By Douglas Karlson
Four years ago, exhausted after a hard day’s work as Program Coordinator for Barnstable County AmeriCorps Cape Cod, Christin Marshall heard about a startup weekend at Cape Cod Community College.
“On a whim, I signed up,” she recalls.
It was the first of what would be a long period of startup weekends, mentorship programs and, eventually, an MBA − meticulous preparation to lay the groundwork for an entrepreneurial venture she launched last December: Camp Wild Child, a summer camp experience for grown-ups.
While it would be years before she had the idea for Camp Wild Child, it was at that first startup weekend that Marshall realized she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Startup weekends are intensive weekend programs where participants pitch new ideas, form working groups, and develop a product by the end of the weekend. Marshall says she was lucky, she joined a very good group that included someone who was good at coding, and a law student. Marshall’s idea, which the group developed, was born out of the buyer’s remorse she experiences after haircuts. She proposed a LinkedIn-style database showing portfolios of hair stylists’ work and reviews. They won second place.
“It was my first foray into it. I thought, ‘That was really exciting!’”
She enrolled in the MBA program at UMass Dartmouth, attending classes at Cape Cod Community College and online, and graduated last May. “I knew I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t have much direction.”
The idea finally came to her at her wedding, of all places. Last September she married David Quinn, who works at the Housing Assistance Corporation developing affordable housing. For their wedding, they rented out a summer camp. After the ceremony, the guests went swimming and had a bonfire, and did all the other usual camp activities.
“I thought, ‘This could be my business,’” recalls Marshall. She reasoned that while summer camps are busy in July and August, during the shoulder season they’re not and the weather is still good. What’s more, camp staff is still available.
She had the skills and experience, having planned events for AmeriCorps and booked surfing and snowboarding vacations for her friends.
“I’m always the default travel planner. I did it as a hobby. I thought, ‘I’m set up for this, I can make this a business.’”
There are other such adult summer camps, catering to specific target markets with various themes, ranging from frat party to yoga. Marshall needed to come up with a theme for her summer camp. Or, as she puts it, she needed to figure out her “secret sauce.” She found the answer in her gym workouts.
Marshall is an active participant in CrossFit, the very popular and very intense workout regimen, and decided to focus on weekend camps for other fitness enthusiasts. Camp Wild Child, she decided, would offer fitness challenges led by CrossFit coaches from local affiliates, along with traditional camp activities like a BB gun range, archery, power hikes, sunrise yoga, capture the flag, waterskiing, and of course, bonfires and s’mores.
Marshall conducted customer surveys, and determined that 80 percent of her target market had done Tough Mudders, Spartan Races, or similar events. “They’re really interested in having something to train for,” she observes. With that in mind, she came up with the Burpee Mile. It’s a relay race in which the participants move forward doing burpees, an exercise involving a grueling up-and-down combination of push-ups and jumping.
“I want to be the Spartan Race of summer camps,” she says.
To help her realize her vision, she applied for and was accepted into a business accelerator called Entrepreneurship for All, a mentoring program aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship among women and minorities. She describes it as a “a year-long, intensive business accelerator program” where she meets twice a week with a team of successful entrepreneurs.
“They educate you on all the things you need to know,” she explains. Things like accounting, insurance, and protecting intellectual property. Joining the program was free, and also resulted in Marshall winning $5,000 as the Grand Prize winner of Entrepreneurship For All’s 2017 Winter Accelerator cohort. She is still actively involved in the accelerator program as she launches Camp Wild Child.
To set up her business, she arranged the two first camping weekends with Camp Hi Rock in the Berkshires. The first camp is scheduled for the weekend of June 9 through 11, and a second is planned for October 13 through 15. Next year, she plans to offer five camps, one near Washington, D.C., and two on Cape Cod. Her sister, Cara Cowden, who lives in the D.C. area, is helping to scale the business in the mid-Atlantic and providing support scheduling meetings with CrossFit gym owners.
To promote the business, Marshall has been reaching out to the owners of CrossFit gyms in the Greater Boston area, and targeting CrossFit enthusiasts in social media ads and via e-mail marketing. She also conducted an online contest to win tickets to the first camp. So far, 60 percent of her customers are CrossFit enthusiasts.
Marshall financed her venture herself with savings and her prize money. She is keeping expenses low by working with camps that agree to charge a variable cost based on the actual number of guests participating. She hopes to attract 94 campers the first year.
So far, she says, “It’s going gangbusters.”
Her advice for others considering starting a new business? Look into accelerators and startup weekends. The experience and knowledge gained and the mentorships are invaluable, she says. “You realize it’s completely achievable.”