How Living in a Van to Grow My Start-Up Taught Me the Power of Reality Distortion

Kevin Hong is the author of The Outlier Approach, Chief Sales Officer of Cinema Intelligence and co-founder of Dealflicks.

Over a course of 2 years, I bootstrapped a company, Dealflicks, a “Priceline” for movie deals, from a van and brought it up to a $15m valuation. As a movie ticketing platform, the goal was to sign up as many theaters across the country while reducing money, travel time, while 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 theatres. During this time the number of partnerships we had jumped from 50 to 450. The peculiar yet effective strategy captured the national imagination and we received countless media coverage. 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. It does not even seem feasible with one’s wildest imaginations.

However, the first thing one must focus on when overcoming such a challenge is “how”. “How can you live in a van?” 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 limited coverage our gym memberships had, which made it difficult to shower, to difficulties of time management to get to meetings in different states because of differing time zones. (Sometimes we drove over 500+ miles to get to meetings the next day) 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 we became masters of the urban nomadic lifestyle. We knew where to look for the best places to sleep – hotel parking lots or if worse comes to worst, Wal-Mart parking lots. Getting access to WiFi was easy – McDonald’s, Starbucks, and hotel lobbies. No 24-hour fitness in sight? Not a problem. We signed up for Any Time Fitness. L.A. Fitness, and later on even Life Time Fitness. Now we had nationwide coverage! Food storage issues? Not a problem even with no kitchen. A gas funnel, protein whey powder, and a bottle of water would do and we would snack off of 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 also 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. Basically, any brunch that was all-you-can-eat became our main diet.

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 make it a 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 healthy. This was extremely important because we would drive 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 amount of theaters we had from 50 to 120, but our body fat was down to about 9-12%. Additionally, without TV and any social life, all our energy was focused on work and working-out. We not only survived but thrived.

Throughout a two-year Man Van campaign my sense of reality was redefined. For myself personally, I 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 until the September 11 attacks in NYC, and the deadliest non-deliberate building collapse until the 2013 Savar building collapse, which took 1,129 lives, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. The incident received heavy nationwide media coverage and as a country, it seemed like we were all holding our breaths watching live broadcast as each day went by while rescuers tried to save more people.

After about 10 days, the rescue team started to lose hope of finding any additional survivors. However, miraculously 3 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 and how it explained 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.