Yesterday I put my heart, I mean my 2 sons, on a bus to overnight camp. Although it is my fourth summer
crying standing at the overnight camp bus, it does not seem to get any easier. I know this: a fabulous time full of adventure, learning, and tremendous growth for my sons is a long exercise in time for me. Of course, I have a few cocktails good times while they are away and savor the lack of pickup and drop-off constraints on my work day. I miss both of them and the ruckus they create terribly.
There is one little shining star of the month. My hero, my beacon of light, my lifeline, my sanity, otherwise known as Bunk1. Bunk One, the one-way window into campers’ experience around the country (including mine) has been the subject of countless Facebook updates, some ecards, and hysterical blog posts & videos already this summer. I am not sure that I can top any of them, but I did have a crazy unique opportunity when it comes to Bunk1.
Every now and again, I get to do something outrageously cool as a writer and this is one of them. Last week, I had the PLEASURE to speak with Ari Ackerman, Founder and CEO of Bunk1. While I wanted to give him a huge kiss on the cheek for making my summer survivable, I controlled myself and asked all about behind the scenes of Bunk1.
Ari, like many former campers, never outgrew his love of the camping industry. As a career camper, Ari spent many memorable summers at camp. His twelve-year career reached its apex when, as color war captain, he lead his dominant blue team to a landslide victory. Ari hopes that Bunk1.com will serve as means to give back to an industry that gave so much to him.
At Bunk1, Ari is responsible for the company’s growth, strategic development and overall management. He graduated with honors from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management with concentrations in marketing, finance, and entrepreneurship. His background includes product management with the Sunny Delight brand at Procter & Gamble, and with the Marketing department of HFS (now Cendant corporation). Additionally, he worked on Capitol Hill for the Banking and Financial Services Committee.
Now that you know Ari’s official bio, onto what I talked about with Ari as a mom, entrepreneur, and Bunk1 frequent user.
I asked Ari about his first thoughts of Bunk1, and of course how he initially pursued it. Ackerman explained that 12 years ago, he was in grad school and dot-coms were hot and every idea was out on the table except for one about summer camps. Ari wrote up a business plan on Bunk1 for a graduate school class that culminated with a real venture capital pitch. Although Ari’s ideas to combine camping and dot-com business were loved by his professor and classmates, they were met with extreme skepticism by the venture capitalists who visited his class. They thought it was the worst idea.
Ackerman felt he had something, so following graduation, he got in his car and travelled around the U.S., visiting camps, and asking camp directors what they thought about the idea. Ari made friends with many of the camp owners, and feels strongly that this first summer was crucial as the summer camp business is so relationship-driven.
Upon returning home from his travels, Ari started the ball rolling on the technology behind Bunk1 and began hiring people. By 2000, Bunk1 was in use!
I joked with Ari if he knew that he would become one of the most popular tech entrepreneurs with the mom crowd? Ari had no idea how popular he would become with the moms. They adore him (I know, I do) which Ari claims a nice side-effect, but Ackerman really loves to see Bunk1 in action. He calls it a refreshing addiction, a new-age concept for kids to be away and parents can see them without it being invasive.
Twelve years is an impressive amount of time for a tech start-up to still be alive and well, so I grilled Ackerman on how he keeps morale up and keeps the business moving forward. Although the technology is a win/win with parents and camp directors, Ari states that Bunk1 also needs to stay fresh and keep reinventing each year.
This year, Bunk1 is focusing on improving online registration for camps and piloting a few incredible features for their one-way emailing, called bunk notes. For some camps, parents can add a box score for any baseball game as they send the note and in the morning when it downloads, the note automatically gets the final score. Another feature being piloted with bunk notes is adding the latest feed of a twitter personality to the note. I was obviously excited by this because what other Twitter personality would my boys want to read other than @Backngroovemom?
I commented that last year, I loved the addition of tagging the photos on Bunk1, and Ari explained that this was a feature tested the year before at a few camps. I love the tagging because I get to know who the new kids in the cabin are …..as my boys’ letter writing is less than frequent. I am also enjoying the Bunk1 Reveille, the new weekly newsletter sent by Bunk1 this year. They do a great job curating the top news and posts on summer camping and putting it right in my inbox. A brilliant way to substantiate my decision to go the camp route.
Throughout the interview, Ari kept going back to the magic of summer camp and not wanting to interfere with it. Hearing this from Ackerman made me fully understand why Bunk1 is one way. While I often gripe, I wish that my sons could email me or more, I GET why they can’t. Bunk1 is for my comfort but totally non-invasive into the power of the camp experience (which is really why we send them to camp -right?). Ari also spoke about the huge value of Bunk1 for parents of first time campers. It is so important for parents to see their kids having a good time (and wearing a rain coat which Ackerman gathered was important to me).
After hearing all this, I wanted to know what Ari would say to the venture capitalists who rejected the idea back in grad school. He simply stated ‘Maybe you were wrong on this one?’
(He did remind me that he got an A on the assignment.)
According to Ackerman, as an entrepreneur, there is always going to be someone who says it is not going to work. As an entrepreneur, you have to work through that.
I joked with Ackerman about the myth that summer camp equals romantic time for mom and dad, and then gave him an accurate description of both mom and dad sitting on their laptops, refreshing and waiting for pictures to load in the evening. That gave him a good laugh.
I seriously have to go now because my camp may upload some photos and I need a fix.
Thank you so much to Ari Ackerman of Bunk1 – you made my week, my month, my summer!