It doesn’t work for every type of operation, but can be the perfect fit for others
|DOG AND DRIVER: Dawn Weaver — with her dog, Lily — likes her life on the road. Her van, which had an original sticker price of about $70,000, is fully outfitted for her job as a dog groomer. This means she can do her job anywhere she has customers.|
Dawn Weaver’s van is a lean, mean, self-contained, dog-grooming machine. If you open up the back of her canine- caricature-coated 2002 Dodge Ram, it is easy to see she means business.
The vehicle, which she bought from an Indiana-based company that specially designs and manufactures mobile dog-grooming vans, features a self-contained generator that allows her to run all of her equipment, a 50-gallon water tank, a full-sized bathtub, a vacuum system, a grooming table and air-conditioning and heating systems.
“(The temperature) stays very consistent because it’s a small space,” said Weaver, 42, who has owned her business, Masterclip Mobile Grooming, since starting it in 1995. “Some shops I’ve been in — usually they don’t have air conditioning, so if you have dryers going they put off a lot of heat after a while, so it can get pretty stuffy.”
Working in a shop is not something she has to concern herself with as the owner of a mobile business.
“I like that there is less overhead (than working in a shop),” she said. “I know that when I’m in my van, I’m working, and when I’m done at the end of the day, that means I get to go home and close the doors.”
A lot of opportunities
If you want an idea for a mobile business, go online.
Door-to-door dry cleaning, concrete cutting, pet grooming, cleaning services, computer repairmen, and dine-in delivery services all have a presence on the Web. They also all have a common denominator, said Weaver: The life of a mobile businessperson is one of making appointments and keeping them.
“You have to be consistent and reliable, and communicate to the customers when you are going to be there, and then be there,” she said. “They usually say that somebody with a free spirit is well-suited to running a mobile business. But you can’t be too ‘free’ because you have to run a business. If you are just lollygagging through the day, it’s not going to happen.”
Typically, Weaver said, she has about eight dogs per day, and each appointment takes about 45 minutes per dog. She said she works Monday through Friday, starting at 7 a.m. and working until 3 or 4 p.m. Almost all of her clients are in the Bellingham area, which is advantageous for her, considering she lives near the intersection of Hannegan Road and Mount Baker Highway.
Getting to the point where she had a full workload in and around Bellingham took some time, she said.
“I don’t need to (go any further than Bellingham),” she said. “When you first start, you spread your territory a little wider. And as you get more clientele, you shrink it because time is money. If I had to drive to Lynden, it’s 20 minutes or half-an-hour each way — and that is one dog.”
For Steve Smith, owner of King of the House Home Inspection in Bellingham, long drives are the norm. Smith, who started the business in 2004, typically sees four to five customers per week in a variety of locations, ranging from Stanwood in the south to Point Roberts in the north and Mount Baker in the east.
“You burn a lot of gasoline,” said Smith, who admitted he didn’t get into his business as much for the mobile aspect as he did for the actual work. “Typically, (home inspectors are) expected to drive long distances (with little or no fees for gasoline costs) if we want to stay competitive.”
He said a challenging part of the job is balancing the need for revenue to offset expenses like gasoline, and keeping the customer happy. Overall, he said he likes what he does.
“I enjoy meeting with the clients, and I like meeting the Realtors,” he said.
Weaver said nearly all of her customers are repeat customers, and because of this, she has developed relationships with them that have extended beyond the professional realm.
“I like grooming because it’s creative. I like dealing with the animals and the people,” she said. “My clients are wonderful. They are like family at this point. I go into their homes, so there is a lot more connection with my clients. If I see somebody once every six weeks — and a lot of them have been with me for the past 10 or 11 years — I’m family.”
Customers often give Weaver gifts during the holidays in appreciation of her services.
“At Christmas, my husband teases me because I start bringing home presents in November, and it goes clear through January,” she said.
Gifts may range from hot chocolate to bags filled with lotions and clothing. A lot of this good feeling comes from the fact she is meeting them in their environment, she said.
“The customers are more relaxed, and the dogs are more relaxed,” she said. “(The dogs) might shake, and be a little nervous. But when they are done, they are a lot happier because they are at home. And they jump on you and love you to death. They don’t do that in the shop. They don’t relax enough, usually.”
Overhead costs and responsibilities are reduced as well, she said, considering that her workspace is limited to the size of her van.
“It’s very easy to keep clean,” she said. “If you have a shop and you have multiple dogs in there — and they are there all day, most of the time — they have to go to the bathroom, and they are doing this and that. And you are blowing hair everywhere because it goes everywhere. When you are in a smaller space, it is easy for me to wipe down between each dog.”
Aside from setting her own work schedule, she said life on the road is much less stressful than labor in the grooming shop.
“There is a lot of stress in a shop,” she said. “It’s loud all the time, and you can’t get away from it and it’s constant.”
She said she first considered the idea of a mobile business about 15 years ago, when she was doing grooming for a couple of women who had a shop and a mobile unit in Colorado.
“I decided that was the life because the shop was a nightmare,” she said. “I started with a cheap old van. I used to have to plug that van in for power. A lot of times you have old homes, and I have a huge 100-foot extension cord. I’m using a lot of power, so a lot of times the breakers would go off, and in the winter you are wet.”
She had her first van for the first seven years of her company’s existence, and then decided to upgrade. Now, she drives around in style.
“They are top-of-the-line mobile units, and they are made specifically for this job,” she said.
Behind the wheel
Mobile business life isn’t all green lights and chocolates, though.
Because the lifestyle is so dependent on the automobile, mechanical breakdowns can affect the bottom line.
“With my old van, I had to have mechanics I could rely on all the time, and they had to do the work right away,” Weaver said. “If they didn’t, I would pretty much cry until they did.”
Weather, such as snow, can impact things as well, she said.
“If there is snow, I don’t go out, and (my customers) all understand that,” she said. If it does snow, she said she may pick up a couple of dogs in her Subaru on occasion, and take them home to groom them.
Weather is essentially the only thing that has kept Greg Purcell, owner of Keywest Lock Service in Bellingham, off the road. Last month’s snowstorm shut down his company’s mobile operations for a handful of days for the first time since the business was founded in 1994.
Purcell said owning a mobile business can be challenging — especially one that offers service 24 hours per day like his company — but low overhead expenses makes it attractive.
“You just have to know the business and how to use the right equipment,” said Purcell, whose company is comprised of two employees and two vans. “Mobile businesses work everywhere. The bigger the city, the better it is.”
Weaver, who at one point did hire another employee, said she has intentionally kept the business smaller due to financial and logistical reasons. Today, she is the lone employee.
“Having an employee took a lot of time and effort, and no money. It just turned into a large headache,” she said. “When you (hire new) employees and your clients are used to you, (customers may) have a really difficult time transitioning.”
The flip side of not having any employees is not having anyone to delegate responsibility to, she said.
“It’s hard for me to go on vacation now — really hard,” she said. “Everybody books out ahead of time. If I take a week off, that means that week of dogs has to go somewhere. Since I’m always booked — pretty much to capacity — it means I’m working really hard when I come back.”
A big perk of business-on-the-go is that your office view changes constantly, Weaver said.
“I like being able to break up my day with that new view every 45 minutes out the window,” she said. “One minute, I’m looking out the window at Chuckanut Bay, and the next I’m in Fairhaven at a business.”
In addition to clipping and washing dogs, a lot of her time is spent listening to talk radio while she works, or occasionally sneaking in a call to a friend between jobs. The occupation also affords her the opportunity to delve into another interest.
“I love real estate and homes, and (my profession) enables me to look at a lot of beautiful homes,” she said. “It takes care of a few of my desires and interests.”
She said she is unsure why mobile pet grooming is not more popular in Whatcom County than it is.
“I think this is the perfect-sized city for mobile businesses,” she said. “If I was in Seattle, I would have to section it off because the drive time would be horrendous. I’d have to charge a lot more than I do just to make up for the time on the road. But in this town, you can get anywhere in 15 minutes.”