From Lifestyle to Full-Fledged Business; The Journey of Adventure Vanna Vans
Van life has been a part of American culture for decades. However, in recent years mobile living has become a trendy way for people to live a minimalist lifestyle while exploring, and there’s one local company that has found itself at the forefront of the luxury van business. Whether you’re interested in living the van life full-time, or just having one to explore the country in, Vanna Adventure Vans is changing the standard of camper vans. I sat down with Co-Founders Jason Gilbraith and Ben Gleason to discuss what inspired them to form the company, their growth over the pandemic, what they’ve learned as business owners and the next generation of camper vans and off-grid vehicles.
According to Outdoor Living, 51% of van lifers reside in their vans full time.
The History Behind Vanna
In 2018, Gilbraith was running a production company, JLG Productions, and looking to make ends meet. When examining his finances, he discovered that he was spending thousands of dollars per month without building capital, all while living in a small apartment. It was time for a change.
“I wanted to do something a little bit different. I stumbled upon a few videos on YouTube, with one being ‘Chasing AdVANture’,” Gilbraith said. “It was a short film about an individual who goes skiing, surfing and rock climbing up and down the West Coast. He went from the southern part of California to Alaska, all while living out of a van. That’s where it sparked for me. I was doing media production at the time, which can be done remotely. All I needed was a desk, a small computer and room for my equipment. So, I made the decision to start doing a lot of research into it.”
When it came to building his first van, Gilbraith knew that it would be no easy task. However, that wasn’t going to stop him from doing something different. Having studied horticulture and renewable energy at NDSU and CSU, Gilbraith had prior knowledge regarding geothermal technology, solar power and more renewable energy formats that would come to be implemented in Vanna Vans. However, he would still have to install electrical, plumbing and more to bring his vision of a four-season, off-grid camper van to life.
It took Gilbraith roughly 1.5 months to complete his van based on a two dimensional layout. Soon after, Gilbraith left Fargo, ND and made the journey to Breckenridge, CO. “Once I got there, I did a lot of different small, odd jobs. They ranged from drone videography to a 30-second video for a local coffee shop in a nearby small town. I was doing pretty much any job that I could pick up,” Gilbraith said.
After finding success in that lifestyle for nearly two years, something unexpected came into Gilbraith’s life. At the beginning of 2020, the pandemic hit, which in turn took away much of the immediate budget of many companies that were hiring him. Shortly after the economy went down, Gilbraith came back to the midwest. However, it wasn’t long before his next opportunity arose.
“I was fortunate enough to go Ski Kiting on Mille Lacs Lake, where I brought the van out since it was a four-season vehicle and the weather could get down to -40 degrees. There, I met Ben [Gleason] who’s big into photography, while I was doing videography. We got to talking, and word got out that I had the camper van with a desk. He had some work to do, and rather than work in the passenger seat of a car, he came and worked in the van. Right away, he was blown away by the concept,” Gilbraith said.
“After getting to know each other over the next few months, and taking the van out for a few more trips, we got to talking about renting these out. We wanted the community to have as much fun in these as we were. For months, we would get together once a week, for about four hours, at a coffee shop and talk about details together. It took a while, but we needed to make sure that we were on the right track. We got a shop in August of 2020 and on February 1st, 2021, we finally launched Vanna.”
Vanna Adventure Van’s Growth
Since Gilbraith and Gleason were mapping out the concept for Vanna, they set goals, but also set safety precautions to protect the company, as anything could have happened during the peak of the pandemic. After opening, however, they had less to worry about than they once thought. Not long after the company’s official launch, Vanna received their first few sales through their Facebook page, jumpstarting the company. However, as orders increased, Vanna’s capability to handle those orders had to as well. “Since launching, we’ve been swamped with customized orders, which is a great issue to have. We’ve been able to grow as necessary, with opportunities coming our way over time. As we’ve needed to increase our square footage since the beginning, it just so happens that the spaces next to us have opened up right when we need to,” Gilbraith said. “We launched a year after we met on Mille Lacs Lake and we’ve grown more than we thought we would have in the short time that’s passed. We went from it just being the two of us in the planning stages, to hiring 9 employees since the launch, bringing it up to a total of 11 people on our staff,” Gleason added.
“Where we’re at today, we really understand the market. Our biggest clientele is people nearing retirement, who are preparing to travel the country. At first, we thought it’d be people who would want to live in their vans fulltime in one location, but even those people are taking the opportunity to travel.”– Ben Gleason, Co-Founder and Business Development Lead
Some of A Vanna Van’s Uses
- Mobile Classroom
- Disaster Relief Vehicles
- Search & Rescue Vehicles
- Remote Support Vans
- Mobile Lab
- Mobile Office
- Construction Management
- Sport-Specific (Bike,Moto, Ski, Hunt, Fish, Climb, Kayak, Canoe)
- Industry-Specific (Research, Development, Travel, Remote Work)
When searching for employees, Gleason added that they’re looking for people with not only a passion for their line of work, but also a certain skill set. “With growth, we were able to acquire some very diversified talent to our team from the beginning. Instead of looking for a jack of all trades, we looked to find a really good cabinet maker, a really good electrician and so on,” Gleason said.
“For example, Chuck has years of experience in mechanics, HVAC and plumbing. Curt wasn’t just an electrician before this; he was an electrician in the camper and RV industry working as a technician. He brought a lot of industry knowledge and deep understanding to our team.”
Employees and space aren’t the only increases in store for the Vanna team. The team has been able to increase its workload by 400% since their debut, as the team can handle working on an average of 4 vans at a time. While they’ve come a long way since the beginning of 2021, co-owners Gilbraith and Gleason still have their eyes on expanding in the future. Be on the lookout for exciting announcements from them throughout the year!
Recently, they also announced the implementation of Starlink, a satellite internet system operated by SpaceX. “This is a new technology that just got the green light to be rolled out in next year’s vans. It will give customers internet, not from cell towers, but straight from SpaceX’s satellite system. Also, you’ll have fast speeds almost anywhere you go; roughly double many people’s homes and apartments,” Gleason said.
Looking ahead, Vanna has plenty of exciting news for their customers. “We’re going to officially announce our new line of builds soon. We’re in the process of picking and choosing from the different concepts that we designed to launch full-scale. They’ll be Vanna-specific branded vans that we’ve tried, tested and proven to be top-of-the-line. On top of the core builds, there are going to be tons of different variations and customizations that customers can select, which is really exciting for us,” Gilbraith said.
Room For Growth
Vanna Adventure Vans’ workspace has increased four times over since the beginning. In 2021, they shared half of a mere 1,800 square-foot shop. Today, they have 7,200 square feet, and are bound to increase soon due to popularity and demand.
Best On The Market
Core technologies include Victron Energy power systems, and Eberspaecher Airtronic & Hydronic heaters in all Vanna systems. “Across the market, these brands are considered the best by many, both in terms of reliability and quality We’re not going to give you anything less than the best if you’re getting a van from us.” – Ben Gleason
Vanna’s Ordering Process (What To Know)
Considering ordering a Vanna Adventure Van? Whether a customer is located just down the street in the Fargo-Moorhead area, or thousands of miles away, the Vanna ordering process has been crafted by the Vanna team to be stress-free and include them along every step of the way.
“Ben and Josh, our Creative Director, and I sit down with a client, either on Zoom or in-person,” Gilbraith said. “We start with our initial consultation where we learn a little bit about the customer. We learn what they want in their van, whether it be a shower, solar panels or any other specific features. From there, we take their idea and build a few different layouts that could work. After presenting it and getting their feedback, we start tweaking things and moving things around to what would be best for them.”
Some of Vanna’s Popular Add-On Features
- Interior Shower with Hot Water
- Off-Grid Air Conditioning
- Extra Exterior Lights (LED Fog Lights, Light Bars, etc)
- Front Winches
- Roof Racks
- Heated Floors
The next stage that Vanna enters is the finishing stage, where they discuss what kind of walls, interior color, right down to the handles that the customer would like. After inserting the most minor details into their 3D program, they customize a quote for the customer’s van specifically. From there, they enter the “contract phase,” where they sit down and talk with the customer about how long they should expect it to take.
“We want to present all of those expectations so that nobody’s caught off guard. Right now there are some supply chain issues with a lot of the top-of-the-line products that we order. Making sure they’re aware that some delays can happen is important to us, since we want to have communication across the board at all times so that everybody’s happy,” Gleason said.
The Vanna team emphasized that they would rather take their time on a van and not rush any steps, so they can deliver on the promise of quality and care for the product. With demand at an all-time high for the van market, the average time from ordering to receiving a Vanna Van is roughly 9-12 months.
Giving Back To The Community
Through many of their community events throughout the year, Vanna Adventure Vans raises money and donations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention of AFSP While they don’t have any immediate upcoming events on their calendar, follow their social media platforms and stay tuned for updates!
Vanna offers the perfect option for those wishing to hit the open road and travel, but aren’t ready to commit to owning a van themselves. The company currently has two rental vans, which have become a hot commodity. Priced at only $219 per night, customers can book at vannavans.com. Priced all-inclusively, the package comes with unlimited miles, bedding and pillows, as well as any other essentials a customer could need. The van’s completely off-grid power allows customers to stay essentially anywhere, as there’s no need for a water or power hookup with Vanna’s technology, making it the ideal getaway for those looking to disconnect for a few days.
As the rental van opportunity has seen an immense rise in popularity, being booked out for the majority of the remaining year, they have their sights set on expanding their rental lineup. “Another exciting thing is that we’ll have more rental vans coming to [the Fargo-Moorhead area] next year. We’ll be adding a lot to our rental fleet.
An Easy Solution To Maintenance
Not near Vanna? No problem! The vehicle itself is just like any other where maintenance can be conducted at any auto shop. Components in the van, such as Eberspaecher systems, have representatives all across the country.
We’re hoping to offer a luxury traveler van, which would come with a custom interior TV sound system and can have hopefully up to eight people,” Gleason said.
“It will be able to be used for road trips, girls trips, guys trips, family trips and other large group getaways. We get a ton of requests for that, and we’ve never had one yet. Also, we’re looking into five-person family camper vans. Right now, both of our camper vans that we have are both two-person vans, but we’re going to have some four- or five-person family vans coming soon.”
What They’ve Learned As Business Owners
Since launching Vanna Adventure Vans, Gleason and Gilbraith have both picked up an extensive amount of knowledge for not only launching a business, but finding success in one that was started during a pandemic.
“COVID was really hard on a lot of businesses. But here we are, a business that started out of COVID. It’s a weird feeling, but we’re very happy that we have a lot of early success. We’re still grinding and trying to find balance. In business, finding balance can take five years alone. It’s like a baby; if it’s three years old, they still can’t cross the street on their own. It’s really important for people to have the courage to go for it, but sometimes that means three years of planning,” Gleason said. “Patience is everything, and alongside that, mental health is super important. Making sure that you’re separating time for yourself, not overwhelming yourself and finding a work-life balance is really big. I’ve realized over time that putting yourself around others who fully support you and your business is important. If you’re around people that don’t believe in you or drag you down, that may end up causing you to fail in certain areas. Having a positive support system around you, whether it be good friends or good family, is necessary in my opinion.”
While a lot of discussions around entrepreneurship will suggest people to ‘just go for it,’ they advise that it’s critical to not rush into a plan blindly without being fully prepared.
“Starting a business is like going to the pool and staring at the tallest diving board. You can either climb on that diving board and jump, or choose not to climb. But once you’re up there, you’re not climbing back down,” Gilbraith said. “A big thing I’ve learned about starting a business is that it takes your life. It takes everything you got to put into it. It is like a child that you have to take care of. You can’t have things on the side and then do two hours a day with your business. When we started, we were working almost 14 hours a day to get this thing going. You can’t have one toe on the board and one toe in the water. It’s either a full jump or it’s nothing. For me, it was making that full jump, but then also realizing, from the business plan that we’ve created, that if I start sinking, there has to always be something to pull me back out. The whole way that we designed our plan was a failsafe. If things didn’t end up working, we were still safe to be able to get out of it in a certain situation. Thinking through all options and planning for the worst-case scenario is huge.”
Interested In Checking Out More In Person?
Vanna Adventure Vans offers shop tours on Fridays at 4:00p.m. Go to vannavans.com to confirm and learn more!
For the group behind Vanna, it isn’t just about working hard and advertising. It’s also about consistency, perseverance, patience and learning the industry as they navigate it.
“I’ve been working closely in and around startups for 13 years now. I think that the most important thing with any business is that you have a financial plan and understand the numbers. Most of the talk in startup culture isn’t about the fundamentals of business, such as operating costs, cash flow and how it’s going to work,” Gleason said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on marketing and branding, which is still very important. However, the business itself has to be practical, or else that dream can become a nightmare. If it doesn’t work financially and if it’s not sustainable, then it won’t practically grow and find its footing. We’ve been actively working on this project for two years now, and in reality, we’re still two or three years away from our foundation to settle in.”
No matter how far someone is into developing their business venture, it’s important to remember that resources are out there for nearly every situation. Whether it be online, a local expert or a mentor, growing a circle can help support the business immensely.
“Honestly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Coming into this, we thought we might have known everything, but we’re still learning new things every single day. We’ve worked with several different resources within the community here. We’ve gotten a lot of input, feedback and guidance from business mentors and experts in the area, and we’re thankful that we did,” Gilbraith said.
With a vision to build the most reliable off-grid, four-season vehicles using the most advanced technology on the market, Gilbraith and Gleason are quickly making a name for themselves in the industry. Having a unique market supporting them, they’re doing what they want their customers to continue doing across the country: experiencing uncharted territory and having a good time while doing it.
We’re proud of what Vanna can do for the community. One of my favorite things is that we have the opportunity to do summer van parties, where we have games, vans for people to look at and we’re able to teach people about the technology that we use. We also have other vendors and small businesses out to promote their products as well.”-Jason Gilbraith