1:36am

Wed January 4, 2012
Planet Money

A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan.

Originally published on Wed January 4, 2012 4:14 pm

We've all been there. Trapped in line at the DMV. Or stuck on hold while trying to call a city agency. It's easy to complain about government bureaucracy. But it's the rare person who sees such inefficiency as a business opportunity.

Meet Adam Humphreys. He lives in New York City, and he wanted to travel to China for a vacation. His bureaucratic hassles with the Chinese consulate launched a whole new business.

It started simply enough. Adam found out he needed a visa to travel to China. He went online. Filled out a long, complicated form. And Adam showed up at the Chinese Consulate only to find out that he had filled out the wrong form.

"Can you help me?" he said.

"No."

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

"No."

"Where's the nearest Internet cafe?" he asked.

"At the Burger King."

Apparently there is an Internet cafe a half-mile away from the consulate in the dining room of a Burger King.

So Adam walked over.

"And I saw inside the Burger King," he says, "that every single one of their computers was dedicated to the same Chinese PDF."

Everyone, it seemed, was facing the same problem he was. And this is when Adam Humphreys had his big idea. He called his buddy Steven Nelson. And they rented a van.

A large Penske cargo van.

And they parked it in front of the Chinese consulate. Right in front of the exit door, where frustrated visa applicants wandered out into the sunshine wondering what to do. These lost souls, like Adam a few days earlier, would now be greeted by a sign on the van: Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants.

Inside, Adam had tricked out the van to be a mobile solution to Chinese bureaucracy. There are a couple of Mac laptops and a printer, plus an old couch, Christmas lights and bamboo mats. It's as cozy as a dorm room. And confused visa applicants line up outside.

"The embassy changed the form and I didn't know," says Jimmy Tong, who needed a passport for his wife. "Luckily this guy was here to help."

At first Tong was a little unsure about getting into a rental van parked along a busy highway, but he took the chance.

"As long as it's not a robbery," he says.

In minutes, Tong has his proper forms, all filled out, with the correct photo stapled at the top.

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

Which was strange for the two. They were both freelance artists. They never thought about being entrepreneurs. And they had the most basic questions about business. What do you charge for a service that you just made up?

They thought about the Internet cafe at the Burger King. Those guys charged between $10 and $20. So at first Adam and Steve started charging $10.

They were overrun with customers. So they jacked the price up to $40, but then they lost too many people. So they dropped the price, and gave themselves a promotion. They called themselves consultants.

" 'Cause you can consult anywhere, right?" Adam says. "You can consult in a coffee shop, you can consult on the side of the highway."

They settled on the flat rate of $20 a person. Buddhist monks get a $5 discount to keep the karma flowing.

The two now take credit cards. They have a small-business license. They hired two fluent Mandarin speakers. And they even put on uniforms: blue pullover fleeces that give the van an Apple Store vibe.

Adam says he can make almost $500 a day, but he's a little cagey about giving up the exact details of what they are raking in. They are afraid someone else will park a cargo van with a printer alongside them and start a price war.

As any entrepreneur with a brilliant idea knows, you only have a little time before the market catches up with you. Before that happens, Adam and Steven want to expand into a retail space. Or, at the very least, a bigger vehicle. Like an RV.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Government bureaucracy, everyone's dealt with it at some point. You can complain. Most people do. But the occasional person sees that red tape and finds an opportunity to make money. Zoe Chace reports for NPR's Planet Money.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: You've probably been to the DMV or to city hall to get a copy of your birth certificate. And all this is annoying. But if you need a visa to go to China, it's a whole new level. Take the case of Adam Humphries. He lives in New York City. He wanted travel to China for a vacation. So he goes online. He fills out a long form, prints it all out - all these papers - shows up at the consulate, only to find out he's filled out the wrong form.

ADAM HUMPHRIES: Can you help me? No. Can I print one off inside? No. Where's the nearest Internet café? Well, it's basically where you got off the train, inside a Burger King.

CHACE: The closest place to the consulate with Internet access is a Burger King half a mile away at the nearest subway stop. And you have to understand, the consulate is way out by something called the West Side Highway. It's on a windy, deserted corner. And if you're in New York City, this is the middle of nowhere.

HUMPHRIES: And I saw, inside the Burger King when I walked up there, that every single one of their computers was dedicated to this particular Chinese PDF.

CHACE: This is the moment when the young Adam Humphries had his big idea. He called his buddy Steve.

HUMPHRIES: And I was like, dude, I've got this amazing - this...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEVEN NELSON: Very enthusiastic.

HUMPHRIES: Very enthusiastic. This is so...

CHACE: Adam and Steven Nelson rented a cargo van and drove it all the way out to the West Side Highway. They parked it right on the corner, right in the line of vision of the people turned away from the consulate. So when the rejects filed out of the building, searching for a place to retype the form and print it out, they'd be greeted by...

NELSON: Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants head office.

CHACE: Currently based inside a Penske rental van.

This door right here? OK.

Inside the van, it's as cozy as a college dorm room. There's an old couch in the back, a couple folding chairs, Christmas lights, bamboo mats. There are a couple Mac laptops and one ink printer. And it's full to bursting with customers - people who had the same problem Adam did.

Jimmy Tong needs a passport for his wife.

JIMMY TONG: At the embassy, they changed the form. I didn't know. Luckily, this guy was here to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHACE: Tong was sent over to the van by the security guards at the embassy door. That's how the guys get most of their customers.

TONG: I say, are you sure? Oh sure, they have computers. They have printers. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHACE: And what do you think of this van?

TONG: I don't know. I mean as long as it's not a robbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHACE: It's not a robbery.

NELSON: I am stapling a passport photo to the front of an application for this gentleman's wife. And now I'm going to ask him for money.

CHACE: Right, the money. Until they rented the van, Adam and Steven were freelance artists. They never thought about being entrepreneurs. So, what do you charge for a service that you just made up? Well, they did have one competitor - remember the Burger King.

HUMPHRIES: I figured they were charging between 10 and 20. Up there? We started at 10.

CHACE: Start with an undercut. But they were overrun with customers, so they jacked the price up to 40. But then lost too many people. So they dropped the price some and gave themselves a promotion.

HUMPHRIES: Instead of letting people use our computers and print forms for themselves, it was we would help people put the forms together and print them and send them back inside.

CHACE: And that's when you guys decided that you were, in fact, consultants.

HUMPHRIES: Yes.

NELSON: Yeah.

HUMPHRIES: 'Cause you can consult anywhere, right? You can consult in a coffee shop. You can consult on the side of the highway.

CHACE: Flat rate, 20 bucks a person. For Buddhist monks, 15 - karma. They now take credit cards. They have a small business license. They hired two fluent Mandarin speakers. Expenses? Printer ink and occasional parking ticket.

But they're still doing business on the side of a highway from a cargo van. They have to look especially legit. So they got matching bright blue fleeces, red beanies and clipboards.

HUMPHRIES: I think trying to go for a Mac store kind a thing right, you know. Everybody is comfortable in the Mac store, right? Everything is happening so efficiently in the Mac store.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHACE: They didn't want to broadcast exactly how much they make in a day because they were afraid other people might drive up with their printers in cargo vans.

Before that happens Adam and Steven want to expand, like into a retail space. Or just a bigger vehicle, like an RV.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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