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Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Mobile App for Mobile Living

In summer of 2017, Breanne Acio and her wife set out to explore the country in a van the two teachers had converted for mobile living. “We absolutely fell in love with the lifestyle – just being able to go anywhere, anytime and be in nature,” Acio said. 

Unfortunately, the couple soon learned that life on the road is sometimes not as rosy as the pictures on social media.


“We realized after a couple nights on the road that we had this image of going off and sleeping on beaches and in the desert and beautiful spots that you see on Instagram,” Acio said. “And the reality was that we were ending up in Walmart parking lots and sketchy roadside pullouts because we couldn’t find anything and the places we knew about were often sold out.”


The unmet need for camping spots catering to people living the van life led Acio to found Sēkr – a mobile app that now features the largest database of free campsites.


Pandemic Growth  

Sēkr was one of three companies Acio founded in the outdoor travel space. The other two – a van conversion company and a van rental company – she offloaded to focus on Sēkr, which was experiencing rapid growth.

Sēkr started off with a database of free campsites, serving the estimated 5 million people traveling in small RVs or vans.


“By serving their needs, we were able to aggregate through user-generated content the largest database of free campsites, mostly dispersed camping areas in national forests and BLM land,” Acio said.

“Once COVID hit, a bunch of these places got shut down and people on the road had nowhere to go,” she added. “So we put out a list saying, ‘If you have a piece of land and you’re okay with renting it out to somebody to camp on, add your information here.’”


After year one of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people’s interest in outdoor travel spiked, the Sēkr app saw a massive 1,530% increase in user sessions from May 2020 to May 2021 and a 492% increase in app users from August 2020 to August 2021.

“At scale, we realized that this is actually a big opportunity similar to AirBnB, but what we do is instead of just focusing on private land or state campgrounds or free campgrounds, we’re actually aggregating all of it now,” Acio said.


Sēkr’s business model is twofold. Similar to Expedia and AirBnB, Sēkr takes a commission on reservations booked through the app.

The other revenue stream is from premium subscriptions, similar to ones offered by companies like AllTrails, Strava or Fishidy.  

“With the outdoor industry, we’re in this unique space where there’s free inventory and paid inventory and we have an opportunity to monetize it both ways,” Acio said.


Finding Funding

On Feb. 10, Sekr announced it had raised $2.25 million in seed financing, led by investors Storyteller Overland, Backstage Capital, Techstars, Ad Astra Ventures, Crescent Ridge Ventures and Andy Ballester, co-founder of GoFundMe.

“The camping industry is one of the only hospitality verticals yet to successfully adopt technology, and Sekr seized the opportunity to digitize campsite inventory at scale, transforming the outdoor planning process from a frustrating loop of hours of failed Google searches into something consumers can do by themselves,” said Jeffrey Hunter, CEO at Storyteller Overland and lead investor of Sēkr’s funding round.


“Like the leaders before them in the hotel and vacation rental verticals, we believe the Sēkr team is uniquely positioned to have the largest influence and participate in outdoor travel annually,” Hunter added.

On March 4, Sekr also received $90,000 in financing through San Diego-based Stella Angels, a network that invests in promising women-founded companies.

“We’ve championed Sēkr from its ideation stage to where it is today – a mobile platform experiencing exponential growth in app users – which made it all the more thrilling to invest in the company and its impact-driven founders via our angel syndication network,” said Lauren Rowley, chief investment officer for Stella. “Not only is Sēkr a creative tech company; it’s a smart investment.”


A Rare Investment


Although the investment from Stella was smaller than the seed round in February, Acio said the angel network provided more than just money.


“I’m a female founder of color and you go to any startup event and it’s rare you see a person like me,” Acio said. “I felt like I had no place and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I came from a poor family; I was an academic; I had never done a startup before; knew nothing about venture capital.”


“And what Stella did was make me feel like I had a place,” she continued. “I could ask people questions and I wasn’t just a fish out of water. In this whole ecosystem where I don’t see myself and I feel like an outsider, they had a place for me to learn and to get mentorship and access resources.”


According to Harvard Business Review, venture capital for women-led startups was only 2.3% of funding in 2020 – a decline from 2019. Acio said her own $2.25 million seed round was “in the grand scheme of things, not impressive at all.” But, in context to other female founders of consumer tech companies, it is “a big deal.”


“If you compare that to other female founder,” she said, “especially female founders of color, not to mention queer, that is almost unheard of to do a $2.25 million seed round pre-revenue in consumer tech.” 


Founded: 2018

CEO: Breanne Acio

Business: Consumer technology app for outdoor travel enthusiasts  

Headquarters: Liberty Station

Funding: $3 million, friends and family and seed round

Employees: 10 full time


Notable: Sēkr has 50,000 to 75,000 users on its app every month. 


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