It’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that, as a whole, Americans are spending too much time attached to their TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones. In 2016, the New York Times reported that the average Facebook user spends about an hour per day on the site. Quartz later found that the average American spends 608 hours on social media and 1,642 hours watching television per year. CNN cited a study that claimed Americans spend nearly 11 hours per day consuming media in front of a screen.
Have you noticed the way technology often increases our level of stress and leaves us feeling drained, sometimes even out of control over our own lives? That’s the basic problem Jon Staff, founder and CEO of Getaway, wants to help people overcome. In an over-connected world, sometimes we need to unplug to regain our humanity. Getaway helps by providing tiny houses in the woods, equipped only with essentials and some dry provisions, for people to book as they would a hotel.
The houses are meant to serve as an escape from technology and a chance to reconnect with the people and things that matter. In fact, Staff’s co-founder Pete Davis once billed it as the “anti-Twitter” in front of major Twitter investor Chris Sacca on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank. Sacca, who has also been a decisive investor for Uber and Instagram, then pitched Staff and his partner Pete Davis an offer which valued Getaway at $7 million dollars. They declined. It would have been a better deal for Sacca than what the Getaway’s initial investors received (from whom Getaway had already secured $1.4 million in seed funding), and the partners felt that it wouldn’t have been fair to them.
Staff himself is no stranger to alternative living arrangements. He’s spent summers living on a boat on Lake Superior, lived in the basement of a frozen yogurt shop he opened, set up a makeshift bedroom in an empty office on the third floor of a Harvard library while the yogurt shop was under construction, and traveled the American West in a 26-foot Airstream trailer. So when Staff dreamed of a tiny house in the woods for himself, he thought that other people might want the same thing.
That hunch turned out to be a wild success. On the day Getaway launched, they booked five months’ worth of weekends, sold out 100% of July and August, and nearly completely booked September and October as well. The idea behind the company is that people can click the Getaway button and escape in an instant. Everything is taken care of, and there’s no need to stress about vacation planning. Customers don’t even receive the location of the house until a week before their arrival date.
Getaway now has more than a dozen tiny houses, all under 200 square feet, available within two hours of New York City and Boston and they rent for as little as $89 per night. The team is looking to expand to Los Angeles, Chicago, and DC, to name just a few spots, in the near future. Staff believes that people should spend their money on experiences rather than material things if they want to be truly happy. The Getaway experience is one that we’re all likely in need of.
We found Jon and asked him more about the Getaway philosophy:
What was the motivation behind creating Getaway?
My friend Pete and I just wanted a place to escape – somewhere quiet and without wifi. We discovered tiny houses and thought that if we put one in the woods just outside the city we’d have an easy place to escape. That led us to wonder if others might want the same thing and that curiosity created Getaway.
There’s been a major movement towards simpler living – gutting out the excess and living a more simple, modest lifestyle. The desires of owning a MTV Cribs mega mansion has been replaced by a preference to live in a more humble, unpretentious home. Why do you think that is?
We’ve figured out that spending our time and money on experiences rather than things makes us happier. A new TV starts getting less exciting ten minutes after you take it out of the box but a trip both gives you something to look forward to and remember fondly. I also think we’re on a precipice: we know that we’ve let work and technology take over every minute of every day and we know that that isn’t sustainable and we if we don’t find new ways to find balance we’re in trouble. The answer to that danger is in part just having less: less technology, fewer distractions, fewer things to take care of, fewer things to stress us out.
What separates Getaway from AirBnB?
We’ve designed Getaway to be an end-to-end experience that allows you to easily and affordably escape the city to disconnect and recharge. A big part of that experience is renting a tiny houses in the woods, but it's also everything else that goes with it that we obsess over. We only allow booking on our website and hope it sets to the tone for the journey. We provide a playlist to listen to on the drive. Unlike a hotel or AirBnb, we have a strong view on what Getaway is meant to be for, which I’d summarize as doing nothing. It's about, for at least a night or two, putting work and technology fully aside. It's even about putting traditional leisure aside. Us Type A people have a bad habit of planning out our time off minute-by-minute. So at Getaway we try to get guests to do nothing. If you struggle with doing nothing, we’ve provided some activities we’re okay with you doing: look for the stars, ask deep questions of your travel companions, learn to tie knots. So that's a big part of the experience we provide. It all ends with some tips from us on how to make life back in the city more sane.
What kind of amenities can be found in your Getaway homes? What should we bring, and what can we leave at home?
Our tiny houses are like regular houses, but shrunken and simplified. There’s a small kitchen with a two burner stove. There’s hot and cold running water and a shower. We make the beds up and provide kitchen essentials. There’s firewood for the campfire. The whole idea is that you can click a Getaway button and escape the city in an instant without thinking about anything – we’re trying to give our guests some respite from planning – so we have to provide a little bit of everything to make it super simple.
What is the thought process that goes into designing the cabins? Are each of the cabins unique?
We have a few designs for different use cases, but our architectural goal is that Getaway isn’t about the cabin but about the experience of you and your loved ones in nature. Therefore, we look at the cabin as a piece of hardware that allows you to access nature and one we are always iterating on to make into a better tool to allow you to disconnect and recharge as effectively as possible. We do care a lot about making the house simple (there are no murphy beds or toasters coming out of shoe racks in our tiny houses) and about letting nature in with big windows.
One of the most interesting features about Getaway is that the clients are not told where the cabins are until shortly before the date of arrival. The idea of a spontaneous escape, without having to stress about vacation planning sounds like my kind of vacation. How did you come up with this idea? And have you encountered any issues because of this?
We reveal the basic location, such as “The Catskills” for our New York houses, but wait to give you the exact location until just before you leave because Getaway is about the experience of taking time and space for yourself in nature, not about the particular destination you are going to. This isn’t about going to the Hamptons or Cape Cod, it's about finding some balance in nature. We also think if we give the exact location people will schedule their weekends down to the minute, which is a habit we’re trying to help people break.
Getaway was recently featured on Shark Tank. Can you discuss what you learned from being on the show?
It was sort of funny – on the one hand, it's reality TV which feels a bit silly. On the other hand, you are out there presenting and defending your business in front of five very intense questioners. There’s no training quite like it.
On Shark Tank, you approached the investors with a $10 million valuation for Getaway. Chris Sacca, an extremely well connected billionaire investor, offered $500,000 for a slightly more than 7% stake, valuing your company at $7 million. The offer was turned down. What was your thought process behind the negotiations?
It was pretty simple -- while we would have been excited to work with Chris (and he could have provided a lot of value) his offer didn’t get close to the valuation we knew we could get from other investors.
Shortly after Shark Tank, you received a $15 million strategic growth investment from L Catterton, a major private equity firm. How did you celebrate?
Maybe I am too superstitious, but I don’t believe in celebrating a fund raise until the money is wired. The problem is that it takes so long to get these deals done - between the initial offer and the money getting wired - that by the time you actually get the cash it feels like old news and everyone has already moved on to the next phase of building the company. I think I still have an unopened bottle of champagne in my fridge that I refused to open and then forgot about. I think the right answer is to have mini-celebrations along the way. I’m going to work on that.
You started with one cabin in 2015, and now boast nearly a dozen. With the high demand for Getaway and the new funding round, you seem to be on a roll. What do you think you have done right, and how do you plan to build upon it?
We started with something that we personally wanted to exist in the world, which I think is critically important for motivating oneself, and then once we launched our pilot we listened to our customers intently. Every customer is asked to give feedback and everyone in the company reads every piece of feedback we get. With some money in the bank, we want to make sure we keep building things we want to use and that are responsive to what we hear from customers.
What is your vision for Getaway 5 years / 10 years / 20 years out? How do you plan to scale the business?
We want to provide a cultural counterweight to the collapse of work-life balance in the digital age, and in doing so, allow people to retain a bit of their humanity that is at risk of being lost in our overcommitted and overconnected culture. I believe that project is critical and I hope many organizations will help tackle this problem. We want to do our part by making Getaway accessible to as many people.