When Joe Kicos and Mickey Miller began selling retro-sleek Little Guy teardrop camper trailers in 2001, they drew buyers with ads in classic-car magazines and eBay listings, and from Miller's used-car lot in Canton, Ohio. But most RV dealers weren't interested in carrying the trailers, a niche product (priced at $4,995 and up) in the $37.5 billion RV market. So Kicos pitched car dealers, who loved how the trailer's unique shape lured in passersby. That, combined with a spike in gas prices in 2011 and aggressive branding, got Little Guy on the gas-guzzling-RV dealers' radar--77 of them started selling the trailers between 2011 and 2014. Kicos explains how Little Guy competes with the big guys.
1. Let customers be designers
Incorporating ideas from customers has been key to Little Guy's success. Kicos and his team seek out suggestions at RV shows and dealerships and from customer email and calls. When people said they wanted room for a queen-size mattress and lights, he made a bigger, 5'-by-6' trailer and added a power system. When they said they wanted more space, Kicos started selling an add-on 10'-by-10' screened "room." RV dealership reps have even helped the company design a new all-season truck camper, offering guidance on floor plans. "If it makes sense and it's not going to dramatically increase the price, we'll add it," says Dylan DeHoff, the company's vice president of sales.
2. Start a cult
"Our teardrop-trailer customers are a lot like Harley-Davidson or Jeep lovers," says Kicos. "They're passionate." He encourages the cultlike following that has emerged organically among owners. He sends each new customer a "Welcome to the Little Guy Community" email (that community is a ready-made market for accessories). The company's online forum for the trailer's enthusiasts is an unofficial adjunct customer service department. There, owners share advice on everything from product specs to winterizing the trailers. The company also uses consumer-generated photos in marketing literature and on social media and its website, to promote the sense of community (and to save money on advertising).
3. Be faster than the big guys
The structure of big RV companies makes them too inflexible to respond quickly to changing customer demands and trends. With just seven employees, each performing multiple roles, Little Guy is in no danger of sharing that fate, because everyone stays close to the production process. All Little Guys are constructed at an Amish-run factory a half-hour away from company headquarters, where new designs can be drafted within a day. Despite the cultural differences (some factory employees use phones and power tools at work, but not at home), "we operate like a team," says Kicos. "The factory has incredible craftsmen, and they're open to building anything."