January 27, 2012

Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultant: An Entrepreneurial Saga In A Bleak Economy

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What is the issue?

Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultant was a business operated out of a van in front of the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan between Oct. 17th 2011 and Jan. 17th, 2012. The business was set up to assist people who were having trouble with Chinese visa forms.

In June 2011 Chinese authorities instituted a policy whereby they would only accept special New York 2011-version visa forms. Due to unclear web design and a large variety of different visa application forms floating around the internet, many people arrived at the consulate with the wrong visa form. Making the process even more difficult, the Chinese consulate required that the forms be typed — not filled out by hand. This would require a computer with Adobe Reader, and a printer.

The consulate is located in a very remote location in Manhattan, far from public transportation lines. The nearest internet cafe — where people could remedy their visa issues after they arrived at the consulate with the wrong form — is a 15-minute walk from the consulate, inside a Burger King restaurant, near Times Square.

I came across the idea for the business because I too had the wrong form. I was turned around by the security guard and sent to the Burger King, where I found every computer was being used to fill out these forms.

I was assisted in filling out the form by a calm, friendly, but very shabby looking middle-aged black man, and one really sketchy-seeming woman (scraggly hair, short, heavy, a manic look about her). When I returned to the consulate, I asked the security guard a series of questions to test his receptiveness to my idea. The security guard (“King”; the other one was “Paco”) said they were turning away nearly one hundred people per day. The next day, I returned in a rented Penske Moving Van, running a printer off of an AC adaptor that was plugged into the van’s cigarette lighter.

The first day in full operation, we were completely overwhelmed by demand.

At the end of the day, the black man from the Burger King came down and applauded us. He introduced himself as “Mike” (we later learned to call him “John”), a veteran of the first gulf war. He said we had taken away his entire income, as well as that of his staff (who he referred to as his “girls”).

For the next seven weeks, we established Lucky Dragon as a profitable enterprise, meanwhile battling a constant barrage of slander and harassment from Mike’s main “girl,” Jill, who was our full-time antagonist. We created uniforms, improved the comfort of the experience, printed promotional materials, got credit card readers, hired employees who could speak Chinese, and generally worked to minimize costs and save money.

Without doing anything to promote ourselves to journalists, we received mainstream press attention. Most notably, we were featured on NPR’s “Planet Money” on January 4th, which resulted in auxiliary coverage on several economically oriented blogs, and one condescending think tank. I also appeared on live national television in Canada on a segment called “Connect with Mark Kelley” (which I feel went very poorly).

Recently we were in the Financial Times Deutschland, Singtao, and a host of other global venues. At the time of our dissolution, we were talking with a journalist from CBS. I’m disappointed that didn’t pan out.

What happened? Why is it over?

We became aware of changes internal in the consulate last two Tuesdays ago. Changes that had come from higher up. The security guards told us that we would have to stay off of the sidewalk in front of the entrance, which they had never worried about before. They were now accepting out of state forms, also, they said. This development effectively killed 30% of our market.

I bought chocolates for the person in charge at the consulate and requested a meeting, which was not granted to me. Instead I met with a cute young visa officer who smiled sheepishly at me when I told her who I was, and showed her my (by now iconic at the consulate) red hat.

She told me that she thought we were smart, and that she was glad we could help the people we did, and provide the service we did; that things were complicated, that they weren’t trying to make it hard on people, that they were just bowing to orders from higher up in the government. I asked if they were planning to make any changes in the future and she said she could not tell me. We went home with a significantly reduced total income that day.

The next day we were informed they would accept all forms — as well as those that were handwritten. This killed another 50% of our market, leaving us without enough income on a day-to-day basis to continue showing up. We returned the van that night.

Miles Ross informed me of this tweet (above), later that day, which pointed to an executive order from the White House asking to speed tourist Visas to Brazil and China.

Was it pressure from the US Government? Did they learn about our story and decide that enough was enough? Or, perhaps, was our press attention in China and here reflecting poorly on the higher-ups in the consulate? One suspects it was a confluence of both these factors, as well as other things we’re probably not even aware of. Regardless, it is with great pride and affection that I say adieu to Lucky Dragon. It was an absolute pleasure to have stake in the running of the business — and to meet and get to know thousands of people in intimate sociological detail.

Lucky Dragon – A force for change in the world. LD4EAE

LUCKY DRAGON CREDITS
Adam Humphreys
Steve Nelson
Elys Muda
Janna Liang
Zachary German
Aung Aung
Mandy (last name idk)
Libbie Cohn
Monika Wyndham + Lauren Bucquet (design) TC mark

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