In this podcast, we visit a very unique site that offers outdoor adventures for geeks with diverse interests and passions across the globe who want an off-of-grid experience that leaves technology while leaving technology behind.
I had the chance to chat with Mendel Kurland, founder of Geek Adventures. He shares with us:
- What Geek Adventures is and where the idea came from.
- When the turning point came for him to turn this into a full-time gig.
- His biggest technical challenge when creating an eCommerce site.
- Which plugins he used to meet the needs of his customers and community.
- How he has monetized the site.
- Where things are headed for Geek Adventures.
Today’s transcript is brought to you by Liquid Web, WooCommerce hosting done the right way.
Bob: It’s my pleasure today to chat with Mendel Kurland, is the founder of Geek Adventures. Hey Mendel, how are you doing?
Mendel: Hey Bob. Thanks for having me on the show.
Bob: This is an exciting time for you. You just made a huge transition into making this a full-time endeavor. I know that people can go to your site and see the story behind it but I thought, it’s always good hearing the story verbally. First of all, what is Geek Adventures, and how did this idea come to you?
Mendel: Geek Adventures is an outdoor experience company The purpose is to help STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workers disconnect from technology and reconnect with each other and the outdoors, all on the trail, in adventurous places. So we have a few hiking meetups called Hiking with Geeks all over the country, but we also do trips to exotic places. We’re going to Iceland and Ireland this year. In case international travel isn’t your thing, we’re going to the Grand Canyon and some domestic stuff as well.
The whole idea is just to separate your digital life from your real life and reconnect with the thing that I think we all are kind of starved for these days, and that is experiences where we can leave our technology behind. the lack of technology. Basically, instead of notifications and things like that popping up all the time on your cell phone, getting rid of all that and just spending time with each other.
Bob: Cool. So how did it come into being? Outside of there certainly being an audience for this, what was the epiphany, the point when Mendel said, “Wow, this is something I should get into,” ? What drove you to do it?
Mendel: Yeah, I guess it was 20 years ago. I was a freelance web developer and I was building websites for industries like bars and restaurants and real estate. From there, I moved on, became excited about a career in engineering and went in the direction of web development for a music company. From there, I started working for a tech company, sitting in front of a computer all day.
Fast forward to the last three years of my life. I’ve spent it flying around the world, talking with geeks of all sorts: freelancers, agency owners, people that work for huge technology companies The one thing that stuck was that everybody always need some sort of break and they would talk about the things they loved to do outside of their work. I’d be talking to somebody and the typical questions got pretty old: what do you for work, what projects are you working on? But if you want to So if you want to get deeper, you start talking about what do you do for fun and what’s family life for you and how do you relax?
I started noticing a trend A lot of people loved hanging out outside, but they also admitted that they didn’t do it enough. I started to think about this idea of encouraging other people to get out. At the same time, I’d moved to Austin, Texas, and I really wanted the opportunity to hike with other people in the tech industry because I moved from Iowa, a place where there wasn’t a lot of technology stuff happening. There is now, but there wasn’t then. So I started a hiking group to hike with some people who were in a similar industry Those two ideas converged then over the last couple of years and Geek Adventures was born out of the intersection of both of those things.
Bob: Excellent. Yeah, that’s a cool story. I can so get it. Since we’ve moved, (we’re on the Pacific coast), just sitting upstairs, we can hear the ocean even when we have the doors closed and the windows closed and everything. The the ocean can get really loud, and sometimes that alone … I remember the first time I was here when we were sleeping at night and I heard that ocean and I thought, “Wow. Is that gonna bug me?” And I found that actually it was almost like a sedative; that even if it was roaring a bit, it was something that, yeah, no problem sleeping. It seems more of almost a natural sleep because maybe because it’s a natural sound.
Mendel: Yeah. Yeah. I’m in Oceanside right now and I slept with the window open last night and I really enjoy that rhythmic knocking of the waves against the rocks. That was a real nice way to fall asleep and yeah, in a strange sort of way, there’s more noise, but you feel more rested in the morning when you wake up.
Bob: Yeah. Right. And I know that you did this for quite a while, while you were holding down a full-time tech job. So where was that turning point? Where was it that you finally said, “Okay, this is it. I’m putting all my energies into it” ? I’m sure that there were variables playing into that, but was there something that really stood out, that made you make that big leap?
Mendel: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is the feedback I’ve gotten from this entire project and all this company. People who go on the hikes have great experiences. The last one we did was in Austin and people were exchanging phone numbers afterward to keep in touch. It’s stuff like that that’s super awesome. Taking maybe socially awkward people who get on the trail, they start talking to each other and having an easier time doing it. So that’s one piece that really encouraged me. The other one is, when people have gone on these trips, especially last year in Iceland, the reviews were incredible. I remember one person told me that they enjoyed the Geek Adventures family more than their own family.
Bob: Oh wow.
Mendel: Which was intense. But then other people, I got a really nice note from somebody who came and he said, “That was probably one of the most life-changing things that I’ve done in a long time, was attending a Geek Adventures event, and I really made some great friends and really was able to detach for a little while and it was helpful for me.” So I’ve been hearing these reviews and these people writing personal notes and I’m like, yeah. This is the type of life-changing work I want to be working on. To help other people feel good. There are a million people that want to hire people and pay them to be engineers, get you to consume their consumer goods. I don’t know that all of those things are always healthy, so I want to do my little part to help people be healthier in mind and in body and this seems like a really great way to do gratifying work.
So I guess it’s a little selfish in a way, that I really get joy out of seeing other people just connect and receive the benefits.
Bob: And that’s always a little piece of it. It’s got to be. There’s gotta be that enjoyment you’re receiving, and it’s funny because I was just thinking, you could have the new tag line: You can choose your Geek Adventure but you can’t choose your family. Something like that one guy was saying.
Anyway, now I know that you in a past life developed websites and I’m sure there’s a reason you’re no longer doing that, but I also know, since we’ve known each other for quite some time, that you did the technical part yourself. We’ll be talking about the monetizing. But when you’re actually doing that and you’re saying, “Okay, I’m gonna be building my own business site,” what was the biggest challenge technically for you?
Mendel: Biggest challenge … I think, technically, it was speed. The site runs on WooCommerce, and I use PeepSo for social networking. In WooCommerce, I’m doing subscription payments and regular payments and some rental payments as well. So I think the biggest issue was speed and just understanding how to build a site that people would enjoy as a destination rather than just a sales website. And that created both some planning challenges and technical challenges that I had to overcome.
Bob: Okay. You mentioned WooCommerce, and you mentioned a couple. Are there any other plugins or tools that have been instrumental, like now that you have them all in and working that just you could not live without? Obviously WooCommerce since you’re selling something, but they’ve been put on as essential tools for your website?
Mendel: So as far as essential tools, two that I can’t live without at the moment, one is WPRocket which is a simple caching plugin. Now people have their preferences. The reason I love WPRocket is because it’s super easy to use and there’s very little set up, which for me is good. The other, and this is the most indispensable, is BeaverBuilder. It allows me to quickly prototype new designs and layouts, build landing pages and things like that. Without it, I couldn’t have prototyped the entire site and gotten it up and running and be able to make as many changes as I’m still able to make on the fly as easily as I’m able to. That’s BeaverBuilder with BeaverThemer, which works basically on a category of products and allows me to theme just that category of products as events, and then allows me to also theme content differently and things like that, so yes. Super valuable.
Bob: It’s interesting because I had Robby from BeaverBuilder on the podcast quite some time ago and we were talking about BeaverBuilder and eCommerce sites and the advantages of any builder with an eCommerce site. And one of the things he talked about, and it has stuck with me, is the ability to test. So you can easily do AB testing as far as landing pages, placing buttons, ads, whatever you’re selling or promoting, with the advantage of easily changing things or, like I said, having two landing pages and testing out which one is most useful. It gave me a different perspective. Once he said it, it was like, “Duh, yeah, that totally makes sense,” but it did give me a perspective on BeaverBuilder or even any builder and what it brings to the table. Especially when you’re actually selling something and trying to make those conversions.
Mendel: Yeah. And the thing about BeaverBuilder that I don’t think a lot of people understand is people like to use framework for themes sometimes, right? So they use things like Genesis, they like to create their own hooks, they like to change their own theme files and things like that. The thing about BeaverBuilder is sure, you can do everything you can do in BeaverBuilder by hand coding, but if you want to test an idea or if build something quickly, get it out there, and move on, and you’re not one of those purists that wants to hand code every single thing, BeaverBuilder is a killer. It allows you to do all of those things and basically create custom themes, without ever touching a line of the code.
And yeah, there’s some people who enjoy that. There’s some people who, for whatever reasons, want to hand code things. But if I were going back 20 years and I was gonna make websites for clients again, that would be the first thing in my tool kit too because … and now I’m gushing on BeaverBuilder, right?
Bob: Hey, I led you toward it, buddy.
Mendel: But I would…if I make my brother’s website and he says, “Hey, I need a change,” I’m like, “Okay. Let’s redesign your website.” And we’d do it in three hours and then it’s done, and we move on from it and it performs well, it’s reasonably fast, and it looks beautiful. So I’m a huge fan. Yeah, I’m a huge fan boy of BeaverBuilder.
Bob: It’s interesting because I’m the same way. I mean, you know me: I don’t do code. I want something easy. And even though most of the times on my sites I’ve used the Genesis framework, it was out of the box. It’s like, okay. This thing works so I can just go and run with it. But what was interesting was there have been many times over the last two or three years when I was actually selling something or doing something, I had put BeaverBuilder on my site strictly for the ability to build custom landing pages when I wanted. It was like, okay, now I can do this landing page, sales page, I can go beyond what Genesis allows me to do and I don’t know how to screw around with code, so it was like, yeah, it was there. So there’s times I would actually uninstall it and then install it again, just for specific needs along the way, and when I needed something, it was like, bam! I could whip that out in no time at all and that’s exactly why I love it.
Bob: Good stuff. So we’ll make sure that Robby knows we’re giving him plenty of praise here on this show. Unintentionally. It just kind of transcended into that.
So we talked a bit about the tools, and one thing I wanted to talk about and I didn’t really ask you in the notes is, so you’re selling … people have to book the trip. I have gone to your site so we’ll talk about it. Are there any other ways you’re monetizing right now on your site beyond that?
Mendel: Trip bookings, that’s one thing that I’m monetizing. The other thing is there’s a bunch of gear that we use for these trips and so, locally in Austin, I’m renting that gear, using bookable products. And there’s a decent amount of traction on the rentals, but it allows me to build inventory for these trips so that then I don’t have that initial outlay of expense for providing tents and things like that. Not every trip is tents, right? Some trips are like Iceland, the volcano huts, or in Ireland it’s a big beautiful house, but when we go and we cook food for everybody and we have tents and sleeping bags and stuff, we wanna make sure we have plenty of equipment. So that’s another way I’m monetizing.
Other than that, there are some other things that are happening in the background that we’ll be doing this year: white labeling for people who want to run their own events, or do team-building things. But those all center on the same functions within WooCommerce and setting up custom products and things like that for people to purchase.
WooCommerce is actually a hefty beast of a plugin, but it’s been really flexible in allowing me to process a real flexible range of products, so that’s pretty nice.
Bob: Right, yeah. It’s interesting because on my site I have WooCommerce on it for, oh, I’d say maybe five years … maybe more like six years. And what’s funny is I’ve done presentations where I’ve actually told people, “I used WooCommerce on my site for this amount of years and never once did I sell a physical product.” And they’re like, “What the heck did you do?” And then I started naming all the other things off that I was able to use it for and they’re like, “Whoa.” So you’re right. It goes beyond that. It is very flexible.
Now you kind of already hinted a little bit about what you may have under wrap and I’m sure that’s exactly what it is, under wrap. Are there any other future things coming to your site or to the travels or anything that you’d like to share with us?
Mendel: Yeah. The offerings will be expanding and I just introduced a new community platform using the PeepSo plugin. There are 2,000, 2,100 members at this point and we’re adding members daily. The idea is to make a social platform where people can share their adventure photos with other geeks. As opposed to dealing with other social networks where there’s a lot of politics and a lot of polarizing stuff, this is a place to share what you do when you adventure. I can foresee in the future working on some sort of app or notification system so that people can uninstall other social networks and install this one. They are feeling more fulfilled looking at images of open landscapes and beautiful places that maybe they want to venture into on the weekend. So looking forward to some new features to give something back to this community.
Bob: Very cool. Okay, I’m gonna throw this out and you’re gonna go, “Shut up, Bob,” or, “Go away,” but there might be an eventual … you could have a blog. I mean it’d be really cool and I know people have limited times but there have gotta be a few here and there who would be willing to guest post about an experience. It’s almost like a testimonial but in a sense it’s getting a little bit more detailed on what they experienced or something unique that happened or something like that. Anyway, I’m always thinking content, and that could even be in the sense of video, too, which of course can be shared on your social platform, but on the site it just seems like it would be an interesting thing to consider down the road. Of course you need more work, so I’m always willing to pile it on for you.
Mendel: Well, something that I’ve been looking into is enabling guest posts through the social platform—allowing people to have their own mini blogs within the system. So we’ll see. I don’t want to add too many features too quickly, but I wanna see how people are using the platform, create a reason for them to enjoy the value that’s there, and then add more value. So I’ve really used an iterative and slower approach to adding new features, because I wanna make sure that people are going to adopt. That being said, if there’s high demand for something then it comes quickly. So I’m not afraid to be super agile and add something quickly, but there needs to be demand there.
Bob: Makes sense. Alrighty. Well. Now what’s the website address? It should be obvious but I’m gonna make sure we get that in the audio here.
Mendel: Oh yeah. So the website is Geek Adventures dot org.
Bob: And where can people find you on all the good social stuff outside your own social network?
Mendel: Yeah. If you wanna get in touch, it’s @geekadventures on Twitter. You can also get in touch at Geek Adventures on Facebook. You contact me directly by clicking on the link on the bottom of the site that says chat with us, and we’ll pull up a handy little messenger for you, as well as a contact form. So those are all great ways to get in touch, and if you have any questions just give us a shout. We’re a friendly bunch.
Bob: Very cool. Well, this is an exciting time for you, Mendel. I’m watching it and thinking I love seeing where you’re at right now and I know you’re at a kind of a mini-conference right, now but you’re on the ocean, so there’s nothing wrong with that. And I just wanna thank you for taking some time to join us today.
Mendel: Yeah, well thank you so much Bob. I appreciate you always being a supporter.