Going Their Own Way
Peter Ross (CGS’04, CAS’07) and Nick Riotto (CGS’05, COM’07) launched a company that connects kids with summer camps. And they did it on their own terms.
August 29, 2008, is a day entrepreneurs Peter Ross and Nick Riotto will never forget. It’s the day they turned down $2 million.
“We called up the investor, and he could hardly believe we weren’t taking the money,” Ross recalls, “I told him, ‘We’re moving back to Boston to bootstrap this thing.’”
The business partners waved good-bye to the California sunshine and drove back to Massachusetts, where they’d met five years earlier as residents of BU’s Warren Towers, to build their company on their own. Unwilling to cede a stake in their business to outside investors (“They take all the equity in your company; they pay you nothing; it stinks.”) Ross and Riotto decided to finance their website—an online referral service for summer camps—by creating websites for other people. They set up an office in Brookline, Massachusetts, and started designing and developing websites for clients under the name 829 LLC, in honor of the day they declared financial independence.
A hub for youth programming
A year and a half later, Ross and Riotto are exhausted by their 80-hour workweeks but thrilled with their success: the money they’ve earned through 829 LLC has been more than enough to finance their original business endeavor, Choice Camps, which is now well on its way to profitability.
Ross describes Choice Camps as a Travelocity for youth programming. “We are the one-stop shop for youth experiences, whether it’s summer camps, teen tours, youth enrichment programs, language immersion, SAT prep.” While most competing sites are simple directories with links to camp websites, Choice Camps offers a sophisticated search engine, detailed reviews of camps and programs, and expert recommendations and advice.
The website makes money in two ways: Choice Camps charges clients a listing fee to appear on the site, and it charges them a 10 percent commission for each child it refers to a camp or program. If the child returns to the same program the next year, Choice Camps earns an additional 5 percent commission. And with tuition at many camps reaching upwards of $10,000, those referral commissions add up quickly.
The business model was a tough sell at first, says Riotto. Camp directors were accustomed to paying listing fees to camp directories and commissions to camp referral services, but they’d never paid both fees to one company. But after seeing results from Choice Camps, Riotto says, clients have accepted the double fees and are happily renewing their contracts. “They know that our website is a value because of the way it looks and functions and the traffic it gets, but they also know that we provide service when parents call our office—we’ll talk to them, and we’ll tell them about the camps.” He then breaks into a sly smile as he delivers what is obviously a well-rehearsed line: “So we’re combining the reach and accessibility of an online directory with the personal touch of a traditional referral service.”
Finding their niche
Like many of their good ideas, the inspiration for launching Choice Camps came to Ross and Riotto in the car. It was the fall of 2006, and Riotto was giving his friend a ride back to BU after they’d each spent weekends at home in New Jersey (Riotto) and Connecticut (Ross).
“We were in the car,” says Ross, “and Nick says, ‘How do I find a summer camp for my little brother?’ And I say, ‘Let me Google it.’” His online search revealed poorly designed websites featuring little more than long lists of camps. “The stuff was just amateur hour,” says Ross. “We thought, ‘We can do better than this.’”
Having worked together in CGS student government and several other student activities, Ross and Riotto knew they made a good team, and they’d been talking about starting a company together after graduation. Now they had a solid business idea—an idea that suited their skills and backgrounds perfectly.
Both young men had attended camp nearly every summer of their lives, and Ross’s family has owned Camp Cody, a summer camp on the shores of New Hampshire’s Lake Ossipee, for two generations. “We knew a lot of people in the industry,” says Ross. “And between my dad who runs a camp and Nick’s dad who’s a really good business person, we had a lot of support.”
They also had a lot of talent. Though he’s never been formally trained, Riotto is an excellent web designer. “I’ve been making websites since I was 9 or 10 years old,” he says. “I had a pro wrestling website when I was a kid—World Wrestling Revolution. It got like 80,000 hits a day, or something outrageous. I actually sold it. That was my first business ever.”
Ross is a born salesman. “Peter is passionate about anything he’s working on, and that naturally leads him to being good at selling, promoting, and getting people excited and involved,” says Ed Loessi, a former CEO and experienced entrepreneur who serves on Choice Camps’ advisory board. In fact, thanks to Ross’s enthusiasm and salesmanship, Choice Camps had nearly 500 camps and programs onboard before it even had a working website to show them.
In 2009, Choice Camps referred about 100 kids to camps and other summer programs. This year’s goal is 350, Ross says. Whether or not they meet that specific target, Loessi says he believes Ross and Riotto will find a way to make Choice Camps a success. “Peter and Nick are ultimately going to be successful in anything they do,” he says. “I think both those guys have pretty much unlimited potential.” Loessi recognizes his own independent streak in Ross and Riotto and predicts they’ll become serial entrepreneurs. “Those guys are both in a situation where they’re not afraid to be without a regular job,” he says, “because they make their own way pretty well.”