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Van with a plan: The lucrative business of transforming vans into travelling homes

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Former personal trainer Jennifer McKechnie transformed her lockdown project into a business creating custom camper vans - and is deluged with work a year in.

The Dundonald-based 33-year-old had bought an old minibus in 2019, intending to convert it and go travelling but work pressures meant she didn’t have the time.

“When we went into lockdown I was furloughed and was able to get the time to put a bit more work into it and convert my own van - it took 100 days to do,” Jennifer said.

“My dad was very handy and he taught me a few things, and if ever there was anything I wanted to do around the house, I found a way to do it myself rather than just buy it.

“Because I bought it in 2019, I had spent a good year researching things and following other people on YouTube and Instagram, so I picked up a lot of DIY and things I already knew how to do, but had to transfer over into doing a van,” she said.

When it first arrived, Jennifer said the minibus came with 17 seats which had to be stripped out.

“I had to check for rust and start from scratch to turn it into a camper van, I installed 12-volt electrics, a double bed, single bed, kitchen, plumbed in water, put in insulation, a whole lot of things,” she said.

Once the project was complete, she published the transformation process in a TikTok video that went viral, garnering more than 3.1 million likes and spurring her to put her newfound business idea into play.

She joined the Go For It programme in partnership with Belfast City Council for help to start her own business and launched Custom Conversions in October 2020, focusing on converting vans into unique camper vans.

However, the business model has since evolved, as Jennifer explained.

“The initial plan was to buy a van, do it up, sell it and kind of repeat the process, but the response I had online, from Instagram and TikTok, revealed that more people than I had ever imagined wanted their own van,” she said.

“So my business became Custom Conversions - someone would bring me their van and I would convert it to how they wanted it to look.”

In the past year Jennifer has converted seven vehicles into custom camper vans and has three more in the pipeline, including a horsebox conversion.

“They’ve all been little bit different. Some have been very fancy, some wanted it all black and grey, some wanted bright colours, some plain white. That's good because I don't want to be doing the same things over again,” she said.

“They’re all different and trying to squeeze it all into a very small space is difficult, but I manage it.

“The most challenging thing so far has been a sliding wardrobe - the client wanted somewhere to hang dresses, so I found somewhere to put a wardrobe in the van, which was challenging but I made it happen.

“That's the most difficult thing - it’s hard to give everybody everything they want in a very small space as there are some factors that will limit where things go.”

Jennifer said she heard of Go For It programme from a friend who had used them: “It was very simple, I sent them an email and they were very, very helpful.

“The Go For It programme helped me by creating a business plan, so I knew exactly what I was going to venture into. They helped me with the financial, legal, insurance and everything else in-between to help me get my business started.

“They helped me set out a business plan. I had a clear vision as to what was going to happen. Others could read the business plan too and understand what I wanted and how I wanted to move forward with it.”

Now, she’s thinking about where to go from here with so much demand out there for her skills.

“I’ve found this year that trying to juggle social media and having time in workshops to build things and work outside has been very challenging,” she said.

“But hopefully going forward I will be able to bring someone in to cover social media and things like that so I can focus more on being in the workshop building things.”

Jennifer’s Go for it Business Advisor at Belfast City Council is Shannon Woulahan, who said: “We understand it can be scary to go from being employed to being self-employed.

“The Go For It programme is a free and confidential advice and support program which helps entrepreneurs set up their business.

“We meet the clients, and we discuss their business idea and we go through all aspects from operation to legal, financial and marketing to help them flesh it out and turn it into reality.

“It’s really great to see Jennifer’s business as a testimony as to how good digital marketing can be for a business. It is definitely a very successful story to come out of the programme.”

The Go For It programme is delivered free of charge by a team of experienced business mentors through Northern Ireland’s wide network of enterprise agencies. It provides expert advice and help to develop a business plan, helping entrepreneurs turn ideas into commercial businesses.

If you have a business idea you’d like to develop or if you are thinking about starting a business contact the Go For It Programme on 0800 027 0639 or visit: www.goforitni.com.


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