Interview

Leaders who light the path

David Hamilton-Jones

David Hamilton-Jones is the founder of CompareTheCampervan. His vision for the newly launched platform is nothing short of redefining what a review site can be.

David strongly believes that trust needs to be at the core of any thriving community. That’s why he’s building CompareTheCampervan from this guiding principle. But he wants more: Ultimately, CompareTheCampervan will be a platform that connects like-minded people who are passionate for campervans, generously share information about that passion and support each other. 

I’ve spoken with David about his vision and how he plans to make it happen.

Michael Gerharz: David, what makes your site so special and how do you bring trust back into reviews?

David Hamilton-Jones: Well… first: all of the existing sites, they charge the companies to be featured on there. This makes it difficult for the owner of that platform to remain independent. One of my intentions is to provide totally independent reviews on the companies that are featured on the site by not accepting money from any of the companies on there. This is going to allow me to remain impartial and to give genuine feedback and reports on those companies.

Secondly, I’m looking to introduce an element of identity verification. The main reason for doing this is that it will mitigate, or hopefully completely eliminate, the ability for one person to have more than one existence on the site and for trolls or bots to misinform or upset users. The whole idea is that a company can register on the site and, unlike other review platforms out there, where multiple positive or negative reviews can be bought for that platform, the identity verification will make this impossible to do – or at least very, very difficult.

The user experience is one where trust is built and that fosters and reinforces relationships.

And so, the user experience is one where trust is built. Users can feel confident that when they’re talking to somebody on the platform or receiving advice, that it’s genuine, that it’s a human like them with an interest like them who has gone through the struggles that they’re dealing with. And they can believe them.

Third, these relationships that are built online will be reinforced in a physical way. So I’ve just organized the first gathering on a privately owned wild camping site. There was mountain biking during the day and we all returned to the camp to cook food together over a fire. Taking those online relationships that have been built on trust and bringing them into real life can get lots of people very passionate.

So, CompareTheCampercan is really a lot more than a review site. You help campervan enthusiasts find like-minded people and connect with each other. You put them front and center to the degree that you’re extending their connection into the physical world. This couldn’t be more timely in a world where we all are coming out of that physically distanced mode.

When you communicate that idea to people or to companies that you would like to feature on the site, what are some of the difficulties that you’ve faced in explaining your ideas or your vision for the platform? Is it pure enthusiasm for the platform? Or are you facing skepticism?

It’s an interesting industry. There are a little over 830 companies that I found in the UK, with some form of online presence, who are building campervans. Some are very large but the majority of them are quite small. When I speak to a number of these companies, the industry is strange in that some of them – without doing their own marketing – have more work than they can do. You know, in most cases companies are looking for growth but this industry is a really rare exception in that some of these companies are really happy with the size that they are, and they don’t want to grow. What they do want is better customers.

What I mean by that is customers who are better aligned with the work they like to do. And this is what attracts those companies to the site. After a user visits the first page, they are greeted with “Find your new dream campervan”. From there, there is a filtering system of questions that they can answer about what they’re looking for. Because some people will want a larger campervan where they can stand up in the shower and others want to replace their everyday vehicle. And so, these are very different needs.

The website then recommends the sort of campervan that they will be looking for, that is if they are new to the idea. If they already know exactly what they’re looking for, it will suggest those companies that can fulfil the requirements that they need.

So, the phone calls that will be received through my site to these companies should be much better aligned with what they do. They shouldn’t find themselves in a position where they’re going: “Sorry, we don’t do that.“ So that’s one audience that I’m communicating with.

The other audience are people who want to own a campervan. It’s quite easy to talk to somebody who is just at the beginning of their journey. I’m presenting information that can make it easier for them to make a decision. But this site, I think, is most powerful when people who already have a campervan, who already have experience, decide to become a member because they’re looking for a friendly community.

During the masterclass that you provided, it was that audience that I focused on. They are experienced campervan owners or they have very recently gone through this journey of looking for a company, designing it, having it built, having it handed over, and then having a first experience in it.

These experiences that they’ve had on their journey would be really useful to bring into the CompareTheCampervan site. These are the best people to answer the questions of those who come after them. In the masterclass, by going into real detail about what their worldviews are – How do they feel about money? How do they feel about status? How do they feel about interacting with other people in the community? – by going through that process has allowed me to find a way to talk to them so that they know I understand them and offer them the sort of community that they would like to engage in. Through the masterclass, I’ve become much clearer about how to address them.

Through the “Leaders Light the Path” masterclass, I’ve become much clearer about how to address the people I want to serve.

It feels a bit like you were going through the same journey that you’re providing to the campervan building companies. You took the leap from “anyone” to “the right ones”. Rather than trying to convince anyone of the benefits of your site, you’ve found a way to resonate specifically with those people who are already attaching to those values: trustworthiness, camaraderie, generously sharing information about the thing that theyre passionate about.

And so the people who end up registering for your website might be a much better fit than if you went for some random ad campaign, trying to collect as many registrations as possible. Just like those building companies you are now much better off when the person who’s registering already knows that this site is exactly the site that they were looking for.

Absolutely. I’ve been living and breathing this idea for quite some time. I did an MBA when I left the Army last year and I used this business idea as my thesis. The question was: Could this be a viable business?

I've been living and breathing this idea for a long time.

I’ve been reading a lot about marketing. I came across Seth Godin’s work and I had a good idea in my head about finding a minimum viable audience and, as Seth likes to say, delighting those people – because if you’re providing everything to them, it’s those people who will tell the others, and you will get more people like them to join this community.

I went into the masterclass with that understanding, which was helpful. But I think the work we did really helped refine my thinking about minimum viable audience. One of the tasks we did was choosing who to leave behind. Being really explicit about who I don’t want or don’t need, or who is not suited to this platform was a game changer. You tend to always focus on who the correct ones would be and it’s really easy to make that group bigger than it really is. But by being really explicit about who it isn’t for does narrow it and that, in turn, allows you to be more focused on who you’re looking for.

Because when you do that, you’re in a position to offer a beloved something for someone special because you can be very focused on what matters to them. And if you yourself even happen to be one of the people that you are serving because you are so passionate about that thing yourself – which is the impression that I get of you – you get even closer to your tribe because you do the things that you love and all you need to do, basically, is speak about the things that you care about and tell true stories about it so that it becomes obvious for the people that you like to serve where to go next, where to find others like them. That’s the place that you’re designing.

So, if I would happen to meet some of those people and if I had a sentence for them to pass along, what should that be, if you had a free wish?

I think the number one thing would be: This is a place you can trust. I think if that was the one that got passed from one person to another, I would be happy. There are more, you know, I’m aiming for it to be a really good user experience. I’m aiming for it to have a sense of community. But I really focused on trying to create a place where everybody feels that this is different to other social media platforms or other forums. And that’s why trying to jump this hurdle and introducing some form of identity verification and convincing users that it’s worth going through that process of registering to become a verified user is totally worthwhile. I’m creating a place where a new user can turn up and find a whole wealth of information, search for companies, and browse the forum. There will even be a place on the forum for new users where they can ask a question. But if they want to leave a comment on other posts or ask direct questions, or leave a customer review, they will have to be verified before they do those things.

And that is where I think the real long-term and exciting part is. Real relationships in the real world is an exciting part. But where this is most useful is when people do the full cycle and come back and they’re encouraged by the community to tell their story, to share the pictures of what they’ve designed and built and their first experiences of camping.

And rather than some of their friends at home who don’t understand that their crazy idea of living in a van for a short or a long period, they’re surrounded by people who encourage it. And when those people are formal verified customer, then this is the most trusted way to base their decisions on which company should build them a campervan.

Because what we’re dealing with are, for lots of people, life-changing sums of money. And it’s often a dream that was sewn as a child on camping trips with family or it’s something that’s built up over time. When I look at the people who are invested in what I’m doing, there’s a broad span of ages from people in their twenties who are looking go traveling around the world in their campervan through to people who are recently retired. Lots of those people have plenty of disposable income so money is not as much of an issue as it is for a 23 year old. But for a lot of them, this is about retirement. This is about enjoying the fruits of their labors. But the thing is: Whether it’s massive decisions in terms of how much it costs or whether it’s a big decision in terms of how long they thought about doing it, the idea that a company could mess it up for them causes an awful lot of anxiety in this process.

And so, you know, this is my motivation. The change I’m trying to bring is that I can provide a place where the users learn what good looks like, they know the questions to ask, and they find the companies that have successfully realised this dream for others like them.

This is very much in line with the thinking behind the leaders light the path approach which is also a lot about trusting and respecting the audience with the truth.

The one thing that’s still on my mind and where I’d be interested to hear your perspective on is that this faces a world where marketing is still largely about fancy sounding messages. Big promises, probably promises that the marketer can’t always keep but which doesn’t stop them from trying to persuade people to buy their stuff.

I mean, the only logical way of communicating your product will be in a truthful manner because you just can’t offer a trusted platform by using hyperbolic language or exaggerated marketing slogans. Does that feel intimidating to you or do you see that there’s a challenge in getting the attention or the awareness of people? Do you feel comfortable in finding the people and resonating with them?

I feel confident.

They’re reading stories about people who have gone before them, who had the same fears and have managed to come out the other side and fulfil their dream. This gives me the confidence that others are going to relate to that. They might not admit that they have fear but by giving them multiple example of people who have come before them and who have successfully navigated this endeavour, I’m confident that people will relate to that. And some of those will say, this is exactly what I’m looking for. They may just take what they need and go. But finding the people who feel like they’ve got incredibly good value or have saved themselves from a heartache, they might want to put something back into this.

This is a community I myself would like to be part of.

This is a community I myself would like to be part of. I’d like to go to a gathering where I’m surrounded not by just campers but by people who are helpful and like to exchange ideas and to support other people in their journey. So, I’m quite confident that those people exist and in time they will come and join us on this platform. I just think it will take some time.

Like many worthwhile things do. But it sure sounds like a place where you want to be. And it sure sounds like the right strategy to use. Rather than trying to persuade anyone to try it, strongly resonate with the right ones. I’m wishing you all the best luck for it.

One last question that I am curious about: Who was a leader who lighted the path for you. And in what way?

I have a number of people I could choose. I spent over twenty years in the British army. I came across many inspiring people in that time, some who wouldn’t even know they had inspired me, others who I had much closer contact with. Quite early in that time I met someone who was an explorer for his whole life, Sir Ranaulph Fines. As a youngster, I read one of his autobiographies, where he always took the more difficult path. And he always put himself out there to confront challenges and brought other people along and inspired them to do something bigger than themselves.

Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing. It was so great to talk to you, David. I encourage everyone who’s even remotely interested in campervans to have a look and check out the CompareTheCampervan site. Even if you’re not living in the UK, you might find a lot of value in the platform.

See you soon, wishing you all the best and keep lighting the path, David.

Thanks!

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