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Living in a Van Means Lean as a Lifestyle

Tim Dobson speaking at HydraHack in July, 2017
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About this talk

Two years ago, Tim decided there wasn’t enough problem-solving in his life, so he thought he’d redesign his home from scratch. In a van. Through stories, Tim will share the techniques he used to work out what to build, how to build it and the mistakes he made along the way.


Hi everyone, I'm Tim. I'm gonna talk to you a little bit about lean startup. I mean we've all heard of it, and we've all maybe looked into it a little bit. Maybe it's the right way of building startups. But I kind of wondered, can you use the same tools for other things in life? Two and a half years ago I was looking around my bedroom at all of the down sides of being young and employed in technology. Lots and lots of stuff. An electric guitar, a bass guitar, a mixing desk, 300 unread business books, and an igloo maker. It was full of aspiration but empty of fulfilment. And it felt like my house was barely working for me. I mean sure, it'd take the entire technical specification of a house, it had a roof, it had a bathroom, it had windows, it had kitchen, had a washing machine. It was safe-ish, secure-ish. Somehow it was remarkably cheap, and we had helpful landlords. Somehow I still counted my housemates as friends. But I like travelling and it felt like I spent most of my life on a train. A train to visit friends, a train to go hiking, a train for work, a train to travel. It felt like I was living out of a rucksack, only stopping for 30 seconds in between dropping my stuff and going to sleep. And it felt like I was doing that several nights a week. What was the point of this house? What should a home do? I mean, I think a home should probably do what every other product should do. It's a tool to help you be more badass. I read about a guy who converted a van, quit his job, and travelled around southern Europe, and I thought maybe I should do the same thing, but without the quitting my job and without the travelling around southern Europe. "No," I said, "That would be ridiculous. "What I really want to do is start a company "and live the startup hype dream." Why? Well, so when I exit that I can convert a van and travel more. Maybe I see a shortcut. So with 10,000 pounds in savings, and my Dummy's Guide to Woodworking, I bought my first car, a long wheelbase big white van, picked up my long-unused power drill, and started building a home on wheels. That's a bit of a lie. There was a design phase as well. Oh there's the power tools. And it went a bit like this. How can I build a minimum livable product? What would be in Tim's magic minimum livable product? What can't not exist? So when the deadline came, because I'd already given the notice on my house at this point, when the deadline came and I moved into my minimum livable product, there were a few things I rapidly learned. What I thought should be in the minimum livable product and what was there was completely wrong. There were things that I thought were really critical that could easily and desirably be outsourced, and there were things far down my priority list that were much more important than expected. There's a big risk when you take an existing way of doing things and you try and replace it with another very similar way of doing things, that you replace it with another completely very similar way of doing things. My home had a washing machine. If I'd said my van needs to have a washing machine, I'd have some very difficult and distracting engineering challenges putting a washing machine in a van. They might be interesting to solve, but they won't help me be cheaper, faster, more badass, and figure out whether this is the right thing for me. I don't really enjoy hanging up wet washing, so when I learned that a launderette could be paid eight pounds and have all my clothes folded, washed, and ready for me to pick up the next day, well to be honest, that seemed like the kind of thing I should have done years ago. I've been living in a van now for two years and one of the biggest problems I can see is that I scaled a minimum livable product. The aim was to find out whether it'd work for me as quickly as possible, and it turns out it works for me. But I gave no thought to life after that point. It wasn't the right thing to do at that point in time. What I should really do now is throw it all away and build version two, but that's much easier for products that have software rather than hardware, and much easier for products you don't live in. So I'm not really going to do that. So should you do this kind of thing? Well, probably not. The only people here who should build a van and move into it are the people who'd do that anyway, like after they won the lottery. You should probably figure out what you'd do after you with the lottery and do that instead. But maybe there are some other kind of big life decisions in your life. Maybe there are some things that you're thinking about doing but they seem a bit scary and big. Are there ways you can break that down into small kind of prototypable things? See if you can come up with some kind of other minimum something product? Are there ways you can test it before you actually do it? So anyway, my life now. I've been living in a van for two years, what's changed? Well, I spend a lot less time on trains and a lot more time in traffic jams. If I want to go and see, if I need to see a needy client, I just get in my van and go. If I want to see some friends, I just go. If I get invited to Hydrahack, I don't think about whether I need to get accommodation in Birmingham or packing or anything, I just get in my van and drive down here. I've got all of my stuff with me all of the time. My home is very responsive. Some people kind of would think that it's maybe a simple life, but I just say it's much more focused. When I'm talking to people about conversion optimization I can say, "I'm a homeowner and I drive a Mercedes." Thanks very much.