While studying abroad in Australia in 1994, future BootsnAll founder Sean Keener met with three Aussie friends in a pub. Amongst the beer and bird watching, they discussed a trip to England to watch Euro ’96. A month long trip incorporating the lads passion for football and beer. The fact that it was in a foreign country was just an added bonus.
Drunken plans came to fruition in May 1996 and the four friends reunited in Sean’s home town of Chicago before continuing on to London. What followed was a month of experiences so epic that the trip had to be named. After much discussion, Boots’n’All was chosen.
Boots signified the search for the ultimate pair of Boots that would be versatile enough to be the only footwear a traveller would need.
nAll was meant to stand for everything else that independent travel could bring: Amazing people, unique experiences, freedom, personal growth and just plain fun.
‘BootsnAll’ started life as an idea, a discovery by a group of friends that travelling was life changing.
By 1997, Sean Keener had continued his travels overland from eastern Europe to India, taking over 9 months and growing one hell of a beard. Future BootsnAll co-founder Chris Heidrich had used his Commonwealth visa qualifications to work in Scotland, experiencing independent travel from an ex-pat perspective.
That summer the two friends met in Chicago before roadtripping to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. While on a 3 day backcountry hike, the lads came up with the original BootsnAll Code of Conduct: a multi-point list of what it meant to travel ‘the BootsnAll way‘. It was a raw male oriented list that we are embarrassed to read today. The BootsnAll travel club was born, membership: two.
BootsnAll, the website
After that trip, life took over. Sean moved across the US and found work for an internet company in Eugene, Oregon. Chris continued his ex-pat work at a pub in a small English village. They met again in Chicago in December 1998 and talked on Christmas Day (over beers, naturally) about how “fun” it would be to put up a website about BootsnAll and share the Code of Conduct.
Chris followed Sean to Eugene in January ’99 and work began on a basic website.
By February, six pages were released onto the world wide web (still called the information superhighway). The Code of Conduct was published and travellers were encouraged to sign up for membership if they felt they had what it took to be a ‘BootsnAll traveller’. People applied in such a rush to be part of this network of online, open-minded independent travellers, that the lads knew they were on to something.
The website grew quickly as travellers submitted their travel stories and photos. As people applied to become BootsnAll members, Sean & Chris read each application and only allowed those travellers that they thought were worthy. They believed (and still do today) that BootsnAll was a community of independent travellers and communities were about give and take. A BootsnAll applicant had to be willing to share a travel story, or their travel aspirations in order to be accepted. Every applicant, accepted or not, received a personal email in return, just as they do to this day.
Funding a Start-up
1999 and 2000 were amazing times on the internet. Companies were being funded by ridiculous amounts of venture capital even though their business models would prove to be worth less than the napkin they were written on. A small website with a growing membership but still no revenue, BootsnAll was the target of a buyout offer from a travel company in San Francisco at the tail end of the dot-com boom. Being flown to the Bay Area, put up in a hotel and wooed by a dot-com south of Market Street was like a crazy dream for the young BootsnAll founders.
After the pitch, Sean & Chris went for a walk to talk it over. Stopping at a bar they decided to ‘just spend the money’ to see how it would feel if they accepted the offer (over beers, naturally). They returned to Eugene to begin the serious business of deciding whether to sell or continue to build BootsnAll on their own. Pro’s and con’s were discussed (over beers, naturally) and after a couple of pitchers of Ruby at High Street Brewery they decided that BootsnAll would stay in Eugene and grow according to their vision.
Deciding to fund their company themselves, Sean & Chris needed to find a way to make money. Using their skills at building websites, they began consulting for small businesses in Oregon and California. To supplement this variable income and to allow them time during the day to continue to work on BootsnAll, the lads made the decision (at age 24) to become newspaper delivery boys. Every morning at 3:45am, they would rise and cycle out into the darkness of downtown Eugene to deliver over 200 newspapers. Done by 6:30am they would return to the office, make coffee and sit at their desks to start work on their passion: BootsnAll.
For over two and a half years, Sean & Chris delivered the Register-Guard & Wall Street Journal in the early hours of morning
The Start-up Lifestyle
Being low on funds, Sean & Chris lived simply. They rented a three room apartment in the oldest house in Eugene. They shared one room in back, separated from each other by “Software Mountain”, a huge pile of random computer parts, monitors and other miscellaneous junk. They brewed their own beer, often in quadruple batches with a friend using a 25 gallon drum. When not drinking their own brew they would head across the street to John Henry’s bar for $3 pitchers of ‘butter beer’ and free pool to discuss BootsnAll’s business strategy. For entertainment, they built a Washers court in front of their office and coffee breaks would often turn into Washers Wars and passions ran high on occasion (Sean is still the undisputed champion).
As BootsnAll grew, Sean & Chris adhered to the Code of Conduct and opened the doors of the BootsnAll (home)office to any travellers who were passing through Eugene and wanted to stay for a night. Over the years BootsnAll hosted dozens of travellers. Home brew beers were offered in exchange for travel stories. Space on the office floor was offered up as beds with the understanding that you would likely be woken at 4:30am. Once, a BootsnAll member even delivered the newspapers as a favour!
The Journey Continues…
2003 heralded some big changes for the small company. Long-time BootsnAll staffer Nick O’Neill moved to Bali, Indonesia to begin writing the Bali Travel Guide. Sean & Chris moved the office to Portland, and then Chris left to spend a year in Australia. A learning experience though it was, something made sense about a travel company that operated in different time zones.
From 2004, BootsnAll has continued to grow. New staff members and a continually expanding membership are helping BootsnAll achieve its mission of cultivating an organic community that encourages independent travel. It has come a long way since a hike in the woods almost 15 years ago, but still has a long way to go.