The Life of a Lone Wolf: One Mobile Shop’s Adventures Without a Pack
You see them every now and then: the mobile repair techs, the lone wolves of the diesel industry. They prowl along the highways in their trucks or vans, searching for vehicles that need a rescue.
They have no pack.
They need no pack.
They roam alone.
(They would probably be very amused by that dramatic introduction.)
Yes, folks, today we’re talking about the one-man bands. The guys (and gals) who do it all on their own. They don’t have any staff to fall back on. No sales people, no service managers, no parts people. They handle every aspect of their business.
Sounds exhausting? It can be.
We write a lot about small and medium-sized repair shops (and we’ve even featured a couple big ones!), but we realized we hadn’t yet talked about the singletons—the specific challenges operating on your own brings, and some of the benefits, too.
We sat down (virtually) with Jordan Steen of Six Gun Diesel Performance and Repair. He runs a mobile diesel crane truck, and ventures out to construction sites in and around Sutherland, Iowa.
WORKING ALONE HAS ITS PERKS
“I prefer it, to be honest with you,” Jordan says when asked how he likes working on his own. “I like that everything’s different. My customers typically come from word of mouth, or similar jobs.”
There’s also a different type of relationship between customers and lone wolves. Jordan is the person who answers the phone and emails…and he’s also the technician. “I’m not getting information from a service writer, who got information from the call center, who got information from the operator, about what’s wrong,” he says. “That makes my life way easier.”
That doesn’t mean things don’t get uncomfortable. If a customer is frustrated with something, well, Jordan gets the brunt of that frustration. Still, even the most aggravated customers seem to curtail themselves a bit, because they know Jordan is the one actually working on their equipment. He’s not one of many techs. He’s not part of a big conglomerate or even a medium-sized shop. It’s just Jordan.
“If you’re a [jerk] to me, I don’t have to show up and fix your machine,” he says.
HOURS, HOURS, HOURS
Anyone who runs their own business is quite aware of how the hours can creep up on you. The freedom that comes with setting your own hours can often translate to working a lot of those hours. You can work nights and weekends if you want to. But once you start, it’s hard to stop.
In other words, if you’re doing good business, taking a day off can be a challenge. The work-life balance can become a struggle.
This was a big deal for Jordan. In a prior life he worked with agricultural equipment dealers; if you know farmers, you know their hours can be…well…long. Very long. They expected techs to be available for call at all hours, too (hey, if your downtime is midnight to 4 AM, you need someone working on that vehicle at that time). So Jordan picked up the phone whenever it rang—even late at night. Hey, it was good money…but it didn’t make home life easy.
He wanted a home life, so once he ran his own business, he set up his own hours.
“I refuse to answer the phone before 7:30 in the morning and after 5 in the afternoon,” Jordan says. He also tries not to answer texts before or after those times. Now, he might still be working before and after those hours, depending on the job, but generally those are his office hours.
“Sometimes they don’t feel like they’re good enough,” he muses, “but they’re better than nothing.”
CHALLENGES OF A LONE WOLF OPERATION
We think we can distill the challenges a lone shop operator can face into a simple list of pros and cons.
Pro: It’s just you.
Con: It’s just you.
The freedom that comes with doing your own thing can be a double-edged sword. Are you sick? There’s no one to really take your shift; if something needs to be done today, you may need to refer it out to a competitor. Getting burned out? Schedule some PTO.
(“Lone wolves tend to be workaholics,” Fullbay COO Chris O’Brien mentioned in a separate interview.)
A larger operation has layers of people: technicians, parts managers, runners, and so on. A lone wolf is all of those things.
Lone wolves also face the challenge of setting appropriate rates; they have to make enough to support themselves and the business, but they also need to compete with the larger repair shops and dealerships in their area. Sometimes this works out in their favor, as a typical solo operator has a far lower overhead than a shop paying $20,000 a month for their facility. But the lack of a physical shop or some specific pieces of equipment can sometimes limit the type of work that comes in.
Setting rates and charging appropriately is a challenge for almost any business. Sometimes it can get painful, particularly during expensive repairs when you can actually see a customer wince as they bring out their credit card. And yeah, Jordan does feel for them. But when it comes to mobile repair, customers are paying for convenience. The tech is going to them. Sometimes at weird hours.
“It’s not always an easy thing to help the customer understand,” he says, adding that there’s a lot of value in being the sole point of contact and having a direct relationship with a customer. (Oh, and consistent, high-quality work is great, too.) “There’s a lot to be said about trust between [the parties.] … If all you care about is price, you can call the guy down the road and when he fixes it for 10 minutes and it doesn’t work, you can call me to re-work it and I bill you for every hour I’m there.”
For the parts hoarders among us, a mobile-only operation severely limits what you can keep on hand. Oh, sure, you can keep some fast-moving stuff on the truck (or in your garage, if you have one), but a lot of your parts purchasing will be just-in-time (often called JIT). By nature, the lone wolf tends to be more conscious of their inventory. This does make your relationships with vendors extra important!
(Chris adds that some mobile techs rent out storage units to keep inventory and extra tools in. If you’ve got one near you, give it some thought.)
And here’s a big one: As mentioned up top, lone wolf operators do have to deal with tough and disgruntled customers. If they’re displeased, they’ll be displeased with you.
GETTING WORK AS A LONE WOLF
So, how does the work come in when it’s just you at the helm?
We’re usually the first to scream about marketing (MARKETING! GET YOUR DIESEL MARKETING RIGHT HERE!), but the reality is when it’s just one person at the helm, “marketing” can be a haphazard situation.
At the moment, Six Guns Diesel Performance and Repair doesn’t have a website—Jordan has plenty of work. Most of it is through word of mouth: the usual customers recommending him to colleagues, friends, and family. But he’s also got a lot of contacts left over from his time at the dealerships, and he’s frequently meeting people on job sites. He talked about one customer who’d been referred to him by someone he worked with years ago.
Hey, good work makes an impression.
HOW JORDAN USES FULLBAY
And here it is, the part you were waiting for: How Jordan uses Fullbay. Relax—it’s a short section. 🙂
“I am probably not your ideal user,” Jordan admits. He buys a minimal amount of parts on each work order, as many of his customers get their parts from their respective dealerships. He also uses the Quick Service Order (QSO).
Actually, his exact quote is, “The QSO is my best friend.”
Jordan has an interesting way of creating his QSOs, so if you’re not keen on using Fullbay on your phone, listen up: He brings a notebook with him to jobs and takes down notes that include departure and arrival times, how long the job took, when he got back from a job, and so on. He then hammers out QSOs when he’s got some downtime or on a weekend.
“It has the top to bottom customer information that they need to make their bookkeeper happy,” he says. “I care more about being able to bill my time and move on to the next thing as fast as possible.”
Fullbay sending the invoice directly to the customer is also pretty handy.
A LONE WOLF NO MORE?
We asked Jordan if he wanted to remain a one-man operation forever.
“I’ve got big hopes and dreams,” he says. Among those hopes and dreams: expanding and making all regional dealerships tremble!
OK, just the expanding part. He does want dealerships to know his name, though.
“Ideally, I think I’m looking at a total of three people,” he says. But, he adds, it has to be “the exact right person … delivering on what I believe an addition to me needs to be.”
He knows that will require a certain payscale and a certain commitment from whoever it is.
Ideally, he’ll add mobile welding and line boring, because that’s a need that spans multiple industries. He’d also like a counterpart to split the duties he’d usually take on—to that end, he’s currently working on fitting out a second truck.
He’s also nursing along a personal project that will hopefully benefit the industry in time. We didn’t get into it much here, but heavy equipment can stay in service much longer than your average truck—the yellow iron isn’t as constricted by emissions regulations and the like. It stays in service longer—cool, right?
Except a good chunk of the youngsters entering the field aren’t getting trained on the old stuff, and the, erm, vintaged technicians who know how to work on it are starting to retire.
(Let’s call it a yellow iron brain drain, which also sounds like an exciting tropical disease.)
Jordan wants to do his part to fight this. He’s working on a foundation to mentor and job train young people who are interested in heavy-duty equipment. It’s something he builds during his off hours, and once it’s ready to go, you can expect to hear more about it.
In the meantime, Six Gun Diesel Performance and Repair continues to prowl over its territory, snatching prey from larger packs. It’s a tough job, but a rewarding one, too, and we’re glad Jordan and his counterparts are here to do it.
So lift a glass to the mobile repair techs, the lone wolves of the industry—long may they roam.