When Stout Tent first started we were renting tents as way for people to “try before you buy” because back then, not many people had seen bell tents in person! It was clear early on that bell tents were going to be a big hit, and fast! We were planning on shifting our manufacturing plan to maintain a higher stock and were excited when we got an email from a Chinese factory that was anxious to have our business! We ordered 40 tents, at a great price! Things were rollin’!
I’ll never forget the day that I logged into my email while the twins were napping to process the rentals for the day and I read a request from someone who wanted to rent 37 tents for a YPO event at a zoo. I’d never rented 2 tents to one person, let alone 37! I quickly setup a phone call and found out that they were also looking for a complete installation, breakdown and furnishings. Also, this event was out of state…
I didn’t even know where to start, but I knew I had to do it. We just barely had enough inventory, and we didn’t haven any interior furnishings, but I always heard diversification was a good business practice, and I was willing to do whatever it took to seize this opportunity.
We spent every dime and then some to be able to put on this event, knowing that even though we wouldn’t make money on this event, if we could book another 30 tent event we’d make our money back and it would be profitable from there. We bought mattresses, pillows, and comforters and got ready to go into the glamping furnishings rental business as well. We diligently made a timeline and hired our friends and family to help us with this first, very important, setup. I think we had a crew of 8-10 people, in 3 26′ box trucks, on what should have been a 2 day drive.
The DAY BEFORE we were to setup for the YPO event, a customer who had rented one of our new tents in inventory (we had purchased 40, and had 3 out for rental), called us. The tent was leaking…. we hadn’t ever heard of a problem like that before from our customers and weren’t sure what to think. We chalked it up to user error, assuming the tent wasn’t set up correctly since bell tents can link if not set up properly, and offered a refund.
Later that evening, we got another client who called us about a leaking tent, only, this time the customer said it wasn’t raining. I was shocked… We’d NEVER heard of that before. This had our attention now. We pulled a new tent out of the garage and set it up on our lawn. We sprayed it for a while with the hose, and it stayed dry inside. Hmmm….I guess we had 2 fluke rentals in a few days?
Then, the 3rd call came in. This customer wasn’t happy and wanted us to dry clean the rug that she had inside the tent, because some sort of liquid had leaked onto it from the canvas.
My stomach dropped. This was clearly couldn’t be user error. Again, we ran to the tent in our front yard, rubbed the walls, finding nothing out of sorts. We called my dad, an HVAC guy, and he noted that each of the rentals was in a high humidity area… could the problem be triggered by humidity? Humidity is hard to test in Phoenix, Arizona. We googled, and worked with some textile experts to recreate humidity, and sure enough, when the canvas hit DEW POINT, a strange oily liquid leached out.
With this new knowledge, we left for a humid, huge zoo setup first thing in the morning.
I was devastated. How could we use these at an event? Our first event that we just poured all this money into. An event that was expected to house almost 70 people for the night! Did we know for sure that they’d hit dew point? Could we try to pull it off? Could we be lucky enough to have a dry night?
I’m a pretty resourceful person, but this? I was at a loss on how to fix it, there just wasn’t time. I called my friend, Stephanie, and she said simply, “you have to just tell them the truth.”
I took a deep breath and called the client to explain the situation. I was embarrassed, but knew it was important that they know we were having a major problem with our inventory. There was no time to get other bell tents, glamping was so new back then, no other companies existed to help us out. We offered to bring standard camping tents, and use those instead – even thought they wouldn’t be the glamorous bell tents, the interiors would still be everything that they hoped for, and they could still hold the event.
The client asked us to try to set up the bell tents a night early and see what happened. If nothing happened, we would proceed with the canvas tents, and if they leaked, we’d switch to the backup tents I had promised. Ok. There was a sliver of hope.
This decision came the afternoon before we were scheduled to leave in the (early) morning. I reached out to our crew of friends and family and asked them if they could drive around to all of the outdoor shops in the area and help me buy all of the tents we would need if we did in fact have leaky tents. We got as many as we could in town (and continued purchasing along our 12 hour drive).
Then I threw up.
Morning came. “The Crew” met for a meeting with bagels in my kitchen. Despite everything, we were all fired up and ready to go. We drove the 12 (which became 16) hours in the moving trucks and arrived onsite at 10 pm, still stoked. We began the setup then, after the 16 hour drive, and got all 37 bell tents up, and then we fell asleep IN our pizza dinner.
Someone woke up at 4 am and said, “it’s happening…”
Again, we were devastated. I texted the client, and she came to take a look. She agreed to use the backup tents, and on just a few hours of sleep, we took down the bell tents and restarted the setup. I won’t sugarcoat it, it was pretty soul breaking.
As soon as the event was over we reached out to the Chinese factory, thinking they’d fix the problem, replace the tents, and refund our money, since they wanted the long-term business…right? Wrong. They did nothing. No refund. No replacements. No apology. Our tents were ruined and unsalvageable. Our HUGE investment was gone, and we refunded our our first event client for an event we already weren’t going to make money on.
Our first event was a glamping fail. I had a choice to make. Give up, call it a loss (which honestly would have been completely understandable…because if you read my blog post Starting Stout Tent, you’ll remember I also had twin 1 year olds and a 4 year old at home while managing this crisis) – OR – learn from experience.
Needless to say, I chose to learn and grow, and was determined to come back stronger.
So what did I learn? If I could do it over, what would I do differently? This is what I tell my customers now who want to break into the glamping business. DON’T PICK THE CHEAP TENTS.
When you have clients depending on you and your inventory, what you really can’t afford is for that inventory to fail. You need to make sure that you’re buying quality canvas, from a reputable company, who can help you out if something goes wrong. I’m am beyond proud to say that after that rocky start, Stout Tent is now a mature multi-million dollar business. We’ve been able to help our wholesale customers make sure that they aren’t in an impossible situation by providing our rentals to them in those inevitably tough spots (truck being impounded while full of their inventory type of spots, true story!). We warrantee our tents so that you don’t ever have to worry about a manufacturing problem like the one we had. We are focused on providing not just inventory but a service. We want to answer your questions, we want to see you succeed. Ever since that first event, I have been building Stout Tent to be the company that we wished existed when we were first starting out.