Over a course of two years, I bootstrapped a company, a “Priceline” for movie deals, from a van and brought it up to a US$15 million valuation. As a movie ticketing platform, the goal was to sign up as many theaters across the country while reducing money and travel time, and also increasing as much face-time with our clients as possible.
Throughout this period, our sales team of up to five members visited more than 40 states, covered at least 200,000 miles and built business relationships with countless theaters. During this time, the number of partnerships we had jumped from 50 to about 450. Although it has been a couple years since my last voyage in a van, I am still regularly asked and remembered for what the media coined as the “Man Van” campaigns.
When I tell my story, I enjoy sharing the most important lesson I learned during this time, as it applies to anyone who is dreaming big: Reality is what you define as real. For example, the average person does not think building a company out of a van is possible. I get it. There are so many reasons that can prevent you from thinking that it is a realistic possibility. Let’s start off 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 thing one must focus on when overcoming such a challenge is “how.” Simply put, we were able to accomplish the Man Van campaigns because we were forced to believe it was realistic. Without it, there would be no company to run and we would become jobless. Therefore, the “whys” and “ifs” were always irrelevant.
Just like any challenge, at first, it was difficult. There were many problems that we had not anticipated such as limited gym access geographically based on the coverage our memberships had (which made it difficult to shower), to time management difficulties across time zones. Furthermore, with no kitchen, food storage was an ongoing challenge as well.
However, after about a week after forcing ourselves to adjust, our minds and bodies started to accept our new twisted reality. We became urban foragers and masters of the urban nomadic lifestyle. We knew where to look for the best places to sleep: hotel parking lots or Wal-Mart parking lots. Getting access to Wi-Fi 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 would drink protein shakes in case we had long stretches of drives 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 partner Evan and I were in the best shape of our lives. Since we were going to the gym almost twice a day just to wash up, we figured we’d work out each time. Also, because we were always together, we were 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 theaters we had from 50 to 120, but our body fat was down to about 9-12 percent. Additionally, without TV and any social life, all our energy was focused on working and working out. We not only survived but thrived.
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 an extra year after the campaigns were over. It was amazing to see how my perception of what normal living space was 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 all holding our breaths watching a live broadcast as rescuers tried to save more people.
After about 10 days, the rescue team 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 their chance 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.
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.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organisation comprising the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship programme that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.