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Utah Business

Kibbo hopes vanlife will become our new normal way of working and life.

In the future, no one will own homes

“What if you could choose to live everywhere and nowhere? I found myself asking that question, and eventually, Kibbo became my answer,” says founder Colin O’Donnell of his company, an alternative living environment that invites its customers to live out of camper vans from a network of designated Kibbo campgrounds.

His business is a new outpost within the vibrant scene of American van travel that’s providing an innovative way for subscribers to live and work from the road, all without losing a sense of community or the true comforts of home. His home-on-the-move membership service offers structured outposts where members can camp, enjoy the provided amenities, engage with like-minded travelers―as well as the option for its members to rent a van if they don’t already own one.

For less than the cost of a studio apartment in most major cities, a Kibbo subscriber can rent a fully loaded Mercedes sprinter van with a network of home bases across the West stocked with essential groceries, provisions, and WiFi access. These overnight destinations serve as central hubs designed to feel like co-living spaces where van travelers can live, work, and play.

Kibbo campsites opened just two months ago with its first stopovers in Ojai and Big Sur, California;  the Black Rock Desert in Nevada; and Zion in Utah both opening early 2021, along with five other urban locations currently being built.

What if we don’t need to live in one place?

Before taking the big leap to found Kibbo, O’Donnell first started LinkNYC—a company that grew from New York City government official’s need to convert payphones to WiFi hotspots all across New York. During his time with LinkNYC, O’Donnell dreamed of branching out from digital and physical technology into real, actualized cities. 

“I always found myself wondering if we could shape this into something more. We worked with what we called a ‘responsive city’—a city that could morph and respond to the needs and wants of people in real-time. With sensors and data, we began to understand the city of NYC more and started to change digital screens in real-time all across town in order to test out the first version of our responsive city.

“The idea stemmed from that notion—what if we could change more than just pixels? What if we put the control into people’s hands but while supporting them with data? What would this digitally-enabled city look like?” 

After Sidewalk Labs bought O’Donnell’s company, he knew it was time to go experience another part of the world. “I wanted to start a new company where I could use my previous tech experiences and continue along this evolutionary trajectory we were on.” 

While looking for his next spot, O’Donnell realized he had the freedom to travel and make his home anywhere. He considered the idea of van living, but felt that he’d miss relationships and human connections. He also questioned the mobile lifestyle’s accessibility to find new work collaborators and connections. 

“I drooled at the idea of van life, but I ultimately questioned how I would actually find new friends, people to work with, and on the basic level, a reliable WiFi connection out in the wild,” he explains. “LA felt creative, with sunny beaches and deserts and mountains close-by. San Francisco felt walkable, like a bougie chunk of Brooklyn dropped on the west coast, and of course, Silicon Valley as the epicenter of American startup culture. 

O’Donnell yearned for the outdoors. The freedom to be in the mountains, the proximity to explore the deserts and travel along the coast, all while having the amenities―and career opportunities―of the city. And then he had an idea… what if he could have the best of both worlds?

Kibbo hopes vanlife will become our new normal way of working and life.
The future of van life, renderings by Kibbo

What if we can work where we play?

The idea of group living intrigued O’Donnell, so he became a part of a co-living community in San Francisco called Agape, where he still resides when not on the road. There, O’Donnell moved in with 10 roommates in a converted Victorian home, where they still have Monday night group meals, book club meetings, long conversations, and even some semi-public events such as political chats and open-mic nights. 

“The relationships I made at Agape led to the root idea of the mobile city that I had always hoped to design. There’s no better, faster way to become integrated into a new environment than to live with other people who really hangout, collaborate on art work, play music, cook meals, and treat each other like chosen family.” 

For O’Donnell, this was the moment it all clicked. He knew it was possible to take the freedom of van life and combine it with the community feeling that he’d found in group housing. “I decided that if I could combine these two things—community and freedom—I could not only have the best of both worlds, but I would also be continuing down that early pathway of building a truly responsive city. Camper vans are essentially movable buildings, so I thought if we could first get dozens of people to live together productively and happily at our hub locations, why couldn’t we eventually scale it up to fully reconfigure hundreds or thousands of mobile cities?”

With the pressures of quarantine and months of social distancing, isolation gave people the desire to get out and explore closer to home, foster human connections, and be surrounded by nature. This feeling of escape, along with so many new work-from-home opportunities (more than half of the American workforce is currently remote), has supported an exceptionally high demand for Kibbo subscriptions. 

“When we launched, we hoped to find 100 people to go on this adventure with us. When 500 people immediately signed up, we knew we were on to something and had to pause the application process. Then another 2,000 people signed up to be notified when more spots opened up. The demand blew away our expectations and confirmed that people are looking for new ways to connect and to explore a different way of living,” O’Donnell says. 

An unassuming company with big ambitions, Kibbo aims to bring together van travel, beautiful natural sites, shared spaces, and many opportunities for creating an authentic sense of community. “We’re going to build a collection of unique locations all across America—cities, forests, deserts and coastal regions—where your van acts as your mobile space on wheels and the clubhouses provide everything else you need,” he says. 

What if it cost the same as rent?

This mobile lifestyle has become O’Donnell’s solution to the extravagant costs of living in a city. Kibbo, as he describes it, is not only an adventure but it’s also a more affordable alternative to paying monthly rent in a larger US urban environment. “Unlike, traditional top-down designed and built real estate developments, Kibbo is setting out to build the first of the next generation of cities: flexible, reconfigurable, designed, and defined by the people that live in it, off-the-grid and sustainable,” he explains. 

O’Donnell, along with his investors, believe Kibbo offers the opportunity to rethink how we live, work, have fun, and find meaning. Anand Babu is the leader of Google Research’s Kernel team and is one of Kibbos investors. Previously, he served as an executive at Opower, led Microsoft’s Azure strategy, and cofounded Alphabet’s urban innovation arm called Sidewalk Labs, where he and O’Donnell first crossed paths. 

“O’Donnell told me about Kibbo years ago, before the idea was fully fleshed out,” Babu says. “I was eager to get involved, and it’s more important now than ever with today’s concurrent crises of climate, social justice, and public health. It’s forcing many to re-evaluate what’s important, and if how they live aligns with their values.”

It’s true that wanderlust is part of the American DNA and our country offers extraordinary diversity in terms of nature and culture that’s waiting to be discovered. “Prior to COVID, we were getting increasingly entrenched and siloed geographically,” Babu says. “Kibbo connects with people that imagine a different world, one where mobility serves to bring us together. One way to think about this is as a study abroad for everyone. Those fortunate enough to have that experience (less than five percent of Americans) realize there’s no substitute for understanding a new place or culture. In the process, you begin to understand yourself.” 

The monthly rate for a Kibbo membership is around $1,500. While this seems expensive for “living in a van,” it’s less than the price of rent in most major US cities―and the company already cannot keep up with demand. “What you’re getting in return for the price is something not found elsewhere,” Baby says. “Kibbo is the first to offer an economic proposition where anyone can have an experience like this, and just for the price of rent.”

In terms of financial viability, Babu believes strongly in Kibbo’s business model. “For a long time, the wealthy have been fortunate to own second homes or time-shares. But for regular people, economics and corporate demands have forced them into five-day-per-week, rat-race commutes. Thus, taking time away from family and community, leaving only short-term travel opportunities, and often expensive, carbon-intensive holidays at peak times. But we think that world is finished. Kibbo is about giving people experiences that are fundamentally more flexible and aligned with their purpose. It’s not a cost-play; it’s a value and experience play.”

Kibbo’s mission is centered around counteracting rising real estate prices and instead creating a work-from-the-road model where abundant amenities and comforts of home are not lost. And right now happens to be a time when people are starting to move away from more traditional lifestyles and hit the road. “In the medium-term, we see a tremendous opportunity to reshape the van ecosystem,” Babu says. “Today, relatively few owners are okay dealing with high-friction and risk of short-term rentals. In contrast, Kibbo’s long-term trusted use model enables owners to rent out vans for several months, creating income during their off-season with minimal depreciation.”

Additionally, whereas camper vans today are an expensive cottage industry, Kibbo hopes to shape a more accessible van ecosystem where multiple OEMs (Mercedes, Tesla, Rivian, Ford, etc.) can produce EV-based platforms at large-scale that can be easily customized with plug and play parts, analogous to how the PC or smartphone industry works.

“Colin thinks and lives in the future. For up-starting a new business, he understands that large-scale shifts in how people form communities take years or decades to reach fruition. He has a mental map of how these shifts will play out, and he’s able to patiently focus on serving those who are ready to make the leap today,” Babu explains. “In contrast, existing businesses in hospitality, real estate, or the sharing economy see the world as it exists, often ignoring the tectonic plates moving underneath. By the time they notice, Kibbo will be far ahead in uniquely shaping customer behavior and in building a company culture that’s passionate about serving its community.” 

All in all, this new venture isn’t about just what’s on the surface: “We’re rethinking the urban experience to define what we want cities of the future to look like and how we want to live,” Babu says. “Feeling connection and belonging is a basic human necessity. But the need for freedom is also so important, especially right now. The good news is that you can have both.” 

Kibbo hopes vanlife will become our new normal way of working and life.
The future of van life, renderings by Kibbo

Sarah is a multi-dimensional writer and editor. With a heart for travel and a desire to experience the people that make up a place, she’s documented the Maasai villages in Kenya, wandered through California’s coastal town of Big Sur on assignment, and traversed the Mexican jungle in search of a worthy story. She’s worked in-house for Monocle, Kinfolk, Conde Nast, & Hearst Magazines, and has spent several years working with the award-winning creative agency Design Army.