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ON THE MOVE

by Simon Lord,
last updated 20/09/2010

Mobile franchises are a popular and affordable way to get into a business of your own, but what’s it really like being on the road every day? We asked three franchisees to share their experiences

Provender franchisee Wayne Coley has been on the road for ten yearsTired of sitting staring at the same four walls all day? Enjoy meeting new people instead of the same old workmates? Or do you just like the sensation of being constantly on the move? Whatever the reason, if you’re interested in owning a mobile business, you’re not on your own. Some of the fastest-growing franchises in recent years have been those which have taken their product or service out to their customers, and the range of opportunities is quite surprising.

First, there are the businesses which by their very nature have to be mobile: taxis, shuttles and courier companies would fall into this category. Then there are businesses that have to travel in order to get to their customers: lawnmowing franchises, commercial cleaning businesses and distribution franchises in all sorts of products from cookies to cooking oil. Thirdly, there are the franchises that are taking services to customers that haven’t traditionally been mobile. It’s perhaps in this area that the biggest surprises are to be found, with everything from car tuning to carpet retailing, espresso coffee to bookkeeping, metal spouting formation to the provision of extra rooms. The result is that anyone looking for a change of career and lifestyle has plenty of opportunities to choose from.

Mobile franchises have a number of advantages from the financial point of view, too. For a start, they usually require a lower investment than premises-based businesses. Because they are mostly home-based, there’s no rent, no rates, no landlords and lower overheads. And, from a sales point of view, your ability to go out and meet customers rather than waiting for them to walk into your shop or office means that, if business is slow, you can do something about it. As business confidence makes a slow and sometimes shaky recovery, those can be attractive benefits. But what are the issues involved in running a mobile business? We brought together a panel of franchisees to share their experiences.

Wayne Coley knows all about life on the road, having been a franchisee with snack and drink vending specialists Provender for the last ten years. Before that, he owned service stations and still relishes the change. ‘No 24-hour responsibilities, no staff hassles, no security worries, a fair degree of flexibility and a lot less paperwork,’ he grins.

For Colin Davids who, with his wife Serena, owns a V.I.P. Home Cleaning franchise, the business offered a route into self-employment for the first time after a career in logistics management in South Africa. After six years working and travelling together, the couple still relish the flexibility resulting from being their own boss.

Neil Newman, on the other hand, runs his Just Cabins franchise as a part-time add-on to his regular business as a real estate auctioneer. That’s a job that has seen him travelling regularly for the past ten years, so life on the road holds few surprises for him.

 You Need To Be Organised

With 110 vending machines based at 85 different sites around Auckland, you might imagine that Wayne Coley spends most of his day stuck in the city’s notorious traffic. ‘I could be, but over the years I have learned ways of beating it,’ he says. ‘I work Mondays to Fridays and I usually get on the road before six to beat the traffic to the trickier sites – lots of my clients open early, so it’s not an issue. It might be an early start but I’m heading home by 3.30, I spend half an hour re-stocking the van for the next day then another half hour on paperwork and I’m finished. I have the accounting side set up on computer so a GST return takes me about 15 minutes and it’s all pretty simple really. The trick is to be organised. During the week I note down any issues at each site, whether it’s a machine that needs servicing or moving or a customer who needs a meeting, and then I spend a little time every Sunday night scheduling my week accordingly.’

Colin Davids agrees that organisation is vital if you’re going to make the most of the lifestyle that owning your own business can offer. ‘Serena and I work from around 9.00 to 2.00 four days a week, and I also service our commercial cleaning clients for a couple of hours three evenings a week,’ he says. ‘We keep Tuesdays free for one-off jobs that we can’t do during our normal visits, and that’s also a day for paperwork – weekly and monthly invoicing and the bi-monthly GST returns. Because most of our work is regular clients, we can plan a whole month ahead then all we have to do is review it each week to make sure everything is on the list. That way, we get the rest of our time free and we very rarely work weekends.’

Neil Newman says his Just Cabins franchise takes less than two days a week. ‘My auctioneering business tends to be mid-week, so Monday and Friday are prime days for delivering and removing cabins – although of course I check my email every day and the phone can ring any time. There might also be the occasional weekend at a home show or something.’

Working From Home

Being mobile-based means that when it comes to paperwork, you’re going to have to do it at home. Each of our panellists has set aside a room to use as a home office, which means that they can shut the door on the computer, filing and paperwork at the end of the working day (although not necessarily the phone calls). When it comes to stock and equipment, Colin Davids says that part of the garage is given over to storing equipment and cleaning chemicals, while Neil Newman also has a storage area where he keeps ‘bits and bobs’ for maintenance. His products are larger than most, though, and he has an arrangement to store cabins awaiting delivery at the local golf club! A planned move to a rural property will see him storing those, too, at home.

In Wayne Coley’s case, you might think that boxes of snacks and cases of soft drinks would require a lot of storage, but he says that’s not the case. ‘I started off with a garage-full, but now I operate from a small truck rather than a van so a lot of stock is held in that, and I have a small shed where I store the bulkier stuff. Suppliers deliver once a week so you aim to keep stock to a minimum – I’ve got it down to a pretty fine art.’ How long did learning that take? ‘Far too long – about seven years!’ Wayne laughs. ‘But supply times have improved and new franchisees get on top of it pretty quickly now.’

Of course, there are considerable tax benefits to working from home, as any good accountant will point out (see page 34). Depending on what percentage of the home is devoted to business use (office, storage and garaging work vehicles), an appropriate proportion of rent, mortgage interest, rates, power, phone and other costs can be covered by the business.

Selling Yourself

One of the benefits of mobile franchises is that you can take your business to your customers, but you still have to attract those customers in the first place. This means that you need the confidence and ability to sell yourself and your services to people.

Sales leads come from many different sources. Colin Davids values Yellow Pages advertising, Neil Newman runs local advertising and attends events and Wayne Coley has an eye-catching livery on his truck. They also receive leads from national advertising, website promotion and a range of other sources. But some franchises, at least initially, do require you to make sales calls on potential customers, either in person or on the phone. ‘When I started out, I did a lot of cold calls and I found it really hard – you get knocked back a lot,’ says Wayne. ‘To be honest I probably made all sorts of excuses for not doing it as a result, and expanded by other means instead. These days, Provender actually offers a professional telesales service to franchisees seeking new clients, although I haven’t needed it. But in reality, every time you see a client you are selling yourself – it’s part of being in business.’

Fastway Couriers makes the most of such opportunities by encouraging franchisees to treat every business they deliver to as a potential customer, on the basis that a business receiving parcels is likely to need to send them, too. It’s this ability to turn a contact into a client that every mobile franchisee needs. ‘That’s the way you make the most of referrals, too,’ says Wayne. ‘Word of mouth is the best marketing you can do so you want to make sure that you’re providing the best possible service to people so they’ll tell others. I had one client, a manager in a big retail group, and every time they opened a new store he’d automatically ask me to put a new machine in because he knew what we could do for them.’

Colin Davids agrees. ‘We get a lot of referrals and they are very important to us. The nature of our business is that we don’t actually see our customers a lot, as they are often at work when we are cleaning, but when you quote for their business you need to demonstrate your integrity and respect for their home so they know they can trust you.’

As well as a trustworthy and professional image, many mobile franchises require the franchisee to possess good presentation and sales skills. This is obviously the case with franchises such as business coaching or investment broking, but it also applies to many other industries. The secret is to select a franchise whose requirements match your own personality. For example, in some home services franchises it is not the franchisee but their area manager who visits new clients, prepares quotations and arranges jobs – all the franchisee has to do is turn up at the right time and do a good job. Other systems leave visiting and quoting to the franchisees themselves. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, but they will suit different people. Be honest with yourself and decide what suits you.

Staying In Touch

Another aspect of having a mobile business which also needs to be considered is communication with and support from the franchisor. Mobile phones offer much more than just phone and text these days, and can be a great aid to efficiency; however, if you get constant phone calls for quotes or schedule changes, they can work the other way. Don’t forget, with many mobile franchises you are only earning while you are working.

Most established franchises will have developed communication solutions to enable franchisees to get on with the job: 0800 numbers, call centres, pagers and email are just some of the alternatives. But franchisors warn that it can be difficult to pick up operational or other problems with mobile franchisees unless communication goes both ways between franchisor and franchisee. That’s why many franchisees require report sheets, updates and all sorts of other information through email or a web-based computer system. This two-way flow enables franchisors to provide much better support and advice to each franchisee.

The establishment of an intranet or similar system also allows franchisees to talk to one another and establish a ‘virtual community’ of franchisees. This can be very valuable as it helps to bond together far-flung franchisees. ‘I met most of the other Just Cabins franchisees at our conference last November and now we have an intranet as well as conference calls within the group,’ says Neil Newman. ‘That’s been really valuable for ongoing discussions and sharing ideas, and it makes you feel part of the larger business.’

Wayne says that this is really important. ‘One of the things about being on the road a lot is that you can actually find it a bit lonely at first. If you’ve worked in an office or on a shop floor there’s always someone to talk to, but when you’re mobile you listen to the radio more than anything. It means when you do meet clients you can find yourself talking for too long and have to remind yourself to move on. On the other hand, it makes the contact with the franchisor and the other franchisees even more valuable. I love going to the Provender meetings and conferences, getting the newsletters – everything to do with the franchise. It’s good to hear other people’s ideas and problems.’

Colin Davids agrees. ‘You might feel isolated sometimes but you’re never really alone because, although we don’t physically work together, there’s always someone just a phone call away. V.I.P. also holds regional meetings once a month which start out as a structured forum for discussing issues then we have social time when we share the laughs, hear the successes and the occasional disaster stories. We look forward to those meetings and we wouldn’t miss one.’

Get Up And Go

Being your own boss and setting your own hours are two of the most popular reasons for buying a franchise, but how do our panel motivate themselves to get out of bed on a cold, wet, winter’s morning ?

‘It could be difficult sometimes,’ admits Colin, ‘but what gets me up is knowing exactly what I have to do that day and knowing that I can do a good job, make my customers happy and be back home relaxing at 2pm. Our focus in buying the franchise was to do something that would give us a good balance between work and home life and that’s what we’ve achieved now. It does take time – nobody can afford to go into a franchise and run it as a lifestyle business right from the start because it takes time and effort to get it working properly, but once you’re organised and in control of what you’re doing, it gets easier.’

Neil Newman focuses on his targets ‘I know that although I’ve got a good brand and systems behind me, my success is up to me. I have clear goals and I’m hitting my growth targets, but I’m always thinking about how to do better.’ And Wayne Coley does the same. ‘I’m always driving myself to do better. I set weekly goals, compare them to last week and last year, and I always know exactly what each machine is achieving. If one slips below target I’m looking for the reason. Has there been a reduction in staff numbers? Do I need to change the machine’s position? One site’s figures dropped after they had a dietician talk to their staff, but actually that should be a positive because we offer a whole range of Lifestyle Balance products, so we can work with them. There’s a new challenge every day – and that’s why I still enjoy what I do after ten years.’

Find Out For Yourself

If you are considering buying a mobile franchise, then, it’s important to remember that whatever you choose you need to be prepared to work hard at it. Don’t just look at the level of investment and the skills required. Consider the type of person you are, the interests you have and the impact ‘going mobile’ will have on your home and family life. Look through the Directory on page 83 and see if you can find an opportunity that appeals. If so, contact the franchisor and find out more. If you’re really serious, ask to spend a day or two with an existing franchisee and see what life on the road is really like.

‘I’ve actually taken out a lot of new Provender franchisees over the last few years and I always try to give them a real feel for what this business is about,’ says Wayne Coley. ‘I tell them not to worry about the money but to look after the customers first. Set your targets, get organised, make the most of the franchise and enjoy what you do. Get that right and the money will follow.’

Questions to ask about mobile franchises

This article first appeared in Volume 19 Issue 3, Winter 2010. To find the latest business opportunities that will keep you on the move click here for a free copy of Franchise New Zealand magazine.

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