Erik was raised by a VW enthusiast. Between his twin brother, dad and mom, the family has owned more than 32 Volkswagens. The most memorable one was an orange camper van named Pumpkin. When Erik was young, his family frequently traveled up and down the California coast to explore the surf, sun and redwoods. Those early memories of sightseeing in a VW inspired Erik to help others explore and experience San Francisco. Leading tours while driving a VW van was always Erik's dream job – and now it’s his career. During his time off, he loves to hike, read about local history and think of new creative ways to improve his business.
What do you do?
I’m the founder of Vantigo SF, a unique Volkswagen bus tour through San Francisco. My wife is with me in the business, in addition to her full-time job and she’s really the consciousness of the company. I’m the one who’s trying to get crazy with the dream, and she’s the one asking the reflective questions.
I was just having a conversation with my wife yesterday about what my role looks like as the company grows. Obviously as we bring more people in I'll have to do more management type tasks, but my role as of right now is tour guide, first and foremost. I’m also the guy who’s answering the emails, returning the phone calls and trying to keep my employee inspired. I have another driver, Eddie who I had to train on all the different tours. When you’re doing the same thing over and over again switching up the tours adds some variety.
One of the funnest parts of my job is product development. We’re really trying to create the “quintessential California day” through our tours. So day to day answering emails and phone calls and messages but also trying to work on product development and big picture.
How did Vantigo get started?
I’ve always wanted to own my own business. When I went to college I focused on entrepreneurship and small business management. Then, I stumbled into tech and was doing that. I liked it a lot because tech is so Wild West these days that you end up being like a small business owner. You’re doing so much and you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re trying to land jobs and whatever else.
My family has always been into Volkswagens. Between my brother and my dad and my mom and I we’ve had 34 of them. One weekend my wife and I were talking about how we wanted to get another van so we could do road trips or whatever, it’d be awesome. But the reality of living in San Francisco kind of kicks in, like where are we gonna park this?
All of the sudden it becomes a huge expense because you have to pay for a garage and all those different things. It was one of those things where the idea was a nice daydream but then it just kicks the bucket right after that.
A week or two later I got a bonus, a pretty substantial bonus from the company I was working for and suddenly I could go buy a van. It caused me to think a little bit deeper about it. If I was gonna go pay the money on a decent van, especially having no kids, no house, nothing that we can really write off for tax purposes and that's where the idea was born. “What if I started a business with the van?”
We thought of the whole tourism idea and in San Francisco there’s a lot of tourism so that was the easy thing to do. February of 2013 is when I got the bonus and started thinking things through. Two weeks later in March is when I flew down to Los Angeles and bought Lily (our first van) and drove her back up to San Francisco. It got real, real quick after that.
It was never intended to be more than a daydream. I mean you think about those things, but it’s such a gamble. You don’t know if the government is going to let you do it legally, like can I take an old antique vehicle and use it for tours? The other thing is what barriers are there in the city that stop you? Like why hasn’t someone already done this? That’s the thing you always gotta ask.
It was great though because it was a company that I could start on weekends and nights part-time. I didn't have to quit my day job, but once it started to get successful on nights and weekends that’s when I was like “okay!” By March of 2014 I quit my job to do Vantigo full time and August 2014 we brought on our first employee and got a second van rolling.
What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?
At the end of the day I feel like I’ve given everyone a chance to see San Francisco through the lens that I would want to see San Francisco in. Everyday I walk away with 6-12 new friends. When I’m driving through town and I see people from a recent tour who are in town for another couple of days, they’re gonna wave hi. They’re gonna yell my name out when I’m cruising through the streets and so it’s rewarding to feel like that everyday. Like you’ve done a job well done because people genuinely love it.
Most challenging is if something happens with our schedule and we have to take the van down to get something fixed. I have to cancel someone’s tour. I know that people are excited. They’ve planned 3 months, maybe 6 months in advance, and then I call up a day or two before and say I’m so sorry but the van needs to get fixed. That doesn’t happen as often now, I’m more proactive with maintenance of the vans but sometimes that still happens. I used to get so heartbroken about that but now I’ve realized that it’s my job to just take care of people. They want to tour San Francisco and it sucks when I can’t offer my tour but I’ll set them up with another tour I’ve worked with before. I book them a seat on that tour and pay for it.
How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?
One thing I’ve been struggling with is how do I market to the local person? I can market to people from out of town as this little, cute boutiquey tour. The van is a really good hook but say 30 years from now am I gonna be driving a 75 year old vehicle? Are they gonna be relevant? For me what’s important in staying relevant marketing-wise is making sure I can go after relevant press. Find those magazines, or companies that are putting out great stories, like your site after I talked to you I read some stuff that you had up and it’s super interesting stuff. So when you asked me about doing an interview I was like “yes, please, let’s do this!”
So finding those relevant bloggers or people that would enjoy going on one of our tours who is also the type of person who’s gonna become a “Vantigan”. Someone who will be really excited about it. So part of my strategy is trying to get a piece of press like that at least once a month.
The other thing is that our tours can never stay the same. Every month we have a District Day where we go to a different district in San Francisco and walk into every store, liquor store, corner store, outlet, museum and library, and talk to anyone we can in that district to learn more about it. We do that and try and figure out how we can incorporate it into our tour. Whether physically or verbally or some stop we can make.
What are your top five applications or programs?
Peek.com - It's the reservation software that I use. They have an iPhone app and iPad app. When my employee logs in he only sees his schedule. So that’s hands down what I use most.
Gmail - For keeping up with emails.
SquareSpace - How I edit and update our website.
Quickbooks - For financials and accounting stuff.
TripAdvisor and Yelp - I always ask that people leave reviews on TripAdvisor because it ends up bringing a lot of great referrals.
Best way to stay on top of email?
Ah, I learned a trick from my wife. My inbox is only full of things that I need to respond to. I have a bunch of different folders to categorize things like reservations, etc. Right now my inbox probably has 10 emails. If someone reaches out and asks if I’ve got availability on a certain day I’ll respond to them. Then I file that in a folder that holds everything that comes through my site's contact form. Any emails I get that aren’t necessarily someone I’m doing business with, for example with our email correspondence I think I filed it under “Networking or Press”. If I still need to respond I leave it in my inbox.
It’s important especially in tourism to get back to people quickly. If you don’t they think you’re apathetic or don’t want their business. So I had to learn the hard way to get back to people within a couple hours.
What is your best time-saving trick?
Doing phone meetings whenever possible, since it’s rare that I’ll get a day off outside of the van. (we did this interview via phone while Erik drove to get a part for the van). Even with hiring. A phone-screening is also great because when you meet in person you tend to be a lot more subjective since you’re physically looking someone over. When you talk on the phone you can develop your assumptions based on their answers and nothing else.
The District Days are also a time-saving trick. When we do district days that’s also when I put the vans in the shop. I do all the other maintenance stuff that I’ve needed to do for the last month and it’s all slammed into that one day.