Just Getting Started with Johannes Ariens, Founder and CEO of Route Line

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Johannes Ariens Headshot

Introducing Johannes Ariens, Founder and CEO of Route Line

Sara Lindquist:

I'm Sara Lindquist from FUSE. We're an early-stage venture firm based right here in the Pacific Northwest - and just like the founders in our portfolio, we are just getting started. We believe that founders deserve more: more urgency, more community, more expertise, more reliability - more of everything. And we aim to deliver. Join me as I introduce each of our portfolio companies in the FUSE Family to date.

Today you'll hear from Johannes Ariens, Founder and CEO of Route Line. Prior to founding Route Line, Johannes started LOGE, a Pacific Northwest-based hotel and adventure business. Join us as he shares about the entrepreneurial journey, the discovery process that led him to starting Route Line and his vision to increase our accessibility to the great outdoors through RVs. 

Let's get started!

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Sara:

It's great to have you here Johannes! Thank you for taking the time.

Johannes:

Thank you! I'm excited to be here.

Sara:

Well, I'm pumped for you to share a bit about your story and this awesome adventure company you're building right here in the Pacific Northwest. So to kick things off, it would be great if you could share the quick high level overview of Route Line and your vision for how it will change the way we engage with the outdoors.

Johannes:

So Route Line our early on tag is end-to-end adventure. And what we mean by that is in the adventure space we see a lot of fantastic products and things going on, but there still seems to be some significant disconnects in how folks go about accessing those things both from an end to end perspective and then also from what I would call maybe innovation and model perspective. And that's to really what we're trying to address is, one, how can we make this more simplified from a planning process? And then how can we increase elasticity to access in this space? Specifically, our launch product and area we're focusing on is the RV and adventure space and recognizing that there just isn't a lot of elasticity in how you get to these things. There's a ton of innovation going on on the product side and then unprecedented demand on the consumer side.

Sara:

Right.

Johannes:

But not really a lot going on as far as how the consumer gets to these really cool products and innovations that people want to be able to participate with, but really the ways in which they can do that are quite limited. One, being a traditional model of night by night rentals, the other being to buy it. And in the meantime in the consumer marketplace, we have just an unbelievable amount of innovations going on relative to how people can access different types of products from their toilet paper in a membership form, all the way up to airplanes.

And these are in the specific area that we're working in, which is the adventure vehicle RV space, so many of those same principles apply to it and just haven't been applied by companies in a really innovative way that can really adjust access to how a user wants to actually utilize something.

Because you're not in something all the time, but you might also want to be in it more than a few days a year.

Sara:

Right. Totally. And so when did you first have the light bulb moment for this? I mean, obviously this isn't your first rodeo. You can share a bit about your experience with LOGE. But, yeah, when was that first light bulb moment for you?

Johannes:

So it's funny. Sometimes it's a very clear light bulb type of situation and then other times I call it backing into a space. So for me, it was really a progression of time and exposure throughout starting building and growing LOGE. And then two, just getting deeper and deeper as a participant into this space and recognizing as somebody maybe on the earlier end of what is typically a quite and long customer life in this space, say 20, 30 years for someone maybe in the RV space to be a participant and really actually quite actively participate with one particular company.

And so for me it looked like we were sprinter owners pre-pandemic, and it was great. We're early to that. It was cool. We built out our own blah, blah, blah, and we're going along. And our sprinter had two seats. And for some personal reasons we decided that we probably need more seats. And so then I was like, "All right. Well, let's sell this sprinter off. We're going to get this truck and truck bed camper thing."

And this was literally right when the pandemic hit. And so we were able to do that. And then we had that for a little while. I was using it. It was awesome. We really enjoyed it. And along the way however...(we live in the city of Seattle), It was breaking and so we had to figure out how to get it maintained. We literally were paying our neighbor down the alley to park in his alley parking spot.

Sara:

Oh, gosh. I didn't realize that!

Johannes:

Yeah. And so I was like, "That was a pain." And then lo and behold, really cool this unit we had, figuring out even how to get it fixed. Because stuff breaks, right? It was a total pain. We're going along and I wanted to go on this big trip. And in the meantime I had been participating in this space and going, "it really seems like demand is really, really high." And we're seeing all this news come out about THOR Industries, makers of Airstream, had a $14 billion backlog, all this stuff. And I'm like, "man, I really want to go on this trip and demand is super high. So I'm just going to sell this thing." So I sell it.

Sara:

And relieve your kind neighbor, right?

Johannes:

Yes, relieve my kind neighbor and it reduces my burn rate. I ended up going on a 7,000 mile motorcycle ride down to Baja and over to mainline Mexico and back up, which was where a lot of this very much solidified as far as this business model goes. But it was like, "I want to go do this other adventure." And I've got this giant thing that's just bearing down on me and they depreciate in value and whatnot. So it's like, "All right. I'm going to sell it." And then I go back. And now we want something else, like back in the van thing. And it was like, "Man, this is a pain." And then just dealing with it, right? Our needs were changing relative to what we wanted from a product.

And there's all this really cool stuff going on. It's like, "Oh, that truck bed thing was really cool." But we really like Sprinter vans because they're really convenient. And it just depends. What it came down to was: our needs change a lot. Or wants. I shouldn't even say our needs. What we're looking for changes a lot, and it's quite elastic. Because the reality of these types of businesses and I think it's really important from a philosophical perspective. But earlier I mentioned needs being really the wrong word, which is it is the wrong word. I don't think we're selling anyone needs, right?

Sara:

Right.

Johannes:

And so when you're thinking about product and brand design, some things that people sell are needed. Usually those get categorized as commodities. Other things become commodities over time. And so people create the perception of need, but really those are where the biggest opportunities are because when you're dealing with something that no one needs, how you can improve and increase value and service delivery is drastic.

Sara:

Yeah, absolutely.

Johannes:

And that's really I think what solidified. it - Route Line was going, "Hey, there's all these new consumers coming into this space and we're really not seeing how people access this stuff as changing very much." But ultimately the way that you position this stuff, a lot of it is just financial engineering. It's incumbent upon us as a company to increase our addressable market size by getting creative around how we can create avenues and venues for people to access these products. Because when you have a marketplace where there's only two options, well, then only the people that fit within those boxes are going to be able to access a singular thing or a singular activity.

Sara:

Right.

Johannes:

It's our responsibility as a business to go, "Okay, there's a very extremely elastic range of how people want to consume something like this." And so as a business our job becomes, okay, how can we make that best work for the consumers? And through doing that change the addressable market size from what it is today to the theoretical adjustable market size if we can do that in a way that better aligns to consumption habits of our consumer. 

And so the "aha moment" was really this process over the last year, year and a half of just recognizing that the space has really changed quite dramatically as far as this was happening before COVID, but COVID certainly increased the exposure and participation in the space to a very different customer than what has been there. Normally these kinds of evolutions happen over a significant period of time on a side scale. And that's still certainly the truth here. 

However, when you engage in some large Black Swan event that directly impacts a category, that need for that response on behalf of the free market accelerates drastically. And I think that's really what we have here is going, "Okay, this was happening." It wasn't that, what we're doing, someone was going to do this, right?

It's more the relevance relative to a macro event that made the timing just seem just right.

Sara:

It totally makes sense. And you're really your first pilot customer in a way. Or rather, your first case study!

Johannes:

Case study for sure. One of my largest warnings to people is to always understand if you are or are not your customer, and you may be your customer. But also it's just as important to recognize how you aren't your customer.

Sara:

Absolutely.

Johannes:

Right. It's very, very easy to get trapped. I always say that's a trap. Assuming you are your customer is exactly how you end up with over-customized products that don't address a macro marketplace.

Sara:

That's exactly right. Gosh, and that story is so poetic. I'm just picturing you on this 7,000 mile motorcycle ride and this idea cementing. I can just see you riding off into the sunset! I love it, Johannes, that's awesome! Thank you for sharing that.

Johannes:

Yeah, it was pretty fun. In fact, our name Route Line actually was inspired by that trip. There was a bicycle themed coffee shop in La Pause, Mexico called "La Rute". And it was very cool.

Sara:

Poetry right there!

Johannes:

Yes! And so I took a picture of it. It's in my phone. And that was the early inspiration for where we ended up with Route Line.

Sara:

Thank you for sharing that! And so I'm curious too... It'd actually be helpful if you could explain a little bit more about your background at LOGE and why you're so uniquely suited to build this.

Johannes:

So it's funny I mentioned the word commodity earlier. And you have responses to when things become commoditized, right? And right now this is happening. It's unbelievable the amount of categories this is occurring in - you know, and earlier I mentioned toilet paper. Basically this idea that really any product over time will hit a point in its industry life cycle where it just gets stagnant. Where it's like, okay, are there other ways to do this? Yeah, probably. Has anyone spent any real time thinking about it? No, not really. And that's where legacy service providers, which I mentioned a lot, are examples of that, right? 

And it's natural because a customer gains trust for the company and then they just stick and they just stay in that company. As an example, KOA (Kampgrounds of America) had its best year last year by 30%. That's crazy. They've been around a really, really long time. By 30%! That's unbelievable. So anyway, the LOGE thing and Route Line, really is kind of a similar I think logic line, which isn't surprising given it's the same person, right? I look at Airbnb. 

So the LOGE thing really started as my wife and I - we were doing Airbnb in Seattle, early 2010. I was on like the Seattle launch committee, the whole thing. And it was really cool. And if you remember the narrative was like, "Hotels are going to be gone, right? Hotels are gone forever."

Sara:

Totally.

Johannes:

And so much innovation is like this where it's like, "Oh, the world is going to be a different place." And this pendulum, I call it the pendulum swing, goes SO far over to the other side. And then it's like, but... people still actually liked hotels in 2010. And there were a bunch of really nice things about hotels in 2010 prior to Airbnb, right? For instance, consistency, safety, all these things.

Johannes:

And so then ultimately you get this big pendulum swing and then it actually usually ends up somewhere more in the middle, is where consumer sentiment lies. And what you learn is like this big solution changes, drastic innovator, disruptor, blah, blah, blah - and then you start to understand at scale where those cracks might exist. And in the case of Airbnb it was lack of control relative to product and host, right? And so how do you control product and host? Well, that starts to look a lot more like a hotel again... But what Airbnb did do and the pillars that made Airbnb take off the way it did were really a deeper degree of ability to connect and provide a more curated product to a particular customer. That's what Airbnb did. That's what it actually did. 

What does that mean five, 10 years down the road? To me, it's like what Airbnb really did was unlock what I would define now as the boutique hospitality and hotel revolution, which is a much, much higher curated product. Narrower gaps. It was a gateway to basically connect niche groups of people with better suited product and show that there's actually macro demand, for in the case of LOGE, an outdoor active lifestyle boutique hotel product. And that demand was big enough to actually be scalable. Whereas before Airbnb, there were folks doing it one off, stuff like that but really hard to see that.

Johannes:

And with Airbnb came this thing where it was like, "Okay, there's all these people like Airbnb but here's the areas where it's failing." And as hosts we were able to see that. Literally we were operating that. And so it was like, "Oh, okay, here's the areas where we've seen product degradation, customer degradation and host degradation in this marketplace between the years of 2010 and 2015." Airbnb experiences was the attempted reaction to control for that. But it was contrived. Because Airbnb experiences was really just filling in where hosts quit trying so hard, right? Because hosts were naturally doing that on their own. They were the local experience. The host was like... I remember early we would go out to dinner and stuff with all these customers. But those customers were super high quality customers paying for experiences, not just the cheapest place to live. And then as it got culturally normalized, then it just became basically square foot brokerage, which is kind of what it is today.

Sara:

Right.

Johannes:

And so in the category that we're messing around with, which is camp and RV, it's very similar. You have these big platform plays going on: Outdoorsy, Hip Camp. And ultimately it's like, "That's great." But when you have the most significant amount of demand occurring in your premium product class, which is Airstream sprinter vans, I mean, you can't buy these right now, literally twelve, eighteen, twenty-four months out - that demand is very concentrated towards your premium product class, which are these new customer entrants.

Johannes:

What experience are they looking for? Are they looking to meet Jim in an alley to go use his Ford van for $500 a night? And by the way, each one of them is different. Jim's super weird and uptight because if he could actually afford this Ford van, then it would probably not be on Outdoorsy. So he's needing to do this and he's really particular. That doesn't align with where we're seeing the most customer-centric demand. It's like this giant pendulum swing again, peer-to-peer hip camp, all this stuff.

Johannes:

And it's like, "Okay, well, what if we take the pieces that are the best out of that and cool, and what people are looking for, particularly take this expressed demand, but remember that there's a whole bunch of people out there." Maybe the pendulum doesn't actually stay way over there. Where does it not stay and where does it stay? And a lot of times it's like, "Okay, it looks like something in the middle between what I described earlier, which was traditional one off and buy. It expresses, it illustrates the width of how consumer demand is actually presenting it. But that's the illustration of what consumer demand actually looks like in the marketplace. It turns out things are not black and white, right?

And that's really what these innovations just show us, is that like, "Okay, this is cool but there's also some area to improve." And often that area to improve is hard, right?

Sara:

That's awesome. Man, yeah. I didn't even think about that! The whole experiences piece tied with Airbnb...That makes so much sense.

Johannes:

That's it exactly.

Sara:

And, yeah, so it's a lot of the same playbook here. Really cool. So next question I have for you, I'm curious, you're starting to build out your team. You've obviously been a leader of teams before. How would you describe your philosophy around culture? If there was one word that described it or maybe a few, I'm curious - you discuss the key in understanding around the customer, but how do you articulate that and how you want your team to be?

Johannes:

That's so funny. So startups are wild, right? Because your go-to market is crazy,  pretty much in anything. And it could be very hectic. So one of the things, and I think it's actually maybe like a military reference, but this idea of "slow is smooth and smooth is fast". And so we've all heard this and this surf coach guy I know is super into it. But I think what we're really focused on culturally and then the assemblage of the team that we put together is this idea of one tenacity, right?

Johannes:

So, I mentioned that earlier a lot of times the reality of the actual more macro scalable solution is somewhere between these pure-platform -"change everything"-plays and how it was being done. And in the case of Airbnb I often use the example... I think Co-working and WeWork was a good example of this too, right? Which is -ultimately you can only cut a square foot up in so many ways. Before you just need another square foot, right? Ultimately, you still need a square foot to cut, right? The hard stuff often, actually it builds the square foot. And so that's where the center between these one side being like, "Okay, we're just building square feet and we're not really thinking about distribution. And the other being, "We're only thinking about distribution."

Sara:

Right.

Johannes:

So doing the hard stuff requires tenacity. From capitalization strategy through execution, are there easier businesses that we could take on and still address this? Yeah, probably. But we would only be kind of addressing this and that I think is missing the opportunity. And so tenaciousness around appreciating that you're not by design as an intentional effort you aren't doing the easy thing, and then really ingraining that in your culture. Don't just do what's easiest. Do what's right.

Sara:

And what's right is often hard!

Johannes:

Right. Exactly. And that is one of the most difficult lines to tow because in go-to market it's all about like MVP, ship it, get it out the door, which you want to embrace. Because until you're in market... Another one of my favorite lines is, "Smart is not a deliverable." It doesn't matter. Unless you're sending, it doesn't matter. You can sit and think about this forever. And that's exactly what most people do, right? That's how businesses sit on a piece of paper versus becoming a real business in the marketplace.

Johannes:

This line between tenaciousness, go to market, get after it. And then at the same time appreciating extreme intentionality. That's the slow downside, right? That slow is smooth, which is like, "Hey, slow down. Let's not be having to redo this entire thing in a year."

Sara:

Let's roll up our sleeves and build it right, right now.

Johannes:

Right. Yeah. And that requires a lot of commitment from both your execution team, your crew, and to your capitalization structure and your investors. Where it's like, "Okay, do we have enough marketplace proof to appreciate that the fastest version of go-to market versus the slowest version?" It's like, "Okay, we don't want to be too close to either. Because if we are, then we're going to cut a lot of corners on intentionality (this happens a lot in the premium product categories). There's a reason Tommy Hilfiger ends up at Ross. 

That's a space where very intentionally we have to go further back and go, "Where is the most market demand? And specifically what customers are we trying to hit?" Because there's people addressing middle market. And it's like, "No, we see the most of demand right here." And so we have to protect our product, and so we have to deploy maybe a slightly higher degree of intentionality early to make sure that we hit that customer - where we see the largest product demand - because we could cut and jam. And it's like, "Is that going to get us the outcome?" 

And so then the trick is always just that balance of go to market, move fast, get it out the door, start creating feedback because you really don't know anything until you're creating a feedback loop.

Sara:

Yeah. It is. It's really that perfect balance of "both, and". Tethering the fast and tethering the smooth, right?

Johannes:

Yeah. If I were to distill it all, I would probably say tenaciousness and intentionality. And the mix up of that is our team is pretty eclectic because we're pulling from, what I would define as, high brand hospitality. Like LOGE. Very, very consumer-centric brand plays that we're ahead of their time to a degree. And then at the same time interplaying that with tech and it's dynamic, and also the business is a heavy operation. And so you have this odd spectrum. But, yeah, I would say those are the words that come to mind, would be tenacious and intentionality.

Sara:

I love those and it totally makes sense. And so I'm curious too, Johannes, just like you said, this business in particular, all startups are hard work but you really got to roll up your sleeves with this - have that tenacity and intentionality. So for you in your personal journey with this, what keeps you going perhaps when others who would be faced with the same challenge might just call it quits at one point when it gets hard? What really keeps you going? Keeps the fire lit?

Johannes:

I mean, that's a great question and it's challenging for me not even in this instance, but generally, which a lot of folks on my team could attest to. To not go too wildly philosophical. But basically when I think about this thing and why, a lot of it I think for me revolves around a lot of our large or societal conversation around privilege and access. And what I effectively mean by that is there are extreme inequalities in our country, in our global marketplace, etcetera.

Johannes:

If you have basically privilege beyond things that you have any control over, right? And this is statistically - so if you are, for instance, in capital access or your sex, your height, your color, all those things which I completely acknowledge that those are not things I did to have access to that privilege. And this I would say a lesson from my mom. But if you are privileged in that way to have those things that you didn't do anything to achieve, if you don't do something with that - to go and try and create a disproportionate amount of return to society - then you really should be thinking about how much of your part you're doing.

Johannes:

There's a lot of risk association with that obviously. But I just feel like the reality of, I often call it, what's your worst case scenario? And if your worst case scenario is something that a lot of people would probably feel pretty fortunate to have, then you probably have a certain degree of obligation to do what you can to contribute as much as possible and create as much opportunity for others as you can and specifically where you can to groups that might not be as privileged in ways that in no way are reflective of their drive or their capabilities as people.

Sara:

Right. That's some sage wisdom and perspective right there. Thank you. It's so true. Having the perspective of - we have a lot to be grateful for and to give back. Okay. So in closing here, one final question for you. So right now what do you need more of? How can any listeners get involved or help?

Johannes:

Great question. Let's see. So we're rolling out. So it's mid-November right now. We're going to be launching the brand out in December, and that's coming along really well, which we're super excited about.

Sara:

I can't wait to see that! It'll be awesome.

Johannes:

We're really excited. It's coming along well. And I think that the biggest thing as far as what we're really going to be looking for support around is really, once we launch... It's an interesting product launch. It's very regionally specific right now. If you're in the greater Puget Sound and you think it's interesting, follow @routelineco on Instagram. And then the bigger thing I think is this is - sometimes it's nice to be first to market. Other times it's nice to be second. In a lot of ways, most of what we're doing is a second market play. But when earlier I talked about like the theoretical addressable market versus the current addressable market, our hunch is if we create more avenues of access, the theoretical addressable market is larger. However, the customer education that's required to address that market is high, right? Higher than your existing marketplace.

Johannes:

As Freedom Boat Club has shown us, one of their most significant funnels is actually previous boat owners. Those previous boat owners get it the most. They're like, "That's a deal." Versus if you've never owned a boat, you're like, "Is that a deal?" Because I don't know. And so a big part of what we're going to be looking for help on is really just going, "Okay, folks that might not have previously pictured themselves as interested in this class but have probably seen somebody with maybe a cool sprinter van or a really neat camper or something at some point." and gone like, "that could be cool." Those are the folks that we're trying to get to.

Johannes:

And so, in short share what we're up to! If you're listening to this or something along those lines, you would now have a much more in-depth version of what we're up to than is easily deliverable via an Instagram post. So what that means is, think about who you know that might be interested in this because it's a unique business in that success in this business doesn't require... It's a little bit more of almost like a micro play. It's actually not an insane amount of people. This isn't a pure success in the months of December and January. It's a shockingly small amount of people that we truly need to start and prove this out and make it work. And for the right people, I think the value is going to be drastic. And so then it's a matter like many things of just lining up to that right customer and finding those pockets, right? And they'll come in pockets.

Sara:

Yeah. What's the best way for them to get in touch? Go sign up for the wait list?

Johannes:

Yeah. So our website's going to launch in December, so that's not up yet. And so right now it's go follow our whole page on Instagram and then very quickly it'll be waitlists. And just like that we'll be growing our waitlist out and get in touch.

And then if you have unique insights on what we're doing, there are a lot of dynamics. The other thing, and I'm glad you mentioned that, that would be helpful just beyond belief is distribution of our search. 

We're quickly growing our team. And I think that's probably the most impactful thing to the business today, is helping us find the right team that's a tough marketplace for anybody, as it relates to team and company side. It's just an interesting labor marketplace as we all know. 

And so I think that would be the other one, is, yeah, distribution and telling your friends about what we're up to, if you think it could be a fit for them, great Christmas presents! Think along those lines.

Sara:

Oh! Yes, good idea.

Johannes:

This is an experienced economy, right? Ownership especially in depreciating assets and things like that, it just doesn't make sense. That's not how we're consuming anymore. And so give experiences and this is an experience you can give. And so there's that. 

And then team, team, team, team, team. Go follow me on LinkedIn and go follow Route Line on LinkedIn. And we're actively hiring for various roles from a technology platform to inventory distribution. When the little thing pops up on Expedia, the price and having it pop up on Expedia, that's an incredibly important role to us. And so we're hiring for that. Those are probably the big buckets.

Sara:

Awesome. Well, everyone go share! Go blow up Johannes' inbox! And, yeah, I'm excited to be a personal user and can't wait for you to launch. So thank you for being here and sharing that story and your perspective.

Johannes:

Of course!

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Sara:

Go give @routelineco a follow on Instagram. And if you or a friend have interest in an RV experience, be sure to join the wait list once the product is live. If you're interested in Route Line jobs, go follow Johannes on LinkedIn or feel free to reach out to us directly here at FUSE. And we'll get you in touch. Thanks for listening and see you on the next one!