by David W. Bynon (reprinted with permission).
As long as there have been cars on the road, there have been professional detailers. The profession dates back to the days of horse-drawn carriages and professional carriage drivers. In the 1940s, professional detailing shifted from services rendered to elite motorcar owners to car dealerships, where previously owned cars were professionally detailed for resale. Until the 1970s, most car dealerships had a staff of professional detailers. Economic changes forced many dealerships to trim their detailing staff and contract the service out to the lowest bidder. This spawned the booming car detailing and carwash business we have today.
Several car ownership factors play into making car detailing a viable and growing business. First, the price of new cars continues to rise at an average of $1,000 per year. This is causing many car owners to realize that maintaining their car is a wise investment. Second, people are keeping their cars longer. According to R. L. Polk, a Detroit-based research company, Americans are keeping their cars for more than 7.5 years, as opposed to 5.5 years in 1970. This is largely due to the cost of buying a new car and the change in U.S. tax laws, which no longer allow car loan interest deductions. Finally, modern cars are far more reliable and durable. In addition to simple mechanical improvements, the paint, trim and interior finishes on new cars are far superior to the previous generation's. With the longer periods of ownership, car owners are realizing that they must keep their cars' appearance maintained.
Cashing in on Detailing
According to Professional Carwashing & Detailing magazine's latest estimates, there are more than 8,000 independent detailers across the U.S., with average annual sales in excess of $25,000. This information is a few years old, and the figures have since improved. The more important figure is the average hourly earning potential for independent detailers, which ranges from $15 to $75 per hour, depending on location and specialty jobs. High-income demographics, like South Florida and Southern California, have an image-conscious customer base with expensive luxury cars. In these areas, it's not unheard of for a seasoned detailer to charge $250 or more for a full detail service. However, you don't have to set up shop in a high-income, high-cost-of-living area to make a nice living as a detailer. By adding special services to your detailing business, you can increase revenue and attract new clients.
Typical detailing services charge out as follows:
Add-on services create new profit centers and typically offer more income per unit of work:
Of course, the price of professional detailing services does not paint the complete picture. To really understand the full potential, you'll need to estimate jobs per day, as follows:
Likewise, you should estimate your add-on services:
Professional detailing is one of those businesses where you can choose how busy you want to be. It's easy to see that keeping a busy schedule of three detailing jobs per day and three add-on services per week will bring a revenue stream of $1,725 or more per week. That's $89,700 revenue per year, working alone. Add an assistant, and your revenue will be significantly higher.
TYPES OF DETAILING BUSINESSES
Professional detailing businesses come in all shapes and sizes, but you can categorize them in three basic groups: mobile, fixed-site or temporary location. Each type of professional detailing business has its own list of pros and cons that should be carefully explored and understood.
Mobile Detailing Business
Mobile detailers operate out of the back of a van, truck or trailer. There are many benefits to this type of operation, including a low initial start-up cost, low monthly fees, and higher rates from clients who prefer the convenience of having their car detailed at their home or office.
Outfitting a mobile detailing system is largely a matter of personal taste and pocketbook. It's important to realize that your mobile rig will be your central work facility and deserves significant thought. You'll be using it as your office, workshop, transportation and shelter for eight or more hours per day. Creating an organized layout will make it easier and faster to set up, find tools, get the job done, close up and get to the next job.
Reliable used vans and trucks can be purchased for as little as $3,000 to $5,000. You'll need another $2,000 to $4,000 to properly equip the van or truck. If you already own a truck or van, but want to keep it available for nonbusiness use, a trailer is your best bet. Fully equipped detailing trailers start at $2,500 and can easily reach $8,000 or more for a serious rig.
Mobile detailing is a great business model in the southern regions that enjoy mild winters. You can comfortably work outside most of the year. In areas that get snow and freezing daytime temperatures, a mobile business would see a significant slowdown in winter.
Aside from slow business in winter months, there are several disadvantages to a mobile detailing business, including waste management, special equipment, mobile system upkeep and travel time loss. Let's examine each issue.
Waste management is a big concern for most states and cities. In most areas, it is no longer acceptable to dump chemicals into the drainage system. This means the mobile detailer must have a containment and water reclamation system when using any chemicals that are not biodegradable and safe for fish. California uses a 2-gallon rule. If the detail job requires more than 2 gallons of wash water, the water must be contained.
A mobile detailing business has special equipment requirements. To be effective, a mobile detailer must truly be mobile. This means that you must carry all the water, power and shelter you need with you. At a minimum, you should have an 80- to 100-gallon water capacity and enough power to operate a professional buffer and vacuum.
Mobile system maintenance becomes an issue, because the equipment takes more abuse than shop-based tools. A successful mobile rig has tools (pumps, compressors, generators) that are not necessary in a fixed-site shop. These tools require constant maintenance and care that will consume your time.
While mobile convenience is a huge benefit to clients, it is a time-waster for the mobile operator. If it takes 20 minutes to get to each client, and you service three clients a day, you lose an hour of paid time.
What does it cost to start a mobile detailing business? Here are some one-time start-up cost assumptions and monthly expense assumptions for a one-person mobile operation:
Fixed-site Detailing Business
A fixed-site detailing business, or detailing shop, is an expensive proposition. There are many hard costs that must be incurred before opening your doors for business. It would not be difficult to expend $100,000 or more to open a modest-sized shop with only a couple of detailing bays.
The benefit of a detailing shop over a mobile business or home business is that you can hire employees and locate your business in a natural traffic center to bring in business. Given a good location and a sound marketing plan, a detailing shop with two or three bays can easily generate annual revenues of $400,000 to $500,000.
Before going the fixed-site route, you have two big decisions to make. The first is whether you want to be an independent owner/operator or buy into a franchise. The second decision is whether you're going to start a business from scratch or buy out another professional detailing business.
If you're in an area with a number of thriving detailing shops under one or more franchise names, that should be an indicator that the community is buying a name. If the majority or all of the local competition are independent operators, there may not be any competitive advantage to opening a franchise.
What does it cost to start a fixed-site operation? Here are some basic assumptions:
Temporary Location Detailing Business
Many professional detailers get started using temporary locations like a parking garage, gasoline station or portable awning in a shopping mall parking lot. In these temporary locations, a detailer can build a steady business of drive-up customers. When I commuted from San Diego to Los Angeles, I used the services of a detailer in my parking garage. Every day he would roll out his lights, hoses and power cords to start business. His office was a 10' by 10' utility closet he rented from the parking garage owner. His overhead was extremely low, and business was always brisk.
The equipment used in a temporary location detailing business is the same as what you would use in a mobile business. In fact, many temporary location operators simply pull their mobile rig on site and open up for business. Some detailers will have agreements with two or three parking garages or gasoline stations to draw more business.
Starting on a Shoestring Budget
Are you dreaming of starting a professional detailing business, but don't have $50,000 lying around? Perhaps the better question to ask is, does a detailer need to have a large budget and high-dollar equipment to present a professional image and build a good business? Not necessarily.
Most newcomers to professional detailing are motivated by the self-employment aspect of the business. As a result, they have a passion for getting the business started, no matter what it takes. Because anyone can purchase supplies and a few basic tools, it is possible to have very low overhead and low start-up costs operating out of the trunk of a car within the neighborhood.
It does not take a lot of experience to start work as a professional detailer. Most people can learn the business with only a few months of working for a professional detailing shop or by detailing their own cars as an enthusiast. If on-the-job training is not a viable option, classes and training tapes are readily available.
Most experts in the car care field would not advocate starting a detailing business on a shoestring budget. This is primarily because it has the potential to hurt the reputation and the revenue of the industry. When detailers start off on a minimal budget, they often set prices artificially low as a means of attracting business. To keep their head above water financially, they rush jobs and cut corners. Don't fall into this trap.
I believe you can start with a modest budget if you're willing to work hard to get started. Some expenses can be avoided in the first year, such as the attorney and accountant. Not that they are not important, but your needs are modest if you're starting small. Likewise, you don't have to invest in every tool or a brand-new van, truck or trailer. Where possible, buy used equipment.
The best way to get started is to offer a basic wash and vacuum, express detail service. Advertise and promote the business by distributing flyers and business cards. Plan to do a lot of footwork, distributing handouts door-to-door or business-to-business. You'll need to send a direct mailing to everyone you know and then follow up with a phone call. Get listed in the Yellow Pages and put magnetic signs on your vehicle. Never be shy about asking family and friends for referrals, and provide people who give referrals a discount if they bring you business.
EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES
No matter which kind of detailing business you decide to start, you will need a basic set of tools and supplies. Here is a quick rundown on the essentials for every professional detailer.
Don't skimp on a rotary buffer. It's a tool you will use every day. If you plan to invest in a good air compressor, pneumatic buffers are much lighter and don't generate heat like electric buffers. As a result, you won't be quite so tired after buffing for an hour or two. In either case, get a tool with variable speed control, from 600 to 2,400 rpm. Also, make sure the rotary buffer you purchase has or will accept Velcro backing plates and pads. Velcro-backed pads are a huge time-saver.
You will also need a good dual-action (orbital) polisher. The same rules apply as above. Pneumatic is your best bet if you are installing a good compressed-air system. If you don't plan to use pneumatic tools, the best dual-action buffer is the Porter Cable 7424. Your dual-action buffer will also serve as your carpet and floor mat shampoo machine. By changing the attachment to a brush, you will be able to deep-clean even the worst carpets and floor mats.
Don't underestimate the value of a good wet-dry vacuum. Detailers need a vacuum with a lot of power. A wet-dry vacuum with less than 5 hp won't do a good job. In addition to good power, select a quiet vacuum, and make sure the filters won't cost a fortune or be difficult to find.
An extractor is a cleaning system for carpet and upholstery. It forces hot, soapy water into carpet or upholstery, and extracts the dirt and soapy water back into its canister. High-end systems heat the water and make steam for removing tough stains. This tool pays for itself in a very short period of time. Without an extractor, interior detailing is very laborious.
If you don't plan to use pneumatic tools, an air compressor is not a must-have item. If you need a compressor, be sure to size it correctly for your shop or mobile system. A portable compressor may not have the power or tank capacity to run more than one tool at a time, or to run a rotary buffer for more than a few minutes at a time. The last thing you'll want to do is stand around waiting on your air compressor.
There are many detailing tasks for an air compressor other than running pneumatic tools, such as blowing water off a freshly detailed engine or blowing out dirty vents. You can get by without an air compressor by using your wet-dry vacuum on blow. Many vacuums come with attachments made for blowing.
Brushes & Wash Tools
Professional detailers use a wide assortment of brushes to detail cars. You'll need interior brushes, exterior brushes, tire and wheel brushes, and engine brushes. For each of these areas you'll need fine, medium and possibly even hard bristles.
A variety of wash sponges and mitts are required, as well. You'll have different grade wash mitts and sponges for different vehicles. Your Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette clients will appreciate knowing you're not using the same sponge on their car as you did on the Ford F350 that just came back from a camping trip.
You're going to be amazed at how many towels you use. Your mainstay will be 100% cotton terry cloth. Buy quality detailing-grade towels by the bundle.
You will also need to invest in mid-grade microfiber towels. For professional detailers, I recommend standardizing on a single towel that works for all tasks.
Detailing chemicals are your number one supply item. Over time, you will spend more money on chemicals than all of your tools and other supplies put together. Be sure to select your chemical provider wisely, and purchase in sufficient quantity to get a good discount. At a minimum you will need:
It's a long list. Trust me, though, you'll use everything on the chemicals list and more. Detailing chemicals are the professional detailer's lifeblood.
The car care field has many aspects. Professional detailers can quickly add to their business by offering special services beyond traditional detailing.
Paint touch-up, be it chip repair or bumper scratch repair, is an easy and lucrative add-on service for detailers. There are many different paint touch-up systems available. The internet is a good place to start your research. Be sure to research thoroughly and seek qualified training. Be sure to compare different equipment kits to determine what they contain. You'll find that some kits are designed for chip touch-up only, while others repair chips, bumper scuffs and scratches.
If you have never been involved with paint touch-up, I recommend a hands-on training session. A good training course will run 3 to 5 days and will allow for plenty of practical application. After a week of training, you won't be an expert or fast, but you'll know the basics. As with any skill, practice makes perfect.
Once you're up to speed, a simple stone chip repair will take less than 1 hour, whereas a bumper repair may take 2 or 3 hours. For these services, you will be charging $75 to $200.
When marketing your paint repair services, it is important to properly set customer expectations. Most people will wrongly assume that a paint touch-up repair will make the paint perfect. It won't. You must explain that paint chip touch-up does not remove the chip; it simply makes it the same color as the vehicle. You must make it very clear that your paint touch-up service is a quick and inexpensive alternative to going to a body shop to have a fender, hood or door repainted.
Tinting & Windshield Repair
Window tinting is a good volume builder in the Sunbelt states. Be aware, though, that window tinting is a tough trade to learn. Curved windows are difficult to master, and customers expect perfection.
Many detailers add tinting as an outsourced job. Your client schedules with you, and you schedule to have the tinting pro come to your shop or location.
The time required to properly tint windows will vary, depending on the technician's skill and experience. Most tinting jobs can be completed in 1 to 4 hours. The best way to bill for tinting services is to base it on the size of the vehicle and the number of windows to be tinted. Add extra for complex rear windows. Typical tinting jobs will go for $100 to $300.
Windshield repair is far easier and more lucrative than tinting. Windshield chips and small cracks are repaired by injecting a resin into the damaged area of glass. The resin bonds the break and prevents further cracking.
To make a proper repair, you need a windshield repair tool kit, which will cost anywhere from $200 to nearly $2,000. The kit price will determine the quality and durability of the tools. It's not necessary to buy the most expensive kit to make excellent repairs.
Windshield repair is a great add-on service, because most insurance companies will waive the deductibles for windshield repair. This is a great incentive for most customers. The typical small star crack will charge out at $45 to $75, and will take less than 30 minutes to repair.
Vinyl & Leather Repair
Vinyl and leather repair services are an easy sale for detailers. That's because nothing looks worse than a torn seat, gouged dash or cigarette burn. Most small repairs will charge out at $25 to $75, and your material costs will often be less than $5.
While not as time-consuming to learn as paint touch-up repairs, it does take some time to learn vinyl and leather repair. The repair process is basically the same for both leather and vinyl, although you'll use different compounds. Vinyl repair compounds will not stick to leather, so don't even try.
The secret to a good repair is a heat gun and knowing how to match colors. You need a gun that allows you to pinpoint direct heat. Color matching is mostly computerized, but you will need a small square of the material.
If you're planning to add vinyl and leather repair to your service offerings, you might also consider carpet repair and carpet dyeing. This way you will cover all of the major interior services.
Paintless Dent Repair
With a paintless dent repair/removal (PDR) system, you can offer your customers an affordable service with a very nice profit margin. PDR is definitely not for all detailers, and it's not a quick or easy skill to learn.
A PDR technician uses a variety of instruments with different tips to work a dent from the back side of the panel. When massaged in the right areas with the right tool, the damaged metal can be made to conform to its original shape with near-perfect results. The PDR process requires a considerable amount of skill and patience, developed through many hours of education and practice.
Regardless of your skill level, there are dents that cannot be repaired with PDR techniques. These includes dents that are too large or are located in places where the sheet metal is reinforced. An experienced PDR technician learns to "read" dents that cannot be repaired before accepting the job.
Although there are situations that are problematic, PDR is an advantageous service to offer. Most PDR repairs can be completed within an hour, and cost much less than going to a body shop.
Getting into the PDR business is economical. The cost for PDR equipment ranges from several hundred dollars for a small starter set to $10,000 for a complete turnkey system with training.
In terms of recovering your costs, PDR provides an excellent opportunity to generate revenue. The service is typically priced at $75 to $150 per dent, depending on the location, depth and size of the damage.
Every business has legal requirements it must meet to operate. A single chapter cannot adequately cover all legal requirements of a detailing business, such as incorporating, record keeping and trademark registration, but I can give you an overview of the most basic legal requirements.
Each city, county and state government body in the U.S. has different guidelines for operating a detailing business. Some regions will require one or more licenses, while others require no licenses at all.
The best place to learn about obtaining a business license in your area is your local city hall, city administration or county administration office. Every town or county in the U.S. has an administration office. Look in your phone book for the telephone number and address.
Most professional detailers will be required to have a permit of one sort or another to conduct business. Business permits are very easy to obtain, as they are revenue generators for the local government. Usually all that's required is the completion of a simple form and payment of a small fee. Most administration offices will issue a temporary permit on the spot and send your permanent license or permit within a few weeks.
Air & Water Pollution Control
Many cities have a department that supervises the control of air and water. Here in California, professional detailers must report to the Water Resources Department for wastewater disposal. When you apply for your city or county business permit, ask about water disposal requirements in your area. Don't get caught dumping wastewater in a controlled area. Fines can be very harsh.
Some cities and counties have strict sign ordinances that restrict the size, lighting and location of business signs. Most landlords will be able to guide you on proper signage for your location. If you're starting a mobile operation, there are very few restrictions.
Fire Department Permits
Fire departments often require businesses to get a permit if they use flammable materials or if the premises will be occupied by customers. Check with your local fire department if you are establishing a fixed-site business.
Zoning applies to business use of property in a residential area. If you're locating your business in an existing facility, zoning regulation will most likely not be a problem. However, if you're starting your business in a new location, including your home, you should check zoning ordinances to make sure you're in compliance.
In order to get your detailing business off the ground, you will most likely have to raise enough capital to finance start-up. Financing a detailing business is mostly an exercise in debt management. You have to evaluate your financial situation and the capacity of your new business to pay off debts as they come due.
Most new business owners fail miserably at managing working capital properly, because they simply don't understand what it actually encompasses. There are five components to working capital:
Watch your five working capital assets like a hawk. Take the time to understand each component. Don't wait until you're in trouble to realize that you don't have enough cash on hand or a big enough line of credit. Plan ahead for growth and slow periods.
There are two good reasons to keep accurate records. They are an invaluable tool for managing your business, and they are required by law. From a management perspective, good records are necessary for basic day-to-day operations. Records help you track sales and give you measurements about your financial situation. Records must also be kept to determine your tax liability. I strongly suggest hiring a bookkeeper and an accountant.
ADVERTISING & PROMOTION
Before you can make any plans on how to sell your detailing services, you must first understand what motivates people to buy. There are essentially five motivators that make us give up our hard-earned money for a product or service:
For every reason people buy, there are an equal number of reasons they don't buy:
Pricing Your Services
In every line of business there is a range of prices for goods and services. In most cases, service prices reflect the quality and professionalism provided to the customer. Successful detailers will price their services appropriately and avoid competing with the bottom feeders based on price. Bottom feeders are forced to cut corners and deliver less than stellar service. If they don't, they will quickly be out of business. The demise of most bottom feeders is the lack of repeat business, which is what makes a truly professional detailer thrive.
As prices increase, so does the caliber of clientele. Clients with new, expensive cars will use your services regularly to keep their vehicles maintained. These are your loyal, repeat business customers. They are the customers you want to attract and keep. The good news is, most detailers never figure this out and try to compete with the bottom feeders on price. Let them try, while you scoop up all of the high-end work.
Be careful, though. If you jack up your prices too high, you may lose the customers you already have and stop getting new customers. With each price increase you must also improve your image and service level. Just remember that people purchase on quality, service and price. Each must be in balance.
Promote or Die!
What do customers expect from your detail business? That's simple: customers want convenience. They expect work to be done quickly, correctly and at a reasonable price. Most of all, though, most customers want superior customer service, convenient drop-off and pickup services, and a nice place to wait if they come to your facility.
Sales will come to those who
Is that too much to ask? Of course not! Build your marketing and promotion plan around your customer's buying motives.
The goals for your marketing plan should be to gain first-thought recognition, and to answer a simple question for your customers: "What will it do for me?" This means that the name of your detailing business should be the first thing that pops into customers' heads when their vehicles need detailing services.
Very few detailers formalize their advertising and promotion plans. Many detailers stop with a listing in the Yellow Pages or a small ad in their local newspaper. Word of mouth is important, but it only comes after you have built a successful business. You must create a realistic marketing plan and aggressively work your plan. Here are a few forms of advertising and promotion every professional detailer should consider:
Professional detailing is a great business opportunity. Like any business, it requires careful planning and execution. Be smart. Don't stumble blindly into professional detailing. Take the time to understand your market and build a strategy. Then plan your business and work your plan.