8 July 2023

Teenager embarks on new adventure after finding gap in the van life market

| Kellie O'Brien
Join the conversation
Max Shelley standing next to a van by the water

Max Shelley has left Year 11 to start his own business, Shorebreak Builds, fitting out vans. Photos: Harry Middleton.

A growing trend to live out of a van while travelling Australia has prompted Jerrara teenager Max Shelley to leave school and start his own business.

The idea to fit out vans as mobile homes came to Max last year, and led him to discover Kiama business South Coast Van Fitouts on Instagram.

Through his school, he organised work experience with the business one day a week for six months in 2022.

However, this year he decided to leave Year 11 when South Coast Van Fitouts offered him four days a week work, one day to study a course, and the chance to start his own business, Shorebreak Builds.

Max invested in his first van and started fitting it out, learning from his two bosses along the way.

“They helped me through a lot of it, showing me what to get and what not to get and all the right things to do to make sure it was a quality product,” he said.

Max said while he loved working for the Kiama business, he could see an opportunity to grow his own venture on the side.

“So it’s just turned into its own little thing,” he said.

READ ALSO Freezing out fears and creating conversations – Illawarra embraces ice baths to help improve mental health

South Coast Van Fitouts, which does bespoke vans, buses and camper conversions, was born during COVID lockdowns, sharing a few beers while working on a mate’s van in the front yard of a house in Kiama Downs.

“They started fitting out vans for their mates and people would walk past their front lawn and see them fitting out and say ‘Oh, can you do that to my van?’” Max said.

“It was in that perfect time when, because people couldn’t spend money to go overseas, everyone was saying ‘Why not stay in the country and build a van’.

“So it just took off super quickly and grew really fast.”

Max said demand hadn’t let up since COVID due to the appeal of fitted-out vans over often more expensive caravan options.

“Ever since COVID, especially on social media, it’s become almost a trend and a lifestyle to live in a van and travel around Australia or overseas,” he said.

“And it’s everyone – even just weekenders.

“People nowadays will buy a van and drive it during the week to work but then on the weekends go for a quick adventure down south or up north and just explore.

“So it just hasn’t backed off since COVID.”

Max didn’t see his Shorebreak Builds business as a direct competitor as he is focused on the smaller van projects that South Coast Van Fitouts was unable to take on.

“I want to just keep doing smaller, more affordable fit-outs compared to what the boys do, which is just out of this world,” he said.

“My goal is to keep doing vans for the young couples, or even older couples looking for a more affordable option but still a quality product, just to be able to give them that option.”

READ ALSO Wollongong mates offer $10,000 scholarship for startups to follow in their successful footsteps

Max said his bosses had been fully supportive of his business venture.

“They know that there’s such a high demand at the moment that I’m not taking away from their customers or taking away from their market,” he said.

“They’ve been the biggest mentors for me, teaching me how to do everything, so I definitely don’t want to become a competitor.

“I’m actually working for them currently and I want to keep working for them but I’m also doing my own thing on the side and creating the same product but for a different market.”

Max said they had taught him how to take an empty shell of a van and put down plywood subfloor and vinyl flooring, install sound detonating and insulation products, do painting, install water and basic electrical, and build cabinetry.

“They taught me everything from how to scrub into the walls, how to do cabinetry, and use different tools,” he said.

“In the last one I did we’ve got 50 litres of fresh water and an outdoor shower and a sink.

“So you’ve got everything in there to make it pretty much just a normal home on wheels.”

Max has also been supported by his family, especially his father, who’s already had success in business himself.

“He has a really good knowledge of running businesses and what to know and where to start,” he said. “I guess he was definitely one of the biggest inspirations for getting into it and a good supporter.”

Max standing next to a van by the water

Max Shelley has committed to continuing his education while working and building the business.

Max said despite leaving Year 11 he was committed to continuing his education in some form, and he plans to complete a Certificate IV in Business.

“I spoke to dad about it and one of the biggest things with leaving school is that I don’t want to leave school and just start working constantly,” he said.

“I want to still be able to learn things and especially now while I don’t really have many responsibilities.

“I’ve set a goal for the next two years that I’m going to be busy on a Friday doing some kind of course or education.”

He’s set goals for the business, too.

“Ideally, it would be awesome just to be able to build vans forever and sell them for enough to go travelling every weekend myself.”

Learn more about Shorebreak Builds on Instagram.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Daily Digest

Want the best Illawarra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Illawarra stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.