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In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you, and what’s your business?
I’m Geneva Long, founder and CEO of Bowlus. We’re an ultra-luxury RV company featuring modern technology and exterior design with art deco roots from the 1930s. We reinvented the approach to luxury RVs to make them more in-line with the yacht industry — as far as innovation and quality of materials — than with the traditional RV industry. All of our products are handcrafted, and we also produce bespoke models, in addition to having a robust customization program.
What inspired you to create this product?
My first connection to the Bowlus brand occurred roughly a decade ago when my family restored a vintage Bowlus Road Chief and took it on a 3,000-mile North American road trip. We stopped at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week in California, as well as South by Southwest in Texas, and I was struck by the special reaction from everyone who saw the vintage Bowlus. Since I was studying business at the time, I was in an entrepreneurial mindset, and upon seeing people’s reactions I thought: “Could this be a new company?” I started to get the idea that luxury land travel could be a new segment of the RV industry. From there, we prototyped the modern Bowlus, updating it to something that has a vintage look but with modern technology. It had never been done before in the RV industry.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Make the business what you want. I wanted to keep the company pure and didn’t want any outside influences taking away from something I knew was special. For example, if we had accepted outside funding, we might’ve had to follow the traditional product cycle of the RV industry, which is not what we wanted to do. We wanted to add innovation as new technology surfaced and not on a preconceived calendar schedule. Also, we wanted to have personal relationships with our customers, and if we had accepted funding, we would’ve had to go the way of other RV industry brands that don’t work within the luxury industry and therefore do not have the personal connection with their customers. We may have not been able to have bespoke models the way we do, too. So, don’t be afraid to build a prototype in your own garage or start your business plan on your own, without outside influence.
What has been your biggest challenge during the pandemic, and how did you pivot to overcome it?
Bowlus is a company that traditionally has had in-person meetings to make designs on custom projects. Our biggest challenge this year was that we couldn’t accept in-person appointments. Luckily, we’d spent nine years developing a virtual experience for people who couldn’t make the trip to our headquarters in California, but still wanted to place orders and discuss customization options. So we had that remote-ordering option in place already. Also, we had to keep our staff safe, so even people who wanted to come in couldn’t — it was the first time we had to close our doors to customers for in-person appointments. We were very lucky to have had the foresight to develop multiple channels for working with customers.
I believe the traditional RV model of sales had an even more challenging year because that model is based on instant-gratification — where people come into a showroom to buy today, to go on a trip next week. My advice is to be flexible with how you work with customers, so you are not stuck in one mode. That way you can easily pivot to find alternatives.
Where do you see this company in a year? In five years?
The goal of Bowlus is to always innovate. The company wants to maintain its position in the luxury land travel segment, and to do that, we have to stay current on what the industry is offering but also what customers demand in luxury products. Since we work so far in advance, I’m excited to know that we are launching new products in advance, which will include more industry-firsts. In five years, I hope to be continuing to lead the RV industry with innovations that speak to the way the luxury land travelers like to adventure.
What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
The word “entrepreneur” to me means creating a piece of an industry, or defining a new industry with new ideas. It’s about moving forward with new ideas. We believed there was a market for luxury RVs, but that category didn’t exist yet. And we believed a nostalgic product could be enhanced with new technology that would satisfy luxury customers, by giving them the technology they want in all aspects of their lives.
Describe your company culture and how you helped shape it.
The culture at Bowlus is greatly shaped by people who are attracted to the outdoors and who are driven and prideful of delivering a superior product to their customers. Bowlus creates hand-built luxury products, so the staff is extremely diverse in job description, ranging from salespeople to artisans and craftsmen. But the common denominator we’ve found between everyone seems to be that our employees are people who are attracted to adventure and the outdoor lifestyle.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation? Explain how it inspires you.
“There is nothing so American as our national parks.” This is a great quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is closely associated with our National Parks and who expanded the National Park Service. It’s also a fitting quote because it’s from 1934, right around the time the first Bowlus traveler trailers were beginning to traverse the country, creating outdoor experiences and memories for a new generation of Americans — which is what we’ve hopefully done with the re-imagining of the Bowlus brand for the 21st century.