Markus Frind has made eclectic investments since earning his fortune in online dating. The Vancouver billionaire has grown into a major player in British Columbia wine, controls the online furniture business Cymax Group, and co-owns a steel mill.
Now he’s gone back to a kind of matchmaking. Since fall 2019, the founder of Plentyoffish.com has invested $ 23 million in RVezy Inc., an Ottawa startup that connects RV owners with renters through its eponymous online marketplace. Think of it as the Airbnb of RVs.
“I looked at the website and said, ‘Ah, RVs are like dating,’” Mr. Frind recalls. “I understand the markets, their functioning and their economy. I thought it sounded interesting but there is so much I could do here.
Its investment seems timely as COVID-19 restrictions are easing and many North Americans in lockdown prepare to “take revenge on the trip” this summer. While flights and cruises are always a risk, and international borders are closed to leisure travelers, self-contained RV travel closer to home has proven to be a popular choice in Canada and United States. Since late February, RVezy has steadily exceeded $ 1 million in weekly bookings and is on track in 2021 to more than double last year’s $ 20 million total. After launching in the US in August, RVezy has over 7,000 RVs listed there, slightly more than in Canada.
This is not a passive investment for Mr. Frind, but a passionate project. Unlike typical investors who provide strategic advice and connections to startups, the data mining genius deepened RVezy’s code and data to do what he does best: tweak and optimize his ability to do so. notice and generate transactions. He even built his own mini-analysis system to assess the value of each user and the traffic and growth by city. “I usually focus on two things: how to spend less money [on marketing] and how you can make more money, because I don’t believe in losing money, ”says Frind, who sold Plentyoffish to Match Group for $ 575 million in 2015.
The deep involvement of one of Canada’s most successful digital entrepreneurs is welcomed by the gregarious co-founders of RVezy, who are not technologists and face well-funded American rivals RVShare LLC and Outdoorsy Inc.
RVezy CEO Will Thompson, 45, is a former military reservist who served in Afghanistan and was a high-performing sales manager for IT consulting firm Modis. COO Michael McNaught, a pal, is a 37-year-old former police officer and former competitive bodybuilder who worked for years as an entrepreneur. Mr. McNaught owned rental properties, bought and sold cars, and in 2014 paid $ 16,000 for a used RV. He leased it for $ 15,000 that year and thought about buying a fleet.
Mr McNaught was assaulted during an arrest in April 2016, sustaining permanent damage to a tendon in his right arm that limited his ability to do police work. While recovering, he and Mr. Thompson decided to create a market for RV rentals. They have raised funds from friends and family, including retired broadcaster Kevin Newman, who has previously interviewed Mr. Thompson. Mr. Newman couldn’t believe it when he drove to the Havelock Country Jamboree with them and saw acres of RVs. “It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I hung out and watched Mike throw [RV owners to join RVezy] and continued to be more and more interested, ”says Newman. He invested $ 25,000.
The pair evolved from managing email and phone transactions to creating an automated online platform. Working with insurance brokerage firm Aon, they convinced Intact Insurance to create specialized rental contract coverage for RV owners. They got $ 150,000 from entrepreneur Michele Romanow after they appeared on The dragon pit, and recruited her to help register RV owners at the 2018 Boots and Hearts Music Festival. “That’s how they got their supplies in the beginning,” Ms. Romanow said. “Markets are so difficult to create, but even at the very beginning you could tell they had a lot of courage and ability.”
They have also started to convince RV dealers. “I think all the dealers thought it was competition,” said John Krohnert, general manager of Platinum RV in Erin, Ont. Then he realized that it would cost less and save time to list his trailer rental fleet on RVezy than to manage it in-house. “They bring a great clientele and run a tight ship,” he says. “I find it more profitable to rent through RVezy,”
RVezy, which charges a fee of 25 to 30 percent per transaction, generated $ 500,000 in gross sales in 2017 and $ 3 million in 2018. By mid-2019, they had $ 12 million in annualized sales and were receiving unsolicited take-over bids when they asked a Welch Capital Markets advisor in Ottawa to help them raise capital. To their surprise, Mr. Frind responded to a cold email requesting an investment; he was intrigued but wanted to dive into their data.
The group flew to Vancouver to meet Mr. Frind. He toasted them “three times harder” than other investors, asking specific questions about their technology, their marketing, and the execution of queries in their database “that gave us insight into the business than we did. didn’t even know, ”McNaught said. “We had this mindset of being data driven, but I don’t think we understood what data management was before Markus came along.
Mr Frind invested $ 3 million this fall, convinced he could make significant improvements by helping RVezy wean himself from Google or Facebook marketing tools and record and track his own data to develop a deep insight into the origin and timing of visitors, and what type of marketing worked best on whom. By slicing and splicing the data “until you find something that is usable,” he has helped RVezy cut costs to secure tenants and landlords, he says.
Mr. Frind has been patient and good-humored with founders who aren’t as tech-savvy as he is, says Thompson. Mr. Frind in turn says the pair “are great. They listen. They are very regulated and structured. You give them a mission and they will accomplish it.
Their caring attitude helped when the pandemic hit, leading to cancellations and no reservations for six weeks. Faced with a cash flow crisis, they temporarily laid off a quarter of the staff and cut their expenses. They also arranged to provide shelter for more than 80 nurses, doctors and nuclear power engineers, provided by RVezy’s network of RV owners.
Amid the turmoil, Mr Frind invested an additional $ 20 million, telling the duo they should commit the offense by moving quickly to the United States. In less than two months, RVezy had its first reservation in the United States; bookings in Canada surged in May as vacationers flocked to RVezy.
RVezy, with 54 full-time employees, is still trying to understand its potential and unit economy in the United States – where the season is longer and renters tend to book more last minute than in Canada – and navigate continuous COVID-19 uncertainties. “It’s hard to know what normal is,” Mr. Frind said.
While demand fell slightly last month under lockdown conditions in Canada, “there still seems to be a strong sense of optimism to be able to travel in RVs this summer, even with the restrictions,” McNaught said. Mr. Frind is also optimistic. “These lockdowns will be done in a few weeks. I think as summer dawns you will see a massive increase in traffic and revenue. “
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