A summer holiday gave Hugo Oliveira, then a masters in management student, the business idea he had been searching for. “I was working and travelling around Australia in a hired camper van and became completely fascinated by the sense of freedom I experienced,” he says.
Indie Campers, a fast-growing Portugal-based company, which Mr Oliveira views as “a co-creator of an entirely new market category”, was conceived soon afterwards.
The Portuguese entrepreneur and Stefan Koeppl, an Austrian friend, co-founded the business seven years ago near Porto, renovating three second-hand camper vans themselves to rent out to surfers on the Portuguese coast. The company now operates a fleet of 850 vehicles in 49 locations across Europe, with plans to expand into the US and beyond.
Indie Campers was born out of Portugal’s well-supported start-up scene, where investment has been growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year since 2016, according to Beta-i, a Portuguese start-up accelerator.
It is tapping into three consumer trends: the rise of the rental economy; tourists’ growing aversion to carbon-spouting air travel; and a desire to “get back to nature” rooted in wider concerns about wellbeing and the environment.
With 2018 revenues of €9m and a compound annual growth rate of 210 per cent for 2015-2018, Indie Campers ranks second in the travel and leisure category in the FT 1000 list of fastest-growing European companies. It is 37th overall.
Although Mr Oliveira, chief executive, expects the coronavirus pandemic to curb expansion in the short term, he envisages fast growth over the next few years. “That means offering trips anywhere in the world at the best quality and lowest price,” he says, which will be achieved in part through the company’s proprietary pricing algorithm.
The inspiration for Indie Campers came while Mr Oliveira was studying at Portugal’s Nova School of Business and Economics and he made the concept the subject of his masters thesis.
Initially, he had no international expansion ambitions. “I didn’t even think about it in the first few years. I just wanted to survive, keep the next customer happy, pay the next bill and see if I could get at least four hours sleep.”
The business later diverged from the traditional start-up template of building a business model and gaining sufficient recognition to be able to pitch for funding. If the company had focused its efforts on attracting financial backing, he says, “we would have been dead by now”. Instead, it focused on the customers by expanding the number of vans available to rent and the locations.
The business raised €15,000 from a microcredit bank loan in its first year and €100,000 later from Portugal Ventures, a venture capital firm.
From reconditioning second-hand vehicles in-house, the company has moved to outsourcing conversions using its own designs and leasing from fleet management companies.
Indie Campers is now wholly owned by about 20 of its managers, with Mr Oliveira owning all its voting shares. “Our intention is not only to give stock options but also to share profits with the whole team,” he says. Indie Campers today employs about 160 people and expects to expand that number this year to about 200.
Yet sustainable profitability is a critical concern. “We plan every year to keep our profits close to zero,” says Mr Oliveira. Any margins are paid out in salaries or invested. “Our approach is very demanding: growth, product quality, innovation, expanding geographically and keeping our culture,” he adds.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has forced the company to review plans for an ambitious new phase of expansion this year that originally aimed to increase its fleet to 2,000 vehicles, expand into the US and develop a more complex business model that will involve adding peer-to-peer rental to its platform.
He views companies such as Yescapa and Campanda, online rental marketplaces for similar vehicles, as both competitors and “good partners” in that they allow their sites to be used by other providers like Indie Campers as marketing channels.
Scaling up at the same rapid pace as it has grown over the past few years is a big challenge, says Mr Oliveira. The company plans to add motorcycles, cars and bicycles to its range, and has negotiated agreements with manufacturers for these new vehicles.
“We’re focusing on a common online experience, which we call the ‘first mile’. People will be able to go to our website and put together their own adventure — from Barcelona to Milan by motorcycle, for example, then to Split in a camper van and on to Dubrovnik by bicycle.”
Longer term, the company hopes to offer electric camper vans as well. Adopting greener practices and sustainability measures, says Mr Oliveira, represents an opportunity for the whole sector.
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