It was 2013, and Joel Holland should have been happy.
Holland had friends, a girlfriend, and was living the entrepreneur’s dream: his stock footage company, VideoBlocks, was profitable and doing $10 million in revenue, with dozens of employees. But despite having everything he wanted, Holland recalls, he “wasn’t feeling alive.” He’d drive to work, and as his car approached the office, he’d want nothing more than to just keep driving. He was burning out fast.
In October of that year, he went to a friend’s wedding in Manassas, Virginia. He and some friends were looking to kill time after the rehearsal dinner, so they stopped in a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Holland looked across the interstate and saw an RV dealership. “Let’s go look at some RVs,” he said.
They went over to the dealership, and his friends started to clown around, he recalls: “They were probably thinking, ‘Let’s pretend to be hicks!’” Meanwhile, Holland buttonholed a salesman, and started to ask serious questions. How much was an RV? What’s the safest setup for a beginner? What was a “fifth-wheel trailer”? His friends, meanwhile, “thought I was being ironic.”
But the gears had started to turn. While his friends got hammered at a bar later, Holland fiddled on his phone, researching RVs. And the next day, through his friend’s wedding, he says, he was “dreaming of an RV.”
Still, the idea was ludicrous, and as he left the wedding, he passed the RV dealership by.
That Monday at work was difficult. Tuesday and Wednesday were harder still, “and by Thursday I was just going crazy. I left work, drove out the 45 minutes to Manassas, and put an offer on an RV.” It was a flatbed truck with a trailer unit that hooked onto the back.
Holland went home and sent his friends an email: “Hey guys. I bought an RV, dickheads. Let’s do a road trip.”
In February, he took the RV down to Durham, N.C., and parked it in storage at a trailer community in advance of a planned southern road trip in March. The place was “sketchy as hell,” he recalls, and seemed to confirm all his worst fears about what life with an RV might be like. He asked Sam, the man working the trailer park, if it was safe. “Yes, it’s safe,” barked Sam. “If someone messes with it, I will kill them and eat them.” (The next day, Sam was perfectly genial, says Holland. He’d “just been having an off day.”)
In March, Holland and his friends converged in Durham, where they began the first leg of their journey. The first night, they arrived at an RV park, and struggled to back it into its space. When affixed to the truck, the trailer was elevated at an angle, and there was a hydraulic system to pry the trailer onto the ground, where it could rest evenly. But the hydraulic system blew out, with the trailer now in an even more elevated position. They spent the night sleeping at an angle, “like Coneheads,” recalls Holland.
An inauspicious start. But the next morning, the guys found the RV’s fusebox, fixed the system, and learned how to properly hook up the trailer to water and electricity.
The rest of the trip was a blast.
“We hit the South pretty hard,” recalls Holland. They roamed North Carolina, then headed over to Kentucky. They saw live music in Nashville, they rolled down to Pensacola’s beaches, and they wandered up to Jackson, Mississippi, where they found a jazz bar frequented by “really nice 80-year-olds.”
It was a kind of travel unlike any Holland was in the habit of doing. Like many entrepreneurs—by definition, an elite profession—he had the same vacation circuit as those in his class. He might go to New York, L.A., or Las Vegas, and he’d likely run into people he knew, people fundamentally like him. “If I go to New York, it’s three degrees of separation to someone there. But if I go to Jackson, it’s more like 100 degrees of separation. You’re really jumping out of your comfort zone, and seeing an entirely different face of America.”
Holland returned from that first trip invigorated, wanting to go on another adventure soon. But how could he fit this into his busy life as an entrepreneur?
Granted, Holland was the CEO, and could make his own schedule. But at first, when he scheduled weeks off in his RV, he’d feel guilty. “I’d pitch it as a business thing,” he says—and indeed, he was putting new stock footage in the can, on every trip. “But everyone knew, ‘This is for Joel. He’s doing it for his own reasons.’”
People close to him thought his RV thing might be a phase he’d get over quickly. But the more he spent time on the road, the more time he wanted to spend on the road. He’d scout out months ahead on his calendar, find a clear week, and start to make plans. He’d plan and execute multi-leg journeys across the country, each leg lasting about a week, storing the RV for a month somewhere in the Midwest while he flew back to D.C. to work. “My RV is a nomad,” he says. “It lives around the country.” (It’s just $40 a month to store an RV. And most storage facilities are clean and orderly; the place in Durham turned out to be a “total outlier.”)
He felt guilty about being an “absentee CEO.” But soon, his employees began to realize how much more effective he was after returning from a trip. “Now they encourage me to take off,” he says. He decided to get plans on both Verizon and AT&T (for his iPad and phone, respectively), to maximize his coverage across the country; add in the Wi-Fi that’s standard at most trailer parks, and he’s almost always reachable.
It helps, too, that he’s gotten business-defining ideas, à la Don Draper, while on the road. On one trip, he was struggling with one question in particular. Some of his users were defecting to larger companies like Shutterstock. When he asked why, they said that while they liked VideoBlocks and its low prices, Shutterstock simply had more clips. To compete with Shutterstock, then, VideoBlocks needed a million-clip database, which meant he’d have to build a marketplace for many content creators. But how to attract videographers away from a big-brand name like Shutterstock?
He mulled the question as he traversed Arkansas. Happening to pass Bentonville, he stopped off at the first Wal-Mart, reading about Sam Walton and his passion for discounting. Then, in Eureka Springs, he had a, well, eureka moment. What if VideoBlocks allowed videographers to keep 100% of the money they made selling videos through the site? It was a crazy idea, but he began to run the numbers. VideoBlocks would make money on modest membership fees instead; if they won market share this way, the generosity would wind up paying for itself.
He thought over the idea as he passed through the town, which is equally divided between biker motels and traditional Victorian houses. “I thought, this is a crazy idea.” Then he looked out the window and thought: “But crazier things have happened, like this place I’m in.”
He returned home and pitched the crazy idea, only gradually winning over his colleagues. The marketplace launched earlier this year, causing what he describes as a mass migration of videographers to VideoBlocks, whose database rapidly quintupled to about 615,000 clips, with 20,000 more added per week. “It’s been a massive success,” he says.
Holland now counts his RV investment as one of the best he’s ever made. He thinks back to the stereotype that some may have of RV culture: the notion, as his friends had joked at the Manassas wedding, that it’s for “hicks.” Instead, it turns out, when you own an RV, you get a “cross-section of America”: old and young, rural and urban, rich and less-so. You have ex-military folk, you have business owners, you have recent retirees and their dogs. You have landscapes and peace and the calm needed to form ideas.
“The only stereotype you can make is that everyone’s really nice. Everyone, in one way or another, is on a journey,” he says of his fellow RVers. “And travelers are typically dreamers.”