Dave Walsh, 39, is a USMC veteran and custom van builder based in Denver, Colorado.
Since starting his company in 2016, Walsh says he's had more clients than ever during the last year as van travel grows in popularity.
This is what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Dave Walsh, a 39-year-old van builder from Denver, Colorado It has been edited for length and clarity.
Like any small business owner, I've tackled my share of challenges, but nothing compares to when COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
Without knowing if it would be days, weeks, or months, our work at Vanlife Customs (VCL) came to a screeching halt when Colorado issued a statewide mandatory lockdown and we were forced to close up shop.
After being closed for four weeks, our team of 12 reopened with a split schedule to adhere to social distancing rules.
Despite the lockdown, more people seem interested in buying custom vans.
Just before quarantine, we quickly listed two pre-built vans we had in the shop for sale. Both were snapped up within a week. Compared to flying or staying in hotels, the idea of social distancing in a van started to look a lot more appealing to people. It wasn't long before our inbox was inundated with emails from people looking for a van to travel, live, and work in. Since the pandemic, we've seen an uptick in people looking for prebuilt vans along with a 10% increase in our custom work.
Prior to VCL, I served in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005 and was deployed to Iraq twice. I went on to work as a network and systems administrator at a series of startups in the Boulder area. After getting laid off in 2014, I spent a year hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, where I became a certified instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and paid the bills by hustling in my one-man handyman business.
In 2016, I launched Vanlife Customs from my backyard. Since then, everyone from families to digital nomads have come to us for one-of-a-kind camper vans. Due to the pandemic and increased popularity of van travel, we're currently booked a year in advance. It's a good problem to have, but I've had to learn to politely say no to people, which isn't always easy.
Each custom build takes approximately 10 weeks to build and we work on 4 to 5 vans at a time.
While every van is unique in design, they are all built on one of three vehicles: Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Ram Promaster.
Our base price for a camper van conversion is $75,000 not including the vehicle itself, which the customer is responsible for providing. To date, the most expensive job we've worked on cost $110,000 which included a huge battery system and a pop-up sleeping area. For many clients, this is the biggest purchase they've ever made.
Many of our clients have planned for this their entire life, dreaming of escaping the rat race and getting off the grid. They know exactly what it is they want in a custom van when they come to us. Some even design 3D online models using Google Sketchup while others come armed with a general idea and Pinterest boards and Instagram images for inspiration.
Building a custom van is like building a new home, except it's on wheels.
On top of the practical and functional elements such as water, heating, cooling and electrical systems, we also want to create an environment that's aesthetically pleasing and comfortable.
We love getting unique customization requests as long as they're safe and practical. We've created a fly fishing rod rack, a pull-up bar that attaches to the van's exterior, and even a cowboy hat rack.
One request we always get but have to turn down is installing a shower, because in addition to taking up a lot of room, showers introduce humidity into the van and can cause mold. Instead we recommend a basic rinse station or on-demand camp shower attachment.
Recently, with more people looking to work from the road, we've also built stand-up desks, dining tables that convert to workspaces, and ergonomic seating and have added cell phone and WiFi boosters. There's a huge misconception that living in a van feels like you're always on vacation, but that's simply not true. You may be able to work from wherever you want, but there are still going to be times you may need to pull over on a highway to get reception and take a work call.
A lot goes into the process from building out a custom estimate, discussing design plans, ordering parts, and finally doing the actual build out, but my favorite part is the day we deliver the finished van to its owner. Seeing the look on someone's face when they see their dream van go from an idea in their head to being right there in front of them can't be beat. It's a day full of laughs, hugs, and tears.
To keep up with demand and our growing team, this fall we plan to move from our 4,800 square foot space into a 15,000 square foot space. By the end of 2021, we'll have custom built our 100th camper van.
As for me, much to my wife's chagrin, we don't own a van. We do use one every year for a two-week vacation, but then I wind up selling it. Maybe one day when I have more time on my hands we'll get one, but from the looks of my inbox, it's going to be a while until that happens.
Read the original article on Business Insider