In Start Your Own Transportation Service, the Staff of Entrepreneur Media explains how you can launch a profitable transportation service, whether you want to start a long-haul operation or an in-town service. In this edited excerpt, the authors profile one transportation business owner whose horse transport service has been a big success.
If you're thinking about starting a transportation business, learning how existing transportation service entrepreneurs got started and are running their businesses can help you figure out if this industry is a good fit for you. To get started, here’s the story of East Coast Equine Transport, which Pat Thompson started more than 20 years ago.
Pat Thompson has had a horse or two in her backyard most of her life. When she built the house she still lives in, the barn was as important to her as the house. She boarded a few horses and got involved with showing. And she got to know a few people in the equine world.
In 1995, one of those people she met through the world of horse showing had a bad experience with an equine transporter. She asked Pat -- who already had a good-sized horse trailer and truck and had a reputation for topnotch care of her own and her boarders’ horses -- if she would consider transporting her horse the next time she needed to get to a show grounds a distance away. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Pat started slowly. Her original trailer had living quarters, and she would do straight through hauling. Now, 20 years later, she’s abandoned that approach and doesn’t allow her subcontractors to do it, either. Because of the relationships she’s built over the years, drivers and horses can stay overnight at farms countrywide. She decided it was better for the horse and meant the drivers were fresher if they stopped for the night and stayed in stalls and hotels rather than in the rig. She picks places that show the quality of care that she believes in and that have a nearby hotel and restaurants so the drivers can be efficient in getting in each evening and out the next morning.
East Coast Equine Transport used to use subcontractors whose rigs hold more horses, but Pat has found that she can be competitive keeping her load to no more than four horses.
“The more horses you need to fit in, the harder it is to build a load,” she says, referring to the coordination that goes into getting one horse from New England to Texas, picking up a horse in Kentucky along the way that’s headed to Florida, or whatever the configuration may be. Ever mindful of each horse’s well-being, Pat says that with a maximum of four horses, there aren’t as many stops and side trips along the way, all four horses get to where they’re going faster, and the horses aren’t being exposed to so many different horses from different parts of the country.
“The big rigs,” Pat says, “hold up to 18 horses. That’s a lot of stops.” In fact, one thing that keeps her rig on the road regularly is doing final legs of the trip for some of those big rigs that don’t want to come up into the Northeast. For example, they might bring a horse from Colorado to Kentucky. East Coast then meets the rig in Kentucky and brings the horse to its final destination in New England.
East Coast will rent the whole trailer for a dedicated trip for just one horse. The way Pat sets up her pricing is that each of the four possible spaces in the trailer is rented at a fee. She can make a box stall out of two, and the horse owner can rent those two spaces. There’s no “discount” for more horses on the trailer. The horse owner then pays for their slot (or two), and it’s up to Pat to build the rest of the load or determine if it’s time to hit the road, depending on the timing for when a horse has to get where it’s going.
Pat’s learned a lot along the way. “I don’t worry about being competitive,” she says. “The work is out there. Maybe I’m just not hungry enough anymore, but I set my rate and that’s what you pay. If it’s too high and you want to use someone else, that’s OK, too.”
Not only are many of the horses that East Coast moves around the country extremely valuable animals, but people care a lot about their animals no matter what the horse is worth. Pat learned pretty quickly that communication is key in this business.
“I contact the horse owner first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening all along the way. Sometimes I think it seems like overkill, but owners just love it. The communication technology we have today makes it so easy. Owners just love getting a text with a picture of their horse content in an overnight stall hundreds of miles away with a message saying all is well.”
East Coast has always relied on word of mouth to market its business -- this is the kind of business where reputation is everything. The company has a Facebook page where owners of horses they’ve transported post comments, which work as great testimonials for the business.
Comments praising East Coast’s service from people in the horse industry who have a wide reputation is the best advertising tool the company could have. In more than 20 years, East Coast has never done any paid advertising. Pat’s never had to advertise for subcontractors, either.
“They find me,” Pat says. With decades of experience, she can tell if they’ll fit into her program by the way their rigs are kept and the way they handle horses. “I call customers and get feedback on their experience with the subcontractor,” Pat adds. “The key is to rectify any issues very, very quickly.”
Early on, she also created a fairly rigid contract. “Contracts are very important,” Pat emphasizes. “People change their minds. The contract covers both sides—so we don’t get stuck with a last-minute back out, and the contract assures the customer that we do a good job.”
The East Coast contract, which is available to view on their website, requires a 50 percent nonrefundable deposit. Pat felt that the nonrefundable deposit had to be enough that people would feel it if they just backed out. She also understands that these are live animals and things happen -- for instance, if a horse becomes too sick to travel -- but in order to release the deposit, she requires a statement from the veterinarian.
And while working with the horses is what attracted Pat to starting this business in the first place, she reminds anyone who might be considering getting into an animal-related transport business that ultimately your business revolves around dealing with people. If you’re not OK with that, you’ll need to find someone to do that part of the business for you.