They met as dormitory residents in a “living-learning community” their freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). Today, these four seniors are the proud recipients of not one, but two honors from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Coonhound Camping LLC is a venture founded by Dalton Maddox, Jeremy Piper, Chris Mikulec, and Michael Richards. Their hard work and determination recently garnered two honors – “Community Excellence Award” and “Young Entrepreneur Achievement Award” – from the U.S. Chamber. Those two recognitions, coupled with Knoxville’s Strata-G LLC winning the “Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award,” meant that three of the eight national honorees came from the local community.
We sat down recently with Piper, who grew-up in Detroit but now calls Franklin home, to learn more about the evolution of the company. Two of the co-founders – Maddox and Richards – are Tennessee natives, Knoxville and Cross Plains respectively, while Mikulec was raised in Orchard Park, NY.
“We were all business students at the time, living in Hess Hall,” Piper said, noting that Richards has since switched majors to geography. “We became friends and attended the same courses.”
The four also shared an interest in camping but did not have the equipment they needed. Slowly but surely, they began to acquire equipment for their own use and for clients of the business idea they had that evolved into Coonhound Camping. It was to take the logistical challenges out of camping by providing the equipment as well as the set-up and takedown.
“We kept taking steps forward,” Piper said, officially forming an LLC their sophomore year. In April 2018, they won $5,000 through the “Graves Business Plan Competition” offered by UTK’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI).
“We really started making progress after that,” he explained, adding that “the Anderson Center helped us a lot.” Coonhound Camping became fully operational this past summer and, even though the prime camping season has ended and all four are scheduled to graduate in May, there are plans to move forward.
“We’re going to grow this business,” Piper says, explaining that the co-founders are exploring licensing their model to an out-of-state company. Eventually, Coonhound Camping could adopt a franchising model.
All of the team except Piper plan to go to graduate school. He is looking for a full-time job, perhaps in the Nashville area, but says the four will remain very involved in the start-up and share duties for servicing the its clients.
“Operationally, most of the work (setting-up and taking down campsites) is on the weekend,” Piper explains. That will allow him to work during the week and the other three to attend classes during the week, reconvening on the weekends to do the set-up and takedown.
How large is their customer volume? Piper says Coonhound Camping averages three to four packages” a weekend and recently did a 10-tent set-up for a soccer team. A “package” can be a set-up for one to two campers for anywhere from $150 to $350 for the weekend to a set-up for three or four campers for $250 to $350. There are also add-on options as well as group packages.
He describes the packages as ranging from “better than a dorm room” on the lower end to a luxury option with hardwood floors.
“We can set-up anywhere a customer wants to camp, usually within 30 minutes of arrival at the site” Piper says. Coonhound Camping also has this interactive map of campgrounds where it has done set-ups and, thus has experience. The locations extend from Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia down to Athens. There’s important information about each site within a click.
As far as the U.S. Chamber recognition, Piper says that “it was a springboard for a lot of things for us. The word is out there now. A lot of people saw us as four college kids. This (recognition) adds legitimacy.”