Earlier this summer, Roofnest founder Tim Nickles sat down for an interview with Josh Salvo of Reddy Yeti.
Reddy Yeti is an outdoor club that gives members access to the most innovative gear from startups and small businesses at exclusive prices. Quirky, cutting-edge, and utterly obsessed with the outdoors, Reddy Yeti is an obvious friend to Roofnest, and we’re grateful for their platform to help us share our story.
In the interview, Tim dishes on everything from Roofnest’s roots, the brand’s trials and triumphs, and what’s in store for the future. Read the full podcast transcription below, and stay tuned for more exclusive Roofnest content!
Speaker 1: Welcome to The Reddy Yeti podcast, where we tell the story of startups in the outdoor sport industry through the voice of their founders.
Josh Salvo: What’s going on, guys? Before we get into today’s podcast episode, I wanted to give you a quick update on The Reddy Yeti membership program. To this point, we’ve grown to have thousands of products from up and coming startups and small businesses in the outdoor travel and lifestyle space on the platform. You can save up to 50% off all of these products, anything from skis to jackets to food bars to supplements, anything you can think of to support your outdoor activities is on the platform from small up and coming brands. It’s a great opportunity to support small businesses while also discovering brands that you’ve never heard of. You can show off the new gear to your friends and also save a ton while doing it. If you’re interested in checking it out, head over to reddyyeti.com/members to get your first month free.
Josh Salvo: What is going on, Reddy Yeti podcast listeners? Josh Salvo here, hosting today’s episode. I am sitting down with the founder of Roofnest, Tim Nickles. Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, no problem.
Josh Salvo: All right, so for the listener that may not be familiar with Roofnest, how would you best describe it to them?
Tim Nickles: Well, Roofnest is a brand that sells mainly rooftop tents, which are an improvement on traditional ways of car camping. It’s basically a tent that goes on top of your car, and there’s a bunch of varieties of that kind of thing. I mean, from tricked-out vans, to people with just platforms on their roof. But rooftop tents are kind of an enclosed bedroom up on your roof, and the kind we sell are hard shell rooftop tents, so they kind of look like a wide, low storage box. But then they pop up on gas struts and have a mattress inside. Most of our tents you can store your bedding in them, so it’s basically like having a bedroom on your car, and you park it anywhere and sleep whenever you want.
Josh Salvo: That’s really awesome. Now, tell me a little bit about your background. I know you’re originally from Alaska, but Roofnest is based in Boulder, Colorado. How did you get to the point of deciding to start a company that builds rooftop car roof tents?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, well it pretty much took me over. I didn’t really plan to start a business. I basically was building up an adventure rig back in 2016, and I decided…I was pretty broke at the time, and I decided on a Chevy Astro Van because you could get them for cheap. My plan was to put a roof top tent on top because I had seen them in Europe. I spend a lot of time in Chamonix, France, and I have a buddy over there that had a roof top tent, and I’d camped with him a bunch of times and seen how cool it was, so when I was building up the Astro, I wanted to get one but they were pretty hard to get and quite expensive.
Tim Nickles: I had done a bunch of sourcing of bike parts and bike equipment in China, and kind of had dabbled in selling things in bulk from Chinese producers with my branding on them, and so I started looking into Asian manufacturing sources for rooftop tents. And there were some, but they were pretty primitive and not, well…some of them were okay, but not super well designed. So when I tried to do that, I found that I could get rooftop tents, but I really needed to do a lot of work to make them better and kind of ready for the American consumer, you know, or Western consumer.
Tim Nickles: So that kind of started the journey, and my first foray was I maxed out two credit cards and basically created the brand Roofnest, built the website, maxed out two credit cards, and bought 12 tents, and sold them partially to friends and then just through Craigslist to strangers in and around Boulder. They sold really well, and I ordered 10 more, and then it was kind of off to the races after that. It really just kind of grew on its own.
Josh Salvo: So many questions. Let’s start with sort of your background. I know you went to school in Colorado, correct?
Tim Nickles: Correct.
Josh Salvo: So tell me a little bit about that time. You grew up in Alaska, so obviously the outdoors is kind of front and center, right? You have the ultimate playground.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, totally. I grew up spending a ton of time outdoors, and my folks weren’t super outdoorsy, but I mean, they were Alaskans, so relative to people in the lower 48, they were super outdoorsy. And so we camped every summer. We skied every winter. Then I came to Boulder for graduate school. I actually studied biochemistry here for about four and a half years, and Boulder is an awesome place, so I just stayed and did various things over the years. Then, like I said, this Roofnest thing kind of came into being and really grew, not quite on its own — I mean, obviously I had to do a lot of work, but it really took off.
Josh Salvo: That’s awesome. Now, okay, so you maxed, going back to what you said earlier, you maxed out two credit cards, you bought a few tents.
Tim Nickles: Twelve.
Josh Salvo: Twelve tents. Did you have like a group of friends being like, “Oh, no, I would totally buy this,” or was there…Did you feel like you were taking a little bit of a risk, or did you feel like it was a pretty good move and that you would have pretty good confidence in ability to like move those tents?
Tim Nickles: It was definitely risky. I mean, only in the sense that I was going to be in massive credit card debt, which is a risk. And I had sold you…you know, I had talked to people and I had placed an ad on Craigslist, and there seemed to be interest, and I knew I wanted one and had wanted one and enjoyed using it, so I kind of figured other people would too. So in that sense, it didn’t feel like a huge risk, but you know. I was broke at the time, so being more broke was not really an issue, and there was kind of only upside, so.
Josh Salvo: And how long did it take you to really prototype the rooftop tents? Do you have any experience sort of going through that process, lining up manufacturing and then…these things aren’t cheap, right? So were you at all afraid of them showing up and then six things being wrong with them?
Tim Nickles: Terrified. But yeah, I mean, it was a process. So the original tents that I branded and sold were a bit of a flyer. I had been going back and forth with the factory and specifying several elements of the tent, and then getting the first ones was kind of like, “Oh boy, these are great, but we got to do this and that and the other thing.” And then since then, I’ve been over to China several times and I’ve just evolved the design, and we’ve created new shell shapes, and we’ve just changed every aspect of the tent. I mean, pretty much literally every aspect of the tent to try to make it function better, be more durable, just work better in all conditions and all of the above.
Josh Salvo: Now, how did you go…a point that comes up on this podcast a lot is picking sort of your manufacturing partner, like making sure you do your due diligence and vetting to ensure that they can produce the caliber of product that you’re looking for. What was that process like for you? Did it take a lot of time or did you get lucky with finding a good one?
Tim Nickles: Well, I think I did get lucky but only in the sense that the manufacturing partner I have now was not really producing tents when I contacted them. They were making a four wheel drive parts and other accessories for four wheel drive vehicles, and they had all the capabilities, and they were very eager to extend their product line and stuff that they worked on.
Tim Nickles: I had worked with other manufacturers that kind of were established, and they were a little more difficult to work with because they kind of thought they knew how to make the tents. This manufacturer I have now was very open to input, very open to making changes, and so they were a willing partner and they’ve grown with me, and we still…I talk to them every day and I see them a couple times a year, and it’s become a really good partnership. Some of that is luck, but some of it is also just many, many, many months of hard work.
Josh Salvo: Definitely. Now, did you have any mentors along the journey of trying to like figure out the manufacturing piece, and then after that, obviously, the marketing and branding and just really getting the exposure out there to move units and grow the business?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, not really what I would call a mentor. I mean, I’ve definitely had several friends who have provided key advice at different times, a couple of whom I still talk to on the reg and help, but it’s been kind of a personal journey. Most of the time, I think my own instincts seem to guide me pretty well. I mean, I think it’s a tricky balance I think with entrepreneurs. You’re kind of the one closest to it, so really, you know the best what needs to be done, but you’re not always willing to trust yourself. But I’ve definitely found that often I have the right answers if I am willing to go for it.
Josh Salvo: Right. Okay. So you go through this first round of 12, you sell them, you place a new order. What was the growth like between 2016 and now? And is there anything in particular that you feel like you did that really helped you guys grow so much?
Tim Nickles: Well, yeah, so in the beginning, so the first tents that I sold, I sold in the beginning of 2017. A lot of work went into leading up to that in 2016, and then the first tents were sold in 2017, and then things grew pretty quickly, pretty much from the beginning. It’s been different things at different times that have helped sustain the growth, and a lot of it comes down to how I’ve gotten the word out about Roofnest.
Tim Nickles: In the beginning, I just put ads on Craigslist, and then I began posting into Facebook groups, Facebook for sale groups and Facebook groups like mountain biking groups or climbing groups and things like that, and really just did a lot of elbow grease type of gorilla marketing work. And then, at some point I learned about Google Ads and also hired a PR agency about a year and a half ago, a year ago. So it’s been a combination of things, and of course now, we do a whole vertical stack of different digital and other marketing methods. You know? So it’s kind of, that’s evolved with the company.
Josh Salvo: That’s awesome. Now, I want to ask you, like obviously since you’ve gotten started, there have been a few rooftop tent companies coming out. I want to ask what you feel really differentiates you from the other guys out there?
Tim Nickles: Yeah, well, there’s I think two things. One is that I’ve been extremely involved in the design and the control of production, and so I am kind of a tinkerer and I like to use my gear, and I feel like I’m pretty good at figuring out kind of how things should work or having ideas about how they might work better. So there’s kind of constant improvement going on, and that’s sometimes to a fault. I mean, sometimes we make improvements that lead to problems that we haven’t anticipated, but there is constant improvement.
Tim Nickles: Then the other big thing I think that differentiates us is that we’re a company structured to have a very small footprint, so as you and I had talked about a little while ago, I have just a small number of direct employees, but we have a large number of third-party providers that help us with all kind of phases of the company from shipping, logistics, marketing, all kinds of things. That allows us to keep a really low overhead, and then we sell direct to consumer. We don’t have a retail presence, we don’t have retail partners, and brands that do…I mean, retail is a great way to get your product into the hands of people and kind of diversify how people get to know your brand, but it also costs a lot of money. Selling tents to retailers at a wholesale price, you have to give up quite a bit of the margin. And so we have decided, I decided early on that I just wanted to sell directly to consumers, and that way the consumer is not paying this additional margin percentage to have a retail store relationship, and that’s good and bad. It’s not for everybody, but it’s been working great for us.
Tim Nickles: The other big thing about that is we get to directly control the experience of each of our customers. So one of the things that you’ll hear from our customers all the time is that we have just the best customer service in the industry, and I do think that’s true because literally any one of our customers can call us at any time and talk to us in real time, you know? So that’s hard to do with any kind of brand that has any kind of reach.
Josh Salvo: Oh, definitely. Now, I want to ask you about sustainability. Like obviously being an outdoor company, the environment is important. How do you guys keep that top of mind, especially manufacturing such a large item, like a rooftop tent?
Tim Nickles: Well, I would say that the environment and sustainability is certainly very important to me for the reasons you mentioned and several others, and with manufacturing, we really … I mean, other than working with my factory to make sure that they have proper waste streams and that they have workers that are happy and that sort of thing, we try to use materials that are not terrible, but at this stage of our growth, it’s really something that isn’t a top line goal of the company to make sort of recyclable or using some kinds of materials that might be organically produced or things like that. It really hasn’t come into the scope other than just as a, we’re not trying to do more harm than we do.
Josh Salvo: Right. Right. Now, I want to also talk about what growth has been like since you started. So you started in 2016, you start selling really in 2017, so it’s really only been a couple of years. What has that growth and exposure been like?
Tim Nickles: Well, yeah, we sold about half a million dollars worth of tents in 2017, which was a complete surprise. I had no any inkling that Roofnest would grow into what it has when I was getting going. I just thought this was cool and these were cool products and I wanted … I maybe could sell 20 of them, and it just quickly grew, and then we tripled in 2017, and it looks like we’re maybe going to double this year. So we’re selling a lot of tents. I think we have over a thousand tents out there in the wild.
Josh Salvo: That’s amazing. That’s incredible, being able to grow that quickly in such a short period of time and having no physical presence, doing it all online, especially with a larger item like a rooftop tent.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I’m as surprised as anybody.
Josh Salvo: I guess, and this is just me speculating, like having a rooftop tent is probably more affordable than buying like a sprinter van and doing like a full overall, right?
Tim Nickles: Oh, well, by about 98 grand.
Josh Salvo: Oh, yeah. Well, exactly, but and a lot of steps in between. So it’s like turning your car, having some sort of functionality and like being able to live out of it, and then having the rooftop tent is just like, it’s a way more practical solution.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I think it allows for so many people who are not committed van lifers to participate in comfortable car camping, because you don’t have to buy another vehicle. You can use your grocery getter to put a rooftop tent on it and throw some clothes and food into the back, and you’re off for the weekend. So it opens it up to a lot more people, and I think people like the idea of road tripping and camping and exploring, but some people don’t know exactly how to do it. Some people are not really psyched to set up a tent on the ground and find camping sites. I was talking to a friend the other day and they were saying that the way rec.gov reserves campsites throughout the U.S. now, it’s like you got to get on a lottery in February just to get a campsite in the summer.
Tim Nickles: If you have your bed on top of your car, you just drive to some dispersed place. I mean, freecampsites.net is a great web resource to find places to park, and you don’t need much more than a parking space to go out and sleep on top of your car, so.
Josh Salvo: That’s a great point.
Tim Nickles: Yeah. And you know, our tents are three grand or so, when it’s all said and done, and so that’s so much cheaper than having to have a second vehicle that’s dedicated to camping. I mean, nobody really can do that. I mean, it’s a very small percentage that have the space to park, have the funds to have an extra vehicle, et cetera. But just about anybody can afford three grand to throw a Roofnest on top of their car and be able to camp wherever they want.
Josh Salvo: That’s a very good point. Now I guess my only question is, can you camp in it in the winter?
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I mean, depends on where you are. If we’re talking Fairbanks, Alaska where I grew up, maybe not so much. If it’s Los Angeles, then yes, no problem. But yeah, they are quite warm. The top shell is insulated and the sidewall fabric is super thick and insulates much better than a typical backpacking tent. We also sell an insulation package for our tents, and we do have people in the Northeast and other cold areas that winter camp all the time, and they dig it. They’re kind of a special breed, but they-
Josh Salvo: Yeah. Got a few friends like that.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, it’s totally possible.
Josh Salvo: Yeah. I was just thinking about it for like, like we spent, our team spent the winter up in Vermont and we did a ton of back country skiing. So being able to have one of those and like, just before a storm rolls in, park like right on the trail head in that lot and then just wake up early, do an early morning tour. Like and the Northeast gets cold, you know? You’ll have nights below zero, but I would totally do that.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, no, totally. And some people get little like mini portable propane heaters, like a Mr. Buddy. Lots of people like heat up their tent before they crash for the night, and it’s quite an extended temperature range that you could be comfortable in, in a rooftop tent.
Josh Salvo: That’s really awesome. Okay, so over the last couple of years, what would you say has been the hardest part about starting and building Roofnest?
Tim Nickles: Well, I think the biggest issues we’ve had are production issues, so keeping up with demand really. Part of that is because my manufacturing partner was a small factory when we began. They’ve since moved into a much bigger space, and they’ve gained a lot more output capabilities, but we have always had problems with production, and that’s probably one of the things that’s negatively affected our growth the most is that we are often back ordered at this time of year. Last year, we were back ordered for two and a half months. Every time we got a container of tents, they would all ship right out and we’d have none in stock again, you know?
Tim Nickles: And so this year we’re doing a little bit better, but not quite good enough, and I think if I had to say what are my biggest mistakes, it would be that I have not planned for the growth and planned for production as well as I could have. I mean, it’s tough because when you … Planning for growth means spending a lot of money up front, and that’s always a risk too. If you don’t have the sales to back it up, you get stuck with inventory and that kind of thing. So it’s a tough balance.
Josh Salvo: Yeah. In manufacturing, I’ve always found, or at least from all of these interviews, the hardest part is capital and managing inventory, and really accurately projecting what you think you can move. And then like you said, if you’re wrong, then you’re kind of just sitting there twiddling your thumbs being like, “All right, well I can’t sell anything.”
Tim Nickles: Yeah. Yeah, totally.
Josh Salvo: Now, have you bootstrapped the whole business or did you take in any sort of outside capital?
Tim Nickles: Bootstrap the whole thing.
Josh Salvo: Well, that’s very impressive. Honestly, like building something like this, especially a large ticket item like that where there’s definitely a lot of pieces involved in the manufacturing, that’s not an easy thing to do.
Tim Nickles: No, it’s been a challenge for a number of reasons, but it seems like it’s been worth those efforts and the risks that I’ve taken because now it’s an established company with a budget and staff and just all of the things, and I don’t have to work with investors who have contrary aims to my own, and I get to make all the decisions myself, which is, it’s great because I get to determine what my company feels like and looks like and how it’s perceived and all of those things.
Josh Salvo: What advice would you give to someone that wanted to start a business, whether it was in the outdoor industry or really just a business in general?
Tim Nickles: Well, I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is try to figure out if the market wants what you want to make or what you want to sell before you get too deep. I think a lot of startup businesses in all phases of markets try to decide what the market wants and then try to give that to the market, and I mean, there is that aspect of course in any business, but I think making sure that the market actually wants what you think they want is key. That’s key.
Josh Salvo: I think that’s great advice. Where do you see Roofnest in the next year, five years, 10 years down the road?
Tim Nickles: Well, I think that I would like to get on to a little more stable footing in terms of the structure of the company. It’s been just such fast growth that it feels like a four alarm fire every day, you know? And so I’d like the structure of the company to get a little better. I’d like to expand into other product lines that support vehicle-based camping and adventure and things like that, and then also expand into other countries. We’re trying to expand into Australia. I have a small distributor in Britain, Great Britain, or the UK, United Kingdom, and then, yeah, and then we’ll just see.
Josh Salvo: Okay. So tell me a little bit about some products you have in the pipeline, anything that really is kind of a new for Roofnest.
Tim Nickles: Yeah, so we’ve actually been working on a new tent for quite a while now that is a pretty big a departure from our existing manufacturer. So all of our tents now have this sort of ABS plastic and fiberglass shell, and we have been working on an aluminum hard shell tent, which is available on our website now. It’s called The Falcon. All of our tents have bird names.
Tim Nickles: So this one, what makes it unique is, because of the aluminum honeycomb shell design, I can make the tent basically flat. The tent has a super low profile. It’s only about six and a half inches tall when it’s closed, and then it opens up like a clamshell, and because of the aluminum construction, it’s super rigid, so we can stand the tent up quite tall. So it’s almost five feet tall on the inside, and we’re making it in two sizes, and it also has a optional roof rack that you can attach to these kind of accessory channels that are on both sides of the tent or all four sides of the tent, and you can actually attach other things. We’re going to make products like a light bar that you can put on the front of the tent or a awning attachment that you can attach to the side of the tent. So we’re really looking forward to really filling out this tent and all of the functionality that it can have.
Josh Salvo: That’s super smart. I’m definitely excited to see all the new products that you guys have coming out over the years. Okay. So obviously you’ve grown quite a bit over the last couple of years and you have a pretty lean team. Is it still like require a pretty demanding work schedule from you, or have you kind of automated a lot of pieces of it over the last couple of years?
Tim Nickles: Yeah. I mean, it is definitely I have not automated enough of it. My workload is way too big. I’m still just slammed, especially from really February through to August. I do get a breather in the fall and a little bit over the winter, but yeah, my workload is way too high, and so that’s something I’d like to change going forward.
Josh Salvo: No, I totally get that. So I assume, it’s so funny, everyone I talk to like starts a business in the outdoor industry because they love being outdoors and then they’re like, “Yeah, I’m inside in front of my computer, or like in a manufacturing facility most of my day.”
Tim Nickles: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, best way to stop camping is start a camping company.
Josh Salvo: Yeah, totally. Oh, man. Yeah. I feel like you get warned, but you don’t really realize it until you’re in the thick of it, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that does happen.”
Tim Nickles: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, man.
Josh Salvo: So tell me a little bit about the day-to-day for you. Like what are some of the things that you kind of spend most of your time on, and like has that changed over the last couple of years?
Tim Nickles: Well, yeah, it definitely has. I mean, the basic model for my growth of staff and other resources has been I’m doing everything myself at the beginning, and as I do the various aspects of the company and really come to understand them, then I feel like I can hire somebody to take that off my plate. So it’s really been a matter of getting to know that aspect of the company fully and then figuring out how to take that off my plate, and that’s usually been by hiring someone directly or getting a third party provider to, to fulfill that need.
Tim Nickles: And so, my day-to-day is super varied. I mean, I obviously have a lot of emails of varying kinds to respond to and phone calls and things, and then I try to spend a lot of time figuring out where the next sort of growth is going to come from and what I want to do to expand our product line and how I want to change the tents or improve the tents. So yeah, it’s kind of a lot of things every day.
Josh Salvo: Well, what’s the best part about running Roofnest?
Tim Nickles: We have a Facebook group called The Roofnest Flock, and it’s, I don’t know, probably 700, 800 members now. They’re mostly customers, and getting to see everybody using their Roofnest and going places and posting photos and others commenting, knowing that we’re creating that is just really…we’re not creating it. I mean, obviously, the public is creating that. Our customers are creating that, but we’re helping, and so that’s super rewarding and it’s cool to see.
Josh Salvo: That’s actually a really smart thing to do, especially on the end of like getting customer feedback, seeing how customers are using it and like using that group to, I guess, improve upon the current product and then introducing new products. I assume you’ve taken advantage of that.
Tim Nickles: Totally. Yeah. I mean, we get a lot of feedback directly from our customers. I’m constantly getting feedback when I look at The Flock just to see how people are using them and any problems they might have or questions people ask. I mean, it’s, yeah, all of the above.
Josh Salvo: That’s so awesome, and I want to make a note for anyone listening to this episode before August 6th, you can actually enter to win $1,000 gift card to Roofnest along with a ton of other camping gear. Just head over to reddyyeti.com for your chance to win. And with that, Tim, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the podcast and share your story and the story of Roofnest, and it’s really impressive to see how much you’ve grown in such a short period of time.
Tim Nickles: Thanks, man. Thanks a lot for having me on. It’s been super fun to get to share the story. I don’t often get to do that, so it’s kind of fun to reflect and get a perspective on where we come from and where we are now.
Speaker 4: If you enjoyed today’s podcast episode, then we would be incredibly appreciative if you could log on to iTunes and leave us a quick review. This really helps us get noticed by other podcast listeners like yourself, and if you know anyone that would benefit from this episode, then please share it along.
Josh Salvo: Well, that wraps up this episode of The Reddy Yeti podcast. We’ll catch you guys next week.