Mel McKay is a freelance ad writer, instructor at AUArts and the founder of Camp Hoo-Ha, a social and skill building club that now spans 12 cities in 3 provinces. The Hoo-Ha journey started in 2017 when Mel decided it was time for a creative reboot. But instead of building someone else’s brand, she was going to build her own.
Jealous of her 7-year-old daughter’s growing badge collection, Mel wondered why there was no skill-building club for women. With this insight and the staunch support of her friends and family, the birth of Camp Hoo-Ha began.
This is an excerpt of our On Tap interview with Mel McKay on June 11, 2020. The questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
1. What did you find people were hungry for when you started Camp Hoo-Ha?
There was a space missing — all the women’s events were these awkward networking events where you don’t know how to interact with each other. You’re either talking about work or it’s a mom’s group. I was thinking there’s gotta be a space where we can get together, have some laughs and kind of let our hair down.
It started in Calgary, but it's now in 12 cities. I have licensees set up in other cities that are typically running in-person events. But, because of COVID, they're all just sitting by right now. But it's grown, based on the need there was for this kind of thing.
It was sort of this stark contrast to influencer culture. Everything on Instagram was this Millennial pink and the same language, all of this “perfect image” stuff. And that doesn't resonate with me, and I know my friends and we all kind of have a real quality and kind of a badass edge. Although there are some younger girls who have become campers, it was sort of that middle-aged woman that’s our typical camper and they’ve been ignored in the marketing space.
2. What is it about Camp Hoo-Ha that gets people to show up to events regularly?
It was the realness, it was the brand, it was the tone of voice that we used where, you know, we kind of pushed the envelope a bit. And those who liked it, liked it a lot.
We have amazing speakers. They’re real women (and men!) who deliver the right content, but resonate with our audience too. They have an edge and relate to our campers and make them laugh and teach them something.
You’ve got some raving fans over there. You were mentioning some of your fans even contributed money during this, even though there were no events? They weren’t buying anything, but they believed in Camp Hoo-Ha and wanted it to keep going.
Ya, I got some messages like, “I just got an e-Transfer for you because I just want you to be okay.” And I said, “Buy merch, you don’t have to just send me money.” But there was this real message that we want this community to be there in six months, eight months, 10 months.
So that was a beautiful thing. So I know that these guys have my back, I just gotta deliver for them.
3. What has been your favourite event so far?
They’ve all been amazing. I don’t know if I can pick a favourite. We have many of them come back, like Julie Van Rosendaal. They’re brilliant at what they do.
4. How has this pandemic changed your business?
Everything changed. I was thinking this whole thing is over, and then had to do that mind shift, which was what can I do? Our concept is badges and booze. I’ve got badges in the basement. There’s lots of booze out there. Let’s do online events and build the national brand. We have the chance now to tap into women across the country.
The craziest thing I could do over the last three months was to build a bigger brand, and it worked. When you’re physically together, you’re sharing spaces because you’re eating together and laughing together. Because this was an online event, I really dialed into what my campers needed.
I thought, let’s build something crazy in a time when it’s really, really hard. I’ve got women dialing in that are on a farm in the middle of nowhere that would never get to the in-person events. And we’re going to keep doing this. There are ways to build this community and do the in-person events when it’s safe to do so. We can do a hybrid where we have maybe 50 people in a room and have a couple hundred online.
I always thought you needed to be in the physical space to have the camp experience. But you don’t — this has proved to me that connection can happen this way.
We’ve done things to make it feel like it’s an in-person thing. We’ve got camp songs and wine-tasting notes. We try to break that Zoom grid up a bit so that it feels dynamic. We’re gonna keep doing online stuff and make it work. There’s also a range of feelings about the comfort level of getting back into it (in person). I’ll put out the feelers and make sure we’re matching the comfort level of our community.
5. You’ve built a really good community. We’re also trying to build a community of small business owners and self-employed people in Calgary. Can you talk a bit about how you built your community and what worked for you?
At our (previous) camps and events, you’re so close together that you can’t help but connect. I don’t have to go with a group of friends. I can show up by myself because this community is going to welcome me. People are going to talk to me.
From an online perspective, we have our Facebook groups, our Instagram account. It’s
open to everybody to share camp-related stuff, funny stories, whatever. I’ve always said, this is not my club. This is your club. I’m here to bring you guys together, but you tell me what you want to do, how you want to do it, and when. Empowering them to help me navigate it has helped them connect as a group too.
6. What’s the craziest event you’ve done?
We just did a virtual pony race with Century Downs. There’s no live horse racing. So we used old footage. As part of that, local artist Mandy Stobo created these little digitally animated horses, so we had a horse race of animated horses that included a seahorse. It was so silly, but so fun.
There’s so much craziness going on in the world that I wanted to do something that was weird and silly to take us away from that. And then we've done, you know, naughty paint nights where we've had nude models. We’ve done some “out there” stuff and now it's always hard to sort of top some of those things, but my wheels are always turning.
7. Are there other communities out there where small business owners can connect and learn something?
There are lots of good resources. I love the Social School. Kelly Doody has come to Summer Camp. She’s got a brilliant mind and can tap into what people really need.
My advice to small business owners is to get super scrappy with your business. Put the books down. You don’t have to go by the rules and do all of this stuff. That business plan line is not a straight A to B. It’s messy, especially in times like this. So all the rules are kind of out the window.
Go after clients or sponsors or whatever ideas that a year ago seemed impossible. Everything has changed, and everything is fair game. So get scrappy, try things and really push yourself. Explore ideas that are crazy.
Yes. Things like this conversation! They don’t cost a penny. So it’s a good time to just try things and see what gets traction.
It’s interesting too, because people are focused on what they need to be making or producing or selling. Do stuff you love. If you’re going to start a business or adapt your business, now is the time to make it something that is going to make you happy, especially if you have to do it from home all day.
I also think it's a good time to reach out to people who you admire and ask for their time. Now people should have some time to give back to people that are just starting out. Reach out and connect with people who would normally maybe not be as accessible.
8. How would you go finding those people?
I teach Entrepreneurship at Alberta University of the Arts, and I’ll be teaching a business class there too.
So my students, we do projects and I tell them, if you’ve got somebody who you totally idolize, send them a nice email. Be specific about what you admire about them. Don’t be like, “I want to pick your brain. Can I have 15 minutes of your time?”
Be specific about what you’re looking for from them and what you want to learn from them. I think you’re more likely to get a response. It’s one of those things where you just go for it. What do you have to lose?
9. Do you have a lot of conversations with students in their late teens or early twenties about building a business out of their passion? You’ve done that where you’ve taken something you love and created a successful business out of it. But it’s not all fun and games.
The first thing I do is have them do a life inventory where they’re digging into their values. Who are you at your core? What is your personal DNA and how does that align with this business?
If you’ve got this business idea and you aren’t the type of person that could do it, or that’s not your passion, then it’s probably not a smart business.
Some of these students, they’re 25 and they already have three startups going. Some of them are real hustlers, and they’re on their way. But it’s getting them to really think through every step of that business: the why, who their customer is, what it takes to come up with a positioning so that you have a place — what’s your stake in the ground?
Setting them up so they think about all the things that can make them fail so that they have a rationale behind every decision they’re making. And it’s awesome to see the light go on when some of them get it. They’re so smart. The world is in good hands.
When you have that combination of being an idea person, and you have a strategic mind, it’s like, watch out! If you don’t have a strategic business mind, then you either need to hire somebody to do that or develop those skills.
Well that goes with any profession, even accountants. You go to school, you learn a skill, you know the tax law. You know how to do all the bookkeeping entries, but it doesn’t make you a good business owner. It doesn’t mean you’re on top of the marketing and the HR, and the IT infrastructure. And everything else that comes from running a business.
A lot of my students are specialized in what they do. The question is, should you be a jack of all trades or a master of one? It doesn’t hurt to be a master of two, because it makes you more hireable. It eliminates other people that you have to hire. Being really good at two things is a great asset as well.
I often think of this analogy: I have different roles in my life right now, and it’s almost like I’m in university again. I have a role as a father and a husband and a business owner and an accounting advisor. I can’t fail any of these, but I don’t need an A+ in them either. I just have to get a B in all these different roles, and it’s kept me from dropping balls all over the place. That’s what a business owner has to do. They wear all these different hats and try not to fail at any of them.
One interesting aspect of the last couple of months, which was really frustrating, was the tech stuff. We’ve got five people we need to be on during an event, all from home. We’ve got 500 people on Facebook trying to join in. We had tech issues trying to stream from Zoom to Facebook. And I’ve got to figure this out or then I’m really dead in the water.
I’m not a tech person. I don’t have a budget to be hiring someone to do this, but I ended up finding somebody to help with it and carved off a budget for him. It took the weight of the world off my shoulders that I didn’t have to think about it anymore. In this time where your business hinges on having an event online, you have to be able to have that.
10. So in six months or a year when things start to go back to normal, do you think digital will still be a big component of your community and how people engage?
I think this is changing everything. Even when the world is healthy, there are still people that want to connect online. So I think it’s going to be a big part of the future of everything.
Now we’ve proved to everybody that we can do it from home. You can deliver an event, you can have a community, all that stuff. There are girls making Camp Hoo-Ha sweatshirts for their Animal Crossing avatars. So that’s amazing.
I think the online experience, and kind of a hybrid. Then it’s creating multiple scenarios. If you can have 50 in a room, what does that look like? How do we do it? Do we have food? How do we do this safely?
And then my licensees: How can we make it work for them? How do I support them and adapt my model so that it can work for smaller groups?
I have an amazing business coach, Linda, and she has always referred to this building entrepreneurial muscle. I feel like over the last couple of months, I’ve built up this metaphorical muscle that’s going to serve me. I feel like I can press through the next year or two. So I think the future is good-ish. Again, everybody’s really nervous about everything. So we’ll proceed with caution, but optimism too.
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