Starter Story

How We Started A $8K/Month Business Transforming Campervans While Traveling

$8,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
3
Employees
product
ZENVANZ
from Portland, OR
started February 2019
$8,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
3
Employees
1.49M
alexa rank
7.54K
followers
social media

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

We are Bryan+Jen Danger, a couple who broke away from the 9-5 years ago to live a life focused on happiness and simple/nomadic living. We traveled extensively by van as we sought out wilderness/adventure and returned to urban environments to be around friends and family.

Our lifestyle eventually led to starting ZENVANZ, where we create campervan conversions that are both rugged and beautiful. We supply our clients with DIY Campervan Conversion Kits focused on interior cabinets and finishes built from aluminum and bamboo so that they can tackle a DIY campervan conversion on their own and save money via “sweat equity”.

ZENVANZ also takes on a few full/custom builds a year where we do all the work for those clients who simply don’t have the time or the comfort with all the projects needed to build (or manage a build) on their own.

To say that ZENVANZ has always been bootstrapped would be an understatement, and we’ve yet to spend a dime on marketing. We literally started the business by saying yes to existing requests and by simply allowing clients and others who see our work to speak for us. We were also thrilled to see that after our “kickoff/launch event” we received some great press about our work and immediately listing us as one of the best conversion companies on the market!

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

As a part of our nomadic lifestyle, we built out a campervan simply to facilitate our own travels, whether it be a summer spent on the coast of Baja or chasing snow from mountain to mountain in the Canadian Rockies.

We really never had the intention of starting a business… In fact, we said no for a couple of years to those asking us to either buy our campervan or for us to build one for them. We loved the process and loved the idea of helping others to get out and enjoy more nature/adventure the way we had, but the idea of giving up some of our own freedom to go back to working in the shop simply wasn’t attractive.

Eventually, friends came to us and convinced us to start the business. To simply show them how to do what we had learned and for us to simply continue “marketing” the business as we already had been (by camping and attending events and simply talking to others who saw the van when we opened the doors). Those friends were also looking to make a transition in life as they wanted out of their 9-5s, and we saw it as an opportunity we couldn’t refuse- both to help them and to help others we had talked to about van builds over the years.

Not everyone in a business is on the same page in terms of risk adversity, work ethic or expectations, communications, etc… and that makes for a very difficult set of conversations as an organization and sometimes even harder when among friends.

The very basic principle of the company was to recreate what we had done in our van and to use the designs and principals we had used, tested, revised and perfected over 7 years of living and traveling in a van full time. Our experiences had taught us that most people could play the role of “general contractor” for their build and get help from local subcontractors for plumbing, electrical and other projects as needed, but the interior finishes and cabinetry seemed to be the “hurdle” that most often catapulted a professional van build into a much higher price point.

Our modular DIY kit was designed and built to be not only of the highest quality materials and finishes to hold up to the rigors and elements of van life but also reverse engineered to simply bolt into factory holes so that anyone could do the install on their own and with limited tools.

Our business was founded on the idea of creating the perfect partnership between the designer who has 7 years of experience living/traveling in and building out vans and the experience of a professional general contractor… and those skillsets still allow us to see the needs of our clients from both sides of the coin - whether a client is handing a van over to us for a full/custom build or whether they want to use our DIY kit, tackle the project themselves to save money via “sweat equity” and use our experience as more of a coaching role.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

We didn’t realize at the time that we were designing a “product”, merely that we were trying to build our own perfect campervan.

My background is in architectural design and specifically in designing small spaces, so when it came to building out our own van it was very important to us that it was both efficient and elegant. It was also our second van build (we started our travels in a self-converted 67 VW Bus), so we had learned from our mistakes and decided to make this build modular so that it could be easily removed, updated, upgraded or changed over time-based upon specific trips or even to return it to a work van or daily driver as needed. We had also learned quickly which materials held up to the abuse of living/traveling full time in a van (and which ones failed miserably), and there obviously were some non-negotiables in the design like no more square corners to bang our heads on.

All the work of reverse-engineering the design was built into our personal build, and in hindsight, it would have been a real pity for all that work to have been used only once. That upfront work allowed a fairly simple transition into making DIY kits for others as we could simply remove the kit from our van for measurements and refinements and then bolt it back in before taking off for another adventure.

In building the first van we had done all the research on systems and what was best for an RV/campervan build and kept coming back to the feeling that builders were “recreating the wheel”. It seemed to us that most of these issues had not only been solved before but had been mostly perfected by boat designers long ago. We use almost exclusively products designed for the harsh environment of a boat at sea and designed our own products to survive the same environment.

Our van builds often got coined “the land yacht” by those who saw it and when we started ZENVANZ we had the chance to set a very high bar in terms of only using those materials and systems that we had proven to work and sustain in all four seasons over years of adventure and abuse offroad.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

Describe the process of launching the business.

Our goal was simply to create a few vans with our kits, sell/release them to clients and allow each of those clients to act as marketing just as it seemed to do when we opened the doors to our van and answered questions to those showing interest.

We had been invited to a large overland event in AZ the year before as “featured travelers” simply to talk about our travels and share our van and experiences with other attendees. When we decided to start the business, it was clear that Overland Expo was the perfect place to show our vans to others, possibly find buyers and to at least allow a lot of interested people to see and crawl through our vans.

We set the date of that event as the deadline to have our website and social media up and running, to have printed materials ready and to have 3 vans completed that could potentially be sold at the event. We set about building vans, literally in a snowy backyard, eventually moving into a community/shared shop space for access to more tools and space.

Sadly, the best-laid plans never quite come to fruition... and we showed up at the event with only one complete van, one partially finished van and one empty shell of a van. We were initially worried about our “less than planned” presence, but in hindsight, it was actually perfect as it allowed attendees to see the process, allowed us to show how simple it was to “plug and play” our modular cabinet system into an empty van - and allowed them to imagine doing it themselves back home.

The result of our “launch” was fantastic. Mind-blowing.

We couldn’t believe the positive response and the outpouring of love/excitement for the vans, both from seasoned travelers used to traveling in much larger vehicles and those still looking/planning to set out on their own future adventures.

The comments and reaction of attendees combined with multiple articles featuring our product absolutely filled our hearts; especially since it was something we had designed for personal use and spent so much time enjoying on our own.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Thus far, we are simply trying to keep up with demand while also maintaining our own personal goals of living for happiness, adventure and travel - Balance is and remains our largest hurdle on a daily basis.

We met many other van builders at events around our launch, and while most builders got into the industry out of a love for travel; most described how they haven’t been on a major trip or left the shop ever since. We vowed to ourselves that wouldn’t be the case.

Surround yourself with like-minded people who share your goals and passions and surround yourself with inspiration and ideas that allow you to see both creative new ideas and what your clients are inevitably seeking out.

In fact, after the mad rush leading up to our launch shorthanded and spending almost 90 straight days in the shop, we found ourselves so completely tapped out and exhausted that we left shortly after for a several-month drive to explore Alaska, the Yukon, and NWT and to dip our toes into the arctic ocean. It was a trip we had talked about for years and did a great job of resetting us mentally and physically... but probably should have been a death sentence for any new business just starting to find its legs. We knew that before leaving but had also committed to each other long ago to make our decisions based upon happiness rather than work or financial opportunities.

Despite a few months away with limited cell/wifi (and possibly even less energy or vision for the future), we still had dozens of leads pouring in and most were actually very willing to pause and await our return and/or start on some projects simply based on our “coaching” from afar.

In our minds, that’s the beauty of starting a lifestyle business based solely around following your own passions… you tend to attract those that not only have similar goals but completely understand your desire to find that “live/work balance” we all seek.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are, of course, still trying to figure most of it out (likely the only option since there was little to no plan when starting the business).* *

The last year and a half since our launch event has been an experiment in how to run a business that refuses to cut corners or deliver anything less than the highest quality materials/craftsmanship (and hopefully experienced) to our clients; but also in doing so without being willing to give up the personal lifestyle that we have worked so hard to create/achieve over the years.

The business is somehow continuing to thrive, almost despite us (our own travels and attention/focus on other things) and we have spent the last year refining our sources and our partners.

Our goals moving forward are essentially more of the same.

To find a balance that allows us to remain a small company, focused on a product we all believe in and are proud of, and to find/work with clients who share our drive. To share the goals and dreams that we set out with years ago and hope to help them achieve some of the same.

We are currently moving into a new/larger shop facility and building out our tools and partners to allow more diversity in our products. To meet the needs of those in a wider array of van models/sizes and more custom layouts/designs to fit the various needs of our clients.

Marketing… sadly, essentially hasn’t happened.

Other than the press/articles that we found out about after their being written (from increased website traffic or a client forwarding us an article link) we really have been too focused on keeping up with demand and unfortunately haven’t found the time to market the company as we would like or would have imagined.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it here, but Instagram/Facebook is really our only marketing and a quick look at the accounts shows we’ve only posted twice in the last 6 months and 10 times total this year (yikes).

That said, there are tons of beautiful photos of our vans and/or the vans built by our clients online, and we are humbled and honored by the constant stream of communications from those interested in our products/services.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Oh, so many things (and still learning daily).

Everyone warned us not to go into business with friends, but we were convinced of the reasons that it would work out anyway. We communicate too well, we have all the same goals, and in our case… we never wanted the business or the money to begin with, so it couldn’t possibly come between us and dear friends.

Sadly, it did. We tried to do everything possible to relieve their stresses from downsizing the initial goals/financial risk, to eventually buying them out (at a much higher amount than we probably should have before even launching the business), but it may have all been in vain.

The stress, work, and financials early on in starting the business apparently caused a rift that we still aren’t certain will be overcome in the friendship (though we hope for nothing more)...

The continued lesson is that not everyone in a business is on the same page in terms of risk adversity, work ethic or expectations, communications, etc… and that makes for a very difficult set of conversations as an organization and sometimes even harder when among friends.

For me, this always comes back to the fact that this design and the business as a whole came from a personal passion and lifestyle. The product and the brand are to us a reflection of ourselves and who/what we stand for. The business’ brand is our brand and vice versa. To that end, we refuse to offer anything less the best because we feel that reflects on us personally.

We simply stand to the commitment that we made to each other that the business is always secondary - to us and our relationship, to our relationship with friends/family and or colleagues/coworkers/partners, etc. If the doors shut tomorrow or if we never see another dime from the company that’s just fine. Would it be a horrible pity if that’s the end of the ZENVANZ story? Of course, it would… but absolutely fine by us and how we choose to live our lives and run our business(es).

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I’d say this is the area we still need the most improvement.

Especially when often trying to run a business from afar the systems/communication become very important and we’ve yet to dial these in as much as we’d like.

We have no direct sales. All sales and custom conversations/designs are started through one on one communication with me personally, and honestly, we like it that way.

It’s the area of the business where we still get to communicate with others who share our goals and passions, where we can help provide insight from our years on the road and from our multiple lifestyle changes, and allows us to determine a good fit between us and our clients, etc.

It’s something we don’t really have a desire to change or automate, and again something allowed by not making business decisions by financially driven goals.

Does it inherently limit the potential size of our business? Yes… and we are fine with that too.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Sadly, our travels/adventures have often meant very little in the way of cell/wifi/downloads. Most of our inspiration has come from other peoples’ stories and things we have learned on the road and in our own travels… but most of those were from people we met along the way rather than from published books/podcasts.

People outliving their dream, people outliving a life they love, people finding a way to balance lifestyle with business, etc… those are where we tend to find value and the things we try to recreate in our lifestyle and our business(es).

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

It may sound like a very “cliche” answer, and in fact, I used to roll my eyes when my partner would chant this to me nonstop - but build your business around your own passion and doing what you enjoy, and if it’s done well enough the customers/clients/money will inevitably follow and you’ll find yourself working in an industry you’re passionate about and with people who you share many things with.

The true beauty is - that if it fails or if the money or business doesn’t succeed or follow, at least you’re still simply doing the things that make you happy and that you’re passionate about.

Surround yourself with like-minded people who share your goals and passions and surround yourself with inspiration and ideas that allow you to see both creative new ideas and what your clients are inevitably seeking out.

Have you walked into your clients’ shoes to truly understand their wants/needs? We constantly look at other van builders popping up in the market who have never spent time camping or living “van life”. Almost none have ever traveled for extended periods in a van. That might work well for clients who only plan weekends away, but does very little to understand the needs of a couple or a family who intends to travel long term in a self-built campervan.

For us balance continues to be the thing that allows us to thrive. We are 100% committed to living the life we set out to live; which is focused on freedom, simple and nomadic living, nature and adventure. As long as the business feeds those goals and feeds our passion (rather than feeling like “work”) we will continue to run the business and work with those who seek us out.

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not actively hiring at current, but we always love conversations with those who have similar goals, interests and skillsets. Please feel free to reach out!!

Where can we go to learn more?

ZENVANZ links

Our personal/travel links

how-we-started-a-8k-month-business-transforming-campervans-while-traveling

-  
bryan+jen danger,   Founder of ZENVANZ

Want to start your own business?

Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.

We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.

Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!

-  
Pat Walls,   Founder of Starter Story

Are you ready to boost your revenue?

Using Klaviyo will open up a massive, untapped sales channel and bring you closer to your customers!

We've interviewed many impressive businesses who swear by the results of the product, including Brumate, Beardbrand, and many more.

Level up your email marketing with Klaviyo!


Leave a comment
Your email address will not be published.

Check out our premium interviews: