Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Kelli Bielema & Vanessa Resler and we run The AirScream, a mobile karaoke lounge in a vintage Airstream located in Seattle, WA. The AirScream is an experience like no other where we bring the trailer to your special event, park it & let the party ignite! Our customers are marketing and brand specialists who want a unique activation at their events that bring people together. We also work with event planners who plan corporate parties as well as private social celebrations like birthday parties and weddings.
We created The AirScream out of a desire to scale up the karaoke game & capture the heat of mobile experiences that doesn’t show any signs of cooling. Because karaoke can be a challenge to place in a venue where it doesn’t take over the whole affair, The AirScream is its own self-contained unit that can go directly outside an event space (or indoors when it fits). The basic operation of the trailer runs on a standard household outlet with a dedicated 20 amp circuit (and a second one to run the air conditioning). There’s also an option to utilize a generator in cases where power is too far remote. And no, you can’t ride in it while it’s in motion.
We are new to the market and are slowly scaling up as we get comfortable with our processes so we can perfect everything before we debut to the public. Currently, we are operating focus groups with event planners & vendors, our friends & family and with upcoming pop-up events at select locations where we truly will experience The AirScream in the wild.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The two of us met while working at Deloitte. I (Kelli) was an operations manager with an extensive background in event and entertainment production including creating live experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood. Vanessa was a year one CPA fresh out of the University of Washington who realized within just a few months in at the fall tax deadline that this was not her jam. She decided to jump ship and start a DJ & Karaoke Service. Barely a year later, I left the firm, as well as my then part-time event production company, began to take off & I was finally able to commit to it 100% when I got a contract with Boeing.
In just months after both launching our businesses respectively, our client rosters began to grow. Vanessa’s company and namesake moniker, Baby Van Beezly, dove into the private and corporate event vendor realm, spinning party tunes and wedding marches. My clients with my company, Shindig Events, began to move away from private individuals to corporate entities such as PopCap Games, Adobe, Boston Consulting Group, Oculus, and Facebook. I was able to hire Vanessa for all sorts of gigs over the course of the next 6 years.
While Vanessa’s Baby Van Beezly biz began to really take off, my Shindig Events were coming to a close. After 7 years I was ready for a change, a stress break and launched back into day-job land, where I currently reside. But there’s always that itch to do something creative and event-related so a side hustle was inevitable.
After some nights out at dive bar karaoke, the idea for The AirScream was born. We both were well aware of the ever-popular love that people have for food trucks, photo booth buses, and cocktail bar campers. We also knew of the obvious growth of karaoke services at private and corporate events so why not peanut butter & chocolate those 2 things together? I have always fantasized about owning an Airstream and I’m a serial start-up idea person, so this was a perfect fit.
Fall flat on your ass. Making mistakes, failing, whatever you call it, is inevitable. Own those errors. You’ll be surprised how much they teach you in the long run.
Because I was a bit trepidation to throw a bunch of money into another business, and one that would definitely have some upfront costs wayward of $75K, we both decided that Kickstarter would be where we would position our idea. We did some rough math & landed at $45K for our ask. And since Kickstarter is an “all or nothing” platform, we really wanted to challenge ourselves. If we got the money, well, hot damn, but if not, well, it was fun to make the video with our friends & launch a campaign.
2 days before the funding period ended, we were $15K from our goal. We pretty much accepted defeat. And then, no kidding, 20 minutes prior to our closing, we got a backer that completely floored us. We were going to be able to do this thing. OH SHIT, SHOULD WE DO THIS THING? I mentioned to Vanessa that I was casually browsing Facebook Marketplace & came along the perfect trailer that was only 7 hours south of us in Oregon. OH SHIT. WE ARE REALLY DOING THIS.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Having fallen in love with Airstreams after renting one for a festival and living in it for a week, I definitely knew I wanted to own one but never would have thought that it would be in a business capacity. There’s something so iconically American about that shiny beast on the highway that appeals to all of us. I also considered that this was something of an effort of sustainability & recycling an old trailer for a new purpose was an exciting idea.
We knew that refurbishing an Airstream was going to be no easy feat. Watching countless YouTube videos of people pulling out junky old toilets and fussing with outdated electrical was going to be nothing short of a nightmare. It was our preference that this is an empty shell, or close to it, so we wouldn’t have to do as much of the demolition as it was going to be expensive in labor and our time. As luck would have it, the trailer I saw on Marketplace was just that: empty. The enthusiast we got it from had rebuilt it from the frame up, left out any plumbing and input only minor electrical. It was perfect for customization. Plus, the size was spot on. We originally were looking at 31’ trailers and in hindsight, I’m glad that didn’t work out. This is a great first effort in terms of interior and towing square footage for these trailer newbs.
On our way down to Medford, Oregon to pick up this 1961 Globetrotter, I got a text from my friend Danny (Preston Steps Design) out of LA with a rendering of his idea for the buildout. It kind of blew our minds and captured what we envisioned but didn’t know how to put it into action.
It was driving home from Oregon that we really knew we were on to something special. We used that time to brainstorm ideas around marketing, targeting customers and how the lounge was going to look and feel. Vanessa and I both share a love of all things over the top and loud and she completely trusted my event design background to integrate the crazy. With the help of Spoonflower & their incredible pool of artists, I uncovered some quirky patterns that once implemented would give the energy the space needed. From there, Danny was able to see it all in SketchUp to see if our wackadoodle print fantasy would translate IRL.
While the design elements came together, there were a number of things that were somewhat unknown. Enlisting Danny to help with this refurb was crucial as he had first-hand knowledge having rebuilt his own 1971 Shasta camper. Our trailer had some similar elements to that canned ham but a number of others would require some heavy research. Electrical was our biggest challenge and took at least a good solid week to just figure out the schematics. We would lean on a number of our local mobile biz colleagues for input (Shutter Bus, Happy Camper Cocktail Company) as well as another unicorn in the wheeled karaoke game, The Gold Karaoke Room in Los Angeles. It’s always encouraging when people who’ve been in our shoes are willing to share their experience & expertise with us so we can all, ultimately, be in this together!
The cushions were fabricated by a local Seattle vendor that specializes in RVs & boats, but otherwise, all interior elements were built by Danny. The materials were purchased primarily from a local hardware chain, Dunn Lumber. It was important to us to utilize community businesses as much as we can but we still needed to get a few random items off of Amazon. OK, a lot of items…! Our window signage was printed from the fine dudes at Spittin Llama. I (Kelli) sewed the curtains (after screwing them up at least twice). Pillows & accessories were selected on many shopping trips and are likely going to be a continuing process as I really can’t seem to edit! The entire build took approximately 2 months, which ultimately was still months ahead of our original goal of being completed by Spring 2020.
Because the only thing we truly knew well collectively was events & karaoke, doing this with a refurbished vintage trailer along with technology was new territory. Vanessa found Karafun to be the app that would best represent how we wanted to run our operation. Karafun is a terrific app that allows you to download the entire library so you don’t have to run on wifi, which appealed to us considering there will likely be events where internet access is spotty at best. The app also has current songs in its archives as well as access to community songs from other users. There are somewhere around 34,000 options, so if you want to sing that obscure Tom Waits ballad, chances are we can find it for you.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We are launching officially with a celebration for our Kickstarter backers in early May. Prior to that, there will be a handful of pop-up events & open houses with some of our event partners so we can finesse our processes prior to what is likely to be a really busy first summer season.
We are beginning to grow our online presence. Again, there aren’t many of us out there, so we are working on making everything look great with lots of content that we are currently building. The website is operated through Wix. It’s the most user-friendly tool that we’ve found. We’ve used them for myriad projects over the years & their customer service is exceptional.
Our logo idea came from Danny, which we fell in love with. Our hired artist Leah Tiscione, who also illustrates for Mad Magazine, created our new image for the brand. Our first logo I created in Canva because I felt we needed something when launching our Kickstarter.
Since our Kickstarter covered the bulk of our costs for the trailer & we got a homie hookup with our remodel, we essentially were able to cover all expenses with those funds. However, we wouldn’t get off that cheaply! A little digging into savings & credit cards was necessary to get those final elements and fulfill our Kickstarter obligations but we feel with our spring launch, we will be getting those funds back with multiple bookings. Overall, this venture will continue to be bootstrapped, but talking with investors is not off the table. We’ve got some early plans for growth beyond Seattle.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our backers, social media followers and events community have been chomping at the bit to book service. Early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with our trial runs. Based on all of these interactions we feel confident that we will have a successful first year. A lot of this is garnered from sharing the entire crowdfunding and buildout experience. Through Instagram stories and posts we’ve shown the exciting things but also the mundane details of starting a business. We are both transparent in our approach to how we show ourselves to the world and that authenticity resonates with our followers and soon to be customers.
Currently, we are drumming up an intense social media and traditional PR/media push to get the word out. We are personally teaming with local print outlets, TV networks, appearing on multiple podcasts and blogs because we believe in cultivating like true gardeners & getting our hands dirty. We want to connect with people so they are part of our journey.
We will utilize our social channels (primarily Instagram) to announce pop-up events as well as open houses where we are able to showcase The AirScream in action.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Again, we are pre-revenue but are looking at our first year having a small, but a healthy bit of revenue. Considering our available weekends once we launch & average rate of use, we could hit $120,000 gross. We are considering additional revenue streams beyond our standard 4-hour karaoke service including full and partial wraps of the trailer shell, customized signage for windows & interior, refrigerator door skins and another brand stamping we have yet to uncover.
Ongoing brand sponsorship packages will be offered. We’ve already been in early discussions with a couple of big brands (non-alcoholic) beverages to be served on board. We’re considering opening that up to snack brands as well. Sponsorship funds will help us defray a number of these first-year costs & perhaps get us going to a second vessel that can have an even more customizable look. The idea is to allow brands to come in & have their logos and signature products for any activations at festivals, trade shows or wherever their audiences are.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
While we wanted to get to market & have our ROI happen quickly, there’s something to be said about taking your time. We originally set the launch in late January, but Vanessa’s second child would be coming to us the first week of February, so that date may have been super ambitious, to say the least. When we decided in late December to hold off, it was hard to consider moving it for a hot second, but then we also realized that waiting until spring would allow us to finesse our systems, see how well the app works, how do people utilize the trailer once in it? It would be better to show our sweet new rig to the world once it was rocking 100%.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Karafunis our karaoke app and it’s the best out there. The user interface is really attractive & it has categories like “Easy for Men” which makes selecting tunes for those people who say they don’t sing super simple. Karafun customer service is also terrific.
Our primary favorite social media tool is Instagram and we are plumping up our commitment to growing a karaoke audience. There is minimal content of quality out there and we are excited to change that!
Vanessa uses Honeybook to run her DJ/KJ agreements and we are doing the same for The AirScream. It’s a great platform for gathering client data, signing agreements and reminders for payment. And for accounting, good ol’ QuickBooks is what we completely trust to keep us on a financial track. Maintaining organization of our SOP, note-taking, images, and filing of documents & receipts is all on Google Drive. Being able to look up notes on our phones is invaluable.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m completely obsessed with How I Built This with Guy Raz. While he’s interviewed billionaire CEOs, there’s always a part of their stories where I can relate.
Second Life is also another terrific podcast where I get a little boost in knowing that this is the moment of my career where I will take all of those failures & lessons and put them to the task.
The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins is nothing short of a life-changer for me. It’s a daily practice that keeps me going with a fitness routine and do simple things like wash the dishes before going to bed. It’s nuts how something so basic can lighten your mood and give a sense of accomplishment without using your brain that much.
I also have been inspired by our local events community. With fellow vendors who will share advice and experience with a “we’re all in this together” mentality is what makes me excited about the success of this venture.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Fall flat on your ass. Making mistakes, failing, whatever you call it, is inevitable. Own those errors. You’ll be surprised how much they teach you in the long run.
Do your research. Talk to others who are in your same or similar line of work. Find a mentor. You’ll find your tribe, even though it may take some time. Join your local chamber of commerce - you may likely be the only one in that group in your line of work. I always feel like this is more business savvy than being too industry-focused in your networking.
Do work. There’s somebody right behind you that’s chomping at the bit who may be less talented, but is more tenacious.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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