In today’s culture of on-demand convenience and economic uncertainty, many new entrepreneurs are eschewing brick-and-mortar stores and looking for more flexible and cost-effective startup options.
And while many companies are happy to operate exclusively online, plenty of other businesses — think florists, bookstores, coffee shops, and clothing boutiques — still want a place to sell products or services in person and be part of a community.
That’s the appeal of mobile businesses, which operate out of trucks, trailers, vans, and buses. Not only do these businesses come straight to the customer (or crowd of customers), but they leave a memorable impression and cost less to launch and operate than a traditional storefront.
According to a 2016 survey by the American Mobile Retail Association, the average cost to start a mobile retail business is $18,999, which includes buying and retrofitting a used vehicle and registering a new company. Other yearly fees include inventory, insurance, fuel, and POS (point of sale) systems to accept payments.
So to be clear, it’s not cheap to start a mobile business. But by operating on the road, you can avoid costs like rent, staffing, large displays, and traditional advertising. You also have the flexibility to set your hours and test different ideas and locations as you grow.
Feeling inspired? Read on for a list of mobile business ideas, and see real-life businesses on wheels that have made a mark.
1. Art School
Art parties and specialty classes are a growing trend for both kids and adults. A mobile version of this business lets artists bring their skills to homes or schools, or even equip a vehicle to be a classroom as The ArtMobile did.
Lessons can cover drawing, painting, cartoon art, printmaking, and more; you can charge per student or per group depending on the class size you choose.
2. Beekeeping Consultant
With concerns about waning bee populations — and a #savethebees movement — urban beekeeping is a growing area of interest. However, most people don’t have the knowledge to set up hives in a small space like a yard or balcony.
Cue beekeepers, who can create a unique mobile business that involves hive installation, education sessions, and honey harvesting for homes, businesses, schools, and companies.
With a perishable product and seasonal fluctuations, running a flower business can be stressful. But flowers make people happy — and they can be an on-the-way-home impulse purchase, especially for Millennials who prioritize self-care.
A mobile flower business lets florists sell in different neighborhoods and experiment with bouquet offerings and floral varieties. A truck is also a great way to advertise floral services for weddings and events.
Despite the prevalence of Amazon and ebooks, independent bookstores are staying relevant through reinvention and community-building. And what better way to reinvent than to offer a departure from a traditional physical store?
We love the look and idea behind Twenty Stories in L.A., a mobile truck business started by two writers who had the idea to curate and showcase literature in new spaces.
5. Coffee Shop
If you’ve always wanted to open a coffee shop, but don’t want the commitment of finding a spot to rent, a mobile coffee business could be an ideal solution — or a smaller-scale way to test your concept. Many of these businesses operate on bikes and carts, making them a fixture at festivals and outdoor events.
Mobile coffee businesses can also serve as indoor event providers, coming to offices and conferences to offer specialized coffee drinks.
6. Specialty Food Provider
While fully equipped food trucks and catering operations are one thing, starting a mobile business that offers a specialty food — think cotton candy, kettle corn, popsicles, cupcakes, and beyond — can be a fun attraction at parties, meetings, conferences, and other events.
This concept works best for foods that don’t have to be heated, as you want to minimize setup at events. A simpler concept also works best if you’re going to offer your food on a bike or cart.
7. Bike Repair Service
Biking is becoming a way of life for a growing number of commuters. A mobile bike repair service can offer bike tune-ups, repairs, tire changes, accessory installations, and more while saving people the hassle of hauling their bike to a shop.
This business could also expand into bike restoration and build a community of events around DIY bike repair, as many brick-and-mortar shops do.
8. Barber Shop
Barbershops have both old-school and hipster appeal, making them a fun business to take on the road. They can also go to neighborhoods lacking in hair-cutting options, or office-dense areas where lunchtime trims are in demand.
Wood & Beau’s mobile barbershop is rentable for weddings, events, and private functions, providing a fun spot for a photo shoot.
9. Car Wash and Detailing Service
A mobile car wash and detailing business saves people the time and hassle of cleaning their vehicles. Services could include exterior washing and waxing, interior steam cleaning, pet hair removal, and more.
To differentiate, this type of business could also offer seasonal packages and promotions, or a “subscription” model of washing customers’ cars at regular intervals.
10. Bar Service
Not all venues have bars or bartenders, and that’s where a mobile bar service meets a need for events, office parties, home celebrations, and more.
You’ll need licenses, alcohol, glassware, and supplies (including portable bars). This type of business could also expand into event staffing and cocktail classes for private parties and corporate events.
11. Cloth Diaper Delivery Service
While cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly than their disposable counterparts, keeping up with washing them is a massive chore for new parents.
Enter cloth diaper delivery services, which pick up dirty diapers and deliver fresh ones on a regular timeline. It’s a dirty job, but popular in many cities, especially among environment- and health-conscious consumers.
12. Financial Planner
While you wouldn’t expect to see a financial planner operating out of a vehicle, the below example shows that even traditional services can be turned into mobile business opportunities — and may entice more people to get a free consultation or book a session in a more friendly and convenient space.
In the case of The Finance Bar, owner Marsha Barnes still runs her business out of an office but takes her bus on the road in the summer to connect with more people seeking financial help.
13. Farmers’ Market or Produce Stand
Selling vegetables from the side of the road has been a longtime business, but selling produce from a truck? A step up! If you’re a local grower, a mobile setup could work well in areas that don’t have many year-round farmers’ markets.
You could even expand it into a truck that sells pies, jams, and pre-made foods found at other markets.
14. Pet Grooming Service
With the number of people who spend big bucks on their pets, it’s no surprise that the pet grooming industry is booming (and, in many places, overcrowded).
A mobile pet spa helps owners out because they don’t have to trek their cats and dogs to a physical location — and the mess associated with bathing or grooming a pet gets contained in the vehicle!
15. Photo Scanning and Digital Archiving Service
It’s hard to remember a time when digital cameras didn’t exist, but many people have piles of photos, videos, and slides taking up space in their homes that they rarely get to enjoy. With a mobile business, you can offer clients a pick-up/drop-off service or scan photos on-site.
You can also help people scan documents, organize digital files, and back up data, so they never have to lose valuable memories or run out of space.
16. Composting Service
Many people want to compost, but can’t be bothered with the mess or hassle of actually doing it. Composting pick-up also isn’t offered as a public service in all areas (this is especially true for offices and restaurants).
Enter compost operations like CompostNow, which deliver clean bins every week, swap bins out regularly, and ensure food scraps get turned into valuable fertilizer for local farms and gardens.
17. Graffiti Removal Service
Do you get satisfaction from big cleanup projects? Graffiti removal might be the mobile business for you. This type of service gets graffiti off walls, windows, vehicles, and more, and is especially useful to commercial businesses and storefronts.
As an expansion, services can also include glass repair and repainting services.
As the above examples show, mobile business opportunities can run the gamut from selling books, flowers, and other goods, to offering services like pet grooming, composting, and bartending. In other words, they go far beyond food trucks.
Due to the public nature of a mobile business, good branding is essential. Make a standout logo and use vinyl decals to decorate the exterior of your vehicle. Check out the American Mobile Retail Association’s steps for starting a mobile business.
p.s. Need cash to get started? These extra income ideas will help you save up and get rolling with a mobile business.