David McKinney is an Australian app developer who decided to turn an old van into a mobile office, complete with a desk, internet, and power for his computers.
Rather than always working at home, where family life can be a distraction, McKinney prefers his mobile office when he needs to be creative. It lets him choose where he goes to work every day, and he’s developed both the official Product Hunt app and his own Emoji Type keyboard app inside the van.
He’s traveled to beaches, forests, and secluded rivers all throughout Australia.
To learn more, we talked with McKinney to find out what he enjoys most about his nomadic workspace and to see if he has any tips for those looking to build their own.
Business Insider: How did you decide to turn your van into a mobile office?
David McKinney: One thing about having an office in a van is it’s really cheap. In Australia you need a car anyway. Everything is far away. The cities you’ll live in are spread out, and you’ll generally need a car. So no matter what you have some kind of vehicle.
McKinney: This van is a commercial van, it’s not all fancy inside, so it probably costs the same as a normal car. It’s a diesel engine, so it runs pretty cheap.
Office space here is expensive, and in the past I’ve had an office, but I liked that process of physically going somewhere to work. I’ve got two little kids and all of the other things that go with being at home so being at home is generally a place I can get a lot of practical work done, but it’s not that creative work. So I definitely need that space where I can go and, without paying for an office and making that feel like a nice space, a van just seemed like a logical idea at the time.
BI:You’ve worked as a Marine biologist outdoors and in the ocean before, and now you’re an app developer for a living, which is typically a bit more of a secluded profession. Did you create your mobile van office as a way to bring the outdoors to a traditionally solitary profession?
McKinney: For me, I get most of my work done in very short periods of time when I manage to get to a certain point where I’m not distracted. The van office and working in different places is really about sort of preservation of flow. I get quite protective about that little window I have where I can actually make things and get creative so the office in the van is really like a tool I have to help me get there.
Sometimes it’s great being in the van. I can go anywhere I want but sometimes it doesn’t even matter where I’m going. It’s the act of being on the move that distracts my mind enough where I can get into that zone. It’s a fragile place, that creative zone, so I do everything I can to protect it.
In terms of being outdoors, writing code, doing design, technology, apps … it’s intense. I guess I try and offset that with working outside. Water and the ocean is the only thing that saves me from myself. I’m trying to get myself to a place where I can be creative and productive and sometimes locking myself away in the van is the best way.
Sometimes I’ll just go sit in my van outside my house. It’s a space that I know I can get good work done; I know when I go to the van, to my little office, I’ve had periods of intense productivity there before so now I associate that van with a space where I can go and have a chance of reaching that again.
BI: Do you have an estimate on how much it all cost?
McKinney: It’s cheap. Everything inside it I basically put there myself. The walls are actually just plywood painted white and the floor is just this cheap sort of click-clack floor that fits together and looks nice. The couch was a few hundred bucks.
McKinney: I’ve got an inverter for power, that was a couple hundred bucks. Basically you can spend as much as you want on a van, but it’s just a commercial van and you could outfit anything in a similar way.
BI: What do you do for electricity?
McKinney: Power is the big one. We all use so many devices and they’re power hungry. Even a laptop or your phone, you just constantly need to be charging, so you need a good source of power at all times.
The best thing to do is have two batteries. Basically you have a battery that starts the car and that’s locked away from everything else and can’t be drained by anything else in the office. That way you know you can always start your car. The best thing about a van, your batteries are constantly charging up when you drive around. So if you ever run out of juice you can just drive somewhere and get more power.
Separate to that, you also have a second battery that is used for all of the office stuff. So basically you can run that battery down and even if you flatten that battery, you can still start the van. And then once you’ve started the van, you’re now also charging up that second battery, so that’s a really good situation.
BI: What do you do for internet?
McKinney: We have 4G here, so I have a tiny little modem that can run off a USB or off power, and that connects to 4G and it’s a little wi-fi hotspot. That lets me have internet in the van or when I’m sitting outside the van. Basically if you have power and internet, that’s really all I think you need in an office.
Other than other people to work with, that’s the other main thing that I find really important, but there’s a lot of tools out now to make that easier. Tools like Slack are really great for communicating with other people quickly.
BI: Any tips for people interested in building their own mobile office?
McKinney: The best tip is that second battery for the office, that’s called a deep-cycle battery, and deep-cycle batteries can be run down really low without damaging the battery. They deliver a long, slow cycle while a normal battery in a car is more sharp and is designed to only start the car.
BI: How would you explain what you do when you’re programming and writing code, and why is it important to get into that creative mindset?
McKinney: I actually see programming and design as the same thing. Now that’s sort of a bit strange, but for me, both of them are about trying to solve a problem, and design and code can be different ways to solve that.
For me, I need to get into that creative zone because you can do incremental work and changes throughout the day and improve things slowly, but the only chance you have to make something really good is those moments where you solve a problem in a different or new way.
In design that might be finding the best way to help a user understand content in an app or navigate through an app, or just have a good experience so that they forget about the design and are focused on the content of the app. In the case of Product Hunt, people shouldn’t really think about the design or the code, they should actually be thinking about the product that they find there. So the goal is to solve that in a better way, and there’s so many different ways you can do that.
To learn more about the apps McKinney develops, click here.
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