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A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan. (npr.org)
486 points by slamdunc on Jan 4, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

There are going to be a lot of vans parked on that corner before long.

If I'm these guys, I realize that my moat is weak and do these things:

1. Do not interview with NPR. It isn't like you are driving business. You are only attracting competitors.

2. Park 6 vans outside, each with a different dba so that the market looks saturated.

3. Make a retail space, see if it does better than the vans.

4. Look nation wide for similar geographic anomalies that would create this same pain point. Park a van at one of them and send one of the owners to sit in it. See if money can be made. Repeat.

There are many unemployed people in America right now, it sounds like several dozen can go rent a van and fix the glitch. :-)

It's a common assumption in microecnomics that competition always drives down prices. It doesn't always - every other business knows that starting a price war is suicide, as everyone will lose. The competitors will try to steal business with a similar price, and try to compete on branding and service.

Actually, his best bet is to get a retail space, then get a friend to make a few calls to the cops about suspicious vans around the Chinese embassy, and ask if they are allowed to be there. The legal system is geared against "unofficial" (i.e. poor) business people - itinerant vendors and bugger all rights.

There may be competitors but the initial "branding" will still hold. Guys/gals in blue shirts and red hats and great customer service will differentiate from any would be competitors. Emphasizing the customer service will make sure competition stays away.

How it has come to the point where I'm rebutting the reasonable opinion of a stranger on the internet regarding a business I didn't start, haven't run and don't really know about I'm not sure, but here we go...

One time I went tubing with a friend. We borrowed his brother's vehicle. His brother is a SWAT team member. My friend left the FOB in his pocket and it fell out, given up to the river gods. His brother had the vehicle rigged against hot wired jump starts. Clever fellow.

It was at that moment, and not an instant before, that we started paying attention to "Lock Smith For Hire" and "Jump Start Service" signs. The first guy to pick his phone up was hired.

The guy who came to jump us took an hour to show up, was an ass and didn't really quote us a price or listen to our description of the problem - but heck if he didn't have that car running 5 minutes later.

Point is, when you are down to the felt unexpectedly, you'll take the first option you can get and will judge the service in binary - it did or didn't solve your problem. If I was going to have to go the half mile to BK, but now I don't, that's good customer service.

Ever used a bail bond company to get someone out of jail? Someone had peed on the only unoccupied seat. There were still 4 customers in line ahead of me. I doubt the guys across the street offered much better. They didn't really need to.

You can't advertise in the paper "need help filling out your visa?" and expect a good return. You can't give out free drinks with your return and expect to drive repeats. Your whole business is being a printer at the right place at the right time.

Yes, if one guy wants 3 visas over his life time (they expire, he travels often, etc) then perhaps you can make 'em loyal and garner repeat business. That seems a small-ish portion due to the type of business.

Yes, if there are 10 vans out there and yours offers a free drink with the service, you will get more business until all your competitors copy your offer - then you'll all be giving away that margin, and probably paying a guy to make sure your new offers are more attractive than the other van's offers besides.

You won't drive repeat business by being super nice or wearing matching getups due to the type of business, in my humble opinion. If you are in many other types of businesses this make a lot of sense and should be focused on, but saying "customer service wins every time" seems like an over reach.

To me, a better investment would be great signage/advertising dominance/figuring out who owns that land and buying it/paying who ever owns that land to disallow other vans from parking there/etc.

> You can't advertise in the paper "need help filling out your visa?" and expect a good return.

You probably can at least get a decent return that way - it's how I got my Chinese visa when I went a few years back.

In a lot of major cities near Chinese consulates there are companies that specialize in filling out the forms and waiting in line with you, and many which will offer to have your passport picked up and couriered back to you.

> There may be competitors but the initial "branding" will still hold.

Are they getting a lot of repeat business? Just how often do people have to visit the consulate?

Visas are only good for a year. So there is potential for repeat customers. Just not that large. I'm surprised travel agencies don't do this. I work for a large firm with a captive travel bureau that handles all the paperwork needed for international travel.

Until the competitors realize that people are loyal to the branding of blue shirts and red hats, and start wearing their own indistinguishable blue shirts and red hats to draw in users (how many 'Famous Original Ray's Pizza' joints are there in NYC?). For a company created solely on the premise of convenience, it's going to be difficult to convince new customers to spend the time to figure out that you're somehow the 'real deal' instead of the identical-looking dude standing next to you.

All is fun and games until the embassy decides to upcharge $10 and provide the right document on demand. Crash goes the model.

Seems unlikely. Big burocracies don't move that fast. Also the staff in the frontlines are probably not motivated by revenue.

I take it that you've never dealt with a Chinese embassy?

Am I the only one who read that in a hip hop voice?:

"We've all been there. Trapped in line at the D-M-V

Or stuck on hold while trying to call a city a-genCY.

It's easy to complain about government bureau-craCY.

But it's the rare person who sees such ineffi-cienCY

as a business opportuniTY.

Meet Adam Humphreys. He lives in New York CiTY

It started simpLY

enough. Adam found out he needed a viSA

to travel to ChiNA.

for a vacation. His bureaucratic haSSleS with the ChineSe conSulate launched a whole new buSineSS.

"Can you help me?" he said.


"Do you have a printer I can use?" he tried.



But damn you, it's now stuck in my head, with half a day left at work. I blame you if my function signatures all start to rhyme.

The idea of rhythmic code is blowing my mind a little bit. Perhaps when executed it outputs the MIDI for a back-beat?

Go back to reddit.

I was born in Russia. Where they still have vans like this next to the US embassy, the UK embassy, the Canadian embassy, the French/German/Spanish/Swedish embassies, heck, all the "western" countries' embassies. We're used to it.

This "business plan" is 60 years old. When the WW2 was over and the world was (stupidly) divided into two parts. Visas are PITA. You, Americans, just not very used to it... Fortunately.

Very common business moddel all across Africa too. When the DV2011 signs popup you know it's time for people to apply for the annual green card lottery. I believe the application process has specific requirements for pictures and needs to be done online, so places offer that service.

I've never seen this at either the British or the Canadian embassies in Moscow...

I should've written "VISA Application Centers" not embassies (they're not the same place)

I wonder how many HN folk's first inclination would have been to create a website to do this instead of rent a van and deal directly with people? How much do we hold ourselves back by trying to go directly to a scaleable solution?

Given that the initial pain point was needing a printer, I hope most people here would have enough sense to realize that an online-only solution wouldn't work.

IANA Marketer but this looks like a white-hat SEO opportunity for somebody -- say travel agent, tour package provider, guide book publisher. Write up a web page linking to the China consulate site, explain the frequent confusion over forms, maybe provide info to contact someone knowledgeable to help sort it out. Get AdWords for "china visa form" or some such, headline "Get The Right Form!". Bingo, traffic by people traveling to China. As their first experience with you is avoiding a common bureaucratic obstacle, they'll disposed to goodwill and belief that you grok something of travel in China.

Or you could create a site where people would always get the latest forms and proper guidance? It wouldn't help the applicants who get rejected at the consulate though.

Your problem at that point is getting the customers to you. I'd be willing to bet that not many people would be willing to pay for it before they have tried and failed at the consulate. And at that point, they are going to stumble on that van before they see your website.

That's an interesting take - there's always the danger that filling in the gaps in someone else's product will cause that someone else to wake up and fill it in for you.

Seeing as this is a government failing, however, makes me think that it'll be a long time before they decide to improve enough to make these guys unnecessary.

There are tons of businesses providing this service (search for "Chinese visa"), including picking up and dropping off relevant documents, so clearly there's a market for it before trying and failing. However it is also a lot more competitive market, so there'd still be a problem getting the customers to you.

A very wise man once said to me: "Marketing is showing up after an avalanche selling shovels." Ta-dum-tss! This is a concise way of saying:

* Solve a problem that people have

* Be there at the time they need the solution

The latter is more difficult than the former. By setting up a van in the street outside the consulate, you have solved the timing problem. Advertising outside the consulate would probably be effective, but the immediacy of the van solution is a huge plus. A frustrated consumer is far more likely to act than one who has had time to cool down on the drive home.

You have a good point : timing matters the most.

The article doesn't really explain this very well, but the Chinese consulate is in the middle of BFE in NYC -- it's out on the West Side Hwy in no man's land. This is as much about location as complexity/UX. To get to the business idea part, you'd stumble so hard over the importance of physical location, I'd like to think most HN readers would find it hard to miss.

It's a cute business, but there's no economic moat here. The principals acknowledge as much in the article. What would be more interesting is a business that challenged the status quo in the expediter side of the passport/visa business.

Are you thinking of a site for this instance alone? If I were to try something to serve this market I would create a site aiding with forms of all sorts.

Reminds me. Years back, I remember seeing an older guy hanging around the Trevi Fountain in Rome with a full inkjet printer hanging around his neck. He was taking photos and printing on the spot.

The ideal thing would be to combine them, web and van. You could call it 'Webvan'!

For the younger crowd who may not get the joke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webvan

Thanks (from the not-much-younger but non-US crowd).

You're right, a typical programmer would write the website before understanding the business like these guys have. However, they are now vulnerable to price wars with copy cats, and need tools to reduce their costs below their competitors'. This is when scalability means the difference between decreasing margins and a growing business.

At least mine would have been to create a site. When told about this option, my first thought would've probably been "What a waste of talent and time!" though I mean absolutely no offense. If anything I'm inspired to look for those small things that make a difference.

There is one- http://www.visahq.com/ . The option in this article is for people who have already made the trouble to travel to the consulate.

Not really. Man-Van-Suprise penetrated my mind with other "connotations"...

There used to be flyers all around San Francisco advertising "Dan: Man with Van" with tearoff phone number tabs. I don't think I've seen one in a looong time, though.

Turns out that the UK has its very own Dan the Man with a Van: http://danthemanwithavan.com

I talked to a guy in Chicago who just opened-up an upscale bar/restaurant. His description of the corruption and bureaucratic hassles reminded me of stories told to me by Indian friends about getting basic stuff done in India. Apparently the Chicago liquor permit process required standing for hours in lines only to be told that you were in the wrong line, had the wrong documents, etc. This guy gladly would have paid a couple hundred bucks for a "guide" of sorts.

I'm sure there are high-end, lawyer-run advisory services which handle these issues for large clients. Perhaps the opportunity lies in the middle-ground? People who don't have complex needs but don't want to waste hours of their day? I'm thinking about the walk-in, "Minute Clinics" at CVS and other pharmacies which are run by nurse practitioners. Nurses there know how to treat basic stuff and how to decide if someone's needs might be beyond their expertise. It works out pretty well for the patient who just wants to confirm that he has strep throat and get some antibiotics.

I could see the same thing doing well outside the US embassy in London.

Offer a US-visa sized passport-photo service, a locker to put your phone when you can't take it into the embassy and some tissues to wipe away your tears of joy/despair and you'd be in business.

Add to that a £10 glossy file to give the assorted papers of your $2,000 application that final touch of gloss and you could make a wonderful income.

OT but funny story I heard. The US Embassy in London wants to buy the land underneath it in Grosvenor Square. That bit of land is owned by the Duke of Westminster. He said he would gladly agree to sell them the land as soon as they returned his familys land in Virginia and New Hampshire that were taken in the 18th century.

I doubt it is even remotely true but funny nonetheless.

On the other hand, I can see a white van parked outside the US embassy lasting all of five minutes before being unceremoniously towed away.

I've been told that the newsagent next to the US embassy will keep your mobile in a safe for £10.

There's a shop around the corner from the US embassy in London that does all the needed photos. 2 min walk, very affordable and very friendly. The people in the embassy recommended him.

Great business. Serves an identified need for people with a real pain point. I'm glad to see that they're erecting some barriers to competition with native Mandarin speakers and a service oriented atmosphere.

It'll probably last a few months at least, but make hay while the sun shines. Doing NPR probably wasn't a great idea since their customers don't find them via traditional advertising means, but are literally thrown on their doorstep by the Chinese consulate.

Perhaps, but knowing that the business isn't necessarily durable, it might be worth it for the folks involved to get some eyeballs and raise awareness of the neat projects they've put together (and their noteworthiness for all the deletionists).

The first thing I thought of was, why aren't they getting some kind of parking ticket for their vehicle? Extra publicity is certainly not going to help them if they are violating any city ordinances with their business model.

In the audiocast they said they have the occasional parking ticket.

I use visa consultants. If they set up a website front I'd be happy to seek them out next time I go to China. Sounds like they know the system inside out and $20 is a small price to pay for sanity.

If they are making $500 a day, they only need this to work for a few months, then they have enough cash to keep them going for a few more to come up with another great idea.

I'm not sure it's sustainable, but it's certainly viable!

Or branch out... my experience with the French consulate was ... uncomfortable the first time, and I would have paid handsomely to not have to go back again for the same Visa.

I soon realized that the Consulate's job for many countries is to keep people out... only when I went to the UK consulate did I see an attempt at customer service.

In fact, any country without a US visa waiver [1] sounds like a decent target market, as all visits would require a trip to the Consulate.

[1] http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/without/without_1990.html#...

Most of the trouble with the Chinese Visa system is the requirement that you apply in person. Note that this is for reciprocity against the USA requiring the same in-person application for Chinese nationals visiting the USA. There are several "by-mail" services that just stick a runner in line with your documents, I've used one for the last several trips to China.

These services are expensive, like roughly 50-100 bucks, depending on which consulate you're using. Those who stand in line risk running into trouble like the folks in this story, and I'm sure they're more than happy at this point to fork over some cash for the help they need.

> Note that this is for reciprocity against the USA requiring the same in-person application for Chinese nationals visiting the USA.

So what you're really saying is that most of the trouble with the U.S. visa system is the requirement that you apply in person.

You as a U.S. citizen experience the policy through reciprocity, everyone else experiences it directly :).

Yes precisely :) It's a major pain in everyone's ass. I don't have enough experience to know if this is only the case in Asian or 3rd World countries, but I wouldn't be surprised if the "in-person" requirement is dropped in Western European or developed nations.

This is why there are a significant number of customers who try to go-it-alone and ignore the website (more expensive) option only to be frustrated and realize that 20 bucks is a pittance compared to not being able to travel.

I considered answering that question in my post above, but I thought I'd wait for someone to ask :).

The "in-person" requirement is dropped for the Visa Waiver Program, which applies if you're from a "nice" nation and you want to stay no more than three months and you don't want to work or study and you don't have a criminal record (in any country) and you're not on any secret U.S. lists of "interesting" people.

And of course you need to not tick "yes" to the questions about wanting to enter the US to traffic drugs, having committed genocide or been involved in espionage and other fun things on the visa waiver form prior to landing. That form is always the most hilarious thing about any trip to the US.

Interesting. Having done all the paperwork myself for my wife's visa (thanks to help from visajourney.com) I always wondered how much 'consulting' one could do without being an immigration lawyer.

By the same token, if I am not a tax accountant how much tax advice can I give someone for a fee?

Granted, on the surface the Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants are just providing an internet and printing service — so there shouldn't be much of an issue. However, would they have to be careful of going from "What form do you need?" to "Hey, before you go in there, you probably need this form instead."

If what I've read about lawyers applies, basically you can give as much tax advice as you like for a fee, until someone sues you for bad advice and you get fleeced.

There might be regulatory boards that go around making sure everyone practicing has credentials, but I bet the first case would catch up to you sooner.

This used to be common in Brazil: a guy in a VW van with a typewriter to help you with bureaucracy. I see the fact that these characters are gone as a sign of progress, so it's funny that this has shown up in the US.

At the Chinese consultate, ran by the Chinese.

In India too. There are people who validate your passport application and supporting docs for a small fee before you submit them to the officials.

Not sure this really needs another "me too", but these aren't actually new in the US either. It used to be (circa 2000) that photo requirements for the US greencard required a mugshot at an odd angle, such that a given % of ear (yes, really) was visible.

Most passport photo places were terrible at this single requirement, but the chaps that ran the parking lot beside the INS office in Detroit certainly had it figured out.

Tangentially related, as the state of H1-B visas seems to come up a lot lately; I just checked Google Maps to make sure my memory wasn't fooling me (check out the crosswalk at 339 Mount Elliot Street, Detroit), and I noticed the INS office there is now marked "US Detention & Deportation". This shift speaks volumes about problems most skilled workers have getting into the US now. The INS under the DoJ, was "the letting people department, under the justice umbrella". USCIS under the DHS is now the "keeping people out department, under the fatherland umbrella".

While picking at the naming is exceptionally petty, the nuance will sound very familiar to anyone who's delt with the INS/USCIS in the last 10 years.

And there are guys who will take your cell phone, etc, and hold it for a small fee outside the US consulate in Rio.

Yeah, there's a whole cottage industry across the street from the DMV in Puerto Rico.

Got married in Puerto Rico a bit ago, and extremely happy we worked with a group that helped handle the marriage license details.

Oh it's not just the competition that will ruin this for them giving this interview.

It's the law enforcement that won't allow them to park and run a commercial business like that.

This is what happens in front of every single Indian government office - state or central :(

For people who are wondering why this is a bad thing, some context:

In India there are two groups among such "entrepreneurs"

- People who make out a genuine living buy providing typewriting, proof-reading and other services. There's a genuine need for this, because of the relative lack of literacy and byzantine rules.

- Touts. Vermin who have an unholy nexus with the bureaucracy, and generally thrive on rampant corruption.

The second group is the reason for despair. Widespread computerization only helps to an extent; such services still tend to involve manual processes, and corruption does not stop.

In India such people are branded "street peddlers" and you generally avoid them if you can read English. In US, you call them entrepreneurs and get a news story published in NPR!!!

You can also find this kind of services in Romania for specific high-bureaucracy activities, like obtaining permits to build a house. If you want a driver's license, you cannot even find some of the needed forms online, but there is always at least one small copy shop near the government building, where you can find all the forms you need.

Let's do the math:

Gas + Truck Rental = 100$/day. Parking/tickets in front of embassy: Free? Costly?

3 people (or 4? The article says they have 2 mandarin speakers on tap) in said truck for 8 hours + back and forth time splitting the remainder and you have a bit under 12.5/hour.

That said, they're not being up front about how much they make, and given its probably largely a cash business ...

The article did say that "he" makes $500/day, which I interpreted as Adam's own net. 3 people a day, $500 each founder, maybe less for the translator (flat wage rather than a stake?), that's a decent business.

If it's $500 in total income for the team, though, that's another story.

Yeah, that would be a bit better, then they'd pass 25 or 30 per hour.

Another data point: if I recall correctly, the visa office is only open until 12pm.

Given that they're always in the van, they can pretend they're not parked, but simply stationed. No idea how would that fly though.

I live across the street from this, and I've always wondered what these guys did. Great to read their story, and I've got to say it definitely takes guts to put yourself out there day in and day out (especially right now when it's 14 degrees outside!).

Last time I went to China was just before the Olympic Games and security was a little higher - not sure if it's since relaxed. You needed to list an itinerary for the trip and, specifically, accommodation for each night you were there. I, however, was looking to arrive with basically the contents of my pockets and then make things up as I went along. (Turns out my phone died and I was still wandering Shanghai at 2am until I settled on a hotel, but that's a separate matter.)

Solution was to book a couple of the cheapest hostels in a believable travel pattern, get stamped confirmation letters and then cancel them once I had the visa. I think one of the hostels was so cheap and I felt bad about cancelling (even a month out) that for the $4/night cost, I just let them know I wouldn't be showing up but that they could keep the money.

I wonder if arranging cheap accommodation for this purpose is a service they offer in the van?

When arranging my trip to China, I was told not to even try to get my visa by going to the consulate. I was told to pay a service company to do it. It worked. This certainly helps those who are willing to do it themselves. However, if you plan to go to China, find a service to do it for you.

Quite an interesting story, I would like to point out that being from Pakistan, I have seen such services since the first day that I went outside a passport office. Here in Karachi, you can find people providing Copy services, to scanning and printing and also what they call here is document composition where the guy writes a complete letter application for the client to be submitted in the Govt office. You can also find different Oath Commissioners (for document attestation). And all these are commonly found outside courts and other Govt offices, usually having a desk under a tree !

Find a problem: Check

Think of a solution: Check

Take some calculated risks: Check

Bring your solution to customers in need: Check

Make money: Check

This is brilliant!

> And it's clear that Adam Humphreys and Steven Nelson have stumbled on a viable business. In a van. On the street.

Well, that all depends on your definition of viable. Being dependent on a single bureaucratic bug for your livelihood is not that great. They need to diversify a bit before this can really be called viable.

If there is one thing you can depend on bureaucracy for it's an endless stream of new bugs to work around.

Thought it was going to be about BangBus.


I think there's a huge market out there for beauracracy negotiation/consulting services. Every time I open up an insurance information packet, I am deluged with many options, all slightly different, all carrying different implications.

I want something simple.

Or an opportunity for the bureaucracy to simplify stuff and improve their UX and kill these businesses.

Why would a bureau see this as an opportunity? What could they gain?

I went to the American consulte in Tel - Aviv about a week after they've changed the Visa procedure and had a missing form. The consulte did had a couple of PC's but non of them could access an email account.

I wondered to the street and found a coffee shop next to the consulte that provided all the services you'll need, lockers (this part is strange since you can't pretty much bring anything to the consulte e.g. a mobile phone lockers are essentials, I know that other consultes like the one in Sydney provides lockers), printer, and for a fee will feel up your forms.

So this isn't a new idea, but its an interesting phenomenon.

BTW I got my visa, and I must admit that the consulate service was outstanding

See an opportunity and take it...

Right. I applaud this. Even if this opportunity will only last a few more months, they'll be sitting on thousands of dollars in cash (less what they actually spent on living costs), that can be used for their next startup - most likely based around a much bigger idea.

In India, there are lots of people who makes their living out of the money earned by helping people to fill out forms outside every Government office. And they are in this business not just for few months but for a long time.

Government creates inefficiency and markets spring up (here, drive up) to take advantage. Classic lesson of economics.

"The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy." -- Oscar Wilde

The thing that bothers me is that everyone just accepts that the initial problem -- lack of printers or whatever at the government office -- won't get solved in that office.

I think everyone's premise is that the bureaucracy is unchangeable and unfixable, which in the short term and for an individual or small group is a realistic and practical perspective, but a longer-term responsible view for society is that the initial problem should be resolved.

First of all, its not _impossible_ to improve a bureaucracy. However, it is quite difficult, and therefore I think that in most cases bureaucracy needs to be replaced by a much more functional and responsive model.

Speaking of government versus private in general, we have two modes: 1) a private mode which has a profit motivation but no legal or ethical motivation but which is (supposedly) restricted in its capacity for monopoly and has (supposedly) highly restricted authority for force, and 2) a government mode has ultimate legal and ethical motivation and responsibility and total monopoly on force authorization and the domains of government.

I think we should be able to formulate another mode of operation that works better.

There's an opportunity for some A/B testing, not just of price but of service. Another van, parked at another consulate, could vary one thing and the team could measure the gains/losses. I imagine this kind of thing is done in retail all the time.

They could also setup another competing van in the same area.

I'm thinking more of a Life Aquatic look.

Upvotes for any headline with alliteration.

No alliteration here! Just rhyming.

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