A mobile franchise is about a lot more than driving. Linda Whitney investigates the pros and cons of owning one
A mobile franchise conjures up images of freedom - bowling along in your van, whistling as you wend your way through beautiful countryside to an appointment with a happy customer in a country cottage.
The reality can be like that, but a mobile franchise is about a lot more than driving.
Luke Hodgson, franchisee with Snap-On Tools in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, who travels around selling tools and tool storage to vehicle technicians, says: “It’s easy to think owning a van-based business means you’re always driving, but that’s only a small part of the business. Yes, my van gets me from customer to customer, but it’s much more than that.”
“It’s a showroom on wheels and a giant mobile advert. When I drive into a garage or dealership, the guys literally queue up to jump on and see what’s new. It’s part office, part meeting place and, as far as my customers are concerned, part sweet shop.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a van-based franchise is that it means you don’t need expensive business premises.
Martyn Ward, national franchise recruitment manager at mobile coffee franchise Cafe2U, whose franchisees provide a mobile coffee and snacks service to business areas, says:
“Overheads are lower than with a fixed location coffee shop because there are no high retail rates or rent to pay and if you operate the franchise yourself you don’t need staff.”
A van can be more than a means of transport. The Snap-On van typically carries a large amount of stock, while the Cafe2U van is fitted with a generator, espresso machine, refrigerated food display and storage, water supply and washing facilities.
Custom fitted out vans like this can be expensive, but franchisors typically offer access to lease funding.
Mobility itself can drive sales. Martyn says: “Our franchisees have established routes, so customers know when they are going to arrive. It spreads out the custom.
“A sandwich bar in a business area, for instance, will be busy at lunchtime, but not always outside those hours. Customers time their lunch hours or coffee breaks to coincide with the van’s arrival. Franchisees, in effect, prompt customer demand to suit their own schedule.”
Vans also serve as mobile advertisements. Card Connection franchisee Martin Rolfe, who delivers greeting cards and accessories to around 230 retailers in Norwich, Norfolk and Suffolk, says: “When I’m visiting customers, it’s important to be recognised instantly and stand out from the crowd.”
He commissioned decals for two new vans from his local Signs Express franchisee. Martin says: “The results are big, bright and colourful and have more impact than my previous van signage.
“I think they will help raise the profile of Card Connection and, ultimately, my business in my local area. I now see people taking a second glance as I drive by.”
James Mingay, senior manager at Signs Express Norwich, says: “We show clients how to take advantage of often overlooked branding and graphic opportunities. Vehicle graphics are an affordable and powerful way to create immediate impact.”
Mobile franchises provide variety in the franchisee’s day. Angela Bakun, who learnt to drive so she could set up her own Cafe2U franchise in Merton, London, says: “Because I visit a lot of places, I meet a wide variety of people and regular customers become like friends.”
As a relatively new driver, she says: “You have to get used to fitting the van into small places - a large amount of my driving is reversing and I have to avoid hitting my customers’ cars. It meant my driving confidence increased fast.”
However, if you’re looking for a life on the road, a mobile franchise may not always suit you, because many franchisors go to great lengths to minimise the time their franchisees spend driving. The more time you spend driving, the less you spend making money.
Lisa Law, national franchise manager at Snap-On, says: “A Snap-on franchisee’s mileage is less than 10,000 a year. Efficient route planning is key.” A team of representatives surveys a territory before a franchisee launches to identify customers and confirm visits. Software plots the information on a map.
“The software then plots the franchisee’s day around about 20 garage visits,” Lisa says. “This maximises sales time and minimises driving.”
Efficient route planning saves time and cuts fuel bills, which can eat into profits. Most mobile franchises also involve work back at home, whether stocking up the van or administration.
New technology can cut the time involved here too. In fact, Louise Harris, franchise director at Wilkins Chimney Sweep, says the company’s new bespoke software and communications system is giving back up to two hours a day to its franchisees.
“It’s a tablet-based system that eliminates a huge amount of the admin they used to have to do at home,” she explains. “In busy periods, it gives them back up to two extra hours a day.”
The system was introduced at the same time as a new call handling service, so franchisees no longer need to follow up customer calls in the evenings and daily routes now appear on the tablets, based on the bookings received by the call handlers.
Forms certifying chimney sweeps have been carried out can be signed by customers on the tablet, cutting paperwork. The customer automatically receives a confirmation email and reports are automatically sent to head office.
Franchisees pay £25 a month for the service, but Louise says they’re happy to do so: “It’s improved productivity - and profits - for franchisees and given them more time for themselves.”
Points to take away
It’s not all about driving - you will also need communication, sales skills and any practical skills required to deliver your service.
If you get road rage after five minutes in a traffic jam, a mobile franchise may not be for you.
Look for a franchise that offers good route planning software.
Spend at least one day out on the road with a mobile franchisee before investing.