Make It

How this 30-year-old entrepreneur built a $20 million business from his RV

Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks.
Source: VideoBlocks
Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks.

Most entrepreneurs don't have a blueprint to conceive their next big idea. And they often don't know how to deal with burnout from the rigors of building a startup. But 30-year old Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks, has discovered the keys to solving both problems. He hops in an RV, turns the ignition, and hits the road.

But he doesn't see this as a vacation — it's more like inspired work. His daily tasks of talking with investors, returning customer phone calls and finding solutions are planned between pit stops, scenic views and guided tours. He believes the business doesn't suffer; in fact, he says it thrives.

Over the last 18 months, he's been through 43 states and logged over 30,000 miles on his odometer. This has led him to over hundreds of hours of reflection. It's just him and his thoughts traveling across the country in his RV. "That's when I can zoom out," he said. "And think about what we're trying to build at VideoBlocks."

A turning point in his company came on one of his most recent trips. It was during a long stretch across a desert when he came up with the idea of creating a market place for buyers and sellers of the stock video industry. It completely changed his business and it's what has helped him scale his company to where it is today — one of the hottest digital media startups that's challenging Shutterstock, Getty and Pond5. They've crossed over the $20 million mark in revenues and reached growth of 214 percent in the last three years, according to the company.

"I find the easiest way to clear my mind is on an open road," he said. "There's something soothing and therapeutic about watching the blur of towns, mountains and landscape fly past."

As he was graduating from Babson College he turned down a six figure offer from Wall Street and moved into his parent's basement to start his company. "Everyone was telling me to take the job, bankroll some money and then start the business," Holland said. "I realized kicking that can down the road was dangerous. If I didn't start the business then it would become increasing less likely in the future."

The inspiration for launching his company came in 2009 when he was working as a video editor on a small television show. They landed an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and it went brilliantly. Schwarzenegger offered great advice and the piece should have been amazing, but Holland's employer didn't have a budget for stock media. "The production quality was complete s**t," Holland said. "So that's why I started VideoBlocks — to solve that problem."

"I find the easiest way to clear my mind is on an open road. There's something soothing and therapeutic about watching the blur of towns, mountains and landscape fly past." -Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks

VideoBlocks has a couple of million stock video clips available to everyone from all over the world. It's geared more towards the mass creative class so people can afford to make their artistic pieces have more production quality. Members can download unlimited clips for $99 a year. And the videographers who submit their footage to the open marketplace receive 100 percent of their sales because VideoBlocks only makes money from their clients who pay the annual subscription. It's a win for everyone, whereas their competitors charge a fee and take a percentage from the sales of the clips.

In the first year VideoBlocks got their footage revenue up to a million dollars, which was the goal. Holland hired his first employee and realized this could be real. And in 2010 everything started moving quickly. Revenues grew from $1 million to $2 million to $4 million – within two years.

He took on five employees, but he was still doing way too much. He admits he wasn't very good at hiring fast enough and delegating. He was too scared and too naïve to let go. "I was doing way too much," he said. "I was working 80 hour weeks and reaching burnout pretty fast."

As he describes it, there was chaos in his head. "I had to get out of the office and into the woods."

Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks
Source: Joel Holland
Joel Holland, founder of VideoBlocks

So he took his first RV trip in the fall of 2010 to travel all around New England. And by the end of the first week he was hooked. He could go anywhere and be totally self-sustainable. At this point VideoBlocks was still in the infancy stages. They still hadn't done their Series A, but during that trip Holland knew he was on to something.

Holland says he worked better on the road. In the day to day grind he goes to the office and quickly gets overwhelmed with noise. He didn't know how to prioritize, but when he's on the road, traveling he has no other choice than to prioritize his tasks. "The things you're going to do are going to be the most important ones," he said. "You're going to talk to your investors, press interviews, set up partnerships and respond to fewer emails — which turns out to be a good thing."

By 2014 Holland felt like he was getting back to burnout phase and in a lull. He'd go to the office and not feel the inspiration. "The office was great, the people were great, but I felt trapped," he said. "That's when I saw an RV dealership on a random weekend while attending a wedding and walked on the lot and bought it. I didn't overthink it."

He went from his lull to a super energized and excited entrepreneur. His biggest concern was how the office would function if he wasn't there every day — a fear he says was unwarranted. "Our big concepts we've built and deployed like the marketplace have manifested from my trips."

Holland went to the extreme. A lot of people can't do afford to do that, but he believes even taking a good long road trip will help and spark creativity. "What happens is, you're in the car for hours and hours and you're forced at a certain point to be in your own head," he said. "And you eventually come to peace with whatever is in there. And for me it's usually chaos." The easiest way for him to deal with it when he's in the office is to open his inbox or pick up the phone, but when he's driving through Nevada and there's no cell service, nothing on the radio, he's basically having a mediation session.

"I've tried meditating," he said. "I can always find a reason to stand up and not mediate. On the road you're going to meditate whether you like it or not. It might be difficult at first, but then you'll start having breakthroughs."

Commentary by Turney Duff, a former trader at the hedge fund Galleon Group. Duff chronicled the spectacular rise and fall of his career on Wall Street in the book, "The Buy Side." He is a commentator on CNBC's "Filthy Rich Guide" and a consultant on the Showtime show, "Billions," starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. Follow him on Twitter @turneyduff.

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