With a growing fleet of converted vans, a network of community clubhouses, and a vision of tech-enabled “ephemeral cities,” Kibbo believes the new normal is nomadic.
COVID-19 has precipitated a sea change in the way we live and work. The rise of telecommuting has us questioning the traditional office; in an April Gallup poll, 59% of American workers said they’d like to work remotely even after restrictions are lifted. After all, why commute to an office when you can work from anywhere? And if you can work from anywhere, why not live anywhere?
Enter Kibbo, the latest start-up to join a number of van-share companies and co-living spaces reframing urban living. Delivering the ability to "shelter any place," Kibbo combines the two trends, giving van-lifers access to its network of clubhouses—community hubs where members can meet up to work on their vehicles, work on fast Wi-Fi, prepare meals, do laundry, and enjoy other amenities you don’t usually find on the road. For those without wheels, Kibbo rents converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinters starting at $1,500 a month.
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Whether you rent a van through Kibbo or bring your own, each clubhouse is a place to recharge, get inspired, and meet other travelers. In September, the company launched its initial clubhouses in the West: Big Sur, Ojai, and Black Rock Desert.
Access to Kibbo’s network of clubhouses is a welcome resource for existing van-lifers as shelter-in-place orders pose additional challenges. Michela Fitten, a Bay Area–based tech marketer and entrepreneur, has spent nearly two years in her own converted "adventuremobile."
"With COVID hitting and no bathroom in my van, living #vanlife wasn’t that appealing, nor safe," says Fitten. "My whole life design was thwarted: co-working spots closed down, public restrooms did too, and [it became] hard to meet new people when the pandemic forced everyone into quarantine and isolation." As restrictions ease up, Fitten sees Kibbo as a great way to enjoy traveling safely again, and to build community with others who appreciate the beauty of van life.
This isn’t the first time that Kibbo founder, Colin O’Donnell, has reassessed how we live and connect. O’Donnell’s previous venture was Intersection, a technology and out-of-home advertising company that produced LinkNYC. He believes today’s cities are ripe for disruption, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
"The pandemic has people craving to get out of cities that have been shuttered, and looking for meaningful community and connection after being isolated for so long," says O’Donnell. "As more becomes available online, we have freedom to rethink. Now with remote or hybrid work, education, and entertainment being the default for much of the population, the last limiting factors to living in a more fluid way have been lifted."
O’Donnell’s vision for the typical Kibbo member is an idyllic one: "We take our calls in the morning after a trail run in the mountains. We share our gifts with each other—making meals together, connecting and learning from each other. The Kibbo lifestyle is about having a chosen community rather than the default community of the office."
It’s a concept with obvious appeal for those of us confined to city apartments, attending Zoom meetings in painfully unergonomic dining chairs. However, Kibbo isn’t just for remote tech employees wanting to escape Silicon Valley and San Francisco (although at $995 a month, unlimited clubhouse access isn’t cheap). The premise benefits anyone in the van life community who wants to foster a connection with like-minded adventurers.
Joining the Kibbo waitlist was a no-brainer for Dave Shlachter, a mobile-home park operator and dad of three. "The only thing missing from our van trip repertoire is having a reliable destination in an excellent location," says Shlachter. "If Kibbo simply set out to provide this, we’d be all in. But they’re going further and injecting another ingredient into the mix: a very thoughtful focus on culture and community, borrowing many principles that make gatherings like Burning Man so socially transformational."
In Shlachter’s mind, Kibbo will allow a community to naturally blossom—a sort of "if you build it, they will come" situation. "If I were to characterize the van people I’ve met in the wild, they tend to be creative, self-reliant optimists," he says. "More importantly, they’re uniformly hungry for life."
In their design process, the Kibbo team took care to compose welcoming spaces that encourage togetherness. Aesthetically, the clubhouses draw from the soft cues of nature—chaparral, sand, the misty Pacific, sunset and dusk.
"In the dynamic world of Kibbo where locations and community are fluid, we needed a neutral, calming aesthetic that sets the tone of intentionality and also reflects the outdoors," says O’Donnell. "Our design lets the activity of the vibrant community and exciting locations take center stage without competing for attention."
Moving forward, O’Donnell envisions theme-driven clubhouses that specialize in specific programming: "For example, we may have an artist space at a Kibbo where people can come and create huge art projects. We may have spaces that are focused on writing, where we bring in famous writers to lead workshops. Or spaces that grow food where members can create farm-to-table meals for each other."
In addition to building their own clubhouses, Kibbo plans to partner with existing artistic communities, such as the off-grid retreat Lazalu in Zion National Park.
Kibbo’s initial waitlist is already full with over 500 people registered and over a thousand additional people expressing interest. As Kibbo’s community grows, O’Donnell has an even loftier goal in mind of it becoming a modular city.
As O’Donnell sees it, Kibbo has the potential to become a matrixed city—an ever-shifting community connected through its system of vans and clubhouses. "COVID has exposed a massive weakness in cities, and even large company campuses," he says. "They are not dynamic or flexible. In a world of ever-increasing innovation and disruption, we are starting to build out the first new city that is not only adaptable to change, but thrives off of it, and that is able to fluidly adopt technological advances as they develop."
O’Donnell equates Kibbo’s relationship to the built environment to the cloud’s transformative effect on computing: "The Kibbo van is your tiny home or mobile bedroom, equipped with everything you need to be self-sufficient. When these vans come together around a clubhouse, they create a building block of an ephemeral city."
He imagines a future where autonomous vehicles-turned-homes drop members off at work sites and run errands, and where buildings can even be programmed to move locations. "What if the community and infrastructure itself moved, and you could reconfigure on the fly, or set up a new city literally anywhere?" says O’Donnell. "I see this being a gateway to a new way for humans to live—a new type of city that isn’t attached to land the way we have traditionally been."
"The Kibbo van is your tiny home or mobile bedroom, equipped with everything you need to be self-sufficient. When these vans come together around a clubhouse, they create a building block of an ephemeral city."
—Colin O’Donnell, Kibbo founder
For those still unconvinced, O’Donnell offers, "Once you have liberated your mind from the notion that we should be surrounded by four sheetrock walls, permanently fixed in place, with an attached 30-year-mortgage, there’s no going back. Still, we are in early days, so we are looking for explorers and those that are willing to go on an adventure with us."
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