Year Founded: 2018
Aztec Founder: Breanne Acio
Technology: Mobile app that helps outdoor adventurers find camping, overnight parking, amenities, community, and more
In late 2016, San Diego State University (SDSU) communication professor and master’s alum Breanne Acio decided to try traveling in an RV with her wife. The couple had gone on numerous international trips but wanted to explore the U.S. for a change. They experienced drawbacks to the clunky vehicle that made their travels less than ideal. Soon after the trip, Acio’s father-in-law visited them and brought along a Ram ProMaster van that he said he could convert into a camper van. Acio’s background in real estate investing got her thinking about the potential equity a camper van could have, so she decided to try it out.
In early 2017, Acio and her wife purchased a van and converted it. By May of that year, they had their first taste of what is known as vanlife and were immediately hooked..
While the couple enjoyed pursuing a nomadic life in their camper van, there were times when they had trouble locating information about campgrounds and local amenities, and they often struggled finding and connecting with fellow “vanlifers,”causing them to feel lonely. That’s when The Vanlife App was born.
Today, The Vanlife App helps its 9,000+ users locate campgrounds, overnight parking spots, amenities, fellow vanlifers, and so much more. The crowd-sourced info builds a strong sense of community to what was once a lonely lifestyle for many.
We chatted with Acio about being an Aztec entrepreneur, the guidance she’s received from SDSU’s resources and network, and the impact The Vanlife App has made on nomads everywhere.
Planting the Seed: Acio has been entrepreneurially spirited from a young age, starting a lawn-mowing business, along with other mini ventures. “I have always had the idea of working for myself. My goal was always to pursue something that I loved and make money doing something that was outside of work. My goals have always been to work for myself through different means and I found a really cool opportunity through the ZIP Launchpad at SDSU,” she said.
There’s an App for That: The Vanlife App is chock-full of crowd-sourced information that helps users find everything from free or affordable campgrounds, amenities, parking, and more. The app also helps connect “vanlifers” to one another through meetups, as the nomadic lifestyle can make it difficult to find and make friends in unfamiliar places.
The Vanlife App congregates information that you’d typically need to search through multiple sources for. “What most people don’t know is that there are almost 100,000 places in America where you can camp for free, but there is no central database for it. So what we’re doing is we’re capitalizing on the power of the vanlife movement to help make these resources available to everyone,” Acio said.
The startup offers a freemium subscription model. Premium users are able to access social features, like finding and hosting meetups and events.
Remote Life: The eight-person team behind The Vanlife App not only promotes the van lifestyle, they live it. The remote group often works on the road, as they are all nomadic.
As with any remote team, periodic facetime is vital to strengthening their bond and the richness of their connections to one another. The Vanlife App team organizes quarterly meetups and retreats to achieve just that. The meetup location changes, depending on where that month’s Vanlife App meetup is taking place. Past meetups have included New Orleans, Idaho, and many more.
Going with the theme of digital connections, Acio’s co-founder, Jessica Shisler, is someone she met through Instagram, a platform many “vanlifers” document their travels on. The co-founders started doing vanlife around the same time and met about nine months after Acio founded the app.
“We both had our own personal brands and followings on Instagram. We connected there, we met up in person, and we just hit it off. She has a Ph.D., she was a scientist, is really smart, and a go-getter. She really understood vanlife. So, I started working with her as my Director of Communications and eventually, it just morphed into Co-Founder. I actually didn’t ask her to be my co-founder right away. I don’t really believe in doing that because I didn’t really know her. It was a relationship that really had to morph into that and it did,” Acio said.
Learning While Teaching: As a professor at SDSU, Acio was able to take advantage of a valuable on-campus resource, the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad. The incubator supports the university’s students, faculty, and staff. “ZIP is really great at connecting you with people,” Acio said, referring to the program’s mentorship aspect. The incubator pairs startups with mentors, and Acio ended up being paired with Victoria Lakers of Tech Coast Angels, with whom she still has a great relationship.
Meaningful Mentorships: In addition to the mentorship she was able to find through the ZIP Launchpad, Acio found mentors in the people she met through her involvement in local events, such as San Diego Startup Week, as well as through her local network. “The community at Ad Astra and Stella Labs, like Silvia Mah, Allison Long Pettine, and Vidya Dinamani, are just amazing and they’ve connected me with so many people,” Acio said.
Funding: The startup received a small, pre-seed investment in order to build its MVP. The team later raised about $70,000 and launched The Vanlife App in March 2019.
San Diego Scene: San Diego’s welcoming startup scene has made it easy for Acio, who is introverted, to make connections. The idea of going out and finding a mentor felt out of reach for her at first, but she managed to make connections and find support. “The ecosystem in San Diego is really set up to support people who have drive and good ideas, and are willing to push it through. Specifically for women and minorities, I’ve found a lot of support in those areas from Silvia Mah and the LIFT program as well. It’s awesome, especially for people like me who are underrepresented in startups,” she said.
Although Acio and her wife are often on the road, pursuing van life, they continue to find themselves coming back to sunny San Diego. “I feel so lucky to be here. There’s a great environment and ecosystem for startups,” she said.
Looking Ahead: This year, The Vanlife App will aim to reach an even larger user base, as the team will be expanding to offer resources not just for vanlifers, but for all outdoor travelers. “About 140 million people per year go outdoors. The hardest part of doing it is trip planning, and we’re really trying to bridge the gap between finding resources and actually going and pursuing adventure,” Acio said.
Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: When she’s not traveling cross-country in her Ford Transit Cargo Van, you can find Acio enjoying tacos at her favorite local taco shop. “South Beach in Ocean Beach has to be my favorite right now – nice view, great fish tacos, and good deals on beer. It’s a cool place,” she said.
Happy Camper: Camping in her van is something Acio has done across the country, as well as in her home base of San Diego. With so many local options, it’s tough picking favorites, but Acio has one that outdoes the competition. “San Elijo State Beach is my favorite spot to go if I’m going to pay for a campground,” she said. “My wife and I usually bring people together to cook, have a bonfire, and hang out.”
Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (students and alumni) who are building the tech startups of tomorrow. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.