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Johanna Elsner, co-owner of tiny home manufacturing firm Perch & Nest, joins the Independent Thinking Podcast to talk about what it took to bring Nationwide Marketing Group’s Tiny Smart Home to life.

Rob Stott: The last PrimeTime in New Orleans was incredibly exciting to see, and this was before I joined the Nationwide Marketing Group team, running the run-up to that show in New Orleans. There was a lot of press around this tiny home and got to New Orleans and was blown away by the experience. Right now, I’m more than excited to talk with and talk about the tiny home, with someone who was really a big part of the reason why this home exists. And Johanna Elsner from Perch and Nest, the company that worked with Nationwide to make this tiny home become a reality. First of all, appreciate you taking the time to call in and chat with us today.

Johanna Elsner: Oh, thanks for calling us up.

Rob Stott: No problem at all. Like I said, this tiny home has been almost a dream for me. We were talking about before getting on the call, how I’ve offered my services to just live in this home since it’s been around. But, lots to dive into with this, but co-owner of Perch and Nest with your husband Tom. And as you put it, the do everything but carpentry for Perch and Nest.

Johanna Elsner: Yup. That’s me.

Rob Stott: Tell us a little bit about your company and how you got to where you are today.

Johanna Elsner: Well you said it was a dream come true for you. This was really a dream come true for us. A dream we didn’t really know we were looking for. But my husband apprenticed with his grandfather, who was a master carpenter, almost 20 years ago. And just the nature of that work and the world that we live in, that took him into building furniture and just traditional large housing, lots of built-ins and custom carpentry and that kind of thing. And I was in the world of accounting for a long time, post going to culinary school. We have a very eclectic background, but we had always dabbled in home design. It’s something that we’ve always liked. We were always flipping our own houses and moving and we’ve always been do-it-yourselfers, but we purchased a 125-year-old farmhouse about five years ago.

And after we moved into our farmhouse, some friends came to our house and said, we want you to help us build a tiny house. And we said, what’s a tiny house? A light bulb went off, for lack of a better explanation. We had gotten involved in all of these really large home projects for a long time and we loved our work and there was always initial excitement about every project. But, it seemed that by the end of every project it felt daunting. We were having this feeling of always wanting it to just be over with and that idea, just building tiny, just seemed to make sense. Everybody talks about minimizing their carbon footprint or minimizing their debt or all the benefits and obvious things we know that tiny house living has brought to a lot of people. That was brought to our business.

We realized we could work from home at this farm that we had just purchased and spend more time with our children. That we could work in home design that we loved so much, but not in this overwhelming venue that we just weren’t finding our niche in. And then, ultimately, we found out once we started designing tiny houses and getting involved in the tiny house community that we had found our people. It is still a very diverse environment, but just lots of people with great backgrounds and great stories. And just wanting to do things outside the box, whether it’s for their life or their business or their children, or whatever they’re pursuing and in quote-unquote, going tiny. That’s how we ended up where we are. And now five years later, we built almost 30. And none of them have been the same. I don’t think we’d ever want it that way. And they all bring their own challenges, but it’s a great place to be and especially this time of year, we’re very thankful.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no. That’s so cool. Logistically speaking, was it Perch and Nest came first, or was it the tiny home that came first? And then you guys worked your way into the tiny home niche, what was the chicken and egg situation here?

Johanna Elsner: Of course, we have to use the chicken and egg analogy. Those friends of ours, that I mentioned that came to us, they are now probably, they are the world’s most traveled tiny house. They’re pretty well known tiny house expedition, they’re big bloggers and tiny house enthusiasts, helping people all over the US and Canada develop community.  It’s that kind of thing. And so it took us about a year, it was a community project building their tiny house. We got a lot of people involved, including Habitat for Humanity. And by the end of that first year, we had commissioned building tiny houses for a couple of folks that we’d met through that project.

But, at the end of that year, I said, maybe we should have a tiny house company. And that’s how Perch and Nest was spawned out of that need to refine our carpentry company into tiny houses, specifically. But also, the fact that we live on a 125-year-old farm and we had just gotten our first chicken. And I love a theme, if you ever go to our website, you’ll see we have taken off with the bird and farm theme.

Rob Stott: Yeah. That’s cool. No, excellent website, which could be a whole other podcast. When you guys took this project for your friends, did you understand at the time just how big the tiny home crazes…  how big it was?

Johanna Elsner: Oh, certainly not at the time, but quickly thereafter. Five years has made a huge difference in the tiny house community. There’s a lot of people, builders and communities and things popping up every day. But, I would even gamble to say there was probably less than two dozen tiny house companies, five years ago in the country. And if somebody knew that you were willing to build tiny houses, you are getting a lot of contact pretty quickly. And truth be told, the first few years were very busy and we just had to find our way and figure out what we wanted to do and what we didn’t want to do. And again, we’re very thankful for all the attention and we’re happy that people are finding the solution for their housing or their business and everything in between.

Rob Stott: Certainly. I could think, just in my own experience, having been exposed to tiny homes prior to Nationwide. I think of seeing shows on HGTV and these a hundred square foot homes. It seems like I, maybe being one, I was just more attuned to it. Not that I’m a tiny homeowner in any sort of way, but seeing the people that were featured on those shows, a lot of them millennials, I think is something that may not surprise a lot of people. What do you think it is though? Is it a generational thing? Why has this industry or this space, this niche really, exploded as much as it has over the last few years?

Johanna Elsner: Well, I think it started with exactly what you described, it is millennials. And the great thing about that is they’re seeing that they want to have experiences rather than stuff. And that’s the thought behind having a smaller home. There’s a lot of people that are concerned with their carbon footprint. I think that’s how it started. But, I think that it’s so much more now. I can tell you, we don’t see any one demographic, we’re seeing just as many millennials as we’re seeing retired folks that are downsizing. We’re seeing people that are just starting to have their first children and they’re saying, look, I know I’m going to be at home. I don’t want the big house to care of, or we want to live debt-free. I think it’s everything that we can all guess, the benefits to just living smaller. I’m not paying for a large house. I’m not taking care of a large house.

But there’s also the versatility and that’s where the wheel piece comes in. You and I can both probably speak to this. We don’t know where our careers are going to take us, we want the flexibility. We have a lot of sandwich generation people, now that people are living longer. I just talked to someone this morning who has a parent who needs full-time caregiving, but everybody still needs their own space. The parent is going into a tiny house in the backyard. But we’ve also built a tiny house for a child who was living in her parents’ backyard. And I think it resolves a lot of the issues that we’ve created, putting distance between family members.

And then, we’ve talked a lot about this with our own son, he’s two years away from graduating high school. He will most likely go to college and we will most likely have to pay for housing at said college. We’ve talked about, well, what if you just took a tiny house? You’re now at college, you own a home when you finish college or don’t finish college, you can take that home with you. If you get a job across the country, you can take that home with you. It’s a really cool thing. We all know that we’re all spending a lot of money on housing and there’s a housing shortage too. Like I said, it’s solving a lot of problems for a lot of people. And I think the more popular it becomes, the more variety we’re seeing in the demographic of folks that are wanting to go tiny.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. Along the lines of what you’re talking about, being able to pick that home up and move it. From someone who may not be familiar with the space or how it works, obviously there’s a variety in the type of tiny home and whatnot. Even backing up a step, and looking at the logistics of moving a house. I think the closest thing that this relates to is you think of a trailer and people driving around, moving around sort of like camp yards and stuff. That’s not necessarily how this tiny home community works. What’s the logistics of having this tiny home and aside from having 125 acres, or a big backyard where you could put something like this in? What’s the logistics for someone that is a tiny homeowner and just being able to pick up and move?

Johanna Elsner: It’s obviously going to depend on their specific tiny home. There are lots of tiny flavors and there are lots of wheel tiny flavors. What we do specifically, and it’s very common, is we build a tiny house RV. And what that means is, on paper, it’s an RV. It meets DOT requirements and all those types of things and it meets the footprint of an RV. Even though it’s built like a home and it’s built to last like a home, which you’re putting your money in as longevity, just like a foundation house. But the convenience of the RV and the fact that it meets all of those codes and fits in that footprint means that it can be in someone’s driveway if it needs to be. It can be in an RV park. It could be at a national park.

You might not have 125 acres, but you most certainly probably have a parking spot that you can access easily. Most people in tiny homes, truth be told, are not traveling often. What they want is the versatility. Most of them are sitting for years at a time and when they need to go, they’re hiring a professional mover and they’re meeting them at their destination. But even if they were traveling full time, or moving it themselves, just like traditional campers and RVs, if you have to spend an overnight in a Walmart parking lot, it’s absolutely possible. But that’s not, to get to your point, that’s not what most people living in tiny houses are looking for.

They’re really wanting something more than a traditional mobile home. And that’s another, I think, advantage to it. It’s a lot more, having very nice materials and high-end appliances like we’ve done for Nationwide, is more tangible in a smaller footprint. If you want marble countertops, it’s a little bit easier to achieve when your home is only 300 square feet. And that’s honestly, that’s a lot of what we design around, people that really want a nice home with high-end finishes, but they don’t want the footprint of a large house. And they don’t want the commitment of owning traditional real estate.

Rob Stott: Right. Well, how about getting the mail? You think about something as simple as that. Because you’re not on a street necessarily, you could be in a parking lot. What’s the challenge from that perspective as far as just getting something like mail delivered? Is that something that these guys have to think about?

Johanna Elsner: That’s an excellent question. It is something to think about but not something people talk about very often. But having an address is important. And it’s really just going to depend on your parking situation. If you asked me, where are most people parked? I would say most people are on private property, meaning there’s usually another house on the property and that’s the address that they’re using. But of course, if you were in an RV park or these tiny house communities. I failed to mention that. And those are popping up all over the country. We have two here in North Carolina and all these places have PO boxes. And that’s the advantage to living in one of the full-time communities. They have things like a clubhouse and PO boxes and pools and frisbee golf courses and all those fun things. There’s a community element too for people that are living tiny.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. Clearly, I think this gets at my next question and maybe negates it may possibly. But, it seems like it’s more than just a fad at this point, it’s really catching on. This is something, I think, maybe biased asking you because you have a business in this space. Do you feel like this is a niche that will continue to grow and last for years and years to come?

Johanna Elsner: I do. From a business perspective, I’m not naive. I worked in public accounting and corporate accounting for 15 years before doing this. I’d like to think that I’m a forward thinker in terms of business. And we’re always thinking about, well, what if this doesn’t work out? But I think what we’re going to see is more and more builders pop up and more and more just tiny resources. And we’re seeing that all the time. Websites for materials and professional workshops, if you want to build some of it yourself and all this kind of stuff. But no, I think that we are finding out that this is a stable housing option and it’s where we’re going.

To start with the millennials, millennials don’t want stuff. You see articles pop up about that every single day. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a great thing. But, we’re also seeing the people on the other end of the spectrum that are downsizing and everyone in between. And of course, we could get into all the bits and pieces of where our economy’s headed. I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s now becoming a choice for a lot of people. Just as much as whether or not you want to live in 6000 square feet or 300 square feet in New York city for a lot of money.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Turning our attention now to Nationwide and the project that you guys have that came about recently over the past… Well, debuted back in August, but certainly, probably more than a year ago at this point. But, the Nationwide tiny home. Tell me how this project came about for you guys.

Johanna Elsner: Derek lives in town, in the same city that we do. And naturally, he reached out to us and we had a few emails back and forth. I was really excited to hear from him. Being in a tiny house business, you’re always thinking outside the box. Whether or not it’s in terms of what the intentions of the user are, or what we need to include in the house, or just using traditional building materials in a different way. But, I was excited that he was explaining to us that, look, we set up these big events a couple of times a year. Which, involves setting up entire kitchens for so many days and then tearing them down. And to build a tiny house would, instead of going to these events and setting up, they would just show up.

And I was like, oh my goodness, that is so smart. Everybody that contacts us has some new great idea. But I thought to myself at the time, what a great business solution, because over time, obviously it’s going to pay for itself. But they just saved themselves so much time and money by just showing up with their display anywhere they need to go. To answer your question, Derek and I had a few back and forth conversations. As soon as we spoke, we absolutely hit it off and I was really excited about the project. I think we got it underway within 30 days, we were able to get everything committed to and get started.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. To his point, and you touched on it perfectly, as well. You think about this from the trade show side of things and Nationwide putting on two PrimeTimes a year and the connected home division at Nationwide is relatively new. And you think about the experience they try to create at a trade show and booths that get set up and torn down every show. The tiny home essentially is a booth for Nationwide and something that you’re able to walk through and see exist as it’s meant to. Not necessarily in a trade show booth setting, but it still has that same impact and gets people to realize the possibilities in a completely different way. Apropos of the tiny home space in general.

Johanna Elsner: Right, exactly.

Rob Stott: When you look at this project, obviously the size of the home is something that stands out to people and is noteworthy. I know something that Derek and his team were very excited about with this, was the technology within the home. The automation aspect of everything, from the appliances to the entertainment experience. If I remember right, there’s TVs and connected speakers, all that sort of stuff in this tiny home.

Johanna Elsner: Oh, yeah. Lots of bells and whistles.

Rob Stott: You mentioned that every tiny home is different, that you’ve built, and that Perch and Nest has been a part of. Have you seen anything or been a part of anything with as much technology, bells and whistles as you put it?

Johanna Elsner: I have to be honest and say no. We’ve done cameras and things like that for folks and automated lights and all contingent on their specific parking plan, but nothing this quote-unquote smart. And that was really exciting to see come together.

Rob Stott: Did it present any unique challenges for you guys?

Johanna Elsner: It really didn’t. I will say that Nationwide really had done their homework and was very communicative with their partners that were involved in getting us in touch with them. I’m trying to think of maybe one of the biggest challenges we had. It wasn’t really around the smart stuff, I sound like such a layman saying that I know. All these little smart things. But, it was just designing around all of the full-size appliances. But once we tackled that in the footprint they needed, to be able to travel frequently, the rest came together pretty easily. We had one brief meeting with Derek and his team and we joked because we put so many speakers in the house and of course, my job is to minimize people’s needs. I said, well, you could do one outdoor speaker and one indoor speaker, you guys.

They said absolutely not. We’re doing four or five… 

Rob Stott: Are you crazy?

Johanna Elsner: Yeah. Are you crazy? They had to explain a lot of things to me about the needs of the trade show. That’s what’s so great about the technology now is, I know that they had a lot of research to do and a lot of things to learn. But the way that it all came to us and given their explanations, it was made very simple. Everything’s Bluetooth connected and they came out, I think, and spent a day at our shop right before their appearance in New Orleans and had it all connected and ready to go.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. Is there one part of this home that stands out to you? Or, if you had to pick a favorite aspect of this project in particular, what would that be?

Johanna Elsner: Oh goodness. Other than it was just all-around fun. Just to give you a side note, we’re used to dealing with someone that’s going to live in the home. And if somebody is very passionate about what’s going to happen in it, it’s still a fun process. But at the end of the day, you have to listen to what their needs are and what their wants are. It’s their home. But Derek was very much, you guys are the experts, just as long as I got all this in there. It was fun designing, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure that we got them something that was going to be a crowd-pleaser. But I think if I had to pick something, I would say I really liked that we were able to get that hub in the kitchen because that’s not something you’re going to see every day in a tiny house.

And the few contractors and things that we had come into the home for the last phases of installations, everybody wanted to know what that was. And we had it powered up and they were like, oh yeah, you’ll be able to turn the TV on from the kitchen and all that kind of stuff. That was a lot of fun. I would say that’s my favorite aspect of the home that we designed around.

Rob Stott: That’s pretty cool. You mentioned this might not have been built for someone to live in necessarily. I beg to differ, because if they don’t look or keep an eye on it, I may be driving off with that tiny home at some point. I’ve joked about it a lot at this point, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re concerned with how much I’m joking about living in this tiny home.

Johanna Elsner: We made sure and we talked about this and the design of that home that it could be lived in. There is nothing missing. There is plenty of storage. Everything is operational. Water will flow. You have an off-grid toilet, that’s incinerating, it’s really cool. It is ready to be plugged in and plugged up to water and could be lived in at a moment’s notice.

Rob Stott: You are just adding fuel to my fire.

Johanna Elsner: Somebody should keep an eye on it.

Rob Stott: If I had to be the one to volunteer, you twist my arm, maybe I’ll do it. If they ask nicely enough.

Johanna Elsner: Right. And you would do it for free. We won’t even charge you.

Rob Stott: Of course. Of course, I will take care of it. No problem whatsoever. It’s so cool and just to walk through it and see what this showcase of technology and just the idea of the tiny home. Incredible. And I know for you guys, quite the showcase as well, for what you’re able to do. You know, from a building tiny homes and contribute to the space. But when you think about Nationwide members, and we sort of talked beforehand about how the tiny home, it’s making its rounds. Derek Mattila is the keeper of the calendar, as I called him. And making sure that the members who want to bring this home to their store and show it off in their communities are able to do so. When you think about that, what then in your view, can Nationwide members get out of this that they can apply to their retail businesses?

Johanna Elsner: I think you hit on one of the bigger points and that’s that it is this mobile smart home and that’s absolutely impressive. To be able to just pull up and pull out an iPad or what have you and power this thing and all of its elements up. But you know, tiny houses are a crowd-pleaser, they still get a lot of attention. People are always excited to get into tiny houses. I think from a marketing standpoint, I hope to see these retailers have people come out because they’re excited to get into a tiny home. And they see that there’s a real one you can get into, that’s not just on HGTV. And then, of course, to be able to see all the offerings that this retailer has, once they are in a tiny home is going to be great.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And like I said, if they needed to get around, they have a volunteer driver on hand, at least in the Northeast region of the country. I’m happy to take it wherever they need it.

Johanna Elsner: Absolutely. Like we talked about, everybody’s always contacting us about how to get in Perch and Nest homes all over the country. We’ll piggyback that and send folks their way.

Rob Stott: To you too. Is there a geographical reach that you guys confine yourselves to? Do you have clients coming from all over the place?

Johanna Elsner: Oh yeah, absolutely. We have houses all over the country. That’s the benefit to them, being legal, titled RVs. Even though they’re heavy and built like a home, they can be picked up and taken anywhere just like Nationwide is doing. And we have them delivered all over the country. We have yet to have one go into Canada. But it’s absolutely possible since it’s a US-built vehicle and certainly, they could be shipped anywhere in the world for that matter, but we have them in California and Vermont, everywhere else.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. Certainly, a space that we’ll continue to follow and clearly with our own Perch and Nest built tiny home, in-house at Nationwide. One that we’ll continue to get to experience as we go from show to show. Johanna, I appreciate you taking the time. This has been a really fun conversation. One, like I said, I was looking very much forward to and didn’t disappoint.

Johanna Elsner: Absolutely. Well, when you move into that tiny, you let me know where your PO box is, will send you a package.

Rob Stott: I will do that. Much appreciated. All right. Thank you.

Johanna Elsner: Thank you, Rob. Bye-bye.