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Traverse City Startup Story: Breathing New Life Into an Old Camper, a Partner Profile, and Adventures in Autonomy

February 20, 2017

Partner Profile: Mark Bertel Jr.

After ten years of running our marketing business, we’ve learned that a good vendor is every bit as valuable as a good client or customer. You can’t do everything by yourself, so finding skilled, trustworthy and reliable partners is critical in serving clients and customers.

From seamstresses, to web developers, to manufacturers, we have been fortunate to find a number of great partners to help us move forward with Life and Whim as we approach our launch.

One of the trickier projects we’re tackling is the renovation of “Susie Q,” our mobile pop-up shop and event space.

Today we wanted to share a bit more of the backstory about our vintage camper transformation.

It all started back in January, when we were brainstorming ways in which we could build an ecommerce brand that still has a significant presence in the real world. We love being outside and interacting with people, so we didn’t want to set up a situation where we’re stuck behind our computers all of the time. At the same time we didn’t want to be tethered to the expense or responsibility of a retail space.

It was at that time that we stumbled upon the Instagram account of an apparel brand based in St. Louis called The Normal Brand. That’s when we saw it – The Normal Brand was showcasing a photo of its recently finished mobile shop that was transformed from a vintage camper. Bang! It struck us immediately – we need one of those.

So we starting browsing Craigslist looking for an old camper of our own. The challenge, though, is that we had no idea who could tackle this project with us. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Social media came to the rescue again.

We were able to follow various threads on Instagram and Facebook which eventually led us to Northern Arkansas, which is where Mark Bertel calls home. Mark completed The Normal Brand camper renovation (as well as many others), and I reached out to him.

We hit it off on the phone and, as it turned out, he had capacity to take on a new project at just the time we were looking to start ours. After a few weeks of searching, we located a camper for sale in Poplar Springs, Missouri that looked promising. Mark drove up there for us, checked it out, and brought Susie Q back to his workshop that day for us.

The process of working with Mark has been great! He’s very talented, creative and easy to work with. He and his fiancé Kelsey form an awesome team. And their business is really growing. In addition to our project, right now they’re working on a mobile coffee shop that will be shipped to California and an 1800’s era wood wheeled wagon that will serve as a mobile bar in Colorado.

Last week was the official kickoff of the renovation. Demolition on the interior and paint on the exterior was finished, and lots more is in store for this week. The blue exterior (pictured below) will be paired with black, white and gold accent paints and wood trim. Mark will be adding a bunch of other cool features such as exterior lighting; Arkansas cedar butcher block countertops; two service openings capped by wood and corrugated metal hatches; a single beer tap and CO2 system; several ice sinks and a refrigerator; and creative “tiny house” space saving techniques that will allow us to use and sleep in the camper as we visit various campgrounds around the state. Heather has designed a really dynamic space for us, and we can’t wait to see Mark and his team bring it to life!

I’m scheduled to head down to Arkansas to pick up Susie in May and look forward to meeting Mark and Kelsey in person for the first time. Until then, we wanted to share a bit more about Mark and his business. He’s a really interesting guy and big things are ahead for him.

How did you get started in the construction business?

I started out working with my dad when I was 10 years old. My dad builds custom homes and I really enjoyed being on the job site with my dad and my grandpa, whether it be sweeping, picking up tools, pulling nails, just whatever I could do to stay busy and help out.

After working in the summers through grade school and high school, college came into the picture. It was a big deal to my dad and my grandpa for me to get a higher education. Of course I didn’t want that… I wanted to build. But, I still went for 4 years and got my bachelors degree in business from Arkansas State University. I also took some construction management classes just to stay polished on logistics of the industry. During all this I started my own business at 19 years old.

Why did you branch out on your own

After 9 years of building custom homes, remodeling, woodworking – you name it – I was ready to try doing this on my own. I always seek counsel with my dad to this day. We have an awesome working relationship and he understands that it is better for me to branch off and run my company, which is of course part of the three generation business my family has had since my grandfather started Bertel Construction in 1949. I started out my business servicing homes, doing small remodels, and also I was the only builder in my area that would work on modular homes. Mobile homes are a different animal. They are built totally different than a home and can be tricky to remodel so I stayed pretty busy with that until I was 21.

At 21 I really wanted to explore woodworking more. From the age of 8 I would be at my grandpa’s house in his shop everyday working with wood and he would teach me some very old methods that can only be learned through generations of passing down knowledge. So I always was around and practicing woodworking, but now at 21 I wanted to take this to the next level. So I really focused on working with old techniques and mastering those.

By 22 I had done some larger remodels, a ton of woodworking, and I was ready to explore something else. But I didn’t quite know what it was yet. A very dear friend of mine was having me over at his wood shop everyday after work to help him with whatever I could. Eddie was one of the best craftsman I had ever met along with my grandfather. My grandfather taught me an incredible amount of knowledge in woodworking and construction, but Eddie taught me how to work with wood from logging and sourcing the wood yourself, to milling it down, and finally finishing it and every step in between. This got me back to the basics, learning that something with quality takes time and effort. Something unique is what people want and this was very unique. He taught me how to work with raw wood and make into a piece of art. Eddie had a nickname and it was “King of the Woods” and it sure fit him well.

So how did you make the transition into vintage camper renovations?

So I was 22, enjoying my career, learning every day and then I get a phone call from a very nice family in Saint Louis that has been waiting to find a contractor to remodel their 60’s Avalon camper into a mobile bar. The Wandering Side Car Bar Co. is run by Dave and Tiffany Unger, some of the best people I’ve worked for and their dream was the most unique project I had done at that point in my life. Tiffany’s design was very much sophisticated and was something I thought I could deliver on, and man did I enjoy working with them and working on their project. Camper remodeling from that day forward was my thing and has been for the 2.5 years since.

What’s to come?

Looking forward on my career I want to deliver the highest quality product to my customers, not only in what they get at the end but the experience has to be the best in the nation. I’ve got three generations looking over my shoulders and I want to uphold the reputation my dad and grandpa have built for me their whole lives. I really enjoy getting to know my clients, seeing their dream, and delivering to the best of my ability. I really do care about my work and love what I do and most of all I am honored to be able to bring people’s dreams to life. One goal I have is do a camper/tiny home remodel or build out in every state. That would be killer.

Learn more about Mark, and track the progress he’s making on his awesome projects (including ours!) by following him on Instragram @markberteljr and Facebook @markberteljrconstruction.

February 23, 2017

Fun Through Freedom and Doing Things Differently

Working on our new business makes us happy. It’s a grind at times, but it’s a happy grind.

After a hard day’s work, while we feel depleted, we also feel a big sense of accomplishment and comfort knowing we made progress on a path of our own choosing.

And apparently we’re not alone. Several years ago, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a report that concluded that the number one contributor to happiness is not money, popularity or good looks – it’s autonomy. The report defines “autonomy” as “the feeling that your life – its activities and habit – are self-chosen and self-endorsed.”

We don’t know how things will turn out. Uncertainty: It’s an immutable truth of entrepreneurship. But even though we don’t know the ultimate destination, there’s joy in the journey. The freedom of the blank canvas is exhilarating.

There’s also beauty in the blank canvas.

Because we have autonomy, we have the freedom to try new things and take a contrarian approach to our business. We’re coming at things from a “beginner’s mind.” The beginner’s mind is an ancient idea that relates to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching a task or subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

Sara Blakely is a good example of someone who approached the apparel industry with a beginner’s mind. She’s the founder and still 100-percent owner of billion dollar brand Spanx, and knew nothing about the women’s fashion and accessories market when she got started. At the time she developed her product, she was selling fax machines door-to-door. When it came time to sell her new undergarment, she did what she knew – she picked up the phone and cold-called a buyer from Neiman Marcus. It took her a week to get through, but when Blakely did get the buyer on the phone she convinced her to give her ten minutes to pitch her product in Dallas. Her dogged persistence paid off as Neiman Marcus agreed to sell Spanx in seven stores. This was Blakely’s first sale.

When Blakely’s friends in the fashion industry heard that she got her product into Neiman Marcus, they were incredulous. “We’ve been trying to sell to them for years,” her friends said. “How did you do it?”. Blakely’s response: “I called them.” Her friends couldn’t believe it.

You see, they were trying to get into Neiman Marcus and other retailers for years in the manner that small, new brands always have – by attending trade shows, displaying product, and hoping the right buyer wanders by and takes notice.

Blakely knew nothing about “how things are done” in the fashion industry, and her contrarian approach paid huge dividends.

This week we’re adopting a beginner’s mindset as we approach the introduction of our next product collection reveal as part of our Startup Story. We’ll be “crowdsourcing” feedback on designs that Heather and her team have been working on for this new product line over the last month. They will be revealed for the first time at what’s sure to be a fun event later this week with a unique panel of judges. We can’t wait to share our experience from the event and the results from “the crowd” with you next week!