Business as Unusual
By Lisa Readie Mayer
If there were a best-practices manual for launching a new company, we’re pretty sure it would not recommend that upper management uproot, unplug and move away from civilization. But that’s exactly what Jonathan Miller did about one year after he and business partner Andy Kauffman started Breeo Industries.
The company manufactures wood-burning fire pits with an innovative, patented design that creates a secondary burn to dramatically reduce smoke. The products are handmade in the Amish and Plain communities of Holmes County, Ohio, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
|Janessa and Jonathan Miller.|
Breeo’s original model, the freestanding Ablaze fire pit, won Vesta Awards in the category of Outdoor Hearth Products, as well as Best-in-Show – Outdoor Room Products at the 2014 HPBExpo. The company has since added three other wood-burning fire pits: the Zentro, for building into masonry surrounds; the Double Flame, a small, portable, camping unit; and the Luxeve, with a modern look and glass medium for high-end outdoor living spaces.
Jonathan Miller, Breeo’s vice president Sales & Marketing, and his wife Janessa, gave up their apartment and sold most of their worldly possessions before embarking on a free-spirited road trip they originally dubbed the “Rethinking Fire Tour,” now called “Unbound Nomads.”
The Miller’s goals in undertaking this business and lifestyle experiment were threefold: to build a dealer base for Breeo products through personal visits, training and relationship-building; to connect with the campfire market to drive consumer demand for their products; and to fulfill a personal desire to travel and live simply, off-the-grid.
“We thought we would enjoy the lifestyle and it would benefit the company, as well,” says Jonathan.
Since the pair began their journey directly from the 2015 HPBExpo in Nashville, their home and office has been a used, 17-ft. Casita trailer with less than 100 sq. ft. of living space. The Casita houses a bathroom, shower, propane stove, refrigerator, sink, miniature wood stove, table and chairs, a bed, and the couples’ few essential possessions. Their lights, laptops and appliances are powered by a solar panel on the Casita’s roof.
From Nashville, they initially headed up the east coast to New England, and then traveled state-by-state west until they arrived in Oregon; they followed the coast down to California before crisscrossing the country again.
Between dealer visits, trade shows, home shows, business meetings and conference calls, they backpack, hike, camp and canoe, exploring lakes, rivers, mountaintops, deserts, forests, and other natural wonders. Most of the time, their only neighbors are jackrabbits, prairie dogs, antelope and elk.
But while Jonathan and Janessa may be unbound, they are not entirely unplugged. The Millers utilize a “hot spot” and cell phone reception booster with a homemade, jerry-rigged cell phone tower to secure an Internet connection and 4-G cell service almost anywhere they happen to be.
That allows them to communicate by email and phone with company headquarters, dealers, and family members, and allows Janessa to handle social media for Breeo Industries and the Unbound Nomads Tour, and to take online college classes while she works remotely toward her degree.
Janessa regularly blogs on the Unbound Nomads website, and posts photos of their idyllic camping spots, outdoor adventures, and campfire-cooked meals (most are cooked over a Breeo Double Flame fire pit or on a Big Green Egg MiniMax) to the delight of their growing number of Instagram and Facebook followers.
Jonathan reasoned that this nomadic journey would provide greater opportunity to visit prospective dealers, and cement relationships with existing ones. He also believed blogging about their way of life would demonstrate first-hand the benefits of a campfire lifestyle to potential consumer customers.
His unconventional – some might even say, crazy – strategy has worked. Since the tour began, Breeo Industries has grown its dealer base to 200 dealers and increased sales by 1,200 percent annually.
“There’s no chance our company would have experienced the same success had we gone about things the traditional way and not embarked on the tour,” says Jonathan. “Most of our dealers were set up by us physically visiting them, and we would not have experienced this kind of growth without those meetings. To actually visit a potential dealer at their location really helps to establish a connection.
“Now it’s a lot of fun because, when we are on the road, we are mostly visiting existing dealers, who are now our friends. The hearth and patio dealers are wonderful people, and the reception that we get is always warm. It has been extremely rewarding to watch dealers go from initial display orders, to becoming truly successful with our products.”
Of course, there have been a few hiccups along the way. An accident, in which the Casita flipped while driving downhill in Pennsylvania, took the Millers off the road for nearly a month while they repaired their badly damaged mobile home. The Subaru vehicle they used to pull their trailer died in Wyoming, and only a month later, the Jeep Grand Cherokee purchased to replace the Subaru, blew its radiator and led to an unexpected detour to a California mechanic’s parking lot where the couple slept in the Casita while waiting on the repair.
Spending time in that pueblo town inhabited by mostly Spanish speakers (including the mechanic!), turned out to have a silver lining, especially for Janessa, who put to good use the Spanish she learned while growing up in a missionary family in Spain.
“The whole thing turned into such a perfect reminder that life is about adjusting to what comes at you, making the most of it, and learning to be grateful for everything, good and bad,” she says. Counted among the good things, according to the Millers, is the positive effect the off-the-grid, Unbound Nomads tour has had on their business.
“It creates awareness, excitement and interest around our brand,” according to Jonathan. “People like to see companies take a vested interest in the lifestyle that surrounds their products, and that is what we try to do at Breeo.”
While the couple admits they sometimes miss seeing friends and family, as well as the consistency of their old apartment life, they are still happily committed to continuing life as Unbound Nomads.