Two summers ago, Grady Linder converted a Ford Econoline van into a mobile office/rolling motel room so he could wander the country promoting the natural foods company where he worked at the time.
That three-month cross-country trip was a flashback to happy childhood road trips with his family and their dog.
All seven of them would pile into a van and head west, or visit his grandparents at their cabin or farm.
"I thought it was the best way to see the country," he said.
That summer van trip in the Econoline van, and Linder's minimalist approach to life on the road, became the envy of his friends and just about everyone he met along the way.
So when Linder returned to the Twin Cities, he converted a compact Ford Transit van into a no-frills camper van with room for two and launched a business called Voyager Campervans.
The concept was a hit, but Linder quickly realized that growing his micro-van business wasn't going to happen without huge problems. He's having no trouble finding people willing to rent the vans, but figuring out how to expand his fleet hasn't been as easy.
"No banks will finance our business," he said.
So far, Linder has assembled a small fleet of vans in two sizes:
He's calling his Ford Transit vans "Minny" vans. They sleep two people and get 29 MPG.
Dodge Promaster City cargo vans are being converted into "Mondo" vans that sleep four and get 17 MPG.
Unlike the traditional house-on-wheels RV's with slide-out rooms and master suites, Linder is trying to create a niche for people who want to travel in a lighter, more nimble way that piggybacks on a broader consumer trend that's best known for micro apartments and tiny homes.
At the same time, Linder is trying to appeal to those who aren't willing to sleep on a wafer-thin camp pad in a musty pup tent.
That's why his custom camper vans are equipped with a full-size bed, cold food storage, stove, water source, electrical outlets and air conditioning, even when the van isn't running.
"Your tent might miss you but the feeling won't be mutual," he says.
Linder also wants to streamline the rental process by using an app that will make check-in easier and more flexible.
"Renting a camper van should be almost as simple as renting a Bird scooter," Linder said. "It shouldn't be as complex as some companies have made it."
Achieving that kind of convenience can't happen without a much bigger fleet of vehicles and a presence to help break into other metro areas.
That's why Linder is partnering with Ryan Lloyd, who is just finishing up his ninth season as a tour operator who runs the Milwaukee Pedal Tavern, Nashville Pedal Tavern and the Milwaukee Paddle Tavern.
Lloyd said he's working with Linder to expand the Voyager business to Milwaukee and Nashville, where he already has a presence.
Lloyd called the relationship an outside-the-box approach to scaling.
He said they are talking to other tour operators who are would-be investors who might also be able to manage the business in their location.
He and Linder have made a map that shows the markets they think would be a good fit for a camper van business, and then they've cross-referenced it with tour operators they know.
"It's a small and tight community, which allows us to start a new city much cheaper, and expand quickly," Lloyd said.
Achieving that goal means finding a third-party company that can build hundreds of micro vans every year.
So far Linder has little competition in the U.S. There are there are well-established companies that offer traditional class A and C RV rentals all across the country, but there's a veritable dearth of companies that offer anything smaller.
Aside from gaining market dominance and national brand awareness, there's another advantage to having a presence is multiple cities.
Lloyd hopes to make it possible for people to plan what he calls "one-way adventures."
For example, a client can fly into Nashville, pick up a fully outfitted camper van, go white-water rafting on the Ocoee River and camp there that night.
The next day they would be able to head to the Smoky Mountains, camp there for a few days and then head to Ashville, N.C., to explore the city before dropping the van off and flying back from Asheville or Charlotte.
"At the end of the day," Lloyd said. "We want to make it easy for people to take a few days off and turn in into an adventure, and explore and enjoy mother nature."