Entrepreneurism is a huge part of the San Diego backcountry culture.
Jobs in the local tourism industry are a popular alternative to commuting off the hill for work. The revenue created locally not only supports locals, it is multiplied throughout the community through the more than 30 local nonprofit organizations.
There is one very big catch: Tourism in Julian is seasonal. Four months out of the year, the town is booming with more business than the infrastructure can support. This is followed by eight very slow months.
This seasonal economy makes it very hard for new businesses to survive.
For Julian locals Rami Abdel and Shantel Seoane, our San Diego mountains were the perfect place to pursue their American Dream. Despite the seasonal economy and COVID-19 shutdowns, their company — Alter Experiences, glamping (glamorous camping) business — is thriving.
Rami and Shantel’s small-business success story is just one of the many in our community. These businesses are proof that one can make a decent living within our community. Today, Rami is sharing their story and advice he has for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Backcountry Hacks | A Millennials Guide to Starting a Business in Julian
by Rami Abdel
Shantel and I moved to Julian at the end of 2016. Before that we were living and working in Bonita, where we met and where we were both raised. We’d been together since high school and have been inseparable ever since.
We’ve always shared a great passion for travel and being immersed in nature, constantly seeking out the planet’s most pristine, diverse and biologically rich habitats. We got into the digital nomad lifestyle early. Our digital media skills allowed us to combine our work and travel, providing our services to the destinations we were visiting. It was a fantastic arrangement to be able to video document our travels, while using that footage towards helping tourism based companies with their internet marketing approach. That’s basically how our career path unfolded and we could never imagine living any other way.
Not much has changed in that sense and we’re still traveling a whole lot, while carving out our own little piece of the travel and hospitality scene in both San Diego and now Baja.
We spent a lot of time thinking about the business model that became Alter Experiences. The idea had been coming to us over the years and was inspired by concepts such as: experience and nature travel, wildlife interaction, conservation, digital media, responsible business, hospitality and a few other concepts that we got into early on.
We were very excited about taking what we had learned during our travels and applying them in our hometown of San Diego.
The potential and appeal of Julian and the San Diego Backcountry was apparent to us from the very beginning, in a city that’s consistently ranked among the top 10 destinations world-wide.
After much research and thought about our best approach into the market, we had a vision of becoming the first glamping and outdoor hospitality company in Julian. We wanted to become the name in nature and experience travel, while bringing something unique and different to Julian’s fast growing hospitality and tourism scene.
We set the plan in motion during the summer of 2016 and made some drastic life changes in pursuit of this vision. We sold much of what we had and started to downsize. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle had its challenges (and still does), but ultimately came natural to us after living in very remote and rural third world countries for so long.
Long story short, we found a decently sized, very affordable dream property - the remnants of a home that burned to ashes during the 2003 Cedar Fire. It was a sweet deal and a very manageable piece of property, which made the transition up here even easier and cost-effective.
I don’t like to use the word easy because nothing about it has been easy. We’ve had so much to navigate through over the past 4 years, as we set out to build our new home while simultaneously building a business from the ground up and on a shoestring budget.
We had spent all the money we mustered on the purchase of our property plus building permits, and everything else moving up here entails.
We had completely underestimated what it was going to take to legally operate a glamping business anywhere in San Diego county.
Without the capital to invest in an established campground, there was no legal way we could push this project forward.
Our only other option was to partner up with one of the many state/county/federally operated campgrounds in the region.
I’ll spare you the gruesome details of how that all went.
Basically, we needed a miracle.
That miracle came in the form of the Descanso Ranger District office - Recreation Offer Lindsey Steinwachs.
Lindsey had just been hired as the head of recreation development and was eager to find new strategies in support of outdoor recreation growth.
She was very receptive to our business proposal and our ideas about tourism development, where many others weren't. We worked with her to further align our own business model to the needs of the Descanso Ranger District office, as they related to visitor outreach, education, conservation and the overall USFS mission for the Cleveland National Forest.
Over the past 3 years, we developed a business model that has grown beyond anything we ever imagined. We take a lot of pride in our efforts to be a radically sustainable business, while encouraging responsible travel, as well as nature and wildlife conservation.
Today, we’re the first glamping outfitter in the state of California, under permit of USFS. We’ve hosted thousands of people from all across the world and have continued to grow, despite the pandemic. We’re expanding into Baja over the coming months with some very exciting experiences we’ll be rolling out soon. We raised over $27,000 last year on Kickstarter, in support of our company expansion.
We built this all on the principles of responsible and sustainable business. We founded a business model that’s completely scalable with low development cost and high ROI.
At the rate we’re going in the state of California, these business principles are more important than ever for the average entrepreneur / business owner.
As a startup company, with little capital in such a rural tourism based setting, you can’t possibly hope to make any headway without applying these business principles. I’ve seen many businesses go under in Julian over the past few years because they failed to apply these principles.
Along with that, I’ve put together this set of guidelines that will help ensure that your business survives and thrives as a welcome addition to our amazing business community in the San Diego Backcountry.
1. Create YOUR Unique Slice of Julian Pie
Our small mountain economy is primarily tourism based. You’ll likely be hosting tourists, selling to tourists or offering tourism based services / experiences. Your ability to create a long-term and viable business model depends on building your share of the market and keeping them coming back.
What kind of new and unique service or experience can you bring to complement our existing attractions? Is there a travel niche or demographic you can help attract, which otherwise wouldn’t be visiting Julian? Is there a need in the market that you can help fulfill? Are there strategic alliances you can forge from the start, with seasoned and experienced business owners in the area?
In our case, USFS was looking for ways to develop its outdoor recreation program and attracting new visitor demographics. As part of our own business plan, we proposed an idea to do just that through glamping and other outfitting services.
Outdoor hospitality and glamping were still relatively new ideas as lodging concepts. We found our niche when we combined it with nature immersive and experience travel. Partnering with USFS was the caveat, which gave us legitimacy and access to pristine forest lands without a traditional mortgage and other associated overheads for this kind of venture.
We had also put a new twist on camping, which was already a very popular activity in the backcountry. We found out later how much of a niche we were fulfilling within the camping industry, as the business evolved and we got feedback from guests that were into traditional camping. We found so many other demographics that our business model instantly catered to.
We were a big hit with single mothers, or mothers with husbands on deployment, for instance. We were a big hit with people who’d never tried camping before, of which there are many, we found out. Even seasoned campers enjoyed the convenience and practicality of our glamping set-up.
In this busy day and age, traditional camping is way too cumbersome and prohibitive for many. Yet we all yearn for the tradition of family camping and being immersed in the great outdoors. All we really had to do was make it easier and it caught like wild-fire.
Video and internet marketing were other services that we were able to help develop for the destination and its varied businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Social media marketing is the most travel centric and strategic channel at your disposal as a destination and travel business, which we’ll get into a little later. That type of work is constantly on-going and is also critical towards visitor outreach, education and managing guest expectations.
It’s unfortunate that many of our businesses in the backcountry don’t take it more seriously.
All of these efforts combined, in turn, helped us attract a newer demographic to the destination, which are more inclined towards concepts like glamping and experience travel, as well as primarily basing their travel decisions by what they see on-line. This is especially true with millennials and younger demographics that we need to start paying more attention to as a destination.
There are many markets and demographics out there that we still haven’t tapped into as a destination. That’s your opportunity.
So Stand out. Create a unique business. We have some of the most talented and savvy entrepreneurs in Julian, which comprise our hallmark backcountry visitor experience.
What are you bringing to the table?
2. Think Small. Be Scalable. Grow a Sustainable Business
Is there really a need or demand for the service / business concept you’re trying to introduce? You better research and take that question very seriously. I’ve seen many businesses go under in the last 4 years because they didn’t ask that simple question.
I like the idea of small, organic, sustainable and consumer driven business models. Crowd-funding is an excellent example of that concept in action.
With a few thousand dollars to get a decent crowdfunding page going, you can raise all the necessary funds direct from the consumer in advance, without spending a penny of your own on production or distribution.
You can easily determine the viability and potential success long before production, or even going to market. Think of how much money, effort and resources you’re saving in terms of overheads, materials, production, labor, marketing, and more.
This is what we mean by sustainable business models, which is a dense subject that I’ll try to cover briefly.
And admittedly, there is a lot that goes into producing an effective crowd-funding strategy, but it’s better and more cost effective than the alternative for the cash strapped entrepreneur.
The cost of doing business in California will bankrupt you quickly! Hack it!
Before we even found our property or formally founded the business, we were already working on our website and social media. We had a general idea of our concept and where we wanted to be geographical. This paid off in so many ways, as the years went by and our brand started really growing. It takes years for your web-site to start ranking high so you’d better start early.
We put a lot of effort and research early on into SEO and keywords for the destination. We concentrated all of our marketing efforts behind the internet and social media. We built a powerful direct booking system while integrating and leveraging many other channels such as Airbnb and Hipcamp.
We applied some of the same techniques for the destination as a whole, through our Discover Julian brand. This approach allowed us to grow very rapidly in a short time and with a very minimal investment.
Through the metrics we’ve collected, we’ve learned so much since then and continue to see our businesses and destination grow, as a direct result.
This is the beauty and implications of internet culture in our day and age. You can make something out of nothing and then be open for business to the global market.
What’s most incredible is that this inexpensive tool is available to the average person anywhere in the world. You just have to have the will to learn.
The internet, to me, is the tool of the underdog. It's the tool of the guerilla marketer. It’s the only approach that will give you headway against your competitors and the titans of business, as the up-start and growing entrepreneur.
I could show countless other examples of this concept in play and it’s a subject that I am very passionate about. Much of what we built is all thanks to the internet. Internet culture will continue to shape our world in many profound ways.
This future is very exciting and promising to me as a die hard entrepreneur.
Sustainable business growth just makes sense. I think a lot of our traditional business approach is just throwing money at ventures and hoping it will work out. I’ve seen a lot of that throughout my many years in business.
It reminds me of something my mentors in retail used to say to me, as the #1 rules of the game for starting a business - location, location, location.
In the traditional sense, that meant finding a brick and mortar space along a busy intersection with heavy foot traffic. In the digital age, what matters is not so much your location, but your placement in google search queries. Location, location, location in this sense would probably be your office garage. Get into that minimalist mindset and let the business grow organically from there.
There's a certain romance with iconic Main Street for prospective business investors and having your own store front along the strip. I think there's this false confidence that tourist foot traffic on the busy weekends is enough to sustain a business.
And that may be the case for a handful of businesses on Main street.
Taking on a brick and mortar approach for your business venture under these presumptions is a quick path to ruin.
Start in your garage or by building an on-line store. See if the market demand grows organically from there. Leverage internet marketing tools early on. Stay scalable as you grow. You need to be able to quickly react and have a plan in today’s complex and shifting business environment.
We witnessed first hand how crucial this was with the number of lockdowns we experienced this year. It was a relatively easy process for us to completely scale down under multiple shut-downs, as a result of our business model and low overheads.
3. Ease Into the Transition to Mountain Life
Whether you’re moving up here full-time, getting ready to start your business here, or doing both simultaneously like we did - ease into the transition to mountain life.
For us, that meant keeping my full-time job down the hill and having a steady income for when times get tough. Shantel would focus on the business side of things, while I commuted down the hill for higher paying jobs that you won’t find around here.
The commute was a real pain in the ass, but all that’s changed now with the growing trends towards remote working. This, in my opinion, has been the biggest game changer for us living in the backcountry. I am sure it will shape much of how our destination grows over the coming years, as more and more people catch on.
You’re going to face some serious challenges, set-backs and financial angst during your first 3 years in business. Multiply all that by two because that's just the nature of mountain life.
How will your business be affected by power outages that last for days? How will it be affected by the very real threat of fire danger, mountain weather and exposure to the elements? How will you sustain your business under COVID-19 closures that could last for weeks? Much of the tourism economy in Julian is seasonal. How do you sustain your business during the slower months?
I will admit that I was a bit naive as to what I was getting myself into when we moved up here. Very naive. The truth is that I had never lived on a mountain before. I’ve lived in very rural areas around the world for most of my life, but generally in the “flat lands,” as the mountain men would call it.
Perhaps I was under the impression that life would be a little easier than in the city. I thought perhaps it would be less expensive than city living and in the long-run - it most certainly has and will continue to be.
But there is a lot associated with making this move including unexpected financial burdens that seemingly come out of nowhere.
Much of it is simple things like dealing with weather, natural occurrences, the elements and dealing with wildlife like wood rats and rattlesnakes.
It’s a very small price to pay for life on this sacred mountain. Nothing has made me happier or given me more peace than having my own piece and being part of this wonderful community.
It was a tremendous and welcome learning experience for me.
I’ve learned so much since moving to Julian and especially about myself.
I didn’t fully realize it until the last few years, but Shantel and I had both become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and relationship with nature over the years. After so many years immersed in some of the world’s most remote, bio-diverse and pristine habitats - I guess you could say it ruined our prospects of ever being able to live in a city, or densely populated and highly developed area again.
There was actually a time in the not so distant past that I thought perhaps I was the problem because of my inability to integrate and conform with the concrete jungle that has become my hometown.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love Bonita and the beautiful diversity of the greater South Bay Area. I often reminisce on what it once was, as I watched it grow through the years to become one of the biggest most thriving communities in San Diego county.
I guess you could say that the San Diego Backcountry is all that’s left of the San Diego I once remember. This thought alone scares me. Nothing else.
Nature was always calling us and we had to find a way to be with her. All we really wanted to do was be in the beautiful solitude of nature and often wondering why we felt so strongly about it.
A lot of those answers came to us when we moved up here and were introduced to the works of people like Robert Duval in his book "The Last Child in the Woods, ” as well as the Julian Dark Sky Network, for instance.
To live a conscious, balanced, and healthy lifestyle; we all need the solitude of nature, interactions with wildlife, dark skies, clean air, and the nurturing love of Gaia.
We are truly a privileged few who call this mountain home, especially in these chaotic times. This sanctuary is the last remnants of a long and forgotten San Diego that I still remember.
I hope it will remain that way for generations to come.
*This article was featured in the January 2021 issue of the Julian Journal.