Roofnest Founder and CEO Tim Nickles was recently invited to be interviewed by Doug Stetzer, host of Colorado.FM.
Colorado.FM is an ongoing podcast series that highlights artists, authors, entrepreneurs, gear companies, and more around Boulder, Crested Butte, Denver, Nederland, and Silverton.
In this interview, Tim talks about everything from what brought him to Colorado 15 years ago (spoiler: he was attending grad school at CU, where he was training to be a scientist), to selling his first unbranded hard shell roof top tent right off his car in the Copper Ski Resort parking lot. Listen to the whole podcast above to discover more about Roofnest’s past, present, and future, and read the full podcast transcription below!
Doug: Everyone, Doug from Colorado.fm. We’re back for the second week in a row, so pretty happy to keep the streak alive. It’s been really great to dig back into this project. As I mentioned, had some great interviews already lined up. And we might even have to bump up the frequency a little bit. We’ll see. But right now, it’s great to get this next one out, keep the streak alive.
Doug: Anyway, in this episode I am speaking with Tim Nickles, the founder of rooftop tent company, Roofnest. They’re a local Boulder brand. I had the pleasure of meeting him, actually through another guest on the podcast, through my interview with polar adventurer, Eric Larsen. So, that whole thing of starting this podcast and getting out there and just kind of expanding my local horizons and getting in touch with people doing cool things in this area is really kind of paying off. And that’s how I met Tim.
Doug: So, we can kind of get into that a little bit. But for now, the rooftop tents, they’re pretty unbelievable. If you camp at all, it’s pretty easy to see how it’d be amazing to just pull into your spot and in one minute have your camper all set up basically. As opposed to, we’ve all set up tents in the dark and in the rain, in the wind. It gets a little hairy. But it’s a really, really an interesting product. And he’s getting some great press and some great reviews on the roof nest. So we get into that a little bit. And of course, if you’re in Colorado right now or if you’re even thinking about getting up here, it’d be a beautiful time to test out one of these. The weather just … Fall up here is spectacular.
Doug: So, we talk about what he’s trying to do with his company, how he’s a little different than some of the other brands, how he got started, what inspired it. It’s a great story. He seems to be doing well, and it’s really cool to watch. So, as always, links to him. You can find Roofnest at Roofnest.com and on Instagram @Roofnest, and we’ll put links to anything we speak about in the show notes.
Doug: I also just wanted to mention that I did start up a new page on Colorado.fm.
There is a shop page. And if you go on there, you can find links to a lot of the brands that we’ve either spoken to or even people that we hope to speak to in the future, just cool local companies. It’s a good way to find them and support them, and you’ll be supporting the podcast in the process. So, let’s get into it. Here we go. My conversation with Tim Nickles at Roofnest.
Doug: All right. We’re recording.
Tim Nickles: Nice.
Doug: Tim Nickles.
Tim Nickles: Doug.
Doug: Thanks for showing up, man. It’s good to see you again.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. Likewise, man. Great seeing you.
Doug: I was thinking when, back to how we even met, I definitely wanted to give Maria over at SMAK Strategies-
Tim Nickles: A call out.
Doug: A heads-up and a little call out because we met at her Christmas party. She does some great things and represents some cool people. So I was actually curious how you got even dialed in with her.
Tim Nickles: Well, Maria and I have known each other for, gosh, 10 or 15 years. She’s part of a crowd of friends that I’ve known in Boulder for, yeah, 15 going on 20 years, some of them. So yeah, I’ve known her for a long time. We just got to talk talking one day, and I knew that she was in PR, and I started to need that. You know, met at a coffee shop, and didn’t even really start to talk about her really working for me, but she said, “Hey, I’ve got someone I could send your info to at Outside.” And that ended up turning into one of our biggest splashes in terms of PR. It was just supernatural to hire her, just given common friends and interests. And she does a great job.
Doug: She really hooked me up too because she reached out and had her husband, Eric Larsen, come over on this show. And that was really amazing for me.
Tim Nickles: Oh, cool. He’s great.
Doug: … to have started this little project. And next thing I know, I’ve got this crazy polar adventurer sitting on the couch, right?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, polar explorer. Yeah.
Doug: So that was awesome. So I did want to give her a little bit of a shout out. And her Christmas was pretty amazing too.
Tim Nickles: Super fun. Yeah.
Doug: Yeah, super fun. There was-
Tim Nickles: Lots of bourbon. That’s what I remember.
Doug: It was at a bourbon distillery, right?
Tim Nickles: Yes.
Doug: So, cool. Awesome. You mentioned being around for awhile. We’ll definitely get around talking about Roofnest and things, but I am…Since this is a show about Colorado and one of the common threads is that we’re all here and that this place is pretty amazing.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, rad.
Doug: But not all of us have been around for 15 or 20 years. So, what brought you here in the first place?
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I came to Boulder in August of 1990 to start graduate school at the University of Colorado. I was studying molecular biology and biochemistry. At that time, I was kind of in line to be a scientist. Yeah, I came here pretty bright-eyed about Colorado. I was pretty stoked on it. Grad school didn’t go quite as planned. I left with a Master’s for my Doctoral Program, kind of ABD as they say. But yeah, ended up really loving Boulder and have stayed here pretty much ever since with some stints and other places. Was in Jackson, Wyoming for a few years.
Doug: Right, I gotcha. Yeah. So it’s one of those come to CU, and almost never leave kind of thing.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, a common story.
Doug: I can only imagine. Yeah, exactly. I could only imagine what this place was like, I mean going on-
Tim Nickles: 28 years ago.
Doug: 28 years ago. Yeah, exactly.
Tim Nickles: It had some of the same features, but quite a bit different, quite a bit different feel.
Doug: Well that’s cool. I’m guessing…It was funny. I was thinking about it. So, I’m guessing you liked camping. Or maybe you hated trying to sleep on the ground. It’s not always easy to get a good night’s sleep when you’re camping. So, Roofnest, how did that come about?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, kind of a funny story really. I spend a lot of time in Chamonix, France. I’ve been going there for about 14 years. I’m actually headed there in a couple of weeks. But I have a buddy over there, Jim Lee, who had a rooftop tent, a hard-shell rooftop tent on his vehicle, and had camped with him and my other buddies there quite a bit. Always thought that was a pretty cool setup. And a couple of summers ago, I was starting to think about building up an adventure rig, and kind of didn’t have much of a budget at all. I was not flush. And so I bought a Astro van, a Chevy Astro van for 2,700 bucks. Super great condition, I got really lucky with it. And my plan was to kind of build out the inside a little bit, but then put a rooftop tent on top as a way to like have a full-on camper rig without having to totally trick out the interior. And what I found was it was pretty difficult to get an RTT for in my budget. I mean, my budget was one to $2,000. Everything I was seeing was like four or five, stuff like that.
Tim Nickles: So I had done a lot of, or some, sourcing of manufacturing in China for the bike industry. I’d kind of had a little stint where I was selling pedals that I’d designed and had bought parts, bike parts, and built bikes from stuff over there. So, I had some experience. And so I started looking into whether there was manufacturing in China, and found some okay options and kind of got some tents shipped over. Some of those initial ones were okay, but not … definitely needed a lot of improvement. And what happened was, I had never really thought about starting Roofnest directly, but once I had got the tent, I was like, “Oh, this might be a thing I could sell.” And thought, “Maybe I could get 10 of these and make up some name and sell them.” And then kind of put that idea to the side.
Tim Nickles: But I had taken a Craigslist ad out for rooftop tents, just to test the market, and got some responses. And then, coincidentally, like two months later, someone just sent me an email at random and was like, “Hey, are you still selling those rooftop tents?” And of course I just had one on my van, so I was like, “Oh, yeah. Well…Yeah, I have a prototype model that’s not branded. I’ve been using it as a demo. But yeah, I could sell that to you for $2,000.” And he said, “Done, I’ll take it.” And he lived in Grand Junction. It was getting on December. And I met him at the Copper Mountain parking lot. I went up with four friends in my van, and we skied Copper. And I quit early, came down to the parking lot. We just popped the thing off my van and put it on his 4Runner, and he gave me two grand. And I was like, “This is a business. This is on.”
Tim Nickles: And I promptly started brainstorming names and looked into building a website. And yeah, it was kind of off to the races from there. I maxed out a couple of credit cards to get the manufacturing up and running, and then it’s just been a constant iteration of trying to improve the product and get the message out to more people that they’re for sale. And I’ve been lucky, it’s been very well received, and it’s been an easy business to grow.
Doug: Right. Wow. That’s great, man. I love that story. It’s just so Colorado. I love the deal in the Copper parking lot going down. It’s just epic.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, its roots.
Doug: So that model was kind of more off-the-shelf of something you found, so then you started iterating on it to improve it and bump up the quality. Because I mean one of the things I noticed is … I mean, there was one of the videos on your website. I loved it. There was these two people setting it up on the side of the road, and the winds howling so bad that you really can’t even hear them talking or anything like that. It’s just like, “[inaudible 00:10:57].” And you can still pop it. So I’m assuming that those first ones that you ordered probably weren’t up to snuff, as well as that?
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I mean, they were okay. But yeah, just so many of the features … I mean, it’s a simple thing, really. It’s just two shells with hinges and gas struts with a mattress on the inside. But, as everything, I mean there’s so many details that go into making it a nice product. I found a factory that I was able to create an exclusive relationship with and really start working on my own designs, and that’s been super productive because I’ve been over there a couple times. I’ve met the people at the factory and have a really good, open communication with them. And we’re constantly talking about improvements. It’s always a struggle because you want to keep a sort of set feature list on your product so that you don’t have a bunch of different models out there, but we’re constantly making improvements. And now we have, I think, a great product that’s super competitive quality-wise with the other top brands out there. And that’s been a lot of work to get there.
Doug: Right. It’s funny. I have it written down to ask you about that process of finding the manufacturing and everything because a lot of people you talk to are dealing with digital projects these days and things like that, and you just don’t get these … or people manufacturing locally where you can control a lot of that process. But finding that manufacturing overseas and things like that can be a real deal breaker for a lot of people. And so having established that relationship I’m sure is pretty clutch to maintaining everything.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. And like I said, I think I was very fortunate with what I was able to find and create, but it’s been constant work. I think last year my factory, the contacts there wake up at about 5:00 or 6:00 PM Colorado time, so pretty much all last year and most of this year, and still to some degree, but I work all day on the business, and then I work all night communicating and stuff with China. So it’s been … Yeah, it was a difficult last year and the start of this year were pretty tough on the old social life and everything else just pinning it.
Doug: Just a burnout espresso machine on your counter.
Tim Nickles: Totally.
Doug: Well, what about locally? There’s such a great startup infrastructure in Boulder and such a great community, especially for a gear type product and things like that. How has that been like? Aside from knowing people like Maria, what has it been to be part of that more of like a startup thing in Boulder?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s two elements that you spoke of. One is the startup community in Boulder, and the other is the outdoor community. And those two don’t really overlap a ton. I mean, there’s outdoor startups here. We’re one of them, but for the most part a lot of the startups are tech companies. And then the outdoor brands, they have presence here. Dina fit has offices here, Salewa, and lots of other companies obviously. So it’s been really great to create some local partnerships for both branding, getting the word out, doing events together. And then as far as the startup infrastructure, I’ve definitely attended a lot of talks and events and stuff to learn what people do when they’re starting a business. It’s interesting. I think so much of what I’ve done has been just making it up as I go along because some of the challenges I’ve faced are different than the challenges other companies have faced.
Tim Nickles: And I think, especially in the tech world, the whole kind of startup thing … Startup, even just that phrase is somewhat new. I mean, we used to call that a business, when you created a business. Now, it’s a startup. And now it’s, there’s all venture capital and all this stuff. I basically self-funded. Like I said, I maxed out a couple of cards. I actually borrowed some money from my mom. It was a little … I actually took a loan out on my car. I didn’t even know you could do that.
Doug: Right. That’s creative.
Tim Nickles: I owned my old Volkswagen Jetta, and I called the bank and I was like, “I need money.” They’re like, “Well, what do you got? You got a car?” I was like, “Yeah, I got a car.” He’s like, “Well, let’s put a loan on it.” So yeah, I’ve got some capital. So, I haven’t been in that infrastructure of the startup community as much, but it’s been good to be here. I definitely have friends and contacts that have provided a lot of assistance and advice, and that’s been helpful.
Doug: Right. It was funny. We were just starting to talk, before we even hit the record button, and I had to stop us. So you’ve created this company. We won’t call it … It’s not a startup. It’s a real one.
Tim Nickles: Thank you.
Doug: You’ve got a cool product, but there are other people doing what you’re doing. There are some of these other brands out there. I do see the difference between the hard-shell ones and kind of those soft ones. But I am starting to see … Just around town, man, I definitely see roof nests out there. One of the things that you mentioned was that you’re different. You’re trying to be, not only a different product, but a different company. So let’s kind of talk about what you’re trying to do with that.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, so I’m a pretty frugal person. I always like to find the best value in things that I purchase myself, cars, bikes, whatever. And what I’ve wanted to create is a company that can sell a really good value to customers. Again, as I said, I’m kind of making all this up as I go along. But what I understood the way to do that to be was to sell direct to consumers, kind of control as much of the distribution, supply, et cetera, et cetera, as I can internal to the company, so I can kind of save costs at each stage and not have to pay third parties some of my margin. I worked on this company by myself for a long time, and now I have several really great people working with me, but I think in the beginning that was part of it too. And I think one of the big features of Roofnest is that direct to consumer thing. We don’t have a dealer network that we need to build in a margin to sell at a higher price. I always tell people we’re selling wholesale to the public, which is true. We get the proceeds of every sale, so that allows us to put that back into the business and keep our prices really competitive, which there are several companies making, not only hard-shell but soft-shell rooftop tents.
Tim Nickles: And as a new brand, I think we’ve had to offer pretty competitive pricing just to get out there, until now. I think we have a pretty good reputation. there’s a lot of reviews and discussion on the web. And we have a super good customer user community that’s very supportive, and I think that’s helping us. People aren’t sort of saying like, “Who the heck is Roofnest? Why should I buy their tent?” So, that’s the main thing. And then like I said, keeping all the processes of creation, supply, distribution, warehousing. We’ve setup all those things to be as inexpensive as possible. We’re warehousing in Los Angeles. All of our ocean freight goes right to there and gets stored, and we ship all over the country and even North America from there. We used to do that in Denver, but it was really expensive to bring the tents, all of them over land to store them in Denver. And so this is just all-
Doug: And then back to California, where they came from.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, and then sell to someone in LA. “Wow. It was just there.” So, that was kind of silly. And that’s all, like I said, been stuff I’ve had to learn on my own. I haven’t had anybody to sort of teach me how to do that.
Doug: Yeah. Well, and now you’re employing some locals too. That’s cool.
Tim Nickles: Yeah.
Doug: That’s got to be a good feeling, making jobs, man.
Tim Nickles: Totally, contributing to the local economy. Yeah. My first hire was my next door neighbor.
Doug: Right on.
Tim Nickles: I didn’t have to go far, just like conversation in the parking lot.
Doug: You already saw him standing there. It’s like, “I know you’re not working, man.
Get over here.” Like, “Let’s go.”
Tim Nickles: Yeah. No, it was perfect.
Doug: That’s awesome. So, like you said, you’re not…It’s all direct sales. So are you doing even anything like…I was at the outdoor retailer show here, but for most people that’s just about landing. You’re not really meeting direct customers there. You’re meeting retail outlets. So I don’t know if that was a big deal for you. [crosstalk 00:20:31]
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I’ve gone to a couple outdoor retailers. That’s where I met you, really, associated with the first one last winter. And yeah, it’s not really our show. We don’t buy space there or anything. I mean, I go and I talk to people and meet some folks and stuff. But yeah, not our gig right now. We think about distribution as channels. You have retail channels and online channels and this and that and the other thing. It’s just … Today with the technology and people using the web for so many things … People buy a lot of things off the web. I mean, that’s nothing … That’s not news I’m not making news here, but it’s been really effective for us to set the company up to sell to people online, getting information out there online, getting video content. That’s always a challenge, but just making it easy for people to make that call.
Doug: Cool. Let’s talk about the product a little bit. We talked about it … You know what I mean? It looks like you’re getting some great feedback and great reviews out there. I read some of the articles that you have online, some great magazine kind of feedback. So, how are you loving this thing? Is, the rooftop tent thing, just the idea of getting off the ground and getting up in the air, it seems to me like the only challenge is making sure your car is in a level spot. Other than that, I mean, it seems pretty easy.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, you’ve got no worries. The nice thing about our tents is they pop straight up, so you don’t need anything to the left or right of your vehicle. You’re kind of self-contained, just like an old Westfalia camper van type thing and the Sprinter craze that’s going on now. It’s all just right in that space where you park. And yeah, leveling your vehicle, really nobody mentions that. a lot of overlanders have these little plastic things that they bring with them to level their vehicle. And of course if you get way out in the back country, that can be an issue. But a lot of our market is people that are just using these things for weekend getaways, and they’re not necessarily going up to a mountain top to camp. They’re kind of near some infrastructure, and so pretty easy for them to find flat ground.
Tim Nickles: But yeah, the beauty of a hard-shell rooftop tent Roofnest is you can literally park your car. You undo a couple straps. They pop up on gas struts. You can be inside the thing within a minute of pulling your car over, which is unlike any other camping experience, other than a camper van or an RV or that sort of thing. These, they go on any car. We’ve got them on Cooper Minis and Prius’s and that sort of stuff. So it’s really open to anyone. You don’t need to buy another vehicle. You just use the vehicle you have. And you don’t need another parking space for an extra camper vehicle. And they’re pretty easy to put on and take off. I think normally, if somebody’s got a decent rack and there’s enough clearance to kind of access everything, you can get these on in 15 minutes. I had a guy come to my house to borrow one the other day, and we popped it off my Jetta and popped it on his truck. Took us less than 10 minutes, all said and done. So, you can take them off if you want to use the car for something different or seasonally or whatever.
Doug: Right. Yeah, I know. That’s amazing because I did some road tripping with my two little kids. I was like thinking that would have been killer. It would have been perfect for that situation. You’re just like, boom, pop the thing up. It’s stores … Everyone talks about how a lot of the bedding and things like that are kind of in there, so it’s just literally ready to go, which kind of begs the question of whether I can just leave my kids in there. Or even like … When you go camping long enough, even a regular adult camping partner, you might want to just close them in there, get the car to yourself for like a few days.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. Right. If it’s too long, you can kind of get on each other’s nerves.
Doug: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Nickles: Like, “You need to stay on the roof, man. You guys just put your headphones on.” Yeah. No, it looks pretty … I mean, the benefits seem pretty obvious. And even compared to the Westfalia type things, the one thing people kind of complain about in that whole setup scenario is that if you’re kind of parked here and you want to go drive even just a couple of miles away to the whatever the actual feature that you came to see, is that it takes you an hour to actually pack the whole van back up and go over there for the day and kind of come back. Where it seems like, if it’s just your tent on top and not a whole bunch of other stuff, like a little less of a deal. You can just slam that tent down and get out of there in a few minutes and come back. Certainly compared to a ground tent or any other kind of camping set up.
Tim Nickles: And a lot of places I camp and other people camp, you can leave stuff set up at your campsite and just take off for the day. And so, yeah, popping the tent down and driving somewhere, pretty easy.
Doug: It looks like fun, man.
Tim Nickles: It’s a good way to camp, that’s for sure.
Doug: And I’m sure it’s been a fun thing to be involved with.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, that’s the cool thing about running an outdoor business, especially one involved with camping, is everybody I deal with is pretty chill. I mean, there’s always the exception, but most of the people are out there trying to have fun, trying to get more adventure in their life. We’re just sort of facilitating that, and it’s a cool thing to be doing.
Doug: Yeah. Well, it’s funny. I was just thinking. Speaking of Eric Larsen, when we were speaking, he was saying how when he was growing up, all he wanted to be was a professional camper, basically. I’m like, “Well, that’s kind of funny.” And I think maybe you’ve pulled it off. If you have a tent company, you may be a professional camper, man.
Tim Nickles: I think I might be a professional camper.
Doug: That’s awesome. Well, anything else? Anything coming up for like new year? I know you’re trying to … It seems like you’ve got four models or something like that. You’ve got the bases covered as far as size and different vehicles. Anything new coming?
Tim Nickles: Yeah. We’ve got some new stuff that we’re working on that hopefully we’ll be telling people about this winter, “Get ready for 2019 spring and stuff.” We’ve introduced some accessories, just other products that go with the whole car camping thing. We’ve got a 12 volt fridge that is branded Roofnest. And we make this down blanket that’s actually a super cool piece of kit. It’s like a seven foot by six foot, big, puffy down blanket, like a technical sleeping bag with no zippers. So it’s great for the Roofnest and also just great to have around the camp where you can just pull it out, wrap it around your body, go look at the stars, whatever. So it’s a pretty cool thing. So we’re experimenting with that kind of stuff.
Doug: With some of those stuff, like the accessories that fit perfectly and all that?
Tim Nickles: Yeah.
Doug: I mean, those things make the experience really great.
Tim Nickles: Totally. Yeah.
Doug: Great, man. All right. So, we’ll keep our eye out for stuff like that. Is there anything else you wanted to mention, man?
Tim Nickles: No. No, I’m good. Doug, super nice talking to you. Thanks for letting me on your show.
Doug: Yeah. Well, there’s one last thing that I like to ask people. And I didn’t give you a heads-up, so this is going to be a real … It’s not like anything crazy, but I do like to ask people who they’d like to hear on this show, and I get some great ideas from my guests. So is somebody around here? And they don’t have to be in your field, anywhere in Colorado. I mean, it is a Colorado show. But people doing cool stuff, somebody doing something really, whether it’s for the community or business wise.
Tim Nickles: I don’t know. I don’t know if you know Eric Henderson. Do you know that guy?
Tim Nickles: He’s an old buddy from Jackson. He’s living here with his wife and family and does similar stuff to Maria, works with brands. He’s just a super cool guy, tons of energy, great to talk to. He’d be a fun guy to have on the show.
Doug: There you go. That’s all I’m looking for. Perfect.
Doug: All right. Well, thanks again, man. I appreciate you making some time and coming over. I appreciate hearing your story.
Tim Nickles: My pleasure, man. Easy trip. Easy trip across town for me.
Doug: Awesome. All right, thanks.
Tim Nickles: See you, Doug.
Doug: All right, everyone. Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Tim from Roofnest. Again, you can find them at Roofnest.Com and also in the shop, Colorado.fm/shop. Again, a great local brand doing some great things. If you’re enjoying the podcast, go ahead and subscribe, whether it’s on Apple Podcasts, Android, Stitcher. You can listen on any one of those devices. And also join our email list if you are interested in that. Thanks again, and we will speak to you soon.
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