From the August 1997 issue of Startups

With time at a premium for many of us today, consumers are increasingly taking advantage of services that come right to their doorsteps. Entrepreneurs who cash in on this wave of convenience find that a mobile business can be very profitable. There are even franchises available for some mobile businesses.

Auto Detailing

Auto detailing is a growing business that shows no sign of stopping, says Ron Prosser, who opened Critical Care Mobile Detailing in Anaheim, California, in 1988. Mobile auto detailers go from office building to office building, cleaning, waxing and maintaining cars, many of which belong to repeat customers.

"People don't have time to clean their cars, but they get tired of having to apologize about their condition," Prosser says. "There's a high demand for quality detailing and consistent service." And in busy commuter areas such as Southern California, there are too many cars to worry about the competition.

Prosser charges $80 to $130 per auto-detail job. He made $24,000 his first year; now he has eight employees and generates $150,000 to $250,000 in annual sales. To get started in a mobile auto-detailing business, you'll need a trailer or truck with a generator, a pressure washer and water tanks, a wet-and-dry vacuum, a high-speed buffer and various detailing supplies such as brushes, rags and towels. There are companies that will customize and completely stock your trailer for about $3,500. (TTS Products in Los Angeles is one such company: 213-268-1347.) For those who prefer a truck to a trailer, there are companies that will outfit a truck with necessary equipment (such as Prosser Products: 714-997-2825). Or you can purchase your own equipment. Make sure to get a high-quality pressure washer, advises Prosser, as inexpensive ones won't work without running water. Outfitting a truck with the necessary equipment will cost between $1,800 and $3,500. General liability insurance is also a necessity.

Prosser suggests asking other detailers for pointers and, when you're not sure how to do something properly, hiring someone to teach you the finer points of detailing.

"I hired a buffer from a car wash to teach me how to buff, because if you don't know what you're doing, you can burn someone's paint job," he says.

Disc Jockey

With weddings, birthday parties and corporate events, a high-quality mobile disc jockey can keep very busy. Today's disc jockeys do more than play music. "We're really mobile entertainers," says Johnny Reagan, owner of J.J. Rocks Mobile Disc Jockey Service in Marietta, Georgia. "Most of us interact with the audience, doing things like teaching line dancing and motivating people to have a good time."

If you're going to make it as a disc jockey, it's critical that you have an outgoing personality, says Reagan, who started his business in the fall of 1993. "You need to be approachable and have a good voice and a neat appearance," he says.

It's also important that you have the technical skills necessary to run electronic sound equipment, and that you have sufficient manual dexterity to set up and tear down equipment.

Money in this business can be good, says Reagan, who charges $595 for an event that lasts up to four hours. "You can easily make $40,000 to $50,000 a year in a large city."

To start, you'll need $15,000 to $20,000 for a sound system, which should include a CD player, a mixer, amplifiers, speakers and a collection of music. You should have at least $1,000 set aside for a promotional budget, and another $1,000 for liability insurance and an insurance policy that will cover your equipment in transit. (For information on affordable insurance, call the National Association of Mobile Entertainers at 215-676-4544, or write to P.O. Box 727, Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006.)

Home-Entertainment System Installation

As the choices in electronic equipment continue to grow, so does the average person's home-entertainment system. For entrepreneurs with technical expertise, the good news is that many consumers are glad to pay someone to install a home-entertainment center and teach them how to operate their new stereos, televisions and videocassette recorders.

To succeed in the home-entertainment installation business, you need to have all the answers. Knowledge of audio and video hardware and how they interface and connect is a must. You should also keep current on new trends and technology. Making systems user-friendly is important, as is teaching customers how to use their new equipment.

You'll need $3,000 to $5,000 to stock several high-quality toolboxes with drills, saws, staple guns, cabling, wiring and connectors, interface equipment and test equipment. You'll also need contractors' liability insurance and a contractor's license to do low-voltage work.

You can expect to earn $25 to $60 per hour to start; most jobs will take you a minimum of four hours. Find business by getting referrals from retailers, architects, interior designers and builders.

Air-Duct and Garbage-Chute Cleaning

As the importance of clean indoor air becomes more evident, many office-building owners and homeowners have begun to see the necessity of clean air ducts, vents and laundry and garbage chutes. At the Fairfield, New Jersey, company 1-800-Chute-Me, they take the job of cleaning out dirty vents and garbage chutes seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the company's owner and founder, Joel Greenberg, created a special chute-cleaning machine with a 360-degree rotating head and a hydraulic control that can stretch up and down 35 stories, removing pounds of sludge and debris. Greenberg's start-up costs were high--between $100,000 and $200,000, primarily because of the machinery. He has reaped the benefits in phenomenal business. Greenberg opened 1-800-Chute-Me in June 1996, generating about $20,000 to $40,000 in sales each month. By March 1997, he was bringing in $100,000 per month. Greenberg will soon franchise his procedure and his equipment

Dry-Cleaning Pickup and Delivery

For some busy consumers, having a dry cleaner that picks up and delivers is a worthwhile expense. This translates into big profits for the entrepreneur who's up to the challenge.

Five years ago, Steve and Diane Thompson started Dryclean Express of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Florida. They made $25,000 in sales the first year and $150,000 the third year. The Thompsons opened their own dry-cleaning plant in 1996 and anticipate sales of $600,000 this year, with 50 percent coming from the mobile side of the business.

To be successful with dry-cleaning delivery, Steve has a couple of suggestions: Try not to compete with discount dry cleaners, and get a good mix of business and residential customers.

The Thompsons charge walk-in customers $7 to have a suit cleaned, while delivery customers pay $8.

Your biggest expense will be yourYour biggest expense will be your vehicle, which should look as good as possible because it's your showcase, says Thompson.

The Thompsons invested $18,000 in a panel truck, a large van that looks like an ice cream truck, with their company's logo. A reliable vehicle in good condition will cost between $5,000 and $20,000. You'll also need a computer and billing software.

If you don't own a dry-cleaning facility, who will be cleaning your clients' clothes is a major consideration.

"You're only as good as the dry cleaner doing your work," Thompson says. "Make sure the cleaner is reputable and willing to stand behind his product. And have a backup plan in case something goes wrong."

Apartment-Prepping Service

Many landlords have neither the time nor the inclination to prepare apartments between tenants. Yet apartments are vacated on a regular basis, which can give would-be apartment-prepping services a lot of work. Anyone interested in this career can't be squeamish about cleaning up, and should know how to wield a paintbrush and do minor repair work. In the apartment prepper's arsenal of equipment, he or she will need painting supplies, including a paint sprayer and compressor (about $300 to $700), paint for each job (usually $40 to $50 for a two-bedroom apartment), spackling equipment, brushes, plastic mats for protecting floors, cleaning supplies and an assortment of tools for repair work. If you'll be offering carpet cleaning as well, you'll need to invest in a chemical dry-cleaning machine or a steam-cleaning unit (about $5,000). To get business, approach apartment managers and see who's doing their work; they may let you submit a bid.

Include in the bid prices for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Maximize your time and your potential profit by approaching a management company that oversees several apartment buildings. To operate, you'll need to be bonded and have business liability insurance.

Children's Taxi Service

With all the two-income families nowadays, there are many parents more than willing to pay for a safe, reliable form of transportation for their kids. Child-transportation services involve delivering children to and from school and other activities such as day care, soccer practice, dance rehearsals and orthodontist appointments. Most companies set the riders up on a monthly-fee basis, charging about $100 to $200 per month for one trip per day and $200 to $300 for round trips, based on a five-day week. To start such a service, you need a reliable van with enough seating to accommodate at least six passengers. The van must be adequately insured and should have a cellular phone so you can communicate with parents regarding scheduling delays and changes.

Inventory Service

If you have a mathematical, logical mind and good organizational skills--and don't mind working early in the morning--then a mobile inventory service may be the perfect business for you. With such a service, you travel to client sites such as grocery stores to take inventory, which entails counting and categorizing merchandise, computing the data and generating reports.

Most people in the inventory business have a retail-business background, where they've handled purchasing, pricing and the stocking of merchandise, according to Jim Boyd, president of Button's Inventory Service in Houston.

To get started in the industry, you'll need a knowledge of retail businesses and either a handheld inventory calculator to enter data (they cost about $200) or a handheld computer (about $1,800). The latter not only stores information, it also processes the figures and generates reports. Depending on the type of inventory you're working with--and its complexity--you can earn from $1 to $2.50 per thousand dollars of merchandise.

Oil-Changing Service

No matter how good or bad the economy is, a mobile oil-service operator is never hurting for work, says Sam Casternovia, co-owner of Oil Butler International Corp., a mobile oil-service franchisor based in Union, New Jersey.

"When the economy gets tough, people are adamant about getting oil changes on time so they can preserve their vehicles; and when the economy is good, they want to make sure to take care of their new cars," he says. "If the oil service comes to them, even better."

Entrepreneurs who are willing to brave the outdoor elements and work hard can make a good living in this business, according to Casternovia, who says one motivated Oil Butler franchisee reached sales of $90,000 his first year in business. The average oil change takes just seven to 15 minutes and earns the operator between $23 and $25, minus $6 or $7 for materials. Although it can be profitable to service single cars, the most money is made servicing fleets.

Casternovia and his partner, Dominic Lege, franchised their concept in 1990 and began creating oil trailers complete with the equipment necessary for oil changing, including steel oil tanks. The least expensive model costs about $6,500, and, for a $7,000 franchise fee, Oil Butler provides a protected territory and a week or more of training.

Contact Sources

1-800-CHUTE-ME, 167 Fairfield Rd., Fairfield, NJ 07004, (800) CHUTE-ME

Critical Care Mobile Detailing, 1747 S. Douglass, Ste. G, Anaheim, CA 92806, (714) 997-2825

Dryclean Express of Jacksonville, 2160 University Blvd. N., Jacksonville, FL 32211, (904) 745-5010

Oil Butler International Corp., 1599 Rte. 22, Union, NJ 07083, (908) 687-3283