A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan. : Planet Money Adam Humphries had a problem. He needed a Chinese visa to travel on vacation, but he had all the wrong forms. His confusion led to an amazing business idea. He now parks a van in front of the Chinese consulate in New York and works as a visa consultant for befuddled travelers like him.
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A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan.

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A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan.

A Man. A Van. A Surprising Business Plan.

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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...


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.


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?


CHACE: And what do you think of this van?

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


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: '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.


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.


CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York.


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