Take Your Work on the Road: 3 Tips for Launching a Mobile Business

mobile business
Larry under Creative Commons

Remember when food trucks were radically new? It took some convincing for passersby to be sure their meals would be safe as well as delicious. Some municipalities are still figuring out the rules of the road for food trucks, but for the most part, these mobile eateries are common sights on city streets and at outdoor events.

But what if you could buy a new dress from a truck? Maybe some fabric or yarn, or a pair of shoes, a bouquet of flowers or even cigars? It’s happening. Rolling boutiques are a growing wave of small businesses.

Mobile boutiques are gaining speed so quickly that they even have their own trade association: the American Mobile Retail Association (AMRA), which was formed by the owners of one of the first fashion trucks. There’s even a Fashion Truck Finder where you can search trucks by region or type of product, or find mobile shopping events in your area.

Could you imagine taking your small business on the road? The time may be right to consider a mobile format. If you’re keen to break free from a stationary business, these tips can help you get started.

1. Get Help — and Be Ready to Pay For It

Starting a business from the back of the truck involves significantly less startup money than leasing space for a brick-and-mortar shop. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can buy any old jalopy off Craigslist and ride it straight to the bank. You’ll want to have at least $20,000 available to cover vehicle acquisition and renovation, necessary permits and licenses, and other startup costs. Some of the mobile businesses you see on the road have undergone build-outs with $50,000 budgets.

The owners of The Fashion Mobile have been asked for their success secrets so many times they now offer mobile business consulting. They’ve also been very candid about the process of starting a fashion truck. One blog post supplies a laundry list of to-dos before their truck was truly ready to roll: it includes logo design and installation, flooring and figuring out steps and railings to help shoppers enter the truck. If you’ve never performed a DIY home improvement project, now isn’t the time to try your hand at DIYing your truck.

“I didn’t realize how much trucks are supported by a whole different set of service providers than automobiles,” said Beth Hess, owner and driver of the Craft Commons in Washington, D.C. “From exterior painters, to tires, towing and oil changes, you need to find the ‘truck’ version of everything.” Those specialized service providers can come with heavier price tags than you’ve come to expect for your sedan.

A mobile business also requires a more insurance than you might be ready for. Along with liability and content insurance coverage for your business, you’ll have to get a commercial auto policy for your truck. The Fashion Mobile recommends splurging on tow truck coverage.

2. Prepare For Ongoing Costs

If you’re lucky, you’ll need to replenish your inventory often — selling out of a popular product is the best problem to have! Ordering new stock will require a healthy cash flow, and you don’t want to get caught without the money to pay for your merchandise because you spent all your cash working on your truck.

“The truck itself — keeping it on the road — has been my biggest expense, so build plenty for that into your budget,” Hess advised. Along with oil changes, fuel and new tires, you’ll also probably have a parking ticket or two to handle on a regular basis. And you’ll have to prepare for regular city or town fees to operate your truck. If you live in a place that’s still developing rules and regulations for mobile businesses, you may have to make payments more often than annually due to changing rules.

Speaking of ongoing costs, where are you going to park your truck? You’ll need a secure location if you’re going to leave your merchandise locked inside. A parking spot could cost $250 per month — or more.

3. Promote Your Business as Much as Possible

Good news! Since you won’t be paying retail rent and utilities, you’ll be saving lots of money that other businesses have to shell out every month.

Bad news! People aren’t walking by your business at all hours of the day. They only see your business when you’re driving to and from events or when you’re parked at them. If you’re stationed on the street, potential shoppers may be nervous about approaching you.

“People are increasingly becoming accustomed to food trucks,” Hess said, “But the idea that you can come inside a truck is still new to a lot of people. They’re often excited and surprised to peek inside.” Since the Craft Commons is a public-access craft studio, Hess intends for visitors to sit and stay a while as they take on a small art project. She’s got to be ready to answer questions from curious passersby — sometimes the same questions, over and over.

Limited exposure means you’ll need to amp up your marketing efforts, whether through social media or traditional advertising. Potential customers will not just need to know where to find you; they’ll also want a preview of your offerings before they step up to your truck. Make sure to have plenty of business cards or flyers on hand to provide to curious customers once they step inside.

“The fact that the studio is in a truck gives it an extra fun factor as well as being a rolling billboard,” Hess said. Despite the challenges of starting a mobile business, she’s already seeing the benefits. “It lets me go to my customers instead of relying on them to discover and get to me.”

Your Turn: Have you thought about starting a mobile business? What would your truck offer?