Over a course of two years, I bootstrapped a startup to a $15M valuation – while living in a van. The goal was to sign up as many theaters across the country for our movie ticketing platform; and reduce money and travel time while gaining as much face-time with clients as possible.
Throughout this period, our sales team of five visited more than 40 states, covered at least 200,000 miles and built business relationships with countless theaters. During this time, our number of partnerships jumped from 50 to approximately 450. Although it has been a couple years since my last van voyage, the story of our “Man Van” campaigns is still recalled by those familiar with our startup journey.
200,000 miles, 40 states and startup reality
When I tell my story, I enjoy sharing the most important lesson I learned at the time. It applies to anyone who dreams big: Reality is what you define as real.
For example, the average person does not think that building a company out of a van is possible. I get it. There are so many reasons that prevent you from thinking it is a realistic possibility. Let’s start with some of the basics:
How can you sleep on a seat?
Is it safe to sleep in a van?
Can you get robbed?
Where will you shower?
How can you get internet?
Can you even focus on your work?
The questions are endless. However, the first focus point for any challenge is the “how.” Simply put, we accomplished the “Man Van” campaigns because we were forced to believe it was realistic. Without that decision, there would be no company to run and we would become jobless. Therefore, the “why” and “if” became irrelevant.
Just like any challenge, at first, it was difficult. There were many problems we did not anticipate: limited gym access (which made it difficult to shower), time management difficulties across time zones. Furthermore, no kitchen and food storage was an ongoing challenge.
However, after about a week of forced adjustment, our minds and bodies started to accept our new twisted reality. We became urban foragers – masters of the urban nomadic lifestyle.
We soon knew where to look for the best places to sleep: hotel or Wal-Mart parking lots. Wi-Fi access was easy at McDonald’s, Starbucks and hotel lobbies. We signed up for Anytime Fitness, L.A. Fitness, and later on even Life Time Fitness for nationwide coverage. We drank protein shakes before long stretches of driving without food. We would also stock up on fruits and vegetables, such as apples and bananas, that had a longer shelf-life. To save money, we limited our meals to just one a day – Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes, all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ and Indian lunch buffets became our go-to meals.
A couple months into our first “Man Van” campaign, my business partner Evan and I were in the best shape of our lives. Since we went to the gym almost twice a day just to wash up, we figured we’d workout each time. Also, because we were always together, we worried about getting each other sick. So we made it a point to stay extremely healthy by exercising and eating well. This was extremely important because we drove past multiple states over just a course of a week and temperature fluctuations could be drastic. Therefore, we made a commitment to keep our immune system spry.
By the end of our first “Man Van” campaign, we not only more than doubled the number of theater clients from 50 to 120, but our body fat was down to an estimated 9-12 percent. Additionally, without TV and a social life, all of our energy was focused on business and the gym. We not only survived, but thrived.
Define your own startup reality
Throughout a two-year “Man Van” campaign, my sense of reality was redefined. I personally became very uncomfortable in rooms. There was just too much space! Therefore, I continued to live in a van for a year after the campaigns were over. It was amazing to see how my perception of normal living space changed over time.
This change of reality induced by the mind is not only fascinating but extremely powerful. In the summer of 1995, not too soon after our family moved to Seoul, Korea, a mall not too far from our home, Sampoog Department store, collapsed.
The incident took the lives of 502 people and 937 people were injured. It was the deadliest modern building collapse since 9/11. The incident received heavy nationwide media coverage. And as a country, it seemed like we were collectively holding our breath as rescuers tried to save more people on live broadcasts.
After about 10 days, the rescue teams started to lose hope of finding any additional survivors. However, miraculously three survivors were discovered 11, 13 and 17 days after the building collapsed. Not too long after the building collapsed and the rescue mission was complete, I could never forget watching a documentary as a 10-year-old kid explaining that many of the victims completely began to lose a sense of time after a few days.
For some of the victims who survived more than a week, many thought only a few days had gone by. After interviewing several survivors, the documentary provided a hypothesis that the human mind, in order for the body to survive, adapts to the situation and creates a new sense of reality and distorts time to give survivors a psychological edge to increase chances of survival.
Although it may have been merely a hypothesis, this concept not only fascinated me but was a memory I would frequently recount as an adult during my “Man Van” campaigns. The mind is extremely malleable yet powerful and will adapt to what you believe in or, in some cases, what needs to be a reality for you to survive. Use your own convictions as a powerful advantage and redefine your own reality.
This article has been edited.
Kevin Hong is author of The Outlier Approach, Chief Sales Officer of Cinema Intelligence (A Vista Group Company, ticker – VGL) and co-founder of Dealflicks.