By Andy Olin, contributor at Grow Wire
⏰ 9-minute read
- Garrett Finney is a former senior architect for NASA’s Habitability Design Center who founded TAXA Outdoors, which creates lightweight and versatile mobile habitats to help inspire big adventures.
- The company’s four models vary in size and available features but all are designed to maximize comfort and efficiency, and minimize wasted space.
- Finney struggled early on to find backing for a business that manufactures outdoor industry products in Houston but ultimately prevailed thanks to grit, luck and a unique sales strategy.
“Nearly five million people see the Grand Canyon each year. Most of them see it from their car at overlooks along the South Rim.” — From National Park System FAQs on the Grand Canyon
In 2017, Outside magazine gave readers a look inside pro climber Alex Honnold’s 2016 Dodge Ram ProMaster — a marked upgrade to the 2002 Ford Econoline E150 the free solo legend had been using as a mobile base camp up to then. The new van was larger and packed with improvements like “a three-burner propane stove, oven, sink, and a fridge.” His previous “kitchen” consisted of a cooler.
“I don’t think van life is particularly appealing,” Honnold told Outside. At the time, he was climbing in Yosemite National Park. “You know, it’s not like I love living in a car, but I love living in all these places. I love being in Yosemite. I love being, you know, basically wherever the weather is good.”
Honnold’s outlook is similar to that of Garrett Finney, founder and CEO of TAXA Outdoors, a company that makes what it calls “mobile human habitats for adventuring.”
“We try to design adventure equipment that you sleep in,” Finney says.
Launching a whole new category in camping
When he describes his company, he often refers to its philosophy. When he talks about the design of TAXA habitats, he mentions incorporating the choreography of life into small spaces. His vision embraces stewardship, sustainability, the environment and inspiring wanderlust. Big ideas and a small footprint.
Finney wants to create an entirely new classification for his creations, which might be described as camping trailers but don’t fit neatly into any current category. He’s targeting people who don’t want a house on wheels outfitted with a flat-screen TV, curtains and fake wood grain kitchen cabinets.
Finney wants to create an entirely new classification for his creations, which might be described as camping trailers but don't fit neatly into any current category.
“Our customers want a different experience than they have at home,” Finney says. “And that’s the whole point. How do we create the perfect Venn diagram overlap for that?”
Finney calls it “comfort camping.”
Inspired by millennials
TAXA’s crossover campers are built for a segment of consumers mostly overlooked by the RV industry, whose economic impact in the past year was $114 billion, according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), a national trade group. And though overall sales have dipped in the past two years, the RVIA reports they are up among millennials — a demographic Finney watches closely for design inspiration. What resonates with millennials, he says, becomes popular trends. One example is the hashtag turned minimalist movement known as #vanlife.
“The #vanlife movement works well with what we’re doing,” Finney says. “The question becomes, ‘How do we use that as a true complement, and not a competition?’”
One answer is TAXA’s Woolly Bear, an equipment trailer featuring a kitchen, an elevated platform that can accommodate a two- to three-person tent, storage systems and more.
“It allows you to have a great outdoor kitchen and haul eight bikes. And tow it behind your #vanlife van,” he explains in leading up to the kicker: “You don’t have to break camp to go buy milk.”
The Woolly Bear and TAXA’s three campers — the Mantis, Cricket and Tiger Moth — are very different from anything defined as a recreational vehicle. The company explicitly avoids using the term RV on its website and in its marketing and instead has rebranded what it makes as “mobile habitats.”
“Philosophically, I want the brand to be associated with the outdoor industry, not the RV industry,” Finney says.
The four models vary in size but are all lightweight and rugged. Three of them can be towed by many 4-cylinder vehicles. (That’s huge for customers who don’t own a full-size SUV or pickup with a large towing capacity.) If someone seeks more solitude than an established campground can offer, the habitats are durable enough to be pulled 50 miles down a dirt road. And they can fit inside a standard-size garage.
Outside interests led the way
The idea for TAXA began in 2009 with a napkin sketch and Finney’s desire to spend more time outdoors experiencing nature with his family. Scratching that basic but too-often-ignored itch is at the core of the TAXA ethos.
“People should be outside more of the time. For every reason,” Finney says. “You hear the argument that kids should have more recess, not less recess. It’s the same for adults. I want to show people a better way to do these things.”
"People should be outside more of the time. ... I want to show people a better way."
“There’s a niche of [outdoor enthusiasts] who used to camp on the ground, but don’t want to do it anymore,” he says. “Those who say, ‘I want to go camping, but I also want to see in the middle of the night and not get eaten by bears.”
Pitching an alternative to tents
So, Finney gathered all the things he wanted in a camper and created the plans for his first trailer, the Cricket. The guiding principles of his design choices were and remain function, purpose and, when possible, multipurpose. The goal is to maximize comfort, space and efficiency and minimize waste. That requires Jedi-level thoughtfulness. Finney happens to be uniquely qualified. He is a former senior architect for the Habitability Design Center at NASA and worked on the International Space Station.
Early on, he thought perhaps he could make this part of his design practice and sell the designs to an RV manufacturer.
He tried pitching his idea to RV manufacturers but was getting nowhere. According to Finney, the RV companies didn’t understand that the customers he sought to capture weren’t interested in what they were selling — a hotel room on wheels.
Advisers recommended he abandon the strategy, telling him, “They don’t get it because you’re not making an RV.”
Funding search yields valuable takeaways
Then, a friend offered Finney $50,000 in funding with the suggestion he “make a couple of them and see what happens.”
The entrepreneur also set up meetings with angel investors in Texas and hit up family and friends, but he quickly learned how much money is required for manufacturing — a lot.
“I did the rounds and found that all the people who invest in energy stuff were psyched to talk to us because it was uncommon to see a company that makes outdoor industry products trying to start itself in Houston,” Finney says.
The interest he attracted by being an outlier, however, didn’t translate to funding.
“They weren’t going to throw money at the crazy outdoor industry product.”
In retrospect, Finney wonders if it would’ve been smarter to seek out investors in Denver, Seattle or the Bay Area, where the outdoor industry is based.
“In a practical way, I wish I had raised more money at the outset,” he says. “[It] would have allowed us to become experts much faster.”
At the same time, Finney has no regrets and is grateful for the struggle, which he views as an invaluable learning opportunity — professionally and personally.
“I have so much respect for people who start businesses and ride the roller-coaster that I have. To wake up sweaty in the middle of the night and worry, ‘Am I going to make payroll?!’ And it’s such a beautiful feeling to have that recede into the past. But we don’t have happy dances on Friday just yet. We’re still lean and mean and growing. Growing is risking, but it’s exciting.”
"Growing is risking, but it’s exciting.”
TAXA’s greatest asset? Its employees, of course
Finney attributes the company’s success to securing investors who understood the growth curve of manufacturing is slow and steady — or rapid and steady, in TAXA’s case.
“But it’s not like multiplying [sales] by 1,000 in two years,” he explains. “And manufacturing companies just need more money to grow because they need more money to buy raw materials.”
He also gives credit to his employees. Specifically, he says, adding employees who have skill sets that complement his and knowledge of how a manufacturing operation works has been key.
“I may not be very spread-sheet friendly, but many people are,” Finney says. “I’m trying to be a designer.
“In manufacturing, there’s the lag time between working capital and materials we have to purchase X-days in advance of when we sell the final product. And that thread is the trick of the business. How long are your terms for? How long does it take the dealer to sell the things? How do we figure that out? That’s why I love my [company’s] president and the people I work with.”
When it comes to hiring the right people, TAXA President Divya Brown says it all goes back to the company’s mission.
“We have focused on finding team members who believe in our core purpose of getting people outdoors and experiencing nature more,” she says. “With that shared value system and objectives, it’s easier to retain talented employees who are in for the right reasons.”
Wheeling, dealing and funnel vision
TAXA Outdoors manufactures its camping trailers in Houston’s Heights neighborhood and sells to customers through a nationwide dealer network. It’s the most practical approach given all that’s involved in the sales, distribution and long-term servicing of its products. Plus, there are regulatory restrictions that can differ from state to state. In Texas, for instance, trailer manufacturers aren’t allowed to sell directly to consumers.
While this relationship works well for a lot of manufacturers and dealers, it creates what Finney calls a challenge/opportunity for TAXA.
“We’re not ‘normal’ for the salespeople at these dealers, and our customers often know more about our product than the salespeople,” he says. “They have questions about fitting their lifestyle into the product that these salespeople have never fielded before."
“We’re not ‘normal’ for the salespeople at these dealers, and our customers often know more about our product than the salespeople."
Finney and his staff know owning as much of TAXA’s sales funnel as possible is necessary to sufficiently inform potential buyers about these atypical camper trailers before they come into contact with a dealer. Ninety percent would be ideal, he says.
“For a while, we tried to train the dealers’ salespeople in how to answer these questions, but now we’re telling our dealerships and customers to call us [directly].”
TAXA’s website is the first point of contact for many of the browsers Finney wants to turn into buyers. It’s designed to function as a practical and useful resource for people who are curious about the camper trailers. There, they can find the detailed anatomy of the Mantis, Cricket, Tiger Moth and Woolly Bear, as well as full lists of features and specifications, available options, interior and exterior photos, videos and how to buy.
The site’s “Choose my TAXA” feature matches customers with the camper trailer that’s the best fit for the outdoor experience they want.
Building a community and brand loyalty
Some of TAXA’s most impactful salespeople aren’t employees; they’re satisfied customers. To harness that resource, the company created its Ambassadors program, a network connecting owners with other owners and with potential buyers who want to see a Cricket or Mantis in the wild, so to speak. Ambassadors are rewarded with invites to the company’s annual camping excursion, discounts on gear and other member perks.
Ambassadors also are tapped for new-product focus groups and feedback, which are used to improve products and create case studies and stories for the website.
Finney says input from TAXA owners is used “all the time” in making refinements in design, from the positioning of doors and moving USB outlets closer to where someone would put their phone down for the night to making a tabletop big enough to fit two laptops instead of four coffee cups.
“In a small space, it’s really like choreography, so we try to be thoughtful about where we place everything,” he says. “But as lead designer, I’m not like every one of our customers. We want to be much more in touch with the end user than any of the white-box companies care about being.”
Expanding and getting “lean”
TAXA Outdoors soon will begin operations in its newly expanded factory, which will quadruple its current production space. The expansion means improved manufacturing capabilities and increased efficiency. Up to now, the mobile habitats have been built in batches. For example, two to three weeks are devoted to building Crickets, then Mantises are assembled for several weeks. The process will change in the new factory, where the production line can be arranged so that habitats can be built to meet a dealer’s specific needs. This means TAXA’s products will sit on dealership lots for as little time as possible. The company also can be more responsive and make adjustments in seasonal production based on what’s selling well.
Finney refers to the improvements as “lean manufacturing.”
“We want to make as many decisions ‘just in time’ as possible,” he says. “That increases your sales flexibility, your manufacturing efficiency and lets you listen to markets much more easily.”