Going From 0 to 1: The Hard Part of Starting Anything New (Campground Booking Update)

“Oh shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.”

I usually don’t cuss in blog posts, but technically I didn’t say this. This was a stream of Slack messages that popped up a few days ago and unraveled into the catastrophe that was my weekend.

Getting traction in any new business, blog, or endeavor always takes ten times longer than you think it will. For a while you think you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but really it’s just some guy named Richard holding up a candle just to mess with you and laugh as you go by. As it turns out, you’ve got at least another thousand hours of complete darkness as you try to piece together your pride and keep moving forward.

Well, Richard had a good laugh this week.

If you’ve been following along awhile, you know that w’ve been working on a software startup called Campground Booking. I’ve talked at length about Campground Booking on the podcast, but it’s been awhile since I gave an update, so this is me. Giving an update. About our first day of accepting reservations for a campground. And if you can’t tell from this intro, it’s not a happy update.

-_-

The past year, my two co-founders (Bob Orchard and Paul Ryan) and I have been trying to solve a big issue we face as RVers — booking campsites.

We’re solving this problem in two ways. The first is that we’ve built a modern property management system that campgrounds can use to run their entire property. This is a SaaS (software as a service) model and they pay us a monthly fee to use the system.

Screenshot of our campground owner dashboard. Luckily we have an awesome design in Bob Orchard to make this look super clean.

The second way we’re solving this problem is by creating online travel agencies (also known as OTAs) in outdoor hospitality, meaning we’re enabling reservations from high trafficked websites in the camping niche (like you see below).

This is the consumer-facing side of our reservation system on Travel British Columbia’s website.
What our individual booking pages look like for campgrounds

We’re currently in a partnership with the Canadian Campground Association. They brought us on board to help power reservations to their 2,100 parks across Canada.

As part of rolling out across Canada, we’ve launched a beta reservation system with a website called Travel British Columbia. This means several campgrounds in British Columbia will be using our full property management system to power their campground and take online reservations.

And while this is great, we haven’t had to deal with a large flux of reservations coming through the system just yet.

That was until Saturday.

Paul (my co-founder and Campground Booking’s CTO) has been working around the clock to finish everything, work out bugs, and check all the boxes before going live. Just a couple days before going live, the campground told us that they expected hundreds of reservations to go through the system within a matter of hours.

Wait, what?

Apparently, campgrounds in Canada book out reservations faster than a Taylor Swift concert. This would mean that our new little software system would be pounded by hundreds (or thousands) of users within a short period of time.

Oh, boy.

Saturday we were putting some finishing touches on the campground’s account — making sure all their profile images looked solid, taxes were correct, and all the little nuances that go into making a reservation.

I was nervous, but mostly excited.

After all, it has been almost two years since I started kicking around the idea of building a solution for booking campsites. I knew it was an issue as an RVer, but I lacked the skills to build it myself. Luckily, I met a couple people who did have the skills to build it in our RV Entrepreneur Facebook group. We’ve had our heads down the past year working on a solution together, calling campgrounds, visiting campgrounds in person, pitching the product, getting feedback, and still juggling client work/blogging in the process.

Finally, I was excited just to have something be live. I was excited to see our product in action after hundreds of hours of work.

That was until Paul’s stream of Slack messages starting coming through, letting me know that something was wrong.

Apparently, a couple bugs that we hadn’t had time to test or prepare for were causing the reservations to not process correctly. We were watching everything break before our eyes and within minutes of clicking “Go live”, we had to shut it down.

But not before more than 300 reservation requests went through the system and we had over 1,000 people trying to book a site. Let me just say that again, 1,000 people trying to book a campsite in less than 5 minutes.

Paul and I jumped on a call and I tried to talk him down, but I could tell he was freaking out.

Ultimately, we would have to call the customer and let her know what happened (and quick). They’d trusted us to deliver on our part and we’d let them down.

It was a crappy feeling, really crappy. We called her, told her what happened and laid out the best course of action for what to do next. We apologized profusely and told her that we would handle all of the inbound emails/calls/support that was already coming through the system.

Oh shit, indeed.

Over the past few days, myself, Bob, and Paul have responded to countless emails and we’ve rectified most of the situation. As it turns out, many of the reservations that came through were actually okay. We were able to shut it off before campers had to deal with bigger issues like double booking a campsite. None the less, I’ve still had to respond and try to calm down a number of angry campers (of which I don’t blame them). Lucky for us, Bob’s previous experience was in customer service and he’s been handling a lot of the heavy lifting on this front.

I wanted to share this story because as a blogger — we like to say that we share the good and the bad of our lives, business and travel — but most of the time we share the good. I’ve realized that when I do share the bad, it’s typically far enough in the rearview mirror for me to spin it in a positive light. There’s nothing wrong with gleaming life lessons from mistakes, but sometimes it can be more real and honest when you share the pain while it’s present and raw.

And trust me, the pain is very real this week (just ask Alyssa, she’s had to deal with me).

What I’m reminded of this week is the relentless persistence it takes to make anything go from 0 to 1, the audacity it takes to bring an idea to the world, and the “oh shits” you’ll have to go through while you try to make any dream become a reality.

It’s easy to dream and to talk about you want to do, but it’s not easy to get punched in the gut so early and so often before your business even reaches traction.

I think that’s why it’s so easy to quit ventures like blogging, business, or any longterm endeavor before letting it run its course. You start off on this high of what could be possible, but then once you’re in the weeds you realize it’s just a bunch of hard work. It’s in moments like this I try to remind myself of that original vision, the original goal and pain point that we’re trying to solve with Campground Booking.

After having gone from 0 to 1 on our blog, I understand the depths of despair that happen before you achieve any momentum. For years nobody read our blog (other than you Mom, thanks) and this month we will reach over 100,000 page views (that’s not nothing). I appreciate where we are now because I had to go through a similar journey just to get to this moment. I had to deal with endless setbacks, just to share my words. How much harder will it be to build something that thousands or millions of people will use?

I don’t think it’s possible to build anything of substantial value or meaning without going through your own share of “oh shit” moments. They are what make getting to 1 so meaningful and worthwhile. You just have to hold onto that original excitement that made you start in the first place.

That’s what I’m doing this week, that’s what you should do too.

  • In my years at Microsoft, I saw this happen again and again. Despite all the testing you do (and they did millions of dollars of it) any piece of software is sure to fail when exposed to actual customers. They make hilarious UI mistakes, enter stuff three times, keep clicking buttons randomly while waiting — a whole raft of strange behaviors you never anticipated. And servers with HUGE capacity numbers choke on startup for completely unanticipated reasons.

    • That’s encouraging to hear, that this happens to everyone when pushing new systems.

  • Thanks for sharing Heath…All too often it’s easy for others to presume that one’s success comes easy, when it really is the end result of a lot of hard work, long hours, a lot of angst, moments of self doubt, the need to constantly re-igniting your own self belief and just keep on going.. you’ve got to keep your eye on your vision and keep moving through the challenges one step at a time. Which you’re doing. Ah the world of entrepreneurship is very rewarding, but it’s not for the faint of heart! 🙂

    • Absolutely agree Julie, thanks for the kind words :). Hope you guys are doing well and that our paths cross this year!

      • Yep, all great over here – and likewise, look forward to crossing paths hopefully in 2018! Keep up the great work and safe travels!

  • David Blackmon

    My
    favorite paragraph of the post from the RV Entrepreneur and couldn’t be truer: “Getting
    traction in any new business, blog, or endeavor always takes ten times
    longer than you think it will. For a while you think you see the light
    at the end of the tunnel, but really it’s just some guy named Richard
    holding up a candle just to mess with you and laugh as you go by. As it
    turns out, you’ve got at least another thousand hours of complete
    darkness as you try to piece together your pride and keep moving
    forward.”

    As a product creator who has launched many products they never ever go unscathed LOL. Keep your heads up!
    I feel for you guys and have been there. Stay positive, keep moving
    forward. You guys are solving a HUGE need in the RV industry and one day
    you guys will look back on all of this and have a good laugh.

    • Thanks David, so appreciate it man :). Grateful for your friendship.

  • Ray C Crosier

    Good article, and so true. Had similar experiences over the years. One funny comment from a developer who worked with me… he had a small application that a user was complaining about, and told him “When I click on this, it crashes…” His response to the user was to angrily scold the end user with “You’re not supposed to click on that when you’re there!”. I told him, “You know, if you don’t want the user to click that when in there, then DISABLE IT!” He finally did. Problem solved.

    On a brighter note, sort of, I had big dreams of writing my own POS system, which never quite got the “traction” I’d hoped, however, I did write it, and one of the (few) stores that used it, did so for over 20 years, and only stopped because he retired and sold the business. He said it had saved him thousands of dollars over the years. That almost made all the work I put into it worthwhile.

    • That is awesome Ray (the part about the store owner, not the angry developer). We’re definitely learning a lot about what we do and don’t want users to be clicking on right now :). All part of the process.

  • Britt Densford

    Wish there was a meet up group planned for the summit where we could share our struggles to bring our dreams into reality.

    • I think that will just be the whole summit Britt. haha!

      • Britt Densford

        God I hope so.

  • socialsonya

    Oh man! Totally can relate to this… At least you didn’t throw your hands up in the air and walk away. I’ve seen others do that.
    My biggest ‘oh shit’ moment was after spending 8 months developing a voip product for a very large company, spending $15MM on advertising, and then finding out 2 weeks after launching that our mother company wanted us to shut it down as it competed with one of their products. Ummm…. doh? Should have probably known that before spending $100MM on a product launch! That wasn’t salvagable, but most product launches are, and have glitches. The way you handle them is what makes you either a failure or successful entrepeneur. Go Heath! This was an AWESOME time for you guys – celebrate this launch. Flaws and all! 😀

    • Thank you so much Sonya 🙂 that means a lot and WOW — I can only imagine what that would feel like :/ crazy

  • Meredith Carey

    Thank you Heath for having the courage to share your experience with us. It is VERY hard to draw attention to struggles, missteps, or “failures” but I assure you that most people will read this and empathize with you. Writing about our struggles is always the hardest and the one we shy away from (out of shame/embarrassment) but the one others respond to the most. I am someone who is extremely cautious to share my missteps while craving to know if I’m the only one to have even had that struggle. This post reminded me that there are others out there like me and I should not be so afraid to share when things run off course because they happen to everyone.

  • Thank you for sharing the triumphs and the trials! I think every fellow entrepreneur has been there, and will be there again. And it’s so so difficult the launch a full scale software product. You just can’t test for how things will react once you have a typical load on them. It’s every software engineer’s nightmare and reality.

    But so few are willing to do what it takes to get there. Kudos for your vision, your passion and your perseverance. You are changing the world.

    • Thanks guys, that means a lot coming from fellow entrepreneurs I know have launched many products of their own :). Excited to see you guys soon.

  • Sarah Granberry Rooney

    Oh Shit! 🙂 I’m sorry, that the trial went awry, but look at you mustering forward. It’s super hard to keep the excitement, no doubt about that part, when you’re in the weeds (and not the good kind). Keep on! You’re kicking butt!

  • Melanie Carver

    Holy ship! I hope my story helps with knowing anything can go wrong, and it is very common when launching software. When we were rolling out our reading improvement software for children, we discovered a major problem with how the words were presented. After learning the meaning and spelling of 10 new words, the program listed the 10 words spelled either correctly or incorrectly. The student was asked to respond quickly as to whether these words were spelled right or wrong. The program just replaced one of the letters in the word with a random letter to automatically misspell it. A teacher noticed a 2nd grade child learning the word “duck”. The program generated a misspelling replacing the “d” with an “f”! The word “ship” could be misspelled by replacing the “p” with a “t”! Holy ship! All the students were pulled off the program immediately, and the teachers and principal were furious. Everything ground to a halt until we figured out how to solve this. Our solution was to insert code that checked each misspelling against a list of “bad words” every time so it would never again make this mistake. We had to have a staff meeting to brainstorm and create the list of every possible offensive word! (Awkward!!!) We actually found the situation pretty hilarious – in the long run, but boy did we have some explaining and some apologizing to do!

    • Hahaha I love this story!

    • bahahah, this is amazing 🙂 thanks so much for sharing this Melanie.

      • Melanie Carver

        I’m SO disappointed that I won’t be at the Summit. Due to back problems, I’m not able to drive. I had to cancel my ticket, and I had a good cry about it. I’ve been planning to come for the past year! Hope to be back on the road soon. If you’re ever coming through Kansas City, I hope you and Alyssa will contact me! Good luck On the 5K this weekend! 🍀

  • kevin

    Heath – welcome to launching 🙂 I’ve been a part of a number of startups – some that went on to sell, some that didn’t. The best arguments in a startup are often about what can, will or won’t go wrong. And no matter how right you are, you’re still going to miss something. We used to say – no matter how dummy proof you make something, there will always be a better dummy. – But double booking is so common – it isn’t related only to reservations. It has to do with the chance of 2 or more people doing the same thing at virtually the same moment in a situation where only one can be allowed to do it… whether reservations in AirBnB, amazon purchasing with only 1 product left in stock, nabbing those perfect concert seats. It’s a commonly missed problems in early software development – no one expects any real traffic, and even if it does occur, making a few calls once in a while is not a big deal. So not everyone tackles the problem as well as they should. And if you never expect much traction, it might not be a problem. But when you get traffic, – it’s horrible. A lot of problems become huge when there is a lot of traffic. Start a bit slower and you’ll have less catastrophic days 🙂
    The next problem is making sure your purchasing is always doing the right math. One of my earliest coding mistakes created a problem of when your card was charged for a purchase, it was only 10% of the actual price. You put $100 of stuff in your cart, and when you paid, it only charged you $10 – it’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but that was nearly 20yrs ago, and I learned quickly to double check everything 🙂 and anticipate mistakes.
    NOTHING makes you sweat like these moments! You’ll laugh it off in the near future – while nervously reliving the sweaty stress. But nothing wakes you up to “Hello – this is real” like a good goof.

    Funny that you are tackling this – when we were full-timing around the US, I thought about the same thing – but then we ran into a lot of mom&pops who just looked at me with wide eyes like the word computer was another language. Glad you’re tackling this and not me 🙂
    Enjoy! I love the stories of the ‘downs’ as much as the ‘ups’.

    • haha Kevin I’ve received a lot of those same glances as well. I know not everyone will be our customer and that is totally fine. I still believe in the overall pain point and think it’s worth a solid effort moving forward.

      Anyway, it’s been interesting to get to hear & see all the various comments and experiences people have had similar to this one. I guess misery does love company. Luckily, I took a few days to respond to these comments and we’ve fixed a lot of those issues — which means I already have a bit of perspective on the situation :).

      Thanks for reaching out man,

  • cindy hayford

    Bummer. I just read your blog. It’s been awhile since I’ve followed you and Alyssa. So sorry that the Campground app launch went sour. I worked for IBM for 25 years and what you just experienced is what we used to call a “crit sit”…critical situation. Execs from on high would come down to calm the customer while massive and detailed problem determination took place behind the scenes. The entire application development process we worked thru was tedious, but in hindsight probably necessary. I hope that ya’ll have determined what failed and how best to address it. I hadn’t kept up with your reservation system lately, but the interfaces I just saw looked impressive. Keep working it. The Good Sam’s app that we use to make reservations is outdated, and the industry seems to be lacking in technology and standardization. DON’T STOP !

  • April Bryant Cooper

    I am curious did these partner sites give you any indication of the volume of reservations they regularly receive or no?? Wow if they didn’t share this info…. or if they only shared immediately before going live?? That is crazy if so!! Good luck!!

    • Hey April, we didn’t know how much volume would be passing through until a couple days prior to the launch. In hindsight, it was really our fault for not asking sooner (we assumed). Definitely won’t make that mistake again and thank you :).

  • Elaine Padgett Carnegie

    You guys are so awesome. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other…good, or bad. That takes courage. So proud of you! Will be watching to see what happens next!