Knoxville — While many college students are relaxing during summer break, six classmates from the University of Tennessee are starting a one-of-a-kind business that takes the hassle out of your vacation in the great outdoors.
"I'm an Eagle Scout. I love camping. I love the outdoors. But I definitely understand it's not for everybody. And one of the biggest issues is the time component," said Dalton Maddox, a rising junior at UT's Haslam College of Business. "Six of us who met each other freshman year and lived on the same floor, we were spit-balling ideas and came up with what we think is our ideal business."
The group conjured up a clear business plan to not only rent camping equipment, but set up and take down your campsite for you. They'll set up anywhere within a 35-mile radius of Knoxville, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They even light your first fire.
"There are plenty of equipment rental businesses. But the delivery aspect anywhere you want with rental gear, we were shocked to see was something completely new," said Maddox.
"We believed in our idea and came up with the name Coonhound. We think it works. Especially in East Tennessee, the logo being a coonhound, everyone loves wearing a coonhound around here," said classmate and co-founder Jeremy Piper.
"Really, what camping is for most people is a vacation. And if vacation is super stressful, it's not really a vacation," said classmate and co-founder Connor Clarke. "I know there are people like me who grew up wanting to go camping, but I did not own equipment and wouldn't have known how to set it up. We have the equipment. We set it up. We take it down."
For a group of six sophomores, it was tough getting even their biggest fans to take the idea seriously.
"My parents, whenever I told them I'm going to start a business with my friends, they were like, 'Yeah, okay.' You're going to start a business as a college student? Right," said Clarke.
"We believed in our idea and wanted to see if others believed in it, too," said Piper.
The group decided to pitch the Coonhound business plan in a contest at the UT Haslam College of Business. The competition is normally dominated by graduating seniors. The novel Coonhound idea by six sophomores fetched first prize in the lifestyle category.
"I thought we would maybe get third place. When they said we won, I was ecstatic," said Piper. "It showed people believed in us."
"Once we won the competition, now my parents are like, 'Wow, so how's the business going?' instead of 'Are you still on this whole business thing?' So, that was cool," said Clarke.
The contest gave Coonhound more than validation. It provided $5,000 for insurance and a website. The group of 19 and 20-year-olds officially started their own business.
"We were able to buy the website domain www.coonhound.co. That's been one thing we've had to emphasize to people is the address is .co instead of .com. If you go to coonhound.com, you'll be buying an actual dog," laughed Piper.
"We're launched. We have business. It's unbelievable," said Maddox. "We have several pre-set packages people can buy. Depending on how many people, three days usually costs around $250 and it's customizable. The basic package includes everything from a tent, a foam roll or air mattress, chairs, we light your fire, flashlights, shovel, trash can, bear bags, lighters, everything you need. But we can also do things like put wooden floors in your tent. We have coolers and can pick up and pack your food if you pre-order it at a local grocery store. We can do parties for larger groups. We even offer some activities for children if parents need some time to hang out by yourself."
The packages range from roughing it to amenities that are more like "glamping." Coonhound says it just needs three days advance-notice.
The early days of trial-and-error have also taught them to allow people to reschedule.
"It has been a learning experience. One of the big things is people don't want to camp in the rain. We've had a lot of rain this spring and summer. We came up with a policy that 24 hours beforehand you can reschedule your entire thing. Ultimately, we're not going to have you as a customer again if you go out there, it rains on you, you think camping is horrible, and never come back again," said Clarke.
The group has long-term plans for Coonhound franchises in other locations. For now, they're happy being the little guy. They gladly work a lot of hard days doing what they love.
"We're really fortunate and lucky to have a business model that allows us to do what we already personally enjoy," said Maddox.
The students have no intentions of dropping out of college. The seasonal nature of camping should allow them to continue at the University of Tennessee and graduate in a couple of years.