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. :-)
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.
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 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.
Are they getting a lot of repeat business? Just how often do people have to visit the consulate?
"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.
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
I doubt it is even remotely true but funny nonetheless.
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.
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.
I'm not sure it's sustainable, but it's certainly viable!
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  sounds like a decent target market, as all visits would require a trip to the Consulate.
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.
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 :).
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
It's the law enforcement that won't allow them to park and run a commercial business like that.
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.
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 ...
If it's $500 in total income for the team, though, that's another story.
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?
Think of a solution: Check
Take some calculated risks: Check
Bring your solution to customers in need: Check
Make money: Check
This is brilliant!
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.
I want something simple.
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.
I got my visa, and I must admit that the consulate service was outstanding
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.