The owners of The Cornwall Camper Company discuss the highs and lows of their business life so far, and ambitions for the future – including transforming the “glamping” scene in Cornwall with outdoor hot tubs.
Ben Ford and Jess Ratty started putting the wheels in motion for their pet project in 2011. Ford had completed a business management degree and was always keen to run his own company, and Ratty’s background in communications meant the groundwork was in place for The Cornwall Camper Company.
Ford had a knack for engineering and the couple decided to restore VW camper vans to their former glory to provide bespoke holidays in Cornwall. Now up and running, with five campers and a sixth on the horizon, Ratty spoke to Business Advice about the toils and troubles of getting vans in gear with a tiny budget and why there are no setbacks in business – just navigational distractions.
(1) Who are you and what’s your business?
Jess Ratty and Ben Ford and we are co-owners of The Cornwall Camper Company – a high-end bespoke VW Camper Hire company based in the South West.
(2) How long have you been around for?
We’ve been on the “Dub” scene for three years now – just finishing up an epic third season of providing brilliant and fun VW camper holidays for tourists to Cornwall. We launched our first full season in 2013 after two years of planning and building our campers and brand. We started with one camper, then thanks to the Start Up Loans scheme we turned our £5,000 loan into a match fund for a £10,000 grant and boom – we now have five campers on our fleet with the sixth just warming up her engine in our unit ready to go for the 2016 season.
(3) How do you make money?
We make money by renovating and hiring out beautiful old Bay Window VW Campers – we provide great holiday experiences and also campers for weddings and corporate hires, including movies.
(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?
We are different, frankly because we are all about the customer service and creating a really high-end offer for holidays in Cornwall. Travelling around on four wheels is a unique experience that means you get to see as much of Cornwall as you can possibly fit into your eyeballs. We believe in treating customers exactly as we would want to be treated ourselves.
That’s with brilliant personal service, catering exactly to what they want and need. We’ve always put ourselves out on a limb for our customers, and many of them keep coming back for more, so much so, we’d consider a whole bunch of them friends as they’ve supported our little business from our first year.
(5) What was key in terms of getting started?
We’d not exist without that initial stage of funding. Our Start Up Loans provider – the South West Investment Group – was the first to officially believe in us and the confidence it gave us is the reason we are still standing, and growing, and expanding to this day.
We also knew we needed a strong brand to stand out and make our mark on tourism in a county known for excellent service and delivery. My networking skills meant we had access to a whole bunch of brilliant people willing to support, share and advise us into existence.
(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?
Too many to name just one. We had a fundraising push to pull in £20,000 to get launched, met the prime minister, appeared in eight national newspapers, won a best new business award, appeared in a national TV advert, were featured as a “Story of Success” on LinkedIn, and almost made it as a partner with notonthehighstreet.com – still a way to go on that ambition though!
(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?
We’ve had a whole host of set backs – building campers from scratch is hard work and we’ve put blood, sweat and tears into getting those vans on the road with a teeny tiny budget. We had to build a website, a brand, buy camper kit, renovate them, pay for renting a unit. Before we launched, the bank suggested we “go bankrupt” – that was pretty bad, but we jumped that hurdle with delight. To be honest though, we don’t like to consider them setbacks, just navigational distractions. If something does not work out then you just need to head off in a different direction.
(8) In five years’ time, I will be…
In five years time we will own our own campsite and have expanded into renovating and selling VWs for additional income and diversification of the brand. We are currently looking into an investment to get some money in to buy land and build one of Cornwall’s best holiday “glamping” facilities – think outdoor hot tubs under the stars. We need to build our own unit – that’s going to be intensive – and expand carefully into the camping scene.
(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?
Take small steps and listen to all of the advice out there. Before we launched we knew nothing of the “business scene” and even now, there is so much to learn. We are a fan of crowdfunding for business ideas, and of course the Start Up Loans scheme is just incredible. In fact, crowdfunding to match fund a Start Up Loans go together like apple and crumble. The main tip? Just do it.
(10) Who are your business heroes and why?
Our business heroes have to be the team at Start Up Loans – they’ve literally been there for us every step of the way. We can’t forget to mention the crew at Folk2Folk as they’ve been heroes too, they supported us big time back in the early days. And the big man, Richard Branson, he shows us all what can be achieved with the spark of an idea and a bucket load of ambition. Finally, a big shout out to Phil Geraghty, the MD of Crowdfunder – he makes thousands of ideas a reality.
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.