Old vans = new opportunities
There’s something uniquely satisfying about building something with your own hands—especially if it’s something that will be used, loved, and enjoyed every day. There’s something intensely energizing about being free to choose what you’re going to do and why, along with where, when, and how you’re going to do it.
These themes—freedom, and pride in creation‚ drive many entrepreneurs. Dustin Van Ells, founder of the Van Plan, is one of them. The plot twist is that his entire business is about bringing this freedom and pride in creation to his customers.
What he does and why
Dustin’s elevator pitch is pretty straightforward: “I renovate vans and make them into tiny livable spaces.” That in itself is a pretty compelling story, but it gets better. At the core, his work is about giving people options that were previously impossible.
His clients range from people who can’t afford other housing options (he works in LA, where housing is brutally expensive and homelessness is common), to people who want to simplify their lives and budgets or simply travel more freely.
Since he works with clients from all walks of life, there’s no such thing as a “typical day in the office.” Here’s a snapshot of his week:
Wednesday, I’m working with someone who doesn’t want to pay rent anymore, so he bought a van. Then Thursday, Friday, I’m working with this older guy. He’s a professor in Orange County and he bought a van so he can hang out with his grandkids.
There are two things that set Dustin and his work apart: he’s willing to take on custom projects of practically any size, and he helps his customers be a part of the process (if they want to be).
I think the biggest difference between me and other people doing this is that I do small stuff. There isn’t anybody else that has a shop on call, with reasonable prices, for help.
Other companies, you can give them thousands and thousands of dollars and they’ll take your van for a month or two and give it back to you. But most people don’t want that. Most people, their van is their own project and their own home. Maybe they don’t understand electricity, or they don’t have the woodworking tools that I have—and if I can spend two, three days moving them in the right direction, they can finish the project.
Because he works on a range of projects, and he adapts his work to each customer’s needs, he’s able to help his customers create a space that’s uniquely perfect for their lives and passions.
How he got started
It all started with his first van. Dustin was working at a job that required a lot of travel, so he was hardly ever at home but he was still paying a ton of money for rent.
So I bought a van and converted it into a place to live. Because I was so pumped on building the van, and that took all of my time, my job thought I cared more about the van than going to work every day. And that was true.
He and that employer parted ways, and Dustin moved to LA. One day, he says, “I was hanging out on the side of the road. Minding my own business. Some guy came by and was like “Dude, your van’s rad. Can you do that to mine?” He picked up other jobs after that, and all of a sudden he was self-employed.
Although his business is arguably more work than any of his previous jobs, Dustin says, it doesn’t feel like it.
I thought it was going to be hard. I thought it was going to be scary. I thought it was going to be a lot of work. But really, it turned out to be something I’m passionate about. I enjoy doing it. Tomorrow, I’m going to build someone a home, and that’s super cool.
Why entrepreneurship’s the right fit
Prior to starting his business, Dustin held down a long list of different jobs. Some were better than others, but none were quite the right fit.
I was working for somebody else. I was doing something that somebody else was telling me to do, the way somebody else was telling me to do it. That’s just not for me.
In addition to the freedom of entrepreneurship, and the fact that he’s able to make a huge and tangible impact on his customer’s lives, he says the work itself is deeply interesting.
In the time I’ve really been doing this, I have learned an incredible amount. Like, it’s amazing—I picked up skills I didn’t know that I’d ever get. I’ve learned things about electricity that blow my mind. Although I’m doing something similar each day, it’s never the same. I’m constantly learning and that’s not something I’d ever expected in a job.
What’s next for Dustin and The Van Plan
Right now, there are very few options for people who want high-quality, affordable help with their van projects. If you live in LA, of course, you can visit Dustin’s shop, what if you live halfway across the country?
That’s why Dustin’s current goal is to help others set up their own van conversion shops, so even more people can access the possibilities that a van can offer.
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