Everything You Need to Know About Owning a Mobile Business

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INSIDER SECRET:   When you have your own for-profit venture, you qualify for small business credit cards (which means you can easily earn TONS of free travel)!

Small businesses and side gigs are all the rage now.

I know plenty of people (including several of my teammates!) who have for-profit ventures ranging from general contracting to selling items on eBay. An unbelievable bonus to operating a small business is that you can qualify for super valuable small business credit cardswhich earn rewards that can literally take you around the world practically for free (that’s tangential information but you should seriously circle back to that).

Many popular small businesses nowadays are mobile businesses — on-the-road gigs that warrant owning a truck or trailer. Being your own boss and having the capability to pack up and plop down somewhere else is just about the closest thing to true freedom.

Examples: Are you interested in owning a food truck? Do you have a cleaning service or auto detailing operation? Are you a wedding photographer with a trailer full of props?  There are plenty of annoying little considerations as a mobile business owner.

Here’s a crazy helpful article for anyone desirous of a mobile business.

A mobile business can be anything from food trucks to moving companies to tutors to photographers!

What Are Mobile Businesses?

A mobile business can be relocated to amplify the amount of income you earn every year.

For example: If you Uber, you may decide to move your business downtown near the bars and restaurants on St. Patrick’s Day. If you own a food truck, you can move your business based on local events (if you know a popular event is going on, you can park nearby!).

Data from the American Mobile Retailing Association (AMRA) shows that 57% of mobile retailers participate in at least 5 events a month.

I talked to a vendor at the local Celtic Festival last year, who said she makes $60,000 for just a few months of work each year. That’s astonishing, and an excellent example of a mobile business. She and her trailer of trinkets just hop from festival to festival!

Cost of Running a Mobile Business

Before you get too excited, there are some worthwhile data points to note:

  • You’ll likely spend between $1,000 and $9,000 on a retail truck or trailer (more on a food truck)
  • You’ll spend another $5,000 to ~$10,000 retrofitting your truck or trailer (depending on its intended use)

The same data shows that only 18% of mobile startups will hit a break-even point within 1 year. That’s understandable, considering the money that goes into just about any small business.

My friend lives in Boston and recently purchased a used Airstream trailer to list on Airbnb. That’s a GREAT mobile business. But Airstreams aren’t cheap (she still spent tens of thousands of dollars), so she likely won’t recoup that money for some time. She’s already got thousands in reservations, though!

The cost of running a mobile business varies dramatically. For example, a Lyft driver (if he’s got a compliant vehicle) has very few business costs outside of operating his car. But a food truck driver has a suite of expenses, such as:

Food Truck (including kitchen equipment)$25,000 to $100,000 (one-time expense)
Decor (truck wrap, paint job, etc.)$1,000 to $2,000
Online Presence (website, social media advertising)$0 to $5,000
Permits$100 to $500
Swag (uniforms and such)$0 to $1,000
Kitchen Materials (pots, pans, etc.)$500 to $1,500
Utensils for Customers (flatware, paper plates, napkins)$200 to $300
Ingredients for Food$1,000 to $5,000
Point of Sale (cash register, iPad with Square, etc.)$200 to $1,000
Random Other Expenses$300 to $2,000

This budget is highly influenced by Food Truck Empire. You could spend as much as $100,000 on a food truck (though the average is half that).

This is the startup cost, and doesn’t take into account ongoing expenses, such as restocking supplies, paying employees, repairing and updating your truck, and filling up at the pump. The price of operating a food truck can vary greatly.

Affording Costs and Getting Rewarded for It

Startup Expenses

There’s almost always a big initial price tag for starting a small business. The AMRA conducted a survey a few years ago and found the average cost to start a mobile retail business to be ~$19,000.

Your startup cost will no doubt be painful, but you can earn hundreds of dollars simply by opening a business credit card and meeting certain spending requirements on the card to earn big fat welcome bonuses.

You can also write off the vast majority of your expenses, as they’ll be small business related.  Small Business Trends gives you some ideas for just how many items you can write off, to make your initial (and ongoing) small business expense less crippling.  Examples are:

  • Any supplies (ingredients, cutlery, cookware, gas, etc.)
  • Utilities (phone bill, internet, etc.)
  • Employee wages
  • Advertising
  • Travel (airfare, lodging, etc.)
  • Equipment rentals
  • Meals
  • Home office (a percentage of the rent you pay)

Depending on your spending, you can drastically reduce the taxes you’ll pay.

Recurring Expenses

All mobile businesses will need to account for recurring expenses.  For example:

  • If you’re an airport shuttle service, you’ll need to maintain your car and fill your gas tank regularly
  • If you operate a food truck, you’ll need to restock ingredients and renew permits
  • If you’re in the business of junk removal, you may need to pay an employee, as well as dump fees at the landfill
Earth could use more food trucks. This Mexican truck is the best in my city!

A great way to get some return for you recurring expenses is to put them all on a business credit card. Depending on which one you open, you could receive bonus points for all those annoying little costs. Some credit cards earn bonus rewards at office supply stores and on internet and phone bills. Some earn bonus rewards on shipping and advertising. Whatever your business, there’s a perfect card for you!

Saving on Travel Expenses

Gas and Mileage

If you’ve created a road-warrior small business, you’ll save quite a bit in taxes by writing off your gas and mileage. Just be sure to keep record of your activity.

Another fabulous way to save money is by finding a credit card that will reward you for these expenses. Some credit cards earn bonus rewards at gas stations. I have one that delivers effectively 3.75% back at the pump. That adds up when you’re spending thousands on fuel each year!

Mobile businesses that involve a trailer or a vehicle that requires a commercial driver’s license (like your moving company) will want to pay attention to that.

Save on Lodging

There are a slew of ways to save on lodging. And some of them aren’t what you think.

For example, corporate rates are available at hotels for business travelers. But they’re sometimes arbitrary. One hotel operator interviewed with American Express, saying

Many hotels recognize the need to offer a rate under that header … But, in most cases, it is at a higher rate for a non-discernible difference in room type.

There are other ways to get discounts, such as Allied Business Network, which gives folks pretty sizable discounts at certain hotel brands (quite a few, actually!).

Our favorite way to get discounted (or straight up FREE) rooms during our travels is with hotel credit cards. With some cards, you can earn enough points for up to 16 free hotel nights just after earning the welcome bonus. You can check out this post on the best hotel credit cards if you want more info.

Plan Where to Park​

If you’ve got an oversize vehicle, don’t expect to park anywhere you please. This takes a bit of strategy and thinking ahead.

Owners of big trucks and trailers should be aware of areas to park all along their route (not just at the destination!). Walmart parking lots are famously helpful for housing RVs, semis, and other huge vehicles.

I’d recommend using a tool like Trucker Path, which gives you access to areas to park oversize trucks, along with rest stop info, real-time updates of what’s available, and even weigh stations (for those of you with big rigs).

Keeping Your Business and Valuables Safe

One of the natural concerns of a mobile small business is security. There are just more hazards and factors for which to prepare.

Insure Your Business

An accident can mean a lot of things with a mobile business. It can mean a collision on the road, a slip and fall at your booth, or illness caused by the food you’re serving. There are insurance plans tailored to your small business, and many are honestly not terribly expensive.

For example, FLIP (Food Liability Insurance Program) offers food truck operators generous policies with no deductible. You’ll be charged based on your annual gross sales, and you can add things like trailer liability and liquor liability.

Transaction Security

Cash as a currency is becoming as outdated as animal hide. And as a mobile business, it’s a good idea to strive to transact with credit cards as often as possible. Use any form of mobile payment system, such as Square, PayPal or Intuit. You can process transactions on a tablet with no issue.

The more cash you keep with you, the more you stand to lose, either from misplacing your loot or falling victim to theft. Plus, credit card transactions are just easier. They go straight to your account! And your customers will thank you later, because you’re forcing them to earn valuable credit card rewards.

Bottom Line

Looking for the closest thing to freedom in this life? Be rich — or be your own boss and start a mobile business that you can move wherever the wind blows you or where good business opportunities pop up.

Examples of mobile businesses are:

  • Food truck
  • Photographer
  • Junk remover
  • Tutor
  • Moving company
  • Uber driver
  • Flea market vendor

Just note that some of these businesses (like MOST startups) require some initial capital, and generate expensive recurring fees. That’s why you should use the right business credit card for your expenses. You can earn enough rewards for a vacation, and save money that you can reinvest into your venture!

Let us know your small business aspirations! And to any mobile business owners, leave some advice in the comments.

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Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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