Would you live in a van?
Two San Diego women launch startup for boho traveler movement
Two San Diego women have created an app for travelers that’s gaining a sizable following of nomadic young people living out of vans.
Inspired by a social media phenomenon, Breanne Acio, a former San Diego State University lecturer, and public relations worker Jessica Shisler teamed up in 2018 to pave the way for the drifter movement known online as “vanlife.” They created a mobile application, aptly called The Vanlife App, that’s just secured the two women spots in a competitive Techstars accelerator program for promising startups.
The app currently connects longterm travelers with one another while on the road, solving the problem of loneliness that weighs on this group of individuals. The downside of a nomadic lifestyle is that you have no community, Shisler said.
“You’re constantly in places you don’t know and around people you don’t know,” Shisler said. “You’re never a local.”
For those who haven’t heard of it, “vanlife” refers to a recent bohemian trend of people buying cargo vans, old ambulances, school buses and other boxy vehicles, and converting them into livable apartments on wheels (think of it as a do-it-yourself RV). Many vanlifers are also “digital nomads” who work remotely online, such as freelance writers, software developers, or content creators. With no strings tying them to specific cities or towns, they wander from destination to destination for months on end.
What is “vanlife?”
The vanlife movement began to catch fire on social media about five years ago when countless twenty-somethings shared videos and pictures of their life on the road — catching the imagination of many aspiring travelers. Today, a search for #vanlife on Instagram returns 6.6 million posts.
Acio and Shisler were early participants in the trend. Shisler and her boyfriend bought and converted a Mercedes Sprinter van in 2016, and have been traveling periodically ever since. To this day, the van is their only residence, although they spend more time in San Diego these days thanks to Shisler’s budding business. Acio and her life partner, Lacey Mayer, live in their van — a Ford Transit — for months-long stretches while traveling, subletting their apartment in San Diego during the trips.
Acio and Shisler met each other online, as they were both sharing photos and videos of their vanlife lifestyles on Instagram. Each had independently risen to “influencer” status, gaining tens of thousands of followers before they ever met in real life. Today, the duo has 80,000 followers combined, and an additional 67,000 followers through The Vanlife’s social account.
Why Techstars is interested in The Vanlife App
Their social media stardom has helped catapult their startup into a competitive startup program called Techstars Anywhere.
“They had already built a massive social media following, had demonstrated the ability to be leaders in this community, and also built an app that was getting a lot of pull from the marketplace,” said Ryan Kuder, managing director of Techstars Anywhere.
Techstars, which was co-founded in 2006 by popular venture capitalist Brad Feld, has dozens of accelerator programs worldwide and is one of the most active startup investors in San Diego (and in other startup cities). The virtual program, Techstars Anywhere, is meant to widen the geographical scope of candidates. Entrepreneurs who are admitted to the program don’t have to travel to a new city for months to participate, as in other Techstars programs in major tech hubs.
In the 13-week program, Acio and Shisler will fine-tune their business strategy, capitalizing on the training and mentorship available through the Techstars network.
“Businesses that come out of Techstars will look different than when they came into it,” Kuder said.
The business pitch. How will they make money?
Sēkr, the business that Acio and Shisler formed around The Vanlife App, is still in its infancy, but the entrepreneurs have a following at their heels. The duo launched a traveling event series at the start of the year called Baja to Alaska 2020, in which vanlifers are invited to congregate at specific locations along a long roadtrip path. The kick-off event in San Diego had staggering participation, with 800 vanlifers showing up from Canada to Alabama to meet up on Fiesta Island for the event.
“We started this with community first, and it became an app later — to solve problems for the community,” Acio said. “A lot of businesses struggle with having an awesome product that they need to find users for. We have the opposite problem. We have the community, but the product needs to be better.”
For now, the company’s app has a few main features, including allowing users to find and connect with travelers who are nearby. If they choose, users can share their locations, message each other through the app, or make arrangements to meet up in person. The app also allows users to find public parks, toilets, showers, laundry, or propane refill sites.
But the startup has plans to expand its functionality to include a whole slew of tools for campers and travelers, including an easy way to find safe places to camp overnight — one of the biggest concerns for vanlifers.
One thing Shisler would like to include is the ability for campers to know more about a campsite’s connectedness before they arrive. Many travelers (like herself) are tied to an Internet connection to get work done remotely, so knowing if a campsite is within cell service is a must.
While there are existing directories online of public and government-owned campsites, the databases are disparate, often poorly marketed, and... technologically primitive. Acio and Shisler are relying on users to flag sites for them now, but plan to integrate with government data sets in the future.
These features would widen the free app’s audience to a lot more people than vanlifers, opening the customer base to families and outdoor enthusiasts looking for camping spots. Once the user base is built up, Shisler and Acio have a few ideas on how to monetize the app. They might build out a marketplace, where users can buy pre-planned roadtrip packages. Or they might work with advertisers.
“We’re early on figuring out the revenue streams,” Shisler said. “We’re still validating our assumptions on what our users really want.”
The company’s next step is to improve its app’s features and functionality. Although the app has been downloaded 15,000 times (without any advertising budget to push it forward), it’s still in early stages. In tech startup language, they call the software an MVP — minimum viable product. The app is slow, buggy, and poorly rated by users as a result.
By April, Sēkr plans to overhaul the app’s user-facing design, smooth out some bugs, and add features. The company has recruited a team of six people to build the tech out.
For Acio, a former communications lecturer, she’s excited about delivering a better tool to connect travelers like her.
“I never wanted to be a founder of a tech company,” Acio said, laughing. “But it is the way I can solve problems most efficiently, and empower people to engage with others. That’s why we started. I’m passionate about this community of people who have left their social support behind. It made me want to create this app.”
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.