June 23, 2022

7 Things Sara Fleetwood Learned From Van Life That Helped Her Co-Found Alpha Lotos

Photo of a red van driving across a green landscape with a sunny blue sky

Alpha Lotos is a venture part of entrepreneurship@UBC's Venture Founder Lab2Launch program as well as the Climate and Social Venture Studios.

In 2017, Sara Fleetwood, founder of Alpha Lotos, was working in product development for an outdoor gear company. 

It had been her dream job, but, environmentally, producing and selling more products meant that more things were going to end up in a landfill. So, she wanted to shift her focus towards biobased materials. 

Before pursuing biobased materials, Sara left the job in order to pursue a different sort of dream: Building out a Ford Transit van so she and her partner, Philip Schuchardt — who is also her Alpha Lotos cofounder — could tour the United States, visiting family and friends while working remotely.


From Corporate Life to Van Life

It took them six months, with Sara working more than full-time, about 60 hours a week, to renovate the van, a Ford Transit, and prepare it for their adventure. They rented a beach house in Higgins Beach, Maine, and spent four months there, tinkering on the van while also surfing in the ocean most days. They put their surfboards in the river and floated down to the ocean to surf. When they were finished, Philip’s beard would often have frozen pieces of ocean water clinging to it.

“But it’s like with all these endeavours,” Sara says. “It’s just a trade-off between the enjoyment you get and the other things that make it a challenge.”

While she was converting the van, Sara noticed a gap in the marketplace she now found herself in. There were tons of Pinterest boards and YouTube videos scattered across the internet that taught people the ins and outs of converting a van, but Sara thought she could build a site based on her experience that would gather all of the information in one place. 

So, she founded her first business venture, Meandering Explorers, an affiliate marketing site that provides in-depth tutorials and resources for folks who want to do what she and Philip did. “We have a list of all the materials, time and cost,” Sara says. “We go into the detail. I wanted it to be better and help others. I personally get a lot of enjoyment out of teaching and helping people as well. Maintaining and updating the website with new ideas became her occupation once the van conversion was complete, and she would continue to work on it while they toured the country.

After they left Maine, they headed to southwest Virginia, where they had a lot of friends and family and where Sara had completed her bachelors at Virginia Tech. Moving the van to a new location was an ordeal, since everything needed to be cleaned and stowed for when the van was in motion so that things wouldn’t fly around the space during transport. They also didn’t have a heater during those two years, and occasionally it would get down to -12C at night.

But the trade-off made sense for Sara and Philip: they were able to visit family and spend quality time with people they otherwise wouldn’t have had time to see, cooking meals together or working on projects. They also got to map caves, hike, and surf in a variety of stunning locations: the Tetons in Wyoming, trailheads in Colorado, and beaches in California.

Part of what drove Sara to pursue life in the van was that she hoped to see a lot of new places and develop ideas about where she might like to live in the future. Having grown up on the east coast of the U.S., she focused on states from Colorado westward, and they hit almost every one. 

“I love new experiences,” Sara says. “It was the lifestyle that was my favourite; in the evenings, we were right at a trail head or at the ocean to surf. There was no commute.”

As busy as she has been, touring in the van, running several ventures, and now working on Alpha Lotos, Sara is adept at staying focused on the here and now. In part this is helped along by accessing a community of other founders who are facing challenges, too:


“My favourite thing about entrepreneurship@UBC,” she says, “is the entrepreneurship community it has created, both within and beyond UBC. Creating a sense of community is incredibly challenging, but one of the richest forms of value added within a society.”


Woman in a blue jacket sitting in a red van

From Van Life to Venture Builder 

Her work had taught her that she needed to make a positive impact in the world. The outdoor gear company was fun to work at, but didn’t satisfy her desire in reducing the environmental impact of products being developed on the planet. The website was satisfying, but its impact wasn’t nearly big enough.

She sensed a need to find a happy medium between the two, and, as she began her PhD studies, first in Blacksburg, Va., and now continuing at UBC, she and Philip founded Alpha Lotos with Sara’s professor Johan Foster. Alpha Lotos is creating a plant-based water repellent spray for outdoor gear. (Tagline: “You no longer have to compromise between performance and the environment.”)

They entered entrepreneurship@UBC’s Venture Founder Lab2Launch program in March 2022, bringing the community a wealth of experience gleaned from many years of traveling, experimenting, and doing. As part of entrepreneurship@UBC, the venture is part of our Climate and Social Venture Studios for ventures solving pressing climate and social impact issues, receiving curated support and community to further their venture opportunity. 

Based on Sara’s many areas of interest and expertise, she has seven key pieces of advice from the different endeavours she’s undertaken so far:

1. Do what matters.

“If you’re truly passionate about something, you’ll make it happen. Maybe not every venture will turn into a successful business, but you can also teach yourself a bunch of new things really fast and do quite well at it.”

2. Listen to your inner voice, especially when facing external pressure.

Sara faced considerable pressure from her parents and society at large about the wisdom of taking off in the van, but she knew it was the next right step for her, and she listened to that intuitive nudge. “The website was the same. I liked helping people, but I didn’t feel like it was giving back as much as I wanted it to.” Her desire to have a strong and lasting impact is part of the reason she founded Alpha Lotos.

3. Enjoy the process.

When Sara and Philip map caves, using software from Philip’s side business, CaveWhere, they sometimes find an area with a lot of dead-end holes that lead nowhere. But they have to keep popping down each hole in order to uncover a new and as-yet-unmapped cave. “Like in business, you have to enjoy the whole process, not just the moment of finding a cave. If you don’t enjoy the process of building the company, it’s going to be a pretty miserable life for you.” 

4. Be aware of the tradeoff between growth and impact.

Sara sees other entrepreneurs who want to maintain tight control of the business vision, which may mean not growing as fast or as large as it might. “I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I want to make sure it still has the type of vision and impact that I hope. But then the tradeoff to that is maybe it has less reach in the world.”

5. Divvy up labor amongst the team so decisions can be made independently.

“One thing we’ve learned from the van and building Alpha Lotus, dividing and conquering is super important. We had our tasks. Philip worked on solar, I worked on cabinetry. When we had problems and needed to move forward faster, like which of these two types of knobs do you like? It can accelerate things. You just need someone to help make the decision, but you maintain independence."

6. If you’re in the ideation phase, follow your passion.

The hedgehog exercise (from e@UBC’s Venture Founder training, adapted from Good to Great by Jim Collins) would be super useful for people to think about. What are your personal passions, strengths, the lifestyle you want in the future? Thinking through all those details as well as thinking critically about your team is important, because if those things don’t align, you’ll have trouble.”

7. Choice is not always the answer.

Once you start a company or once you have all this money, it doesn’t solve the question of what you want to do with your life. And having all that money, not only does it not solve problems, in fact it can make them worse. Philip sometimes says choices make people unhappy.”


What's up next?

Man in a red jacket with a green waterproof tarp around his legs

Aside from continuing to build Alpha Lotos and working on her PhD, she and Philip are working on his family farm in Nebraska. She’d like to take the van to South America for a tour, and she plans to settle her company on either Vancouver Island or near Banff.

Thank you Sara for sharing your journey with us!

Curious to learn more about Alpha Lotos? Visit their website. 



photo of a woman smiling with brown hair and silver earings

Guest Author

This piece was authored by Entrepreneur in Residence and Social Venture Studio Lead, Angela Hamilton, as part of our Venture Studio Newsletter. Do you want access to more content? Subscribe now.

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