An online resource for innovative entrepreneurs that host their businesses in vehicles and pop-up shops. Interested in following suit? Peruse our selection of original interviews and curated content for tips and insights. Visit our company site for more information! UpendED.co
Here is a guide that I penned for Inc. on establishing a small, traveling circus. You may find that there are distinct similarities to the business aspect of operating a pop-up shop or taking a retail vehicle on a cross-country tour.
UpendED interview series: Ben Dubin-Thaler of BioBus
“The U.S. is in a bad way when it comes to science education. We’re ranked something like 17th in the world. In schools with over 50% minority enrollment, fewer than half of those schools have working science labs. The whole purpose that I had when I built the BioBus was to bring a hands-on science lab to students in low-income communities in order to inspire the next generation of scientists.”
Dr. Ben Dubin-Thaler is the 33-year-old founder of BioBus. Founded in 2007 after Dubin-Thaler completed his PhD in biophysics at Columbia University, BioBus now comprises four full-time employees and over 100 volunteers that oversee the daily operations of the New York-based non-profit organization. BioBus is also a founding member of the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, a consortium of scientists with traveling labs. In addition to this venture, Dubin-Thaler was also a member of the acting troupe “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping” which appeared in“What Would Jesus Buy?”
Find out how Dubin-Thaler’s acting troupe led to the creation of BioBus and why the roving lab may not be quite as expensive as it looks. Follow @BioBus on Twitter.
I looked online and I saw that Georgia State University had the first incarnation of a BioBus. Were you inspired by theirs to create your own?
I was inspired by a program at the University of Illinois called the Physics Van. That’s a program that’s been going on since I was in high school. Back in ’95, I did an internship with professor Mats Selen who is still running that program at the University of Illinois. They would bring cool physics demos and blow things up for elementary and middle school kids. That was really my inspiration for starting the BioBus, which was basically a just a slightly larger version of that.
How did you start the project?
I started the project by talking to people in a group called S.P.A.Z. who are a really amazing, anarchist-inspired collective that work in the Bay Area of San Francisco. I had known them for many years because I was in a performance group that toured on one of their buses. They are actually mobile entrepreneurs of a different kind. They take old transit buses and convert them into touring buses for bands and circuses and theater groups.
When I first started plans for BioBus, I talked to my friends at S.P.A.Z. They helped me to find a bus that was suitable and connected me to an amazing community of self-described “bus nuts” who are a group of people that maintain these 1970s, and sometimes even older, vintage GMC buses. They also helped me to convert the bus to run on vegetable oil and start the initial conversion to a lab space.
How were you paying for all of this?
In the beginning, it was just the little savings I’d managed to scrape together when I was doing my PhD at Columbia, and also money that I banked from my family members and colleagues of mine, other scientists. It was very low budget to start out.
What would you say were the total startup costs for the initial version of the BioBus?
The bus itself I purchased for $15,000. It had already been converted to an RV, so it had electricity and running water which was a great because I didn’t have to do the really basic, basic conversions. Beyond that, it was basically just my living expenses and travel expenses. When you’re living in an anarchist community in San Francisco, your cost of living can be very, very low.
What about the lab build-out? It seems like that could be very detailed and very expensive as well.
I used a type of modular aluminum construction material called 80/20. For about $3,000 I purchased the basic materials for constructing the lab.
So you built the lab yourself, pretty much?
We built the lab ourselves. I hired a carpenter for a couple of days to build some seating areas, but that wasn’t a real huge expense. All of the wood that we used for the majority of the building materials was repurposed from construction waste that we were able to pull out of dumpsters. Again, the advantages of collaborating with a collective like S.P.A.Z. is that they know where all the waste in San Francisco is, all the stuff that most people would say, ‘Oh, you know, this is just extra trash.’
The BioBus is now a non-profit, correct?
BioBus is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Why did you decide to go the non-profit route instead of making it a for-profit venture?
It definitely could have been a for-profit. But in order for it to be a for-profit, I would be in a lot of debt right now. I would have had to take out loans in order to get the equipment that was instead donated to us. We have close to $200,000 of donated lab equipment on the bus. Certainly those companies would not have donated to us had it not been for the fact that they were supporting a non-profit and they also were receiving tax deductions for their donation.
I recently interviewed the owner of Lulu’s Local Eatery, and she has a garden on her roof built by Bus Roots. I was looking on your website and noticed that your bus also has a roof garden built by Bus Roots. Can you tell me about it?
We were the first people with grass on our roof, I think. Marco Castro is the person that I worked with to put the garden on the rooftop.
Does that change the operating costs, having the garden up there?
What do you use it for?
The roof garden was put up to show that plants, like ideas, can grow anywhere.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with green roofs in general, but they reduce the temperature of the inside of a building. So they’re a way to cool without using fans or air conditioner and it’s also potentially a way to grow food. We actually have blackberries growing on our current green roof.
BioBus is the 501(c)3 non-profit registered under Cell Motion Laboratories. Do you have any other ventures under that banner?
The BioBus is the main project. Over 90% of the budget of Cell Motion Laboratories goes to BioBus. There’s a small amount of research that we do with Baylor College of Medicine that’s supported by contracts. We just got a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to help train forest service staff to help operate mobile labs. They’re starting the program in Jordan. We’re consulting with them to help prepare them for their new program. It’s some research and some consulting, but at the moment, our primary project is the BioBus.
Where does the BioBus go? Does it stay in-state or does it go all over the country?
Check out our website. It’ll show you every place we’ve ever been over the last four years. We’ve been all over the country.
Are you thinking about getting another bus at some point to go along with the one you have currently?
We don’t have any plans for another bus right now, although I think in the future we may work with other organizations to build BioBuses where there’s a need. Eventually, I would like to try to convince school districts that having mobile labs is an effective way for having cutting edge, hands-on research for their students.
The BioBus is focuses on education for kids in grades K-12. What you do think about expanding the program to encompass continuing education programs for adults (à la Genspace and Skillshare)?
I think that with the out-of-control spiraling of traditional academia, I think that there’s a real opportunity for BioBus to fill a need for adult education. We’ve done that in different situations. In the summertime, we do a lot of public events like the World Science Festival and Figment.
If you’re familiar with mobile education initiatives, you may have heard of The Door Step School, a literacy vehicle for marginalized children in rural areas of Pune and Mumbai, India.
But the U.S. had a similar program as far back as 1906. Out of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama, came the Tuskegee Institute Movable School. George Washington Carver founded the program with the objective of bringing education to local farmers. A Jesup Agricultural Wagon, mules, harnesses, and instructional materials were purchased for a reported $674.50. A later incarnation dubbed the Booker T. Washington Agricultural School on Wheels ferried a nurse, an architect, and specialists in home demonstration and agriculture to educate the marginalized population about the latest techniques, inventions, and discoveries in their respective fields.
Termed by Booker T. Washington as a “Farmers’ College on Wheels,” the Jesup Wagon would first visit a farmer’s field to demonstrate modern plowing practices or innovations in animal husbandry or plant varieties, fertilizer applications, and soil testing. Instruction in raising poultry, cooking, preserving and canning, home maintenance, and health then would be offered to the women of the household. After visiting area farms, the wagon would then proceed to a central community location for questions and answers from men and women, young and old. Local sentiment for the Jesup Wagon was enthusiastic, and over the first summer of operation its programs reached an average of 2,000 people per month. White plantation owners also requested visits from the Jesup Wagon for instruction for their tenants in improved farming methods. — Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Are you familiar with unschooling? This educational practice that ties traditional homeshooling methods with natural life experiences is an option that many progressive parents are considering for their children. Ani Lacy, designer, homesteader, and single mom to a young son, is attempting to purchase a used RV to take around the country whilst performing homeschooling duties and crafting works for her Etsy store.
While performing an interview today with BioBus founder Dr. Ben Dubin-Thaler, I discovered the existence of the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, a network of mobile science labs in which BioBus is a founding member. I’ll have more on them at some point, and the full interview with Dr. Dubin-Thaler about BioBus on Tuesday, June 19th.
I’m hell bent on finding out more about the independent mobile vendors of the carnival world. I wrote an article for Inc.com on small circus troupes, and that got me interested in the vendors that supply these companies. I’ll have more on these guys soon enough.
UpendED interview series: Debbie Rasmussen of Fly Away Zine Mobile
“It’s intended to be the first piece of a bigger caravan where there will be many mobile vehicles traveling around the country doing things that are related to free education, free skill shares, and free shows.”
Debbie Rasmussen started out as the associate publisher of Bitch magazine in 2003, and enjoyed a tenure as publisher from 2005-2008. After ending her stint at Bitch, she became the trucker she always wanted to be. The Fly Away Zine Mobile is less of a business and more of a mobile project that connects communities around the nation with ad hoc literacy workshops centered around ‘zine curation and librarianship. Last summer, the first tour of the Zine Mobile (Orderly Disorder: Zinester Librarians in Circulation Tour) took it to nine cities with four participants, including Rasmussen. The Zine Mobile was recently featured in Flavorwire’s round-up of incredibly unique bookmobiles from around the world. Read on to discover more about the founding of the Zine Mobile project, why Rasmussen chose life on the road over office life, and how the Zine Mobile project continues to operate without turning a profit. Follow the Zine Mobile’s Tumblr for future updates.
What do you do as your day job?
I don’t really have a day job, I guess. I’m trying to build this project. I’m very intentionally going in an unprofessional direction. I really don’t even know what to say. I guess I consider myself an organizer, a writer, an editor, an activist, and a music player. I feel like all those things are kind of equal. And with the Zine Mobile, I guess I’m a librarian, a driver, and a curator.
How and when did you come up with the concept for the Fly Away Zine Mobile?
My last day job was working at Bitch magazine where I was the publisher. I loved it. In many ways I felt like it was my dream job, but in some ways it wasn’t. I was missing the days of smaller projects, of self-publishing, and zines. We were going though a lot of questions, like any media organization, of how much to focus to put online, how much to put in print, and all of that. I feel like we were putting more efforts into online stuff which I thought was very important, but I also didn’t feel as excited about online as I did print when I thought about it.
Another piece of it for me is, when I was little, I wanted to be a trucker for awhile. My dad was into CB radios, fixing them and selling them. We always had CBs in our cars and around the house. My sister and I would often talk with truckers over the CB, so trucker culture has always felt familiar to me. When I got older, we also had a motor home. The nomadic culture was something that was always appealing to me and in my blood so to speak. The Zine Mobile project kind of came about as a intersection of those two things, trying to step back from this bigger magazine into the smaller world of self-publishing and also really wanting to be moving, seeing places. Not wanting to be in an office job anymore was a big part of it, too.
When was the project launched?
It was about a year ago. I though of it when I was at Bitch. I don’t know if it even says so on the website, but the Zine Mobile actually was intended to be the first part of a bigger project. I don’t mean to be evasive on your questions, but some part of the stuff, we’re still figuring out what it’s going to look like. But it’s intended to be the first piece of a bigger caravan where there would be many mobile things kind of traveling around the country doing things that are related to free education, free skill shares, and free shows. The idea is to revitalize community, bringing things back into our neighborhoods and doing things ourselves rather than going to the chain store down the street.
How did you choose the type of van that would become the Zine Mobile?
It’s a 1997 Chevy Astro van. I got it when I was in Minnesota last year which is where I grew up. I looked at many vans. My dad used to be the one who helped me select my cars because he’s way more mechanically inclined than I am. He died a few years ago, so this was one of my first ventures all by myself. One of the biggest pieces of advice that he gave me that I would also pass onto other people is to shop around. I looked on Craigslist for weeks and called on many, looked at many. The one that I ended up getting that I really like, I didn’t end up getting right away. I keep looking until I felt like I had done enough research.
I’m just starting the process of looking for a new vehicle — the Astro has been so reliable and is comfortable and easy to drive, so I was dragging my feet a bit. But it’s time — we’re maxed out in both space and volume. So looking for something larger, wheelchair accessible, and diesel or already converted to run on veggie oil.
What did you end up spending for the van?
I think it was about $4,700. The one funny thing I learned about looking for a van is, at least where I was looking, there are two kinds of vans — a party van and then the souped up family van. Early on, for me anyway, I wanted something that had a little more gadgetry. The Zine Mobile in the Astro van I got has track lighting and many different light switches that ended up being really helpful.
Did you have the interior custom retrofitted?
Not really. I live on the road, so this is going to be my home eventually. So for me, I was jokingly calling it the Zine Mobile on Training Wheels. I intentionally got something that I felt like I would need to do very few modifications. The van that I have has little cabinets inside so I can put little tiny zines in there. I did quite a few temporary modifications, but I didn’t have to do much in terms of the structure or overhauling it. That’s something that I think I would like to do later, but I don’t want to do that right now.
Did you have a business plan or some kind of template you were using for the venture?
Not really. Part of the work we’re trying to do is challenging capitalism, but obviously we’re all kind of participating in it. All of those things are so deeply complicated for us that a lot of our work ends up being really meta almost. When we get to the nuts and bolts of it, I’m like okay, we do need a certain amount of money to get going. I basically just asked people — friends and family — and said I would love to raise this much money to get the vehicle to start and get going.
How much money did you raise before you went out on the road?
I think I raised between $6,000 and $7,000. For the inaugural tour, I’d hoped to have enough money to cover the cost of the vehicle and gas, and I did. Gas will change when the next Zine Mobile is running on veggie oil, and people are always generous with food when we’re on the road because they understand what we’re trying to do.
Were you paid from this project at all?
I’m a volunteer. I don’t pay myself for any of it.
In that case, what do you do for money when you’re on the road?
Since leaving the world of full-time day job three years ago, I’ve worked as a caretaker/gardener at a feminist land project, a facilitator/advocate for a publishing non-profit in crisis, an animal house-sitter, a land/home/library/estate organizer, archivist, and caretaker, as a house painter and laborer, and as a barista at a coffee shop I worked at during grad school in Madison. I take on side projects or odd jobs when it makes sense, and when I’m in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the right place doesn’t matter, because it’s work that could be done from anywhere.
Who was out on the road with you? What was the structure of the tour starting off?
The Zine Mobile technically launched in Minneapolis where I was and where I bought the van, but it didn’t actually get out on the road until I drove down to New Orleans and met three other librarians.They were all there for the American Library Association Conference. They all flew in — John Stevens flew in from Australia, Celia Perez flew in from Chicago, and Jenna Freedman flew in from New York. I drove down from Minneapolis and we all met in New Orleans and then we went on a nine-stop tour over the course of the next three weeks. That was the inaugural adventure of the Zine Mobile.
You said you want to get a fleet going. What’s your ideal as to how that’s going to be structured?
In a practical way, what I’m hoping it would look almost like a train car…not a train car, but some combination of cars or maybe bikes or some kind of peddle-powered caravan of people and each piece in the caravan would offer something different. The Zine Mobile is the library and reading and writing area. I’m hoping to evolve it into a pen pal station, too, to help revitalize letter writing correspondence and offer alternatives to electronic communication. Then there would be a trailer or a truck that would have a healthy food offering and another one for movement or dance, and maybe another one about music. That would be a categorical system. It might be like a traveling carnival but more oriented towards ideals of cooperation and sharing and giving things freely but with a central tenant of fun and play. That’s the idea.
How many vehicles do you want to get?
I feel open. I think it would cool to get a core group of people who want to permanently live on the road. My own experience is that a lot of people are really excited about this project and want to come temporarily, which is also awesome. So having this core group of people — maybe five or ten vehicles — and other people plugging in if they want to along the way. Kind of wandering around the country, following weather patterns, and trying to be south for the winter and all that.
How do you see this model as being profitable, or do you?
No. [We’re] trying to bring ideas into focus other than profits. Things like cooperation and offering these things for free, trusting that people will donate what they can, if they can, or someone else along the way will cover it. That’s definitely been my experience with the Zine Mobile aspect so far. Sometimes I’ll stop and people will offer money for gas, and at other places they don’t, but in the end it all works out. For me, this isn’t about making a profit. It’s just sort of about living really simply in the world and trying to be an example that we would all benefit from if we were living a little more simply.
Do you see mobile businesses gaining traction? Do you see it as a thing that will gain popularity in the coming years?
I do. I think there’s this general trend, and I’m glad for it, of downsizing and simplifying and I certainly think one of the positive aspects of technology is making it much easier to be mobile. I have no statistics about home ownership and things like that, but it certainly seems like people are sizing down, if not sizing down to the point of being mobile. But I do think once we downsize and simplify, it makes it easier to be mobile, as long as you consider that choice.
I think as far as being permanently mobile, it’s been a really interesting experience for me this past year just seeing challenges present themselves, like this expectation that you have to have a home somewhere, you have to be in one place. From car registration to doing taxes, whatever, it’s like the system is set up against the idea of mobility.
How does the Zine Mobile operate? When the Zine Mobile goes to a city, what happens?
It depends. It’s a pretty flexible and open-ended project. A lot of times I will go and do open library hours at public parks or community centers or the parking lot of a public library. I often set up a little zine making station with a typewriter and paper supplies and writing utensils and all of that. When I was in Oakland, I was part of a zine show, and just pulled up outside of a café and kind of did the same thing. When we went on tour, we did a lot of zine readings in libraries and community centers and different kinds of places. I guess for the events, the common thread tends to be writing and reading and general literacy.
Did people actually go inside the Zine Mobile to participate in any of the classes?
Yeah. Because it’s an Astro van, it’s obviously very little. But the way that it’s set up is intended to be like a little mobile library and also a reading room. I’ve done special events where I’ve gone to someone’s house if they’ve requested it, where they’ve got, like, a poetry group. It’s an experience. You’re sitting in this little van surrounded by these really amazing zines, these little handmade magazines.
Did you have issues with any regulations regarding vending? You’re not really a vendor because you’re not selling anything, but did you run into any problems regardless?
No, not yet. I guess the biggest thing for me is that since I live mobily also, the Zine Mobile is technically my home. I have to be somewhat aware of where I am if I am going to sleep in it overnight. But that’s something very different from mobile businesses, I’m sure.
Where do you stay when you’re on the road?
A third of my time I spend with friends and family, a third of my time I spend in the Zine Mobile, and a third of my time I spend doing house sits and animal sits along the way.
How else did you get the word out there about the Fly Away Zine Mobile tour? Did you utilize social media in addition to the blog?
We used Facebook quite a bit on tour. I got off Facebook about six months ago myself. I had the Zine Mobile page up for awhile and then I ended up taking it down. I used Twitter for a bit and I didn’t like that either. I tried to update the blog. If you’ve seen it, you know I was terrible at it. I used Tumblr, too. I feel simultaneously curious about these new types of media because my own background is in media. I feel a certain kind of expectation or responsibility to test them out. I do see how people find them useful. I myself am looking to spend so much less time on the computer that I just can’t get myself to spend a lot of time [doing updates]. For better or worse, the Zine Mobile often does end up being a product of word of mouth which is kind of nice because I appreciate keeping it kind of small and contained at least for now.
When will the next incarnation of Zine Mobile go out on the road?
I am talking to people now about summer plans that would start in June.
Do you have an idea of how long you’d like to stay out on the road when it goes out this time?
I think it’ll be another four months again. I think it’s interesting what happened this past summer. I got on the road and went to Oakland and ended up taking on this library archiving project that ended up consuming all of my time. I joked that the Zine Mobile went into hibernation, which it kind of did even though I was still doing some special events. That might be a general pattern where it’s a little more dormant in the winter and a little more out there in the summer.
What practical advice can you give to people who are launching a mobile business, either for-profit or non-profit?
The idea of using magnetic letters on the outside of the vehicle was so helpful to me. It’s sounds pretty basic, but it didn’t occur to me until late in the process.
I really loved it, and it’s a great way to not do anything permanent until you’re ready. That’s something I would have appreciated knowing.
Where do you get big magnetic letters?
My friend got be these big sheets of magnetic paper that I just cut out letters on. Totally low-budget, do-it-yourself. I think she just got it from an office supply store. She got a bunch of sheets for me for like $5.
Cookies N Cream is an innovative brand that’s part clothing store, and part toy store. The stylish NYC-based blended brand uses a truck to promote their stylish urban clothing line, but is loathe to lump themselves in the mobile vendor category. “We’re a creative brand, much more than the truck. The truck came about as a result of creative brainstorming on our part as far as figuring out ways to bring our items directly to the people,” says Gainu, a partner in The Cookies Mob. Vending for promotional purposes only is a relatively recent trend, used by the likes of companies such as Mashable that are looking to capitalize on the popularity of the mobile scene. We’re not hating on these guys, though. They’ve had the truck for four years, long before the fad became a staple. They can be found on busy Broadway in SoHo on the weekends, parked amongst vendors who use trucks as their only selling…vehicle. Check out the vivacious duds that Cookies N Cream produces as part of their varied ventures. For more information, head to their website or contact The Cookies Mob directly.