For the past quarter-century, Rick and Linda Dahl have roamed the United States and Canada, running their business out of a home on wheels. Their enterprise, RV Water Filter Store, also employs three other people and has a northern California warehouse and an Arizona retail store in addition to the rolling sales and service operation they take with them wherever they go.
“Having a good experience with it myself, I’d have to say it’s a great idea,” Rick says, of running a business full time from the road. Now in their mid-60s, the Dahls are still going strong, though they've downsized a bit. A few years ago, they stopped attending RV shows. This year they plan to shutter the store they operate in a Yuma, Arizona, campground.
But they still tow their home, a 45-foot luxury travel trailer, behind a custom-built Peterbilt truck that's stuffed with parts for the water filtration systems Dahl designed and has sold to fellow RVers for decades. And the Dahls have no current plans to stop running their business from their RV—they enjoy spending much of the year going from campground to campground, crisscrossing the continent.
“Owning any business, whether it’s in an RV or not, isn't for everybody," Rick notes. "But businesspeople who succeed have some natural inclination that allows them to be able to [be successful]. I don’t think it’s any different if you do it in an RV.”
The Mobile Masses
Though entrepreneurs who are mobile and those who aren't have a lot in common, there is one big difference: On-the-go entrepreneurs operate very much under the radar. Exactly how many people are operating businesses from motor coaches, travel trailers and boats is unknown—no one seems to have a handle on the number of mobile entrepreneurs out there.
As president of Workamper News, a Heber Springs, Arkansas, publication that targets RV-dwellers seeking employment that complements their mobile lifestyle, Steve Anderson is often asked about the number of people who live and work full time on the road. Workamper News has a readership of 50,000, most of whom are seeking jobs as campground workers or similar employment. A smaller number are interested in being self-employed or in contracting, and fewer still are looking to start businesses.
Anderson says his best efforts can't put a more precise number to the group of existing or hopeful business owners, or even to the number of full-time RV-dwellers. “The last estimate I heard was three-quarters of a million living the full-time lifestyle on the road,” Anderson says. “But I think it's a guesstimation.”
One thing Anderson and others do agree on is that the number of RV- and boat-based entrepreneurs, however many that may be, is growing. “And it's not only more people but younger people,” says Janet Groene, a writer who spent a decade with her photographer husband, Gordon, creating books about their travels. “We were in the tropics on a sailboat during the winter and in an RV in the winter,” Groene says.
Although she and her husband left the road and now operate from Deland, Florida, Groene says today RVs are less likely to be perceived as a retirement vehicle and more likely a suitable base for younger people who want to run a business but not stay in a single location.
The Ins and Outs of Going Mobile
The Internet has been a big factor in the growth of mobile entrepreneurs, Groene says, because it's given people the ability to sell almost anything without having to have any inventory or a physical facility. An e-commerce business owner can drop ship from an RV campground as easily as from a stationary home, she notes. Other businesses that fit well with a mobile life are creative ones, such as the ventures she and her husband practiced, which included writing, photography, musical performance and crafting such goods as jewelry and leather products.
Thanks to improvements in connectivity, online consulting and software development are growing areas for on-the-road entrepreneurs. Groene says she knows one woman who operates a Midwestern real estate business from an RV in the United Kingdom. One niche she suggests avoiding, however, is trying to create a blog about RVing. “It would be just about impossible to make a living blogging about your RV travels,” she says. “Everybody’s doing it.”
In addition to scoping out the competition, Groene suggests looking carefully into licensing, insurance and regulatory matters related to your business before deciding to take it on the road. For instance, RV and boat insurance that's well suited for recreational users may not cover liability if a customer slips and falls on the dock on the way to an onboard meeting, she notes. Likewise, businesses in the health-care industry and the trades, such as plumbing and electrical services, require state or local licenses, which may be prohibitive for people who are moving from place to place, not always knowing where they might stop. And many RV campgrounds prohibit door-to-door solicitation, which could hamstring an entrepreneur who's attempting to sell RV-related products or services to other travelers, she notes.
One advantage of running a business from a boat or RV is the potential ability to treat expenses connected with your vehicle as tax deductions. This only works if you organize your business as a separate entity, such as an S corporation, says Anderson, and if you have another fixed address, such as a conventional house or apartment. Other than that, Anderson says, “If you have a business entity and you utilize your RV to travel, it's a business expense.”
Fuel and campground fees aren’t much compared to operating from a fixed base, but buying a boat or RV that's suitable for hosting a business can be a significant expense. In 2012, the average houseboat cost $783,912, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Sailboats averaged just $60,708, although that number includes many vessels too small to host a business. The average price of the 285,900 RVs that were sold in 2012 was $37,897, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Some motor coaches can run several times times that much, however, as can luxury truck-trailer rigs like the ones the Dahls travel in.
But if your wanderlust and entrepreneurial urges seem to be at odds, the cost of satisfying both of them isn't too much, at least according to those who've made a living out of living on the road. As Rick Dahl says, “I’d recommend it very much to anybody who wants to be an entrepreneur.”
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