Lifestyle Entrepreneurs RV-Based Businesses Can Be 'Going Concerns'

By Mark Henricks

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Many recreational-vehicle owners are living the American dream--traveling and earning a living by selling products or services from their mobile homes. Find out what types of businesses fit this way of life.

When Richard Dahl sold everything and hit the road 10 years ago, he planned to relax and tour the country full time with his wife. That got old after six months, so he decided to start a business and run it out of the couple's 36-foot Holiday Rambler travel trailer.

After unsuccessful stints selling campground memberships and trying other ventures, Mr. Dahl, of Roseburg, Ore., created a water filter for recreational-vehicle plumbing systems. He manufactured them himself using off-the-shelf materials and sold them at trailer parks, campgrounds and motor-home shows. He moved more than 1,300 of the $30 devices over the next couple of years, enough to finance his rambling and then some.

Encouraged, Mr. Dahl expanded his product line. Today he sells more than 300 items as The RV Water Filter Store, stashing inventory, parts and tools in the cargo box of the 1 1/2-ton Ford truck that hauls the trailer. He markets to RVers he happens to cross tracks with, in addition to selling at shows and fairs. Orders from the telephone and a Web site of the same name are shipped from whatever post office is nearby.

The business pays his way and lets him save $30,000 a year while being more or less constantly on the move. "We're basically on our fourth or fifth time around the country," says the 53-year-old entrepreneur.

Doing It On the Road

Approximately 750,000 Americans live and work out of travel trailers, truck campers or motor homes, says Greg Robus, editor of Workamper, a 74,000-circulation publication based in Heber Springs, Ark. "Quite a few of our readers are what we call workampreneuers," Mr. Robus says. "They either take a business that they already have and convert it to a mobile business, or they create a business they can do on the road."

RV-based entrepreneurs are primarily motivated by the desire to earn a living without being tied either to an address or employer. However, many also earn a good income, says Mr. Robus. "Some people make quite a bit," he says.

Mobile entrepreneurs who sell products often choose items that are used by other RVers, such as Mr. Dahl's filters, although Mr. Robus says many also sell handmade products at flea markets and craft fairs. Service enterprises are likewise often RV-focused, such as those run by engine mechanics and refrigeration technicians. Other RVers provide services that might be hard to come by in out-of-the-way RV campgrounds, such as dog grooming.

Increasingly, though, mobile professionals are offering services they can sell to nearby local businesses and consumers. Web-site designers, software developers, writers and publishers are in this category. Mr. Robus, for example, edits his publication from his RV much of the time, using his wireless cellphone to connect to the Internet for editorial and production chores.

Improving electronic communications has helped both high- and low-tech RV entrepreneurs, making it easier for them to stay in touch with customers and suppliers. It's been particularly helpful for RVers who own businesses in fixed locations that they operate in absentee fashion, says Mr. Robus.

Pitfalls and Drawbacks

Traveling around is fun, living on the road is inexpensive and profits can be made with the right business. What could go wrong? First, inventory is a major issue for someone living in a space that has to be pulled down a road or highway. And not only space, but weight also can hamstring efforts to keep items in stock.

Operating a business that may change taxing jurisdictions daily is, surprisingly, not a big problem. Some RV-based entrepreneurs maintain business licenses in multiple states. Others pick up temporary sales-tax permits when they hit town. Flea-market organizers often cover sales-tax registration when they rent spaces to vendors.

Maintaining the image of a venture on wheels can be difficult, however, especially if you sell products to stationary consumers. "Consistency and legitimacy are always going to be a question. People are going to wonder if you're a fly-by-night outfit," says Janet Groene, author of "Living Aboard Your RV" (Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw Hill, 2000) and a former full-time RVer now based in Deland, Fla.

And, as Mr. Dahl's unsuccessful experiences with several mobile businesses show, just because you're on wheels doesn't necessarily mean you're a going concern. RV-based businesses face many of the marketing and other issues that fixed firms have. Ms. Groene recalls one couple who enthusiastically began peddling prepaid phone cards from an RV but found few takers. "They thought they were going to support their full-time RVing with it, and it just didn't happen," she says.

The Ideal Combination

The ideal RV-based business sells something that's lightweight, compact, popular with RVers and requires little service after the sale. Steve McMahon has traveled the country in his 37-foot Beaver Marquee motor home since 1995 selling high-gain cellular-telephone antennas. The $70 items improve cellular-phone performance, allowing people to make and take calls where signals are weak, something typical of areas frequented by RVers.

"We've probably sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000," says Mr. McMahon, 53, who hit on the idea shortly after hitting the road permanently after retiring from the Boise, Idaho, fire department. He markets the business directly, relying on word-of-mouth and free seminars he holds wherever the RV stops for the night. "We hit an RV park and do a seminar," Mr. McMahon shrugs. "There are always people looking for something to do in RV parks."

As he spoke on his cellular phone, Mr. McMahon was preparing to steer his motor coach east from Port Orchard, Wash., in the Pacific Northwest, on a journey that would, after planned stops in Idaho, Arizona and Kansas, place him in the Southeast sometime this fall. "We're headed to Florida," he says. "We have about a month we're going to spend lobster diving near Key West. And we'll sell a few antennas along the way."

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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