Making it work while working for yourself

Escaping the 9-5 

The short story: I started this business because I didn’t want to work, and now I’m busier than ever.

The longer story: Last year I started my own company, the Van Plan, that builds homes in RVs and vans, installs solar panels, and generally makes life on the road easier. 

Having never run a business or even considered it before, I had the amazing opportunity that so few get, professionally: diving in headfirst. My background is in electrical engineering and I’m a US Navy Veteran. As a civilian, I’ve worked placing other veterans in their dream jobs, repairing rescue cranes, connecting ship-to-shore power for delivery vessels, and electroplating tools for a microchip manufacturer. 

Every one of those jobs was a fantastic break, excellent experience, and just flat out not for me. 

After a lot of soul searching and some tough conversations, I decided to take the leap: Unemployment—but with a twist. Just a few months before, I had bought and built out a vintage van. No longer just a super cool way to get around, this yellow beast was now housing a fully equipped kitchen, running water, and a pair of solar panels. After the build was complete I had sold most of what I owned, packed up the rest, and moved to Los Angeles.

Being in LA was a huge culture shock and took some adjusting to. Coming from Portland, I was aware of the homelessness issue, but nothing prepared me for the LA version: There are more than 50,000 unhoused people living in Los Angeles County, with a full 10,000 of them living in their cars, vans, or RVs. For some, it’s a lifestyle choice, and for a great many it’s the only choice. 

I was living part-time in my van and part-time in an apartment when I was approached to do some work on a gentleman’s RV. He lived on the main road outside of my place and paid me to install solar panels and perfect his electrical system. In just a few days I had totally upgraded his home and made a few bucks in the process. 

In a pretty low-risk move, I put an ad on Craigslist advertising my services to other people who call their cars and vans home. That $5 ad has kept me busy, thriving, growing, and expanding for more than a year. 

To date, I’ve updated, upgraded, and repaired more than 25 vehicles. My customers are nurses, retirees, filmmakers, reiki healers, and surfers, and they all have one thing in common: They’re on the go and want the comforts of home.

My typical work week is 4 days, with time built in for surfing, travel, camping…whatever I want. I consult with clients over the phone, set up a day to get together, and bang out the work in just a few days. Even complete builds are broken up into projects so that they’re not without their ride and I don’t get bored. But that’s not counting the dozens of emails and texts that I’m sending every hour of the day. Or the contracts, banking troubles, or parts issues, that happen every day. In all honesty, I’m working ten times harder now than I ever was in a traditional job.  

It turns out that I didn’t hate work, just working for somebody else. 

What’s next

I was presented with the opportunity to apply for Bunker Lab’s Veterans in Residency program offered in partnership with WeWork and was accepted. Through this program, I’m fine-tuning my brand and taking my business to the next level. Their leadership has been instrumental in the success of the Van Plan. So often small business owners become mired in the muck of ideas or their inboxes—my time with the Bunker Lab team is time to take a step back and strengthen the basics of the business, address the areas I’ve overlooked, and be a part of a network of like-minded entrepreneurs who just get it. 

By the spring of 2020, largely to the credit of the Veterans in Residence program, I hope to have a larger workshop, a proper office, an employee or two, and the beginnings of my non-profit Vans for Vets in place. 

Vans for Vets

I keep my prices low and fair so that everyone, no matter their resources, is able to upgrade their lifestyle and get out on the road. I’m keenly aware of the issues facing the veteran population here in LA and I hope to make a difference with the tools available to me. I envision a non-profit that helps place veterans in affordable mobile housing, fights for safe spaces on the streets, and elevates the experience of the unhoused veteran community. 

It’s a long way off and I have no idea how to get started, but by leaning on the support available to me, I know we’ll figure it out together. 

2 thoughts on “Making it work while working for yourself

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I enjoy following your journey. I drrrream of owning av converted espvan And one day. It’s definitely my goal. And most of all, this Veteran’s Day, THANK YOU for your service to our country. 👏👏👏👏

  2. Amazing work Dustin! Such a great article, thank you for sharing. I’m super proud of you and know that this will only get more productive and successful for you. You have followed your passion and it’s great to see how well you are flourishing. Chat soon brother!

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