leash.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:15:04] Got it.
Sarah Dusek: So it does vary from park to park. But what we discovered, even just being around the parks, there are so many places you can go with dogs. Outside parks, around parks, even in parks, but obviously in parks with dogs is slightly more challenging. They’re not quite free to be free.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, no, definitely. What were some of the challenges? Because your tents obviously are not always there throughout the year because of the weather. Is it tough to sort of open and close places up? I mean, did you find not only from a infrastructure, but also from hiring and building community. Did you feel a lot of your people came back year after year? Or tell me a little bit about that.
Sarah Dusek: Yeah. Well, one of the added dimensions, obviously building a tented camp is that you don’t build your hotel and it’s one and done. You have to put it up and take down every year. And weather is absolutely the biggest nemesis of a tent company effectively. So that’s super challenging.
But what we quickly discovered about our teams was that we developed our own tribe. So we have a whole group of people who set up and take down tents. That’s all they do all year round. They travel around the country, taking up and putting up our tents. And they do that for events. And they do that for our permanent camps as well.
And there’s a certain character, there’s a certain type of person who wants to do that kind of work. And they became our tribe. But it’s a huge skill. It’s a huge ordeal. And it’s like pretty much opening and closing a brand new hotel every year. 10 times over.
Kara Goldin: The advantage is I feel like you don’t have to do a big remodel. Right? The whole idea of wear and tear and maybe … I don’t know. You just figure out which tents are not …
Sarah Dusek: Yeah, exactly. Take the ones down that didn’t make it through the summer and you put new ones up the next year.
Kara Goldin: Well I am so impressed by what you’ve done. So in terms of the fundraising journey and how that influenced what you’re doing now, I mean talk to me a little bit about your experience with building Under Canvas, but then how that really parlayed into doing Enigma Ventures.
Sarah Dusek: Yeah. I mean one of the things about scaling any business is it requires capital. And businesses need money to grow. And you can grow slowly, organically, or you can put capital into the business and grow more exponentially. And we really knew we had something and that we wanted to grow the business faster than our cashflow would allow. And so we set out to try and raise capital through the course of growing Under Canvas.
We bootstrapped for a very long time, but by about 2017, we were ready to really exponentially grow the business. But I don’t know about your own journey Kara, with raising money for Hint. But I found my fundraising journey really painful. And what I discovered was we weren’t tech. We were in a market that really nobody understood at the time. And really nobody really knew that it was a thing and it was just beginning to become a popular thing.
And we were obviously the market leaders, but it was a really unknown concept. So it was unproven. It was unusual. We had unusual real estate, which it wasn’t really a real estate business. But we involved having pieces of real estate to obviously operate our business on. And so I found it a painful journey to raise capital.
And one of the things I’ve learned about raising capital is unfortunately, a lot of it depends on who you know and how well connected you are. And as a female founder, who didn’t go to an American school. I’m British originally. And so I didn’t have a big network in the US, didn’t have the connections that I really needed to talk to the right people. And every time I met investors, they were typically men. I think I met one female investor on my journey to raise capital.
I just felt like I didn’t look right. I didn’t talk right. I didn’t have the right lingo for communicating in ways people were able to understand. And my business didn’t really fit in the mold of what a lot of venture capitalists look for.
And I just had this feeling which was, I think this can be done differently. I think that the access here is not equal or everyone is not created equal in this space. And I certainly felt like not that I was at a disadvantage, but I just wasn’t connected enough to make this happen.
And it was tough. It was really tough. And when I did get term sheets to the table, I felt frustrated about what was in them and how inequitable they generally felt. The value of the investor over the entrepreneur was a sort of power struggle piece.
And it started a journey in my own mind of thinking about when I’m done building Under Canvas and I’ve sold Under Canvas. I think I should be an investor. I think I’ve got something to contribute in this eco space. And I think more women need to be at the table in this space, investing in things that maybe women understand and that can connect with other women in ways that men can’t. And in trying to do venture differently.
I don’t know about you but I heard so many times this is just market. This term is market. This is the way this is done. You have to accept this or there is no deal to be done here. And I found that incredibly frustrating, incredibly belittling in a lot of ways. Because here I was feeling like “Gosh, I’m the entrepreneur. And I’m creating all the value for you. And your revenue stream depends on me growing my business and being successful, but yet I feel like we’re not starting out at an footing here.”
And so it just started a journey of thinking about, I think we can do venture differently. And I think there’s place at the table here for more women to be investors. And more women at the table will change the way that money flows. It will change what gets invested in and what doesn’t get invested in and might start to make a dent in what becomes market by because of how deals look and what becomes more normal in this space.
Kara Goldin: So you started Enigma Ventures, you’re raising your fund right now, and what is the criteria for investments right now?
Sarah Dusek: Yeah. So, we launched enigma ventures on the back of selling a majority share of Under Canvas in 2018. And we launched an Enigma in the end of 2019 with this idea to invest in women. And our focus has been to invest in women in Southern Africa. So I said, my passion has been Africa for 20 odd years. And so we’re back focused on Africa.
And when we looked at what was happening on the continent, we saw that the stats around only 2% of all venture funding is going to women in the [inaudible 00:23:30] 2% of $132 billion a year is going to women. Really small number, but only 1% of the amount of capital being deployed in the US is being deployed across the whole continent of Africa.
So you’ve got a gender gap, and you’ve also got a funding gap. So, when we talk about people being left behind, we’ve got a whole continent being left behind because the amount of money is just not being deployed here. And what we all know about what creates healthy economies is thriving businesses. And we’ve obviously seen the US struggle this year. Many businesses have had to lay a lot of people off.
But what makes the world go round is people being employed, people having jobs and businesses creating those jobs. And so what you’ve got in Africa is a massive shortage of small and medium sized businesses. And what does it take to create small and medium sized businesses? It takes capital. And what does it take to put capital? It takes investors and investments.
And so we looked at the space and thought, gosh, there’s hardly anyone investing down here. The amount of capital being deployed across the whole continent is minuscule. It’s 1% of what’s being deployed in the US and then you’ve got a gender gap. But what you’ve got is a huge talent pool of capable creative women and men actually with incredible ideas to transform their own countries and their own continents, and to create jobs and to create infrastructure and build their nations from the ground up. But what they don’t have is capital.
So we came to the table in 2019 and said, let’s do something about that. Let’s put our knowledge of how to scale and grow and build a business from our own journey of doing just that. And let’s put our emphasis about investing in women and creating access to capital for those who don’t have access, don’t have networks, don’t have resources to the test and see if we can invest in women and see if we can help build extraordinary, scalable, amazing businesses and [crosstalk 00:25:51].
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:25:53] And so are you focused on obviously sort of industry and category? It sounds agnostic, but the founder needs to be a woman. And is it early stage? What stage are you kind of focused on?
Sarah Dusek: Yeah, so seed stage. So early stage, usually the business is one or two, maybe three years old. So they’re proven revenue. They’ve got a proven business model but that if we could put capital to work, they could exponentially scale their business.
So they have to have a scalable idea. They have to have an idea that has the potential to really, really exponentially explode. Takeoff. So obviously tech platforms are interesting in that space, but consumer goods also really, really interesting in that space. And we’ve got some edu-tech that we’re looking at and have invested in. We’ve got some financial services. We’ve got some consumer goods. We’ve got what else? A variety of different, some food products, actually also in there. A variety of business models and sectors of business.
But all of them have the same premise that they’ve got a big market and they’ve got a big opportunity. They’ve got some big blue sky in front of them and they just need to be able to execute on it. And usually that requires capital.
Kara Goldin: I love this. So what drives you every day? I mean, this is like doing a startup all over again. Right? It’s like back when you were starting Under Canvas. I mean, you’re digging around. Yeah.
Sarah Dusek: It’s like having 10 startups all at once. So instead of having one startup to focus, you’ve got many startups to focus with investments in each one of them. And at the same time building our own company, our own investment firm. So it’s exciting.
I think what has always driven me is this idea of being on a learning journey. I get pretty bored unless my learning curve is kind of vertical. So I’m definitely back on a vertical learning curve. Which is exciting, daunting, terrifying all at the same time.
But maybe I’m just a weird perverse adrenaline seeker, because this is some kind of weird challenge that set myself on. But certainly what drives me is this idea of making the world better. It is this thing that kind of eats me alive if you like with feeling like I think I can contribute to moving the world forward. I think I can make a difference. I think I can drive change. I think what we do can make an impact.
I think of the world moving forward in terms of clicks. It’s really hard to move the world forward. Right? It’s really hard to drive change. But we can make step by step, incremental, teeny tiny changes that ultimately will all add up. And so what drives me, it’s just this idea of how do we get a click? How do we change one thing that wasn’t normal before?
And for Under Canvas that was that experiential, outdoor, eco lodging wasn’t a thing. It’s now a really big thing. It’s a really big industry. It’s a multi, multi-billion dollar industry every single year right now. It’s a click. You’ve moved the world forward.
And so that’s really what gets me out of bed in the morning and makes us think, how do we drive change? How do we make things better? How do we change the world that we live in so that our children and their children and their children after them live in a better world than we do today?
Kara Goldin: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur, an investor? I mean did you actually think this is what I was going to go do?
Sarah Dusek: No. It never even crossed my mind. And I started my professional career working for nonprofits. I have always known that I’m a save the world kind of person. I have always known that I cared. And sometimes cared a little bit too much. Because I’m all in on everything that I do.
But I had never thought about the idea of business or being entrepreneurial or being an investor. That’s been a huge journey for me because the idea of saving the world by building businesses kind of was like. Whatever crazy, crazy thought. And so when I started my early career in my twenties, I was working for non-government organizations first in Africa and then in Southeast Asia. And I thought that you had to work for a nonprofit if you wanted to do good. If you wanted to do good things in the world, you certainly weren’t going to make money. And money was like this-
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:31:05] I thought that too. Yeah.
Sarah Dusek: Yeah. It’s like the dark side. You don’t go over to the darkness if you want to do good. But what I discovered was that aid agencies and non-government organizations as wonderful as they are, are usually just bandaging a problem. So you’re usually just trying to plug all the holes where all the water is leaking out and help in an immediate situation stick a bandaid on something to fix it in the short term.
What they never, ever did was get to the root of a problem. Aid agencies aren’t designed to solve big world problems. The vehicle is designed to solve big world problems are businesses. If I think the very premise of what a business does it solves a problem, it creates an innovative solution, a sustainable solution because you have to be able to generate income through it so therefore it becomes sustainable, to think about solving a problem.
And only business does that. Government doesn’t do that. Nonprofits don’t do that. Only business does that. And so business is this incredibly powerful vehicle for driving change. And, and even for example, the work you’re doing now with clean water. Access to water in schools is only possible because of your business. The business-
Kara Goldin: Totally.
Sarah Dusek: Drive change. And so that for me, was a complete revelation that businesses have the power to do good and to drive change and sustainable change that potentially lasts forever. And obviously, business in the wrong hands also obviously has the power to do bad. For sure. We can manipulate. We can control. We can dominate. We can do bad things. But business in the right hands with the right goals behind it has enormous potential for moving the world forward and for doing good, for leveling playing fields, creating equality.
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:33:17] Oh, I totally agree. And it’s interesting because I think about this a lot. I think that it’s a competitive advantage because oftentimes you’re changing the landscape. When you come in from a nonprofit, you show up with your non-profit title. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but oftentimes people are saying no, even before you get in the door. Right?
And so I’ve found, I mean in the case of the Clean Water Initiative that I’m working on in Washington to clean up our municipal water supply for everybody, I’m sure there’s been plenty of water organizations that have been in there. I’m not really sure why they haven’t been able to do what I’m doing and are hoping to do. We’re not done yet.
But anyway, I think that’s such a key thing. You’ve done that in the travel agency, as well as just setting up your fund as well. I mean that too. But in the beauty industry, I mean, Greg Renfrew, I have a podcast with her a few months back and Beauty Counter and what they’ve been able to do around clean ingredients. I mean, again, it’s not to say that nonprofits haven’t tried and that they’re not valid. It’s just-
Sarah Dusek: [crosstalk 00:34:42] They absolutely can do a ton-
Kara Goldin: [crosstalk 00:34:43] They absolutely can.
Sarah Dusek: It’s how you create sustainable solutions. And the challenge of a nonprofit is you always have to find funding to keep funding. But a business has the possibility of creating a sustainable solution.
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Sarah Dusek: Problem forever because it has to self-generate funds. And they’re designed to be innovative. They’re designed just by their very nature to solve a problem. And that’s a very powerful thing.
Kara Goldin: I love it. I love it. So what makes you unstoppable? I always ask this one last question.
Sarah Dusek: I could say drive, but I also think drive can be a bit of a nemesis at times. What makes me unstoppable? I think probably my real answer to that is passion and caring and just believing that there is a better world to be created. And I want to be part of that. And I care about seeing that come to life. And believing that we all have an opportunity, whatever we do to make a difference. And I think believing that I can make a difference makes me unstoppable.
Kara Goldin: I love it. Well you have built such an incredible brand in Under Canvas. It’s everybody. And if you want to check out what Sarah is also doing a E-N-Y-G-M-A And Sarah is also very active on social. Do you want to let people know where they can find you?
Sarah Dusek: Yeah, I’m on @SarahDusek on LinkedIn and Instagram and Twitter. Those are all the magical places. I think.
Kara Goldin: I love it. I love it. Great. Well, thanks everybody for listening and definitely go in and give Sarah high reviews. And reviews matter and also subscribe to Unstoppable. And we’re now recording twice a week and very, very exciting for people.
So we’re picking out the best, not only founders entrepreneurs, but also just people who are leading change in all different kinds of industries. So if you know of other people that you want to hear from definitely make suggestions and intros. We love getting those from people too. So have a great rest of the week everybody. Bye-bye.