Ask SCORE: Mobile business plan is on a roll

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 19, 2013 

Question: It seems like everywhere I look there are business vans zipping around town. I'd love to have the freedom to run a small business without being nailed down to a particular location. Are these mobile businesses successful?

Answer: Yes, many of the business vehicles you see on the road today are not just delivery vans; they're actually the primary site for the business. It's very common now to operate a business without a fixed brick-and-mortar location. Today we're looking at those businesses, like food carts and carpet cleaning, where the main interaction with customers and clients is through a mobile vehicle. Let's talk about this.

Our Bellingham/Whatcom County area is loaded with mobile small businesses of all types. One big reason: customers love the convenience. Many goods and services are promoted, successfully, as being available "where you want them, when you want them." Later on we'll look at some specific successful business ideas. But right now we need to discuss the basics of starting up a mobile business.

First off, there are two very different directions. You can do it all by yourself, or you might invest in a franchise. Like most all business decisions, it's a trade-off. You'll need to decide, pretty early on, which way you're going to go. Of course each way has some fairly strong advantages and disadvantages. Here they are.

"Go it on your own" has some real plusses. It's less expensive to start up, and you have full control over what you do. You can choose the names for your goods and services; decide for yourself when, where, and how you'll work; and market however, and to whomever, you wish. On the downside, re-read the phrase "on your own." You have no support team with solid expertise in the business.

The franchise path is very different. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. It'll cost you an up-front franchise fee, but in return you'll have a much faster launch. As a franchisee, you have immediate and continuous access to a "built in" support team, including prepared marketing materials, logos, flyers and advertising spots. You'll be linked to a strong regional or even national website.

Of course, all those goodies come at a cost. The franchisor will charge a royalty fee of a small percentage of your sales. You may be required to pay a pooled advertising fee or to buy certain products or services. You will certainly be limited in the geographical area you can serve.

So here's the take-away thought: a younger person with lots of time and energy might try the start-it-yourself route. Get a van; put some signage on the sides; whip up a marketing plan; and out you go. But someone else may have different needs. For example a second-career person might go the franchise route; use the canned materials from the franchisor to launch; and have help and advice from experienced experts.

Let's take a look at five mobile business success models.

Pet grooming. This service is a great match with a mobile van. A well-planned business model can serve repeat clients on a fixed schedule, while reserving one day a week to generate new business.

Business bookkeeping services. These van-based firms serve the numerous small and home-based businesses that need help with their books. Many also offer income tax and payroll preparation services.

Car detailing and maintenance. What a great opportunity for a van-based business to use its mobility to advantage. Example: work with an airport park-and-ride lot to offer convenient services like detailing and oil-changes while their customers are away for a few days.

Home-related services and products. These are increasingly common now, especially with the popularity of sites like Yelp and Angie's List. Successful business ideas: floor covering and window treatments; yard maintenance; carpet cleaning; home inspections; glass repair.

Mobile food services. This is a natural for those with restaurant experience. But be aware that Health Department regulations make this substantially more difficult than other mobile businesses. A mobile food van (jokingly called a "roach coach") has to meet very stringent health department requirements before opening the window for service. These include a requirement that the unit have a ground-based "commissary" kitchen, and numerous other particulars. If you're interested, go to whatcomcounty.us and click on "Food Handling."

Here's an emerging trend. Some local businesses, notably Kulshan Brewery, have decided in their business plan to entirely outsource their kitchen function to mobile food carts.

Looks like the mobile business model is on a roll, limited only by entrepreneurs' imaginations.

ABOUT SCORE

To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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