Season 2, Episode 5

How a passion turned into a marketplace - Dirk Fehse (PaulCamper)

Listen on your favorite platform

About this episode

Have you ever dreamt about spending a few weeks on the road in an RV? Just get in the van, hit the road, and wherever you park will be your home for the night.

Our guest for this episode loved the RV life so much that he founded a company around it. Sjoerd talks to Dirk Fehse, founder and CEO of PaulCamper, Europe’s leading marketplace for RV rentals. 

Dirk’s story is driven by passion. We cover:

  • How Dirk started PaulCamper the lean way, featuring our old friend, the spreadsheet
  • The impact community-building had on PaulCamper’s early growth
  • Using insurance as a tool against disintermediation and how PaulCamper’s insurance product came into existence
  • Keeping the quality of supply and demand high

Resources mentioned in this episode


Please note: The transcript is automated, meaning that there will be mistakes.

[00:00:00] Dirk Fehse: Welcome to two-sided the marketplace podcast brought to you by Sharetribe


[00:00:14] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Dirk. Welcome to the podcast. Hi, thanks. Thanks for joining. Um, before we dive into the marketplace specifics of PaulCamper, could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you did before you started playing? I'm

[00:00:27] Dirk Fehse: Dirk, I'm 39. I grew up on the countryside and I studied business administration and was working afterwards.

So PWC as an advisor. So my background is a bit of the financial nature, but my passion lies in traveling and especially camping and RV. So that's why I'm now running my own company called PaulCamper.

[00:00:52] Sjoerd Handgraaf: How did you get the idea of.

[00:00:55] Dirk Fehse: In the middle of my studies, I was living in Australia and in Australia traveling the Kemble van is actually the best choice because of the long distances.

And there, I realized that this is the best way of for me, because I'm, I'm totally flexible. I have everything essential within the same timeline in the middle of the nature. So I felt freedom and it was really. An important understanding for me. So coming back to Europe, I wanted to travel Europe and discover Europe the same way, but I realized some already possible with the conventional rental companies.

So that's been, uh, I bought myself a van VW, T4, and I converted it to a campervan and named it Paul. And because of, because of borrowing the money to buy. And also the understanding that it's just, even if I was a student back, then it spans 80% of the time. Unused on the street. So that's why I said to myself, I'm only doing this.

I'm only investing in this if I shared with others. So that's kind of the beginning. So I was sharing Paul before I started pole camper as a company, because that was a result of understanding. Hey, there's much more demand than I expected. And more people that has paid. Like I had it.

[00:02:18] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Okay. So that's interesting.

So, but by the way before I forget, so is Paul still around?

[00:02:23] Dirk Fehse: Yeah, I just tended to have a poll yesterday to the two older couple that are not traveling for three weeks.

[00:02:30] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Oh, great. Great. And then, um, and so when you did the initial, just sharing your own van, like, was there any tech involved or how did you handle that?

[00:02:39] Dirk Fehse: Not, it was purely manual and say like this. Like the first step was just listing it with eBay, sign on sign you're in Germany, which has eBay classifieds bikes, where you can for free listed in, and then it was scarred. And then I was just interested to build up my own website. So I did the, like to yourself, upside for firearm.

Yeah, which was just that really website no, no booking platform or anything, but I could, more than on eBay, I could put a calender on more pictures and so forth and behind it, I had it next to the file or ahead in the calendar of football. So if there was a request and then finally booking, I just changed the color of the cells, maybe a screenshot.

And promoting it again and then the website was updated. So that's how it started.

[00:03:33] Sjoerd Handgraaf: So then was your booking calendar, like a screenshot of an Excel file with the color code?

[00:03:39] Dirk Fehse: Like one month per line and then the days of course, and then different. And that's actually also like when I, when I decided to really make a business out of it, all of it.

1st of January, in 2013, I was still using this website. Uh, and, and the, and the extra file behind for another hall for a year, and I already listed other vans. So my excellent file just to more calendars and that's the way how it started. So really, really lean let's say.

[00:04:12] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah, yeah. Very low tech. Yeah. But I love that.

Like, that's not the first time on this podcast that spreadsheets have been used as sort of the initial backend, because. And at what point did you think? Like, because initially, so you were, you were having by yourself, maybe multiple fans at one point that you realized, oh, actually this could be, you know, like an eBay or like a marketplace for camper vans?

[00:04:36] Dirk Fehse: No, not when I was starting at 1st of January, I was already renting out my event for two weeks. And I realized that there's more demand than I can serve. So that's why I decided to boat up this kind of marketplace. And I tried to acquire the first owners that are also listed on. Like put the, put the van on eBay classifieds, for example, of course it wasn't very slow.

So I talked to one person, everything was very like direct. So I was talking to each and every one. So 1, 1, 1 person, for example, she was interested, but then finally, um, decided against it because you moved to Russia, but the van was nice. So. That was it. It was Sophie. So at the beginning I had to, but then that was the maximum.

The others were all owned by other people. And I think one year later or something, I decided to sell Sophie again. Why? Because actually I've earned more money with Paul and Sophie than with a brokerage of all those other events. But it took me a lot of time. I mean, um, operating a van like him handing over and everything is a lot of time.

So I, I asked myself like, okay, where do you. Morton. Well, what's the baby idea to buy the ideas, to duplicate the marketplace every five hours per month that I invest in, in, in, in, in renting out SoFi is five hours that I can't invest in port Kembla. So that's why I decided to sell it. I said sold it to a renter actually, who became the center of the platform, which is still kind

[00:06:16] Sjoerd Handgraaf: of, uh, at least you didn't lose the supply,

[00:06:20] Dirk Fehse: which still happens on the market.

So I had two, but the others were owned by other people. And then I realized, okay, there is some traction and I need more than just my do it yourself. So that's why I asked two guys who were specialized in a bird press two birds. Let's say the second version of port camper, betterment life. And I think I paid three and a half K so not much, but I had, like, it was much more proper, like.

But, but more user-friendly front end. So you, meaning you had it, you could choose to rent out or, or rent. And then you had a metal Germany where you could see where the events are located and it lists next to it where you can click on, and then you had a camper profile. For example, if you send a request, it's just, it was just a contact formula that went into, so behind everything's still.

Yeah, but

[00:07:25] Sjoerd Handgraaf: the search part sort of like a, you know, like if you divide like a marketplace transaction between like browsing or searching, selecting that searching and selecting part was more automated and it wasn't that it

[00:07:35] Dirk Fehse: wasn't there. That yet. I mean, I went from, from one Kemper when in Jenner every 2 43 end of 2013.

Yeah. Meaning summer I had 30 or something. So it was just. There was no search function because the search function was another one K or something. Yeah. So, and I, I, I just could use what I've earned, right. Yeah,

[00:08:01] Sjoerd Handgraaf: yeah. Yeah. Okay. And, um, and so, uh, let's, let's go back a little bit to how you then acquire those 43 people because it wasn't did that all go, uh, you previously mentioned through eBay.

Did that, was that how the initial growth went on the supply side?

[00:08:16] Dirk Fehse: Yeah, it was in this way, um, because it's hard to see. Like owners that are willing to rent out and the ones that listed their ban on eBay or eBay, classifieds, they ever quite concrete. So I could approach them just said, like, Hey guys, I'm also running out my van.

I have a small platform that I can surf. If you like, just join me. And it was more a handshake deal at the beginning. And it's like, if I bring you a renter, um, would be cool if I get 10% nothing now.

[00:08:52] Sjoerd Handgraaf: No, because it is like I'm in the first episode of last season, I talked to this person called Lenny Rusedski.

I think you might know. Or he used to work at Airbnb and he has like deep dives into like the, whatever, the 50 or something biggest marketplace in the U S and I interviewed all lots of people from there. And, uh, he has divided like a couple of these, like early. Supply onboarding strategies. And, and one of them is key.

He called like piggybacking on existing data, I think is the name. And then where basically that is like, that is also what you, that you, you found already sort of an existing supply and you just took it from the platform like, oh, Hey, how about this other platform that I have? So, yeah, it was really cool to see that it worked out for you.

And then how did you get the other side onboard initially? Because like covering 43 of vans, that's like, that's, you need quite a bit of demand.

[00:09:43] Dirk Fehse: Yes, actually, I didn't do anything. And then the new demand was there. Okay. What I think health is that the existing market, it just consisted of motor homes. So the bigger ones, and I was kind of naturally specialized at the beginning on camp events.

So more VW type and there was no one doing this between private people. So the entire website, like the communication was rent a camper van from private people and that it wasn't there before. So they had been already people looking for camper van. So the smaller one from private people. So I was, I was automatically getting this traffic and when the WordPress platform started in, I think June 13, they had it.

What I really liked. They had a SEO plugin. I think that it was purely SEO at the beginning and because it wasn't really, really narrowed down.

[00:10:48] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. So just pure organic search. And there wasn't any, how about word of mouth? Like, did you feel that that was early on?

[00:10:55] Dirk Fehse: Yeah. Work with most, most definitely one part, especially on the supply side, when people discover that and then they just carry it forward on the demand side, the word of mouth work more, not within the season, but then for next.

[00:11:09] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. Like w what did you do this summer while we rented this van? Okay. That's what we're gonna do next summer as

[00:11:14] Dirk Fehse: well. Yeah, at the end, I mean, camping is driving for the last 10 years and people were looking for, and suddenly there was someone offering a very specific, um, uh, supply, which was.

Available on conventional websites because it was much, much cheaper. It was small use, cheaper, more personal approach. So yeah, the interesting thing is I thought my offer is solely for a student couples that don't have any money. But then suddenly I had also feminist, like where the father was a lawyer and the mother was like impossible of a small shop.

So, and they had two kids and they were traveling even con stay in a standard size. So why do you, why do you choose for mine? You can, you can, you can, you can

[00:12:06] Sjoerd Handgraaf: afford a much bigger


[00:12:07] Dirk Fehse: afford much. Let's call it a better thing or like more criminal. They said, yes. But we don't need to actually, then it's just for driving and sleeping.

Everything else happens outside. Let's be like to give the money, like spending in the neighborhood on the other companies. So that was really eye opening and showed me that there is a spot that is not covered.

[00:12:33] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Basically you have to realize that they there's the whole other markets. Like it's not just this particular segment, but there's a whole segment also that is interested in this.

Yeah. And, um, I always ask this question, but I I'm always very interested. So did you initially constrain the marketplace in any way? I think that, like you, you said like you're specialized initially in camp prevents only any like regional, I mean, Germany is quite big. So how did you do that?

[00:12:57] Dirk Fehse: So there wasn't any, like, I think.

Christian the best is that there wasn't any. Constraint that I, that I said, uh, um, intentionally, um, of course, I mean, I wasn't Germany. I spoke German, so I was just looking in Germany for supply. Right. And the entire website was just in German, just because maybe that's a constraint. But there was no constraints where to go with a band.

So, you know, like it was just constrained by the insurance. So like when it was entire group and then also like the camp event where this motor home thing, Kimberlin brothers, uh, American English. I started with Canva vans because I thought this is the spot, but then suddenly also owners of bigger ones, like of, of motor homes wanting to join.

Okay. I said, of course, I mean, happy to write. I wouldn't call it a constraint, but what might be a constraint is I think you call it more a managed marketplace support port was at the beginning, much more managed than today because I wanted to give a different offer to the potential demand then that wasn't in the market.

So every event only had one price per night, regardless of. And then I kind of forced every lender to put a buffer day behind and before every rental, because my own experience was that sometimes the renters are coming back too late or something breaks down. And then it just trips trust who just has a gap of time spending two, three hours in between.

So, and as most of my supply, hadn't done that before. I said, I need to manage it a bit more. Right. Also no limitation and so forth. So that's what I did, which you could also call the constraint, but what what's in all the time,

[00:15:03] Sjoerd Handgraaf: but it must there initially more like a hotspot, like, I don't know where in Germany did you start this?

So like, was it mostly for example, around Berlin or was it around the area? I don't know where you lived at the time or was it like straight, like from the beginning all over Germany.

[00:15:17] Dirk Fehse: It was from the beginning all over Germany, because it was online at the same time. A burden was kind of the biggest part.

And it still is if we just look at Germany, but at the same time, Berlin is the biggest city in Germany. So it's hard to say if it's because of that or not. In the beginning, there was much more personal involvement. So of course I could much more easily talk to people. So either in Berlin then in the vary of course, but the 43 vans on the platform after one year, they were completely disrupting all over Germany.

[00:15:53] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Okay. So while you grew from, uh, uh, 2, 2 43, and then I guess even faster in the next years, uh, how do you maintain the quality for the marketplace? Because I'm imagine. At one point you, well, initially you're a managed marketplace, so then it's a little bit easier to control. How did you make the, when you transfer to a less man, it's like, how did you maintain the quality?

[00:16:15] Dirk Fehse: And the first PaulCamper was bootstrapped for the first four years. Okay. And this time, um, well, PaulCamper essentially consists of operations, meaning customer support, uh, and the onboarding team. So it was mainly. Uh, due to through personal interaction and personal contact. Okay. And then as it got bigger, we brought up on those experiences and just automize them.

So for example, the supply, of course they create their profile, but there's still a manual check at the end regarding the pictures, the content and so forth. So this is also as, as a good potential to automize fully. And it is. From back then to today. I think it's 90% automized, but you can get rid of, to have the last personal interaction.

So mainly it's about having a certain quantity of. And the supply side. And then of course it's like with most marketplaces, it's about the review system you have in place, because even though everything is fine, you don't know how, as in this case, the supply will behave in one year for something. So you need to have a system in place where you then also get a red flag or something.

If something doesn't, it doesn't work well. And then talk to the person and either, uh, You can, you can come to a point where you say, okay, I'm still with you. Or you say maybe you have different, different understanding of how to deliver an experience in the renters. And then you just suffer that's to my mind.

Natural. Yeah.

[00:17:56] Sjoerd Handgraaf: That's that happened a lot.

[00:17:58] Dirk Fehse: I mean, we couldn't have the. If the turn has been been large. Right. But are some, especially because, I mean, typical thing with marketplaces is two intermediates. Right? It's pretty hard with us because we have to insurance in between the Yukon only can get fruitful camper, but still there are people like, I mean, I'm not talking about really rare cases of course, where they just like.

Uh, set the price down after the contract has been made and then the rest of the part gets paid in cash or some really rare. Yeah, because

[00:18:38] Sjoerd Handgraaf: actually that was going to be my next question, because like, I like these aren't small payments, I guess at times. So like I was wondering, how do you battle, how do you combat this disintermediation?

Like when that happens while you see, you mentioned the insurance.

[00:18:51] Dirk Fehse: Yeah. So it is because of the insurance part, which I'm happy to explain. We never had a real focus on, on this topic because it's not a big topic with us, like with other marketplaces. Yeah. So, um, typically if you own an RV or a car, it doesn't matter.

You have an insurance and insurance ensures your personal use. If you ran it out 10 times a year, it's a different risk. So it's not insured by your insurance company and not covered by a policy. And you can even get hard, hard, hard fines if you misuse it. So what we, after four years managed is to build its own insurance products for our use case together with Allianz and that's daily based insurance that comes on top.

So you, and it was also one of the growth leavers supply wise, because before it was very hard, you needed to get into the existing commercial. Uh, insurance policy, therefore you needed to register as a commercial owner and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So really like it took youth friction. Yeah. So I was able to onboard a decent fleet, but after all that has gotten because of the new insurance products that you can say, Hey, You can just list your van, try it out.

No effort. And, and if there's a rental, if it was automated, we would cover it. The insurance would cover it, be covered by easy. That was a growth lever. And at the same time you have at least, at least usually two proposed sites, but at least one site. Four for one site. It's important. That trip is in short.

Okay. And because it's your end, your vacation, right? You are going with your feminine and you don't want to risk anything. And this is not the product. You can buy it on the market. It just, just can be activated. If you push the book now. On our platform. So that prevents, I think the major part of mediation.


[00:20:44] Sjoerd Handgraaf: That's terrific. Yeah, because that's often like that. It also reminds me of like the Airbnb story rides per day. At one point I had to like, when they did this instant book button, for example, first they had to put the insurance in place, et cetera. But I think Airbnb did it relatively late. Like, was it a lot of trouble for you to, to get that insurance product into existence?

[00:21:04] Dirk Fehse: Let me show you the answer on your, on your statement beforehand. Yeah. That's interesting because Airbnb, for those marketplaces is just a marketing tool. You don't really need the insurance.

[00:21:17] Sjoerd Handgraaf: No, no, no. It's just to create like ease of peace of mind. Yeah, no, exactly. Yeah.

[00:21:22] Dirk Fehse: And our business is it's legally necessary.

You're not allowed car or then without the proper answer. Right. So also get around or drive, eat all those needed to have such an insurance in place. And, and the, the other question, it was, it was one of the toughest things to get. It took me almost four years. I was talking to every, every insurance, every broker, but it wasn't that easy because rental policies are a flag.

For insurance companies and then all these are also a red flag for rent. And then it's an additional product, which is something that they are still not good. So all of it, three combined was like the worst to get something like this, but. Um, I saw one person at Allianz. So it's really about the personal connection that believed in the markets and believes in us.

And then it was pretty hands-on, which is how you say

[00:22:43] Sjoerd Handgraaf: that's not common in the

[00:22:44] Dirk Fehse: insurance industry. Pretty hands-on. Yeah.

[00:22:50] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Wow. Four years studies. That is a deep investment into it. That's the longest running growth experiments you've

[00:22:57] Dirk Fehse: had at the same time. We just need such kind of insurance. Otherwise we just can't.

[00:23:05] Sjoerd Handgraaf: No, no, that makes, that makes sense. I like, we charge that we did, I think in 2016 or 17, we commissioned like a research into what insurance is out there. And it was like, indeed, like, just like you mentioned, like it was basically like, non-existent very experimental, only a few ones and, and yeah. So, um, that's really impressive to you that you got that up and running because I think that's where I think now I think it's more common, especially like the on demand, these sort of like on demand products are more.

But yeah, no, no. So you mentioned that insurance is a must, want us the biggest growth levers. Do you have any other growth levers that you'd like to share on either side? Yeah, big

[00:23:42] Dirk Fehse: then. I mean, on the, on the supply side it was, I mean, PaulCampers started, as I mentioned, very organic and DirecTV like SEO and we build up a strong brand by, from the beginning.

So like it was the brand itself was, was Kashi. People could be reminds. And I think one of the biggest leavers in the beginning supply wise was, was our community and word of mouth started actually to make community events in Germany twice a year since covered the applause. But we had until like the first one wasn't in the first year in October, and we had this time of 35 vans and we made a, made an event in the middle of Germany.

Just like meeting on Saturday, having a beer, getting to know each other, stay there overnight. And that's it. Did everybody bring their vents? Yeah, exactly. And we had 20 participants that was more than 50% of the feedback then came from all over Germany, meaning people who drove 500. For one night. And that was amazing.

And that was like, especially for me, it was very important because I want I'm, I'm more a physical guy and that's, that's what we build up in the end. It's like pre COVID. This events turned out to be like, we call the pullets camp. This guy is paying for that. Okay join because we, they, they get credibility like workshops and, and so forth.

And it's from Friday to Sunday with live bands and bonfire and so forth. And wow. And, and you could really also make a lot of tests. Like, for example, how many people are willing to brand their van, the bootcamp, camper logo, and so forth. So that was definitely one thing. And the online version of this is a closed Facebook group, more than 1000 owners are connected.

Um, so that was a big, big thing. So word of mouth and community and the SEO and SEO part, um, And uh, like 4, 3, 4 years, you're also investing into paid search. And that's also something that it works well. I mean, same with Airbnb offer, but when it, when it became like a natural to rent out your, your flat flat, then you're just, it's a topic it's a

[00:26:12] Sjoerd Handgraaf: suddenly that intent exists.


[00:26:14] Dirk Fehse: exactly. So that, that was on the, on the supply side. And the demand was always there. So, because as I said, it's, it's a, it's an industry that is, that is driving and, and most of these, your minds. So how of the demand is also coming via organic and direct.

[00:26:33] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. So you mentioned the community events has growth lever, paid search has growth lever.

So let's, let's pick it up from there. Is there anything you would've done differently in the journey?

[00:26:43] Dirk Fehse: That's a tough question. Usually. I I'd say. I regret nothing because otherwise I wouldn't be here at the same time. Of course. I mean, I'm still always looking at like, how do I manage the next 12 year and on this to an honest end of next few.

But at the same time I was in front of this question last eight years. Okay. Some are managed. So of course I, I I've learned a lot and I think I would, if I start. From scratch and not necessarily Paul camera, but another marketplace. I would focus more on data to have it earlier in place. And then I would put more focus on the product itself.

So what we did as, as, as there was always huge CRO through more in the operating models, but in the, okay, what is more the strategic perspective and which parts are really important because sometimes you just need to invent a stock to earn. What comes in organically to, for example, to set up the product or something.

That's what I, for example, would maybe change in the future. One

[00:27:54] Sjoerd Handgraaf: last question. Could you tell us, where is PaulCamper now? Like roughly in terms of like, what countries are you in? How big are you? And then what's up for PaulCamper in the future

[00:28:04] Dirk Fehse: today we've crossed 1 million, 900 million in GMV. And, uh, we just crossed 10,000 RVs on the platform, but in the first year we had 43, um, and we are currently active in four countries, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, and we just launched UK.

We are roughly 80 people and we are still in the kind of COVID mode. Which hurts us on the short term because of travel is restricted. Uh, it also affects all bookings at the same time. It accelerates the shifts in travel that it has been going on before COVID anyway. So I think on the middle of longterm, more and more people will they'll use this, this way of traveling.

So where it's beneficial to us and where we want to go is we have. I mean, the purpose of a PaulCamper is enabling people that having a great time in the outdoors, the V is just literally the vehicle to get there. And that's what we call a phase one. So baseline is we want to be, uh, serving all of Europe with our core product product appropriate.

Taste too, is to offer a full stack camping trip, meaning that people not only can rent a van via PaulCamper, but also the chem side, the ferry to Norway. So the full trip, because that's what they already request. Okay. 61 and 60% of our renters are renting event, uh, for the first time in their life because of poor camper and they need a bit more guidance, um, where to go, what to take care of.

And phase three would be the full stack outdoor experience. So what kind of becoming an outdoor company? Not an RV rental company. So for example, serving, uh, also, or like you can like the Kevin you are in currently, maybe you can, in the future could be a pole camper or a tree house, because what it is about, it's not about the obvious in the end.

It's about having. Time, create time to create time in the outdoors, so where we are still heading.

[00:30:23] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Okay. Wow. That's a fantastic purpose. I didn't even know that. Okay. Yeah. I completely subscribe to that personally. All right, Dirk. Well, thanks very much. Thanks very much for sharing this with us and thanks very much for taking the time and I wish you and PaulCamper.

[00:30:37] Dirk Fehse: Thanks a lot. Thank you for listening to two-sided the marketplace podcast. If you enjoyed today's show, don't forget to subscribe. If you listen on iTunes, we'd also love for you to rate and give us a review. If you got inspired to build your own marketplace, go visit It's the fastest way to build a successful online marketplace business until next time.

Start your 14-day free trial

Create a marketplace today!

  • Launch quickly, without coding
  • Extend infinitely
  • Scale to any size
Start free trial

No credit card required