The outdoor patio was filled with dude ranchers. It was their yearly conference at Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, and I was there as a vendor (and first-time attendee). I remember saguaro cactus lining the landscape. It was early evening, the sun was setting, and I was walking towards a cocktail party get together before the conference officially began. I didn’t know anyone.
A moment washed over me as I approached the crowd.
Where /am /i /right /now /i /am /a /total /fraud /i /don’t /belong /here /what /am /i /doing.
I kept walking.
The first person I approached was Dave Leishman, owner/operator of the Bar W Guest Ranch in Montana. I introduced myself, and once Dave glanced down at my nametag, the first words off his mouth were “How in the hell did you get that domain name!?!”
Me: “Oh gosh, where do I begin…”
I coulda told Dave several things, but I didn’t want to bore him with specifics. But I’ll bore you, cause you should know where you came from.
I vividly remember when you appeared on my radar. You had expired, and peeked your head out on the domain name auction block.
A dude ranch in New York state abandoned you. They’d (apparently) gone out of business, and failed to renew your registration. And as domains typically do, before you’re re-released for general registration, you’re put up for the highest bidder.
At that point in my career, I’d been investing in & developing expired domains for 3 years (long before I began selling onions on the internet). My development philosophy was just forming – that idea being : skip the ‘idea’ phase and just buy a great domain name, and let the domain guide me towards what \\it\\ wants to become.
My first development attempts were smaller in scope, and I craved a bigger opportunity. To deep dive on one subject. One industry. One sole focus I could push my chips behind and play the long game. All layered on a great .com domain.
So I hit the pause button on my piecemeal acquisition pursuits. To take a step back. And wait. To monitor & analyze the expired domain name lists, every day, 7 days a week, searching for *one* name. For a domain that struck my interest. That had a built-in business model. That might be fun & fulfilling to develop. Crouching tiger, hidden dragon. This was 2008’ish.
In November of 2009, the opportunity presented itself. You, DudeRanch.com, had expired. Adrift without an anchor.
I was ready for you.
You were perfect for me – a niche vacation industry dating back over 130 years.
The personal parallels were surprising: I prefer mountains to beach. I prefer unplugging. I prefer hand-shakes to LinkedIn connections. I prefer authenticity. All are hallmarks of a dude ranch vacation.
I was sold, but I didn’t own you yet – the auction had a few days remaining. Hell, I didn’t even know if I could afford your final bid price. So, to determine a range I could consider, I ran through some possible business models that might fit well under your tutelage (as the profit could pay for your investment). Here’s how I thought it through:
From a business & development standpoint, the revenue numbers for your industry were encouraging. An all-inclusive weekly rate for a family of 4 hovers around $8,000 ($20k/wk for fancy destinations). Ranches also heavily advertised in several spots, online and offline, so marketing & advertising weren’t a foreign concept to them. That aspect allowed me to consider building a marketplace of dude ranch vacations where potential guests could window shop for destinations that fit their needs. Sure, there were a few other websites that provided this service already, but I felt I could build a simpler UI to make it easier to navigate and research. That sounded good to me, so I went with that.
With the rough development idea formed, I tried to determine how much profit the marketplace could produce for me after 1 or 2 years, as that flagpole could guide me towards a bid price range I could consider.
I assumed I could sign-up fifty (50) dude ranches during my first year, at $250/year each (about half as cheap as my competitors). 50 x $250 = $12,500/year. I then assumed I could sign another fifty (50) up my second year. That number seemed to work for me, so my rough budget was $25,000 (all partially-funded by my consulting work and savings I had cobbled together working at software startup as a product manager). I didn’t have $25,000 liquid at the time, so it was all gonna go on credit cards, which I predicted I could pay off in 6-9 months. If the auction price went above $25k, I’d be forced to wing it and use my gut to determine how much financial pain I was willing to endure to acquire you. No VC, no angels. Just me.
With that info in tow, I was ready.
The date of your auction was Nov. 4th, 2009. The week prior – no shit – I had weird dreams of a floating silver orb, hovering in front of me, like a ping pong ball floating on a jet of air. My arms were outstretched, palms a few inches under the object. I found the dream odd, until I made the connection with you. That I was waiting to rescue you – for you to fall into my hands.
The closer your auction date creeped, I began developing a slow-simmering animosity towards anyone who considered outbidding me. I also made the small mistake of assuming ownership before I owned anything. But I was ok with that. I recognized I was willing to wildly overspend with no guarantee of victory in place.
At 3pm the active bidding began. In online domain name auctions, there’s no ability to snipe – all bids placed within the last 5 minutes trigger the countdown clock to reset back to 5 minutes. Pre-bidding had pushed your price up to $3,433. That’s where I began.
The back and forth bids essentially went like this..
Other person bid: $4,000
Other person bid: $4,200
And so on.. until this:
35 minutes of palm sweat bidding & countless f*bombs hurled at fox22, sitevestor, & piety. I kept swinging for you. Until the bidding stopped at $17,949. It was a euphoricly uncomfortable feeling. But you were mine.
It seems strange now to look back.
The ten year adventure you took me on is difficult to enunciate. It’s been an overwhelming blessing.
My original idea is what you became, a marketplace of dude ranch vacations. The model wound up working. After a few years in the industry, as you know, we partnered with our friendly competitor – GuestRanches.com – operated by David McCollough. We both remained independent, but worked together from an advertising sales standpoint. Effectively, one bill for ranchers to advertise on 2 sites.
We began traveling, to as many dude ranches as possible. Most oftentimes with David. Sometimes solo. I wanted to soak in the soul of your industry; one that’s has been around for well over 100 years. To understand how it evolved over time, and how it continues to evolve today.
I started collecting dude ranch belt buckles.
And these two.
It’s all I wear anymore to keep my pants up.
And it sounds cliche, but it’s not the places… or the locations… or the history that make this industry special. It’s the people. They exude kindness, compassion, and resourcefulness. As an outsider, I only experienced open arms (and open hearts) as we attempted to expand the halo of “the original all-inclusive vacation.”
I’m so grateful to David & GuestRanches.com – for partnering & taking us under their wing. David had been in the industry nearly 15 years at that point, and forged strong relationships over that time. By partnering, we were able to establish another layer of trust for you, and continue to build on the foundation of our ad-based business. David was our savior in many ways.
Personally, having visited over 50 dude ranches now – from locations in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Montana, Arizona, Tennessee, North Carolina, and even Georgia – I can unequivocally say this industry is a shining gem within the universal vacation landscape. The locations, the people, the experience… it’s unmatched. Bob Foster – 2-time President of the Dude Ranchers Association + previous owner/operator of Lost Valley Ranch in Colorado – once shared a story with me … when Walt Disney visited their property. Walt was speaking to Bob’s father regarding their destination, and his reflection was:
… people think they need recreation, but what you (Lost Valley) offer is more.. it’s “re-creation.”
And he’s right, this industry gives you that. It’s what I experienced.
I’ve grown because of you. I recognize I’m a different person now. More empathetic. Patient, persistent.
You also provided a regular revenue stream for me, and provided a deeper education in sales, customer relations, and web development. Because of the financial freedom, you allowed me to wander into other projects. To test harebrained ideas. To find other neat domain names to develop, in the same fashion.
Some of those other projects failed, but others began working. The successful projects began siphoning more of my time. To the point where it wasn’t fair to you. I began noticing the signs last year, but I forcibly ignored them, as you mean so much to me.
But I realized you, in many ways, had outgrown me, & the nest I made for you. You’d matured. With zero traffic as our baseline when we launched, we grew to over 146,000 pageviews a year, driven via SEO, press, social, newsletters, and a pittance of paid traffic. Your name became a brand. Ranches now refer to you as a noun, instead of a question mark. You were graduating high school and I didn’t even know it. *You* were ready to move on – I now realize that. With that understanding, I think we found a perfect scenario.
For you, my dearest, my first – you’re headed to a new home. A better home, in many ways. David’s agreed to buy you. I sorta see it as an adoption – “buying” seems so transactional. You know how much he loves you. How much he cares about this industry. And that made this decision so much easier.
I’m closeby, though. Don’t worry. Incorporating an industry like dude ranching into your identity isn’t something you easily detach from. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever accomplish that. Let’s just say this:
My love, I’ll see you on the trail. 🤠
– Peter Askew (@searchbound)
[some photos I captured over ten years – mainly on my iPhone – hover or click for info]
And some 360-degree photos I also captured (click & drag):
If you’ve ever considered a dude ranch as a possible vacation destination, and are overwhelmed with all the choices, our friend Bob Foster (mentioned above) provides curated recommendations of ranches to consider, all matched to your interests. If that’s of interest, click the link below, fill out the form, and Bob will reach out to schedule a call.
Follow me on Twitter as I continue to document my journey there. Or get an email when I post new stuff (below):