How We Started A Camper Van Rental Business and Quit Our Full Time Jobs

Published: April 10th, 2019
Gretchen Bayless and Taylor Hood
from Hood River, Oregon, USA
started January 2016
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

We are Taylor Hood and Gretchen Bayless, founders of ROAMERICA. A company that specializes in adventure vehicles, including 4wd campervans.

ROAMERICA offers campervan rentals for the ultimate road trip. We have 4wd and 2wd campervans available. All have 5 seat belts, 2 beds, fridge, sink, stove, heat and plenty of storage for all your gear. All are car seat friendly too! The fleet comes fully stocked with everything you’ll need to camp off the grid (camp chairs, table, full kitchen set up, bedding, Rumpls, headlamps, etc.). See the whole list here!

There are so many people these days looking for adventure and what better and more comfortable way than a campervan? Most of our customers come from out of state and about 10% are international. Our customers differ depending on the season. In the high season (June – August), we meet lots of families and in the low season (Sept – May) we meet lots of couples, groups of friends & retirees. Overall though, our customers share the same love for the outdoors and exploration.

Last year, 2018, we both became full time. We are hiring our 1st employee this spring and are expanding our fleet quickly. It took a couple years of both of us working our ‘day jobs’ and ROAMERICA but we knew that in order for this business to really grow and be where we knew it could, we needed to give it 100%. It was an exciting transition in becoming full time and not a day goes by that we aren’t happy with our decision.

As of today, everything the business is making is going right back into the business. In order to add vans, build vans, hire people and expand our offerings, we’ve come to terms that we personally will be sacrificing a ‘more comfortable’ lifestyle…but we are so happy with that.

Exterior of one of the 4wd rigs, DELTA

Interior of DELTA

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

We are two adventurous souls who met on the Oregon Coast in February 2010. In the beginning, it was all about traveling to find surf and deep snow without the crowds. We originally traveled around in a 1998 Toyota Tacoma with a canopy. It was a great vehicle for accessing all sorts of amazing places but when it turned cold and wet, it became quite uncomfortable, especially with our 2 dogs.

You have to play the long game, and during that game you will most likely be close to broke, SO YOU MUST LOVE WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO CARRY YOU THROUGH THOSE HARD TIMES. The ones who press on and don’t quit, are the ones who reap the rewards.

We always dreamt of having a vehicle that could keep us dry throughout the Northwest winters and allow us to access snowy mountains and desolate sandy beaches. In 2013, we upgraded our vehicle to a 2006 4x4 Ford Econoline cargo van. We threw a cooler, futon mattress and a couple seats inside, we had our perfect set up. 6 years later, we have a toddler and baby #2 due in May so we’ve upgraded the layout of a newer Ford Econoline to include a sofa bed that has seat belts for the car seats, a portable fridge/freezer and plenty of storage and room for the 2 pups and all our gear. As our life changes so does the layout of our van. See a little more about our family on our Instagram Highlight Reel.

How we came up with renting campervans is a funny story. We were both trying to unwind one night in early 2015. (Taylor was working in construction, Gretchen in web development and living in Portland, Oregon). These were careers that we both knew we wanted to get out of. It was a lot of computer time and only adventuring on the weekends. We knew we wanted to start a family, move back to the Columbia Gorge, and have a more flexible schedule. So Taylor looked over at me and said, what if we rented Sportsmobiles? Now, Taylor comes up with A LOT of ideas and I usually turn them down but this one just stuck. I said yes right away and that night we were researching the idea.

We didn’t have any experience with a rental business but Taylor has a background in construction and I have a background in branding and web design. We both love traveling, exploring and getting lost on dirt roads. Turns out, this was a good combination and we figured, the rental part is something that could be learned.

We started with one 1998 campervan. We wanted to ‘test the market’ before we bought a $100k rig. We operated out of our home to save money and without any marketing we booked that 1 van for the entire summer in about 6 weeks of being online. The power of search engines! We had a total of 20 reservations for that 1 van in 2016. We were hoping for 6 total! So, after the beginning of that first season, we knew we were on to something.

Our first van , ALPHA - 2016

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

It has been a long process. In 2017, we decided that we needed to start building out our own campervans instead of purchasing used pre-converted campervans. Originally we tried to work with a few builders so we wouldn’t have to build in-house. Those partnerships fell through and we decided the only way we can guarantee high quality, consistent products is to take it in-house. So the next step was to find a designer. After going back and forth with 3 that couldn’t get the job done, we started to run out of time and just did it ourselves...again. Seeing a theme here? This is why you have to be resilient and you have to love what you are doing.

When starting a business; make sure your mindset is rock solid. Always be looking for ways to improve and overcome self doubt in not only yourself but your team as well.

Setback after setback gets really frustrating. We had another one yesterday when we called to check the status of new bed/benches for the vans. They are expected to arrive this week. When we called to check in, we quickly found out the manufacturer “lost the order” and the (4) bed/benches have not even been started. These take 4 weeks to make and 1 week to ship. One more setback, one more thing to learn….triple check all orders.

We are currently building out our first Ford Transit van interior and the process is going very well. We did a lot of planning on the front which is helping to facilitate the build tremendously. If the vendors can ship the products on time, we can meet the deadline to finish the builds.

Here is a BEFORE picture:


Here is a During picture:


Final Transit expected to be completed May 2019.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We knew the website and branding needed to make an impact. Luckily we had the background and passion to create that. We also knew SEO would play a huge role. What’s the point of putting an awesome website out there amongst millions, if no one can find it.

So for about 6 months prior to ‘launching’ the website, we were building the brand and working on the SEO. This meant, designing our own logo and website. We knew how important these would be in the success of the initial launch. So we did a lot of research on keywords and what people were interested in learning about when searching for road trips or campervan rentals. We took what we learned and added it to our website.

We learned people wanted information on Oregon and for the process to be easy. So our website was super simple and resourceful. We also did a few road trips in our own van to test out our process, to make sure it was actually easy for customers. This was in November of 2015, so it was cold and wet but almost perfect. We did make one major change, we knew built-in heaters would be a must!

Crater Lake National Park - November 2015

Oakridge - 2015

We started the typical social media channels as well, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Luckily, we didn’t have to shell out a ton of money for the website since the business was 100% bootstrapped. Again, Taylor and I were both working full time jobs and operating ROAMERICA out of our home. Luckily, we received a super low interest rate for that 1st van so our overhead was really low. This first van was completely converted too so that saved us time. It was a 1998 Ford Econoline Sportsmobile. We didn’t have any employees either and neither of us took money out of the business to ‘pay ourselves’. We originally talked with a few banks about a business loan so we could buy a van but we were a pretty unique business and banks wanted 2 years of financial history on the business before they would even sit down and talk to us. So with our own savings to get the business up and running, we got to work. Between getting the van ready for the road, updating the ‘look’ of the van, building the site, brand, etc. we were busy...but really excited.

Our first van , ALPHA - We removed teal and purple pin stripes, removed the running boards, upgraded the tires to BF Goodrich All Terrains and added a 2” lift.

Prior to launching, we also did a lot of research about pricing. There weren’t any other campervan companies in Oregon offering what we were going to offer. So between, AirBnB, hotels, car rentals, etc we came to the decision of pricing the campervan to compete with what it would cost a person to rent a car and hotel. Our goal was to rent the van for 3 days a month. We far exceeded this goal, which meant we were prices too low. Our first customers were nice enough to tell us this as well:). So we increased our pricing and offered more in terms of gear and customer service.

Looking back, our launch was pretty amateur. We literally posted something on Facebook, no promotion or boost or anything, letting the ‘world’ know we started a business and had a website.

However, luck was on our side, we received a phone call that week to rent one of our Roof Top Tents (which we hadn’t even purchased yet!) for that weekend. This customer happened to be a photographer, so we offered the RTT to him at no cost in trade for images.

After his trip, he posted some pictures on his social media and tagged us. We did this once more with the van that May. We posted these images on our Facebook and Instagram and it helped a ton. Prior to these images we were just taking our own (not great at all!) so having these professional images at no cost to us, really helped propel our brand.

We pushed our website live in May of 2016 and by early June we were booked for the summer.

One of our own photos, early Instagram days: 28 likes, 2 comments.

Working with professional photographers helped propel our online brand.

Working with @taylersteven for photos of the RTT: 205 likes, 11 comments

Working with @kylesipple for photos of the campervan: 123 likes, 18 comments

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

We are firm believers in ‘the more you give, the more you get’. We love helping people, offering advice, trip planning, van trip giveaways, etc. and our reward is seeing the smile on people’s faces. We develop a relationship with every customer and really get to know them. It’s a natural thing for us to do and it just so happens that it probably helps the business.

Another thing we believe in and has helped attract customers is to never pass up an opportunity. Always exceed expectations of the customer and always give before you take. You may be overworked, tired and have other responsibilities but if something presents itself and you know it may help the business or is super low risk, take that opportunity. Even if it means later nights and earlier mornings.

We haven’t come across the perfect formula to increase sales or traffic but we’re always tweaking and learning. We work a lot on SEO and our brand awareness. We work with a lot of companies with the same values and promote each other, which helps our reach.

In order to attract new customers and retain our customers, we really have to look at our website analytics. Most of our web traffic comes from organic Google searches which means we pay a lot of attention to SEO. That is our top priority.

Next, we focus our effort on social media and just staying present and keeping our brand fresh and inspiring. In order to stay present and in front of our customers and attract new customers, we look at our social media and website analytics every week. We use Iconosquare for social media analytics and Google Analytics for our website. It was pretty evident early on, that everyone LOVES pictures of the van. Specifically, exterior shots of the van set up in all its glory.

Our most ‘most liked’ post. Taken by @spreadsheetqueen.

We are a small business, just the two of us and we don’t outsource any marketing which is why we don’t do much in comparison to other brands. However, this also gives us complete control of what we put out there because we personally have created it.

In order to stay relevant, we send out an e-newsletter once a month and have a sign up on our website. We use MailChimp to design and schedule our newsletters and MailMunch for the pop up form on our website.

We also ask for emails at events or to sign up for our annual giveaway. We just added this newsletter January of this year, 2019. We had been wanting to do this since we started but we just couldn’t find the time. We still don’t have the time but we know how important it is to stay in front of your customers and offer something to prospective customers. Our newsletter has travel tips, trip ideas and more. This is also how we notify our customers of announcements.

For example, we recently updated our logo and dog policy (we now allow dogs!). So we sent out a super simple and quick e-newsletter to let our subscriber list know! It’s actually quite fun to create every month! What we’ve come to realize is that our email list doesn’t expect a highly professional newsletter with in depth articles. They expect relevant information that is up to date and they just want to hear about the business. So we try to not analyze too much about what we ‘should’ put out every month. We just look at our most recent blog posts or social media and share the information. Then if we have exciting announcements to share, we’ll send those as well. We have a 34% open rate and great click through as well.

Another way to to market the business and attract new customers, was to create partnerships and be a part of events/raffles. We partake in events and causes like the Children’s Cancer Association annual auction and the annual auction for the Native Fish Society. We love giving van trips away to causes like these. Once a year, we hold a big contest where one winner can win a campervan trip and a pile of gear from our partners. This gets a lot of attention and is super fun for us too! We also have our vans in raffles for Patagonia Portland events, Royal Treatment Fly Fishing and others. In the end, this attracts new people to our brand and one day when they’re thinking about taking a road trip, hopefully they remember us!

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

Today, business is good and the future is exciting. Gretchen has been putting a lot of effort into the website, SEO and content (check out our new blog!!!), we are hiring our 1st employee this month and Taylor is busy building out new vans and forming new partnerships.

There is always room for improvements but as of now, our web traffic is around 3k visitors a month and about 10k pageviews/month. Each user spends about 3.5 minutes on our site too. Our conversion isn’t stellar but we also have very high demand and very little supply so we have to take that into account. However, with that in mind we are expanding. We just have to. We keep having to turn customers away because we don’t have a vehicle. This is something we don’t want to continue to do. So we are expanding our offerings and adding 4wd SUVs, Backcountry Motorcycle tours and a few other fun projects. We also plan to expand locations and offer one way trips.

However, right now, our short term goal is to increase our van fleet size before we have our baby. We are due with our 2nd baby May 4th and have a 1 1/2 year old. So needless to say, we are busy! We need to have the vans built and ready for the road before baby shows up, so we can soak in all that new baby goodness!

Our long term goal is to continue to increase our fleet size, expand to new locations and offer guided trips. In the long run, we see ourselves traveling to new locations and forging new partnerships. We’ll leave the cleaning, trip scheduling and planning to the awesome folks we will eventually hire!

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

We’ve learned a ton! However, the top 6 would be:

  1. When starting a business; make sure your mindset is rock solid. Always be looking for ways to improve and overcome self doubt in not only yourself but your team as well.
  2. How valuable a good lawyer and business insurance can be. Unfortunately, we learned all about this early on and the hard way. If you have a good product/brand/name etc. make sure you protect it! If someone wants what you have, they can take it and it can cost an unbelievable amount of money to keep something that is rightly yours.
  3. Design is crucial and must be represented consistently wherever a customer will see your product or service. We spent a ton of time on the branding of our company before we launched, and when we launched, it helped solidify the business as trustworthy and dependable.
  4. Be aggressive: We started this business to help people get out more. However, we learned of this ‘thing’ early on. Ever heard of the #vanlife movement? Well, we hadn’t but it seemed like everyone else had. We just wanted to help people explore the world in a badass van. It turns out that this was a massive movement that helped push us into the mainstream. If we had waited 1 year longer, we would have been the 5th or 6th company on the West coast trying to rent vans or adventure vehicles by leveraging #vanlife. Being aggressive can help or hurt. We got lucky on this one.
  5. If your marketing budget is small (or in our case nonexistent), partnerships/trades/collaborations are what you should be leveraging. Donate products or services in trade for photos/social posts/reviews/blogs etc.. Find creative ways to get attention; raffles, fundraisers, school events, etc. whatever it takes. The more you give away the more they will see you.
  6. Lastly, make a list every morning of tasks that need to get done. Put the 5 essential ones at the top and don’t go home until they are crossed out.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use a handful of tools for our business, including Slack, MailChimp and Iconosquare.

Slack is great at keeping our conversations organized and searchable! The search function is our favorite. We have multiple channels like ‘office, marketing, web, rental fleet, customers, etc.’. This is way easier than texting or emailing, faster too!

We use MailChimp for our monthly newsletter and sign up form. This is a great product for the price and easy to use and integrate with our website. We also like that it has an app, so we can keep an eye on our open rate from our phone once we send out a newsletter. Ahh, the little things that gets an entrepreneur excited!

Iconosquare is great for managing Instagram conversations. We have a hard time keeping up with comments otherwise. They have a scheduling feature but we don’t use that as much.

We know we haven’t even scratched the surface with what these tools can do, but it's a start!

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

Taylor devours Podcasts. With a 45 minute commute through the Columbia Gorge twice a day, business podcasts help motivate and are quickly becoming the new Alt-MBA. Tim Ferris, Jocko Willink, Mike Glover, Andy Frisella are just a few he frequently listens to.

Jocko Willink is a ex Navy SEAL turned business leader and his books speak volumes on leadership. Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership are must reads.

GaryVaynerchuk is an absolute genius when it comes to social marketing. His podcast motivates without sounding like a pep talk. It is as real as it gets and if you are curious about being an entrepreneur, he illustrates it perfectly.

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

START NOW. If you have an idea for a business get started ASAP. The more you know before you start, the more likely you will find a reason to not go for it.

Find something you’re passionate about and look for a way to monetize it. To make a business successful, you have to play the long game, and during that game you will most likely be close to broke, SO YOU MUST LOVE WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO CARRY YOU THROUGH THOSE HARD TIMES. The ones who press on and don’t quit, are the ones who reap the rewards.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!