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Two Harvard men based their million-dollar business on a whole lot of nothing

An aerial view of the Haydee unit at the Getaway in Stanardsville, Va. The former campground now has 34 tiny houses on a 180-acre site for people to commune with nature. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti.1 / 2
Pete Davis, one of the founders of Getaway, inside the Carroll unit in Stanardsville, Va. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti.2 / 2

When I think about entrepreneurs and Harvard, I think about Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook mob, who started their little dorm project for kicks and turned it into something that's worth more than a small country.

Pete Davis and Jon Staff aren't the Facebook guys.

Davis and Staff are the anti-Facebook guys.

They built a back-to-nature "tiny house" business called Getaway that's all about locking up the iPhone (literally), heading into the woods, communing with black bears and (if that does it for you) decompressing.

"It's supposed to be about doing nothing," Davis said.

There is no WiFi. And cell coverage is spotty at their hotel rooms in the woods.

Sounds kind of granola, I know. But Getaway is grossing more than $1 million a year, and the guys are cash-flow positive.

Last year, they persuaded a venture capital fund specializing in quality-of-life companies called L Catterton to plow $15 million into the Davis & Staff idea of how to tune out the noise and lower your blood pressure.

They have more than 30 employees and brag that they design and manufacture more tiny houses than just about anybody in the United States. I didn't even know there was such a statistic.

"We want Getaway to be the opposite of Silicon Valley," Davis said. "Silicon Valley sells you more connection and more distraction. We want Getaway to be about disconnection, deep conversation, a real-life recharge."

This from a pair of Harvard guys. Davis graduated from Harvard Law and Staff from Harvard Business School.

Hardly a pair of slow-mo "I gotta get my head on straight" dudes.

"I am a normy guy," Davis said.

Getaway is based in Brooklyn, but Davis is from Northern Virginia, and one of Getaway's outposts is less than two hours southwest of the District of Columbia in Stanardsville, Virginia, near Shenandoah National Park.

The "tiny houses," or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain't. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door.

To date, Getaway has 80 tiny houses planted outside Boston, New York and Washington. Los Angeles is next.

"Far enough to feel like it's a getaway," Davis said, "but close enough so you can get there for a weekend."

The occupancy rate is 90 percent, and that includes weeknights and winters. The biggest chunk of customers are younger than 40, most of whom are couples and small groups.

It isn't the spa at a Four Seasons, but it's not Parris Island, either. Each cabin has a name, a fire pit and Adirondack chairs outside, if you want to relive your childhood and toast s'mores.

For $100 to $200 a night, you get running water, a shower, a stove, a small fridge, a clean bed, a toilet and a big window, where you and your whatever - dog, partner, husband, wife or chum - can chill. The cabins are cleaned up between guest stays, one of which lasted two weeks. Access to each tiny house is through a punch code that guests receive online.

Davis said the idea is a "mini-retreat," with less stuff and more life experience.

"People are discovering that they're tired of more stuff and more thrills," Davis said. "Sitting among our stuff in the moments between our thrills, what do we miss? We miss those good, old intangibles: deep connection. Quality time. Space to think."

Getaway's "thing" or "gimmick" that sums up the connection message is a latched box in every cabin in which you can put away the temptation to tweet, text, read The Washington Post or work on your Sudoku.

"We've tried to bake the philosophy of Getaway into the cabins with the cellphone," Davis said. Getaway even has a book coming out next year on the founders' philosophy of disconnecting from the day-to-day.

Davis, 29, met Staff, 30, in college. Both are what Davis calls "project people" and are into creating offbeat companies: "We've always been the type to focus less on grades and more on projects."

(That reminds me of the line from the film "The Social Network," when then-Harvard President Larry Summers tells entrepreneur twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss that "everyone at Harvard is inventing something or starting a new business in their dorm room. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than getting one."

Staff, who grew up in a "tiny" town in Minnesota, started a frozen yogurt shop called Spun and a (get this) breathable foods company that drew a chuckle from Staff when he told me about it.

Davis started a mini-Facebook for neighbors and towns called "Commonplace" that fizzled out.

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share "old-fashioned values" that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."

"The way we first hit it off in our dorm was less about apps solving problems and more about old-time virtues, like having neighbors, having long conversations and meeting people in the real world," said Davis, who concentrates on the marketing side of the company; while chief executive Staff focuses on finance and operations. "Quality time instead of just packing everything into time."

They came up with the idea of tiny houses in the woods as a way to put the spirit of their back-to-nature vibe into something concrete that wouldn't cost them a ton.

To build the homes, they blitzed Harvard's email lists in search of architecture students who might want to join them.

Davis and Staff picked two students from dozens of responses. They used their digital smarts and found a spot of New Hampshire woodland on craigslist. They built their first tiny house out of pine in an East Boston warehouse and plopped it down in New Hampshire in summer 2015.

There's more going on at Getaway than making s'mores and chasing away bears.

It's the scene of big-deal life stuff: "People have gotten engaged at Getaway. Multiple babies have been conceived at Getaways. Multiple people have reported coming to Getaway after chemotherapy, deaths in the family, after taking big tests and right before being deployed."

Davis and Staff have big ambitions. They want a Getaway outpost outside every big U.S. city and maybe even overseas.

Davis said he and Staff use Getaway themselves to chill out.

Of course, whenever they go, they end up with higher stress levels, because all they do is sit around discussing how to improve the experience.

"We have a different experience than our customers do," Davis said. "Sadly, we ourselves have to get away from Getaway."

This article was written by Thomas Heath, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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