Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

​Kenzo Fong working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

Plenty of techies have started companies in garages. Try running a startup from a van.

In San Francisco, one software company founder has been using a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van — picture an Amazon delivery vehicle — as a mobile office.

Kenzo Fong bought the van at the start of the pandemic when he found himself longing for fresh air and a quiet workspace away from his kids, ages 3, 7 and 9.

"Sometimes I just work from Ocean Beach," said Fong. "Sometimes I work close to where my kids need to be for soccer class or whatever."

Parked vans are a familiar sight in the Bay Area, where they shelter van-lifers and people who've been priced out of the nation's tightest housing market. Fong hasn't met anyone else who primarily uses a van as a home office, but he imagines there are others.

"You never know. I think there must be people who do the same thing," Fong said. "I think it makes a lot of sense."

Meet 'Wonder'

It's a fitting workspace for Fong, whose startup Rock helps remote teams collaborate both in real time and asynchronously by providing messaging, files, tasks and meetings in a single hub. Fong has only raised a seed round so far, but hopes to become a challenger to big productivity and communication tools like Slack, Trello, WhatsApp, ClickUp and Discord.

For now, Fong runs his Zoom meetings in his van, which his family named Wonder. The vehicle is well-equipped with a desk, couches, sleeping hammocks, a small kitchen and a bathroom with a toilet and shower.

Most importantly, Fong has great Internet access in the van, thanks to his trio of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile hotspots.

"If there is a cell tower nearby, I have internet," Fong said. "If you're looking at Maslow's pyramid of remote-worker needs, one is probably internet. Two is electricity."

Fong works from the van locally most days. Over the summer, he spent three months working from the van while he and his family crisscrossed the western U.S. on an 8,000-mile road trip.

That means two adults and three kids sleeping in the van. Fong said the couches convert into a queen-sized bed, where he and his wife sleep, and their 9-year-old sleeps on a foldout. A hammock system in the front serves as a bed for the two younger kids.

"You really need to love your kids," Fong said. "I imagine that it's probably similar to being in a submarine. Once all that stuff is set up, you're like, 'OK, wait. I need to go left. You wait on the right for, like, five seconds.'"

Fong has worked from Orcas Island, Arches National Park, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. It helps that his wife loves driving the van, he said.

Back home, Fong parks the van on the street outside his home on the border of San Francisco's Noe Valley and Glen Park neighborhoods. Parking enforcement has made that an adventure in itself at times.

"On more than one occasion, I would be working in the van, and then parking police would show up trying to give me a ticket," Fong said. "I'm like, 'Wait, wait, wait!' I jump out of my car, and they're like, 'What? Somebody's in this car?' I haven't gotten a ticket yet, but knock on wood."

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

How to work on the road

In order to balance his work on the road trip, Fong limits himself to one or two meetings per day, scheduling those for the morning before getting on the road.

Fong takes care of the rest of his work asynchronously on his laptop while the van is moving. Rock's 20 employees operate within the company's platform across seven time zones.

"I think there needs to be a different way of working," Fong said. "I try to keep meetings to a minimum. Meeting time is the most precious time that we have, because there's only a limited window in the morning to talk to people in Europe and a limited window in the evening where I can talk to people in Asia."

The rest of work has to be done asynchronously, almost like a relay race where employees in different regions hand off work to each other as each time zone signs off for the evening, Fong said.

Operating this way is a departure from how some of the larger tech companies proceeded into the pandemic. When remote work began, the giants simply repurposed the tools and procedures they had been using in the office, Fong said.

"I think trying to replicate that in-office culture where you still have to do your meetings — way too many Zoom meetings — and being responsive to email and Slack leads to everyone working longer hours," Fong said.

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