Chris Penn, skoolie builder, author, and founder of Tiny Home Tours, sits down to talk tiny living, mobile entrepreneurship, and what lit the spark to get him on the road.
Interview by Elizabeth Hensley
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Chris. I’ve been living and traveling on the road for about six years full-time. For about four years before that sporadically just because I didn’t have any online income and I had no idea what I was doing. I would stop at a spot, work for about four or five months, and then hit the road for four or five months.
I started out with a couple of camper vans, then went up to a Class A, and now I live and travel full-time in my school bus conversion. I went with the school bus conversion just because after I started seeing the limitations of the Class A, how it was built, its weight capacity. I was looking for different options and the school bus was the best option for me because it could carry a lot of weight, and also the drive train was very reliable if you get the right engine and transmission combination. So, I’ve been going the school bus route for the last three and a half, four years, and I’ve been absolutely loving it.
Chris' bus, Zep II, during and after its roof raise.
You mentioned your engine and transmission combination. What was the right combination for you and how did you find that?
For me, it was the Cummins 8.3 L with the Allison 3060 transmission. It’s a push-button automatic transmission. The Cummins 8.3 L is very reliable. It’s what’s called a wet sleeve engine, so if something happens with the engine, if it needs to be rebuilt, you can reuse the block. Basically, where the cylinder walls are, you can remove those, replace those with new cylinder walls and essentially get a brand-new engine. It’s just a lot easier to repair if and when that does happen.
By the time I got into school buses, it had already become a thing, so I was able to do the research, I was able to talk to mechanics, I was able to talk to a lot of people already doing the school bus life, so they were able to give me their feedback in terms of different engines and different transmission combinations.
Now that bus life is more mainstream, where do you recommend people start doing their research to find the right bus for them?
Just remember that when you go online to do research on forums like skoolie.net and Facebook groups, there’s one called School Bus Conversion that I really like, some of the people on there have no experience with this stuff. They are just repeating what they’ve seen or heard in other forums. So, take what you read with a grain of salt and really do your own research.
What I like to do is find people that have a ton of experience and are able to go in and give you their feedback because they’ve actually done it. I listen to maybe four or five people that I know have done it for a while and really know what they are talking about
For example, Tony down at AAA Bus in Arizona has been dealing in school buses for twenty years and this skoolie thing just started to happen, so that’s a lot of his business now. But he’s been working on ad selling buses before it was popular, so finding mechanics like that you can talk to is important.
You can spend five or six hours researching online not knowing if the information is correct or not, or you can call somebody like Tony at AAA Bus and pick his brain on what he thinks is a good engine transmission combination and he’ll tell you straight up in a matter of fifteen minutes what’s good, what’s not, what to look for, and what your options are.
Zeppelin Travels crew member, Brad, works on his van conversion. Chris started his travels in camper vans as well.
Pre 2009, before you even started in a camper van, what clicked in your mind about wanting to go on the road? How did that evolution happen for you?
Back when I was six or seven years old I told my grandmother I was going to live out in the woods with my dog and not pay rent or utilities. It was to the point where they wouldn’t let me put up blanket forts more than once a month because I had my own little fort and I would bring food and water in there. I just liked the idea of having my own small space and being self-sustained in it.
Later, my college job was working at TGI Fridays as a server and there is a large interstate that runs through. A lot of people will jump off the interstate, come to TGI Fridays, and get back on the road. One of my tables was a family that was doing an RV trip. They told me about what they were doing and I thought it was really cool, especially in college when I was making like $60 bucks a shift and I had no money. It just got in my head that I could just buy an old van and put a bed in it, and I could sleep in the van and just hit the road.
When I told my co-workers about it in that same shift they thought I was crazy, they were like, “That’s stupid. Why would you do that?!” But that was the spark. I took my college graduation money, I sold my mustang that I was in love with and had been building over the years, took that money and bought a van and hit the road.
Chris and his dog in the early days living on the road.
How about tiny living? You mentioned wanting to be self-sustained and off-grid during your life. Was it an adjustment for you to go the minimalist or tiny living route?
I’m not really into possessions. The only things I really like to have around all the time is my camera gear because I like filming. I like producing videos, I enjoy having that. The only other things I’m really attached to are my t-shirts because as I travel and go to different places, whether it be overseas or in the states, I can pick any t-shirt out of my closet and tell you a story of where I was and what I was doing.
In terms of minimalism, I’m not really that attached to possessions, I don’t really need that much stuff. But it’s a sliding scale. Most of society would say I’m minimalist because I don’t have much stuff and I live in a 40- foot school bus, where there are others who are doing it bare-bones and they make what I’m doing look like Disneyland.
In terms of my core friend group, a lot of us are living on the road and we are interested in keeping a small footprint, not being bogged down by our possessions. It’s more about life experience. Possessions are supposed to help you navigate the world nomadically. So I would say I’m a minimalist. I’m really into tiny home living. I think this is the way to go. Different cities say different things but in the typical-size house in the U.S., they only use 20-30 percent of their house, so I would say I’m a minimalist for sure.
When did you know this would be long-term and how did you pivot from that into making an income on the road?
When I got that first van, I knew this would be a part of my life. But it wasn’t until I started making a mobile income that it actually seemed feasible to do full-time. I would stop in one spot and work from anywhere from one month to two months towards the beginning and hit the road for a while, so I was just living very very very cheap. I would go to the store and just buy Chef Boyardee and to this day I can’t even smell it without getting a sick feeling in my stomach because I had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
As for the transition to mobile income, my main income now is YouTube. I was part of the YouTube Partner program early on in its infancy really. When I sold my first van I did a quick video and was just going to post it on Craigslist. But it gained some traction on YouTube which got me into the partner program.
The first month I was making money on YouTube I made 25 cents and I spent probably 25 hours figuring out the camera, figuring out how to edit, figuring out how to upload. But I was absolutely stoked that I had figured out how to make money online. I was sending screenshots to all my friends and family saying, “look! I made money on the internet.” I was just absolutely intrigued about the idea of making money online and have been pushing forward through there.
The way I look at it is if you have your typical 9-5 job, you have a bucket and a hose. The hose is your money coming in, the bucket is your desired income. Early on I realized if I had multiple buckets out collecting the water that would be a good way to go about it. It just started getting to the point where I was trying to make as many different sources of income as possible. Even if it was a hundred or two hundred dollars a month, living on the road really isn’t that expensive barring the breakdowns or unexpected expenses.
For me to live on the road is about a thousand dollars a month for my health insurance, vehicle insurance, diesel, food, if I’m out there trying to be frugal. So when you have five sources of income that bring in $200 a month, that’s your entire budget to live. I just became very intrigued by finding multiple sources of income where I could make money online.
Skoolie roof raise in progress.
For people getting started, it seems it took a lot of back-end effort to get started. How long did your mobile income take to develop?
Let's use the analogy of an avocado tree. Everybody wants avocados right now. But if you want them yourself, you have to till the land, plant the tree, nurture the tree, watch it grow, get the bugs off of it, get the right amount of sunlight, and then eventually you are going to have more avocados than you know what to do with.
Right now, a lot of people just want success quick. They want it right now, which is human nature. But in terms of online income, especially YouTube, which is my main income source, it is definitely a long game. I don’t know if you know what Clubhouse is, it’s an online app, they have rooms with YouTube creators and sometimes I’m a moderator and people will come up and they are so impatient. They want everything now. They want to grow their channel right now. But I always tell them it’s usually a good year, year and a half before you get any traction whatsoever.
That’s the way it is with all these online income sources. You’ve got to put the time in, you’ve got to nurture it, you’ve got to keep going and hustling at it otherwise it falls off. A lot of people do give up and that’s why there’s so much opportunity out there even right now. I’d say a good 80 percent aren’t willing to put the effort in and they give up. It’s that other 20 percent that keep pushing, keep going forward, not making any money for years, and then all of a sudden it hits.
How much would you say is having a plan and how much is being adaptable while living on the road working toward a mobile income?
I started YouTube in 2011. That's when I was first monetized. And just within the last six months I actually have a plan. The first ten years were just hustle. It was adapting and changing things and going that route. I was like, “This is my path. I’m going forward. This is what I’m working for.” Now I am finally able to take a step back, look around, and see which direction I want to go.
How can you find meaningful connections/collaborations while on the road?
Everything we do is based on collaborations. When you collaborate with people and you leave it open and you take their ideas regardless of what they are and really look at them objectively and see what they bring to the table, that is where we have found the best path forward with the best ROI (return on investment). Also, always remember to leave meat on the table. There’s plenty of deals where I had the absolute leverage like they had no bargaining chip in the negotiation, but I always leave meat on the table for them for future collaborations.
Especially if you are just getting started out, anything that comes your way that’s within your voice, something that you are trying to promote, or something you believe in, just collaborate with everybody. Even if you are bigger. Even now when people reach out, I always look at it objectively. How can I work with this person? How can I help them out? How can they help me? And how can we move forward with whatever side-project that is.
We have four YouTube channels now, we’re probably going to start a fifth here with nomads in a particular niche and it’s because they reached out, they had an idea and I’m like, sure, let’s do it. Let’s see what happens. Because collaboration is the best way. Our main channel, Tiny Home Tours, is all collaboration because the people are on the channel but they get to plug their social, their business, any product that they want. And again, it comes down to that collaboration and being open to anything.
Chris works on the under storage of a school bus conversion.
I like how you said, it’s not just how this person can help me, but how I can help this person. It has to be a two-way street.
Exactly. Just a little tidbit about a collaboration I did with a company called Progressive Industries. They did surge protectors for RVs. This is when I had my Class A RV. I went above and beyond what they were expecting because typically companies get reached out to for free product or paid advertising on social media. I went above and beyond. I told them, I’m going to come to your facility, you install this particular component on my RV. I’ll film it and then if you like it, I’ll take the product for free and if it doesn’t work out I’ll buy the product and it was nice meeting you and we’ll be on our way. So, I filmed the company owner installing the product. He explained what he was doing. He explained what it is, why it’s important, and then I went back to the RV, edited it real quick, took it to his office. He was absolutely blown away. It’s simple stuff for most nomads on the road: filming something, adding good b-roll with good audio.
From that collaboration I got the free product, but also I became a distributor for them, and I was also their social media manager. That was getting more value than they were anticipating and in turn, they gave me more value than I was anticipating. From the distribution of their products to being their social media manager, that collaboration turned into an $8-10k collaboration.
What does your day-to-day look like? How much time do you devote to making a mobile income versus enjoying traveling and being nomadic?
Right now I’m actually in Kansas building a bunch of minibuses for my video and editing crew. I’ve been locked down here at the moment, so my days are dramatically different from being on the road because I spent a lot of the day at the shop doing roof raises or building the buses. But if we back up to when I am on the road when I am in my zone, I wake up at 5 am and I work until about 9 am and the rest of the day is spent hanging out. I can continue working on projects, I can explore the local area, or sit back and relax. I was able to do that because I built a team.
What are your plans for the minibuses you are building?
We have about 13 people, most of whom are nomads, living on the road. They are videographers, editors, assistants helping me with projects. We’re at the point now where I’m about to hand over all of my social media to my number two and she’s going to manage everything. I’m going to focus more on the Zeppelin Travels side of things, which is where we’re giving people rigs to live on the road and vlog their journeys and work for us. Once I do hand over the social and get Zeppelin Travels up and running, I’ll probably have about two hours a day that I’m working on the social media side and the rest of the day will be building buses or whatever I want to do that day.
Zeppelin Travels minibus conversion.
What are some things you wish you knew before you got started that you know now?
In terms of business, there’s a book called The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. That book and Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crushing It! have been the two pivotal books that have changed my life. In Tim Ferriss’ book, he mentions that any time that you are the bottleneck in a business, so when I was on YouTube and I was filming the Tiny Home videos and editing them I was the bottleneck. I was letting my ego get in the way by thinking that whatever editor I hired wouldn’t be able to do it as well as me.
When I read that book I finally put it into practice. I hired an editor overseas for a discounted rate through Upwork.com and started sending videos to him. That’s when I can go back to my analytics and actually see when the Tiny Home Tours channel started to really pop off because we started pumping out more content which brought in more subscribers which brought in more revenue, which brought in more opportunities.
When let my ego go thinking that I knew best, that’s when the company really started to flourish. It was almost like a look in the mirror to see what other parts of my ego are getting in the way and started working to lower that within myself, which has really helped with the collaborations - not thinking that I know what’s best for the business and really letting my team members have a say and have their own direction. I think that was the biggest turning point in everything that I do. I would definitely tell my younger self in 2009, don’t let your ego get in the way of you progressing.
Can you talk a little bit about your e-book, Skoolie Digital Nomad Manual: Your Guide to the World of Mobile Entrepreneurship and the lessons you learned from writing it, and what people can take away from that?
Yeah, that’s when the YouTube Channel started bringing in more than $10k a month and I wanted to put that together for people. It’s basically what we’ve been talking about here. It’s the lessons I’ve learned and how my business is structured and how it’s worked over time. It also has schematics of how my bus is structured in there so people can get different ideas down to the ‘why’ of what we do. And that age-old question if money didn’t exist, what would you do? My ‘why’ is to convince people that are looking into this lifestyle, again it’s not for everybody, but to convince those who are interested in this lifestyle to actually do it.
That book came out pre-COVID, so right now people are being forced to work remotely and I do believe that is one of the main reasons why the RV, campervan, school bus market is absolutely booming right now. But the book still holds value if you are going the entrepreneurial route because if you are working for a company remote you are still working for somebody else. This is more for the 5-9er’s if you are looking to build that side-hustle or looking to build multiple sources of income, or pursue your passion project, the 5-9er’s are the ones who get off of work on their secondary project for four hours a day to build that up.
Looking at mobile entrepreneurship in the next five years, what are trends you are seeing that people should take notice of?
The biggest thing that I’m seeing, well there are two things, Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crush It, back in 2009, I would have taken his book and slapped me in the face with it and be like “read this!” Back then he predicted that everybody is going to be their own social brand. Everybody kind of laughed at him when that book came out but we’re seeing a trend of that where everybody is becoming their own personal brand with their own products or their own thing that they are pushing on social media. I think we are still in the infancy of that.
As social media matures I think there’s going to be a big shift to where people’s online brands are going to be very important. That’s going to grow. And in terms of COVID, I think that nobody knows the markets. There might be somebody behind the scenes pulling levers or whatever, but I think that we may have a really big correction in terms of the economy and the market. So right now I’m stowing away my pennies and making sure that I have savings because I think it’s about to get very interesting.
In terms of how those meld together, I think there’s going to be an interesting intersection of people putting their lives or what they are interested in on the internet. I think there’s going to be a lot of isolated people out there and they are going to be looking for like-minded people.
Anything else you would like to cover?
I’d like to end this the way I end all my podcasts which is if you read my book, you probably already know this, but the average age of life is 72. That’s about 27,000 days. I think a lot of people don’t live their day-to-day lives realizing that. There’s not one day in that last four or five years for me that I don’t think about another day being checked off the list.
We really don’t have that much time to do what we want to do. Zero to 18 is about 6,000 days and then your golden years are when you are not as mobile and in a fixed position. So if you’re from the age of 20 to 50 that's when you can make moves. I think people really need to start taking advantage of the time they have because it’s very easy to get complacent and just work. For most people, a 9-5 and live for the weekends because those are the days you can actually appreciate your life. But if you put the work in, if you put the hustle in, you can live every day like you want to and feel good when you go to bed at night and not feel like a day was wasted.
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