The way we move never stays the same for very long. Humans have transitioned from foot to carriage to car, and now, P.J Tezza is escorting mankind into the next generation of mobility – ModVans. The result of 1000+ hours of work and an unrelenting refusal to take no for an answer.
In this fascinating interview, P.J reveals how he turned his background in physics and software engineering into a powerhouse manufacturer that configures 10 vans a week – a number they plan to shoot up to 100 in the not-so-distant future. And to think – it all began with P.J configuring his own van for himself, made to maintain luxury, comfort, and convenience on the open road.
As an intrinsic problem-solver, P.J wanted to give America a way to move, work, and play in one multi-purpose family vehicle that’s beautiful, functional and redefines the word “modular”. No matter the nature of the vans before them, P.J and his team have the knowledge, experience, and self-taught grit to transform them into something America has never seen before.
Are you ready to dive into P.Js incredible journey with us? Let’s get to it!
What inspired you to start ModVans?
I discovered early on that I really liked engineering and I had a really successful career in software. I’ve been involved in a lot of startups and have always been excited about the creative aspect. So, eventually, I built a vehicle for myself as I wanted something for camping. I love camping and I also like to snowboard in the winter. This involves a lot of driving, especially in California which is a pretty big place. So I was looking for a vehicle that could fit my daily life and also go camping on the weekend.
When I built the van, it was a ton of work, way more work than I had imagined. But it had a lot of unique things to it. It was modular. It had a pop-up top, which was a pretty unique design, and AC as a full feature. When I was finished my friends were saying, you should sell these! I wasn’t sure at first, but driving the van around for six months, everywhere I went people were like, hey! Can I see inside your van? Where did you get it? Where can I get one?
I built the modular features because I wanted the seats and beds to be able to come in and out. I wanted to be able to use it for moving stuff, picking up supplies at the home improvement store, things like that. And it turns out that people like that. So I’ve carried that design philosophy into our product line and I now have three different models. They are all modular. You can take everything out and potentially haul bikes inside, and all your kids and dogs for one big trip. So that’s what the heart of ModVans is.
How did you build a manufacturing company from scratch?
I had a startup that sold to another bigger company. And as a result, I wasn’t working a lot. I had a little bit of money and some flexibility for where I could live. So my wife and I moved from Northern California to Southern California. But when we came down here we realised there weren’t any jobs for people like us. So as I was getting even more questions about the van since moving to Southern California. I thought lets dust off the ModVans thing here,
So, I built a website that could take orders, and I just put it out there. I thought if I can get enough orders with deposits, why not give it a try? We got a great response right off the bat. It took me a couple of little tries, but I eventually figured out how to sell them. And my goal was, I wasn’t going to start the business unless I had five orders with deposits. I ended up with 10, after two months. So, we leased space and I started the way I would a software startup, with a minimal amount of space and a minimal number of employees.
My attitude at the time was, I’m not going to do this unless I can do it easily, the way I think it should be done. So when customers would call me and ask to talk to other customers before committing, I would say, I don’t have any other customers, you have to decide if you’re an early adopter and if you want to wait to see how this unfolds. I might have talked to 1000 people, and I ended up with 10 people who said, yeah, I’m willing to take a chance and see how it all works out because what you are building here is unique, and we’re excited about it.
Have your software skills been an advantage for your manufacturing startup?
When we launched the company and I had 10 orders. I was planning to outsource the manufacturing of the pop tops to somebody else. But I didn’t know that they sold the top separately. So with the 10 orders, it made sense to design the top my way, rather than just accepting what was on the market. So that started the process of building moulds and then making our parts.
Later on, we decided to make a new mould for the same part and realised it had some defects. We wanted to change some lines and make some improvements, so I hired a company that does a lot of work in the automotive and aerospace industry. However, they took way longer in my opinion, than was necessary to make it. I started to understand that they were used to working at a much slower pace and not really completing projects at the minimum level of time necessary.
So, coming from the software world it’s a totally different mindset, especially with a startup. We don’t have the luxury of doing things that way. If I have a project that takes too long, we’ll go out of business. So I had this attitude adjustment where I needed to really look and see what was going on and if I didn’t agree with it, to investigate. So I think that’s a big advantage.
What are your goals for ModVans in 2022?
So from a technical standpoint, ModVans is what’s called a second stage vehicle manufacturer. That means we buy a chassis that’s already completed the certifications required in the US, to be on the roads as a legal vehicle. We then modify it to become what we call a multi-purpose vehicle.
In 2021, we had a crisis in the auto industry in the US. The big vehicle manufacturers didn’t have enough chips to make their vehicles. Therefore in 2021, we doubled down on r&d and our plan is to keep working on getting better at production. So when the vehicles become readily available again, We’ll be able to jump on that. Our path is to ramp up the manufacturing that we have now. We have plans to build a much larger facility. Right now, we’re somewhere between 5 and 10 vehicles a month but we’re hoping to build a facility that will get us 100 to 200 a month
We’ve also begun on a truly electric version of our RV. One of the great things we’ve been able to do this year is going from one model to two models. We then added a whole bunch of electronics, which kind of makes it six models total. With the RV platform, what’s really exciting is getting rid of the motor. For us, not having that big motor sitting, either in the rear or the front, really opens up some great design possibilities.
Do you have any tools or techniques that have helped you build ModVans up to where you are today?
I definitely recommend the Lean Startup approach. And there’s a book, the Lean Startup. I get people all the time asking can you tell me what I should do about my business? I tell them, the first thing you need to do is read this book, and then let’s talk about it. Unfortunately, the engineering mindset is the wrong approach. The lean startup is how do we start selling before we have that?
Kickstarter and these kinds of platforms exist where you can go and figure out if you can gain market acceptance. There’s already a crowd of people that know what Kickstarter is and they understand it. And you can go out on those platforms and you can try to sell it. This way you can at least start knowing that you have market acceptance and work backwards. So you push the marketing first, that’s the Lean startup. And for hardware, in particular, Kickstarter is a very powerful approach that can save a lot of time and energy if you’re willing to tackle it that way.
What’s the best way for people to find out more about ModVans or to get in touch with you?
The website is www.modvans.com or you can find me personally on LinkedIn. I don’t know if I can always be this way, but right now if you write to me I will write you back. I think people are shocked sometimes, but I just enjoy talking to people, whatever it is. Just having a chat and batting ideas back and forth. And if I can help, that’s great, I sincerely hope I can help.