This is a follow up story for ZENVANZ. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Bryan and Jen Danger - we started ZENVANZ based on our own experience converting our campervans and living/traveling full-time in vans for over eight years. We never intended to start a business, but every time we’d stop at a campground or parking lot, we would end up with a long line of people asking to see our van, to take a tour, and eventually offering us money to help them build their dream van.
Here’s the link to our original Starter Story interview.
We had already solved most problems that come with converting and traveling in a van, so eventually, we said yes to the offers/requests to help people design and build their van, whether that be helping support their DIY build with modular cabinets/interiors or taking their van/chassis in for a full/custom build.
We now build about 12-18 vans a year, primarily for experienced clients who have owned several vans in the past and are coming to us looking for their “forever van” - something that will last longer than the other vans they’ve owned and watched fall apart far too quickly despite still making payments on them.
We still travel full-time and work remotely with the help of a business partner back home and a fantastic team and talented craftspeople. We aim to create a business that exudes the freedom and adventure that drew us to this lifestyle years ago and to help our clients build their dream vans/lifestyles as we made ours.
ZENVANZ is still 100% bootstrapped in terms of funding, still works almost entirely off of word-of-mouth marketing via our existing clients, and is still focused on building the best vans on the planet.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to. Has the business been growing?
Covid somehow caused an absolute explosion to the RV ad campervan space. The shock we all felt during the pandemic led many to focus on what’s truly important and sent them looking for ways to enjoy nature, spend time with the family, and get outside.
Our client list grew almost overnight, from a small business selling a few DIY van conversion kits of complete builds a year to being booked out for more than 18 months with both DIY kits and full/custom builds.
After a two-year search, we finally found a new larger shop space still close in Portland that fit our team and our ethos and allowed us to grow the size of our team and shop.
Rather than massive/rapid growth, we focused on being able to bring all parts of our business under one roof and to reduce significantly our dependence on subcontractors and outsourcing (which allowed us to focus on maintaining exceptionally high levels of quality and craftsmanship… but also allowed us to avoid many of the supply chain issues that caused months or year-long delays from other builders).
We have now slowly started to add build slots to our production schedule as our team becomes more efficient and feels ready to add more clients/builds. Still, we remain focused on slow and steady growth, producing only the best possible product and maintaining a tight relationship with every client as we work with them to design and build their perfect forever van.
We haven't focused on increased traffic or sales. Instead, we focus on making the best product and on our client experience, convinced that having happy clients driving beautiful vans will continue to lead new clients to us.
We have started filming ZENVANZ “client story” videos as time allows and as clients show interest… so that we aren't entirely reliant upon others tripping over an existing client on the road and stumbling into a conversation. We are finding that those videos and telling our story in the same raw and honest way we always have are a much better fit for our brand than other forms of marketing.
We are constantly working on expanding our offerings to our clients, typically driven by ideas from our team and needs from a single client that others want.
Our in-depth design process with each client continues to pave the way for new products, layouts, and components.
We have remained fortunate that magazines and online sites stumble upon our product and ask to feature our new vans, and those are terrific opportunities to reach new audiences. We recently had a van featured in “Tread" Magazine, recently got featured in “Overland Journal,” and also got asked to record a podcast with the “Overland Journal Podcast” about our journey as well as what led to the launching of ZENVANZ.
Authenticity always finds a way to rise to the top, at least with those people we want/choose to work with.
We are also honored to have been named “Best Adventure Van Designer & Builder- USA” by Lux Life Travel for three years.
Truly humbling to watch and hear others see the value in our work… but honestly, for our team, it's the photos and videos, and stories from our clients out there on the road, using the van we build for them (or helping them to make) to experience their best life and live their dreams - that's what keeps us going!
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
This explosion in the market also saw dozens and dozens of new builders popping up. Many were new to the space, teaching themselves how to build vans and growing their business exponentially, trying to make money hand over fist in the new market.
In almost all cases, builders started limiting their offerings to 2-3 “models” for clients to choose from and ramping up production to tens (or, in some cases, 100s) of vans/per month. At the same time, we stopped production at a van or two per month and continued to offer fully custom solutions to our clients so we could focus on quality and the client experience.
We decided early on to ignore the growth trend and to maintain the same steady plan we had always had for our business, which allowed us to focus on quality and client experience over mass production and profits. We are thrilled with that plan, mainly as the market retracts to pre-pandemic (and much more realistic) numbers.
With more builders out there, there is more work involved in educating potential clients as to the differences in our builds and other cheaper and mass-produced vans (the quality and craftsmanship that has always made ZENVANZ stand above other builders and why that matters long-term) but those conversations, the relationships with our clients and the brand recognition we’ve created over the years put us in a great position to continue doing what we love and growing our business slowly and steadily that put our vision and principals before making money.
We always recommend that potential clients look at and talk to other builders because we know that our product and our commitment to being the best of the best stands out above the other options on the market.
The most challenging solution for us has been trying to stick to who and what we are in a market/industry that seems set on increasing quantity at the expense of quality. We are paving our way here, but also convinced that the right clients “get it” and will find us and see the value. So far, that's proven true, and we love the direction things are headed as our clients continue to push us to new and better things!
Other difficulties… if we’re honest, are simply trying to run a business while continuing to travel/adventure full-time. To keep our commitments to each other about our dreams while also doing something we have an immense passion for and helping others find a way to live/achieve a similar goal.
It's clearly not easy, and it comes with great difficulties in creating the shop culture and communication we always envisioned for ZENVANZ…but there is also great value in “living what you preach" both for our team and for our clients.
We often hear clients talk about other builders who use “A 2-week trip to Baja they took a decade ago” as professional experience -. In contrast, we lived/traveled in vans full-time for eight years and continue to live/travel/adventure full-time both in and out of vans. It adds an authenticity that I think the market is hugely lacking.
Authenticity always finds a way to rise to the top, at least with those people we want/choose to work with.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Our decision to create a “team van” aided the feedback loop. This van’s primary purpose was to take to events or have something for potential clients to see and touch when they come to Portland for a shop tour/visit… but the massive hidden value here was that it also allowed us to set up a schedule for our team to use and experience the van for personal holiday/weekend trips.
Many of our team don’t have a van, and it's often difficult to explain or teach the “why” behind our product rather than just the how.
The opportunity for our team to go out and use the products they build, to experience the lifestyle, and come up with their ideas for improvement and new products has proved invaluable… and the stories/photos/videos of them with their families, their adventures or them capturing essential moments (like one of our leads proposing/popping the question while camping) is part of what brings us together as a team.
The biggest mistake we continue to make is making assumptions about what our clients (or future clients might want). Early on, we assumed that DIY clients were trying to save money and would like to install everything independently. This almost always seems to prove false/wrong.
It turns out a vast majority of our DIY clients want us to install the DIY kit for them so that they can camp on their way home, actively use the van throughout the build process, and not simply have the van stuck in the garage for the next year or two rather than out using it in between each phase/project/addition to the build.
Exciting personal news: we have expanded our travels from van/overland only to including oceans and sea travel. We have been teaching ourselves to sail and learning that, at least given our passion for the sea, our perfect travel/lifestyle includes both van and boat life!
Luckily, we have always drawn from the wisdom and components available in the boating/marine world because those products were superior to those built for automobiles. Still, we also experience the rugged lifestyle/environment firsthand, and the lessons that marine designers/builders have been employing for decades… can only increase the quality of our product (as well as our happiness index).
We are excited about an upcoming Pacific crossing and figuring out how to get a ZENVANZ build to the other side of the world so we can continue exploring by land!
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year and the next five years?
Our only plan is to keep building the planet's best vans (and other overland vehicles). Take advantage of new technologies, trends, and ideas as they become available.
We have always built vans allowing their owners to travel, live off-grid, and in all four seasons. Still, the idea that those vans could also run and get to those destinations entirely off of electric power in the next few years is hugely exciting!
Stick to what you know and who you are. It’s far too easy to get caught looking at what others are doing and how quickly others are growing.
Our future goals are mostly streamlining, making our business practices more efficient, making our clients' experiences even more prosperous, and removing the day-to-day frustrations from our team so they can thrive - giving them the energy to conceive of and try new different things.
What’s the best thing you read in the last year?
"Good to Great"
"Letters from Seneca"
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their businesses?
Stick to what you know and who you are. It’s far too easy to get caught looking at what others are doing and how quickly others are growing and feel like you might be missing out or losing clients/money.
In our experience, It’s far better to focus on quality, the clients you have, focus on their expertise, and making them happy (and then allowing them to bring other business to you).
Be clear and accurate about what you are and the inherent value in your business above everyone else out there. If you do what you do better than everyone else - the right clients will see that, recognize the value and choose you over the other options.
Slow and steady wins the race. Don't be too quick to give away what you believe in and how it should be done. All the clutter becomes noise at some point, and options all blend together. When that happens, your originality and quality will stand out and your brand will be recognized for it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We strongly believe in building highly functioning teams consisting of individuals with the proper skill set to excel in our business.
In particular, we look for a positive attitude, self-motivation, and strong problem-solving skills in all our employees. We also seek candidates with strong organizational skills, attention to detail, and excellent communication skills.
Our team consistently needs qualified van technicians, fabricators, and designers to help us improve as builders and as a company.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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