The Build Cycle Podcast #26 – Outside Van founder Erik Ekman

Erik Ekman is the founder of Outside Van, an Oregon-based manufacturer of full custom, adventure-ready Sprinter vans. This is one of my shorter interviews, but it’s packed with great advice on how to run a company that attracts deep talent and does amazing work. Erik and I are both mountain bikers, so there are a few cycling references in here, but most it’s just killer advice on how to create a company that’s pushing boundaries while selling a premium product. One of my favorite quotes sums up his fast moving, experimental management style: “Failures are just opportunities for growth. They’re not mistakes, they’re expenses. You’re out of business when you can’t afford your mistakes.” And with that, please enjoy episode 26 of The Build Cycle Podcast!

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

  • 01:45 – An idea born of necessity.
  • 05:40 – How it turned from a personal van into a business.
  • 09:30 – Working with subcontractors, then competing with them.
  • 14:30 – The economics of ordering and selling a van.
  • 19:40 – How they find suppliers & why they make less on more expensive vehicles.
  • 22:20 – Dealing with the competition.
  • 23:10 – Sidebar: What kind of Sprinter do you need?
  • 24:20 – Who and how they hire.
  • 26:20 – Erik’s role in the company, and what’s coming next.
  • 30:00 – How do you do good business?
  • 33:22 – Parting advice for entrepreneurs.
Outside Van founder Erik Ekman, mountain biking in Saint Moritz.

POST GAME ANALYSIS

Early on, Erik was doing his own work on his own vans, which taught him a lot about what worked and what didn’t. He tested the concept on himself, and found out there was demand simply by driving his own around. From there, he outsourced the construction of interiors, keeping costs and overhead low. As they grew, he brought more of the development in house. The point is, he didn’t jump straight into a fully functional business. It grew organically, which makes a lot of sense for any startup: Keep proving the concept as you grow, and let revenues drive your growth so you maintain control.

If you really want to destroy your productivity, go to OutsideVan.com and scroll through the galleries. Note the insane attention to detail and massive number of customization options. This is what sets them apart. They’re not the cheapest, and their lead times are long, but if you want a premium item, look here. The flip side of that is it costs a lot in materials and research and development, and sometimes Erik has to eat those costs when things run over budget on a project they’ve already quoted and approved. But that’s OK if it happens only occasionally, because they’re often learning things they can apply to future projects.

In addition to the full custom vans, they make “stock” vans, which gets people into something quickly and gets them into OutsideVan’s ecosystem. What could you offer to bring consumers into your business, then upsell them over time to create long term customers?

Erik makes an interesting comment about his competition, in that he doesn’t pay attention to them. My bet is someone in the company is, but by focusing solely on what he can do better and cooler on his own products simply to improve them, Erik is able to focus his energies on innovating and offering things that truly stand out. And he charges accordingly, which is fine, because there’s always a market for high end, and those customers aren’t usually as concerned about price. It’s a good place to be.

An Outside Van in progress inside their Oregon manufacturing plant.

For hiring, Erik gives his people the ability to experiment. Not all of them are into the outdoors, but each of them is obsessive about something and want to have creative freedom. He provides that, which helps with job satisfaction and retention, and seems to help with recruitment, too.

From a delegation standpoint, Erik is leading the company’s direction from a top level point. As he says, he decides “why were going to go somewhere, and where we’re going to go. And not how we’re going to get there.” That requires a lot of trust, but it’s key to letting him grow the company in the right direction without getting bogged down in the day to day that can suck all of your time and passion away. This is hard to do in a startup, when the founder(s) are often wearing a lot of hats, but you need to at least leave a few days a month where you step back and look at the company from 10,000 feet and make sure you’re still on the right track, review opportunities, and see where things need to change or grow. And where you can delegate.

His parting advice, paraphrased, is “send it, but scope out the landing before you launch.” In other words, just go for it, but make sure you’ve done some planning and looked at where it could go wrong, then plan accordingly. The important thing is not letting those “things that could go wrong” stop you from going for it.

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