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FEATURE

Time-Crunched Lifestyles and Appetite for Variety Fuel Demand for Mobile Businesses

An increasingly popular type of small business is gaining traction as a growing number of service providers and retailers realize the value of taking their products and services on the road.

Mary Ann Azevedo
March 10 , 2013

TiVo employee Greg Oncina is a busy man. He and just about nearly everyone else living and working in Silicon Valley struggles with juggling a hectic work schedule with having, well, a life. So when TiVo added haircuts to its list of employee perks, Oncina was thrilled. Now TiVo’s events coordinator gets his haircut at his office in Santa Clara - in the middle of his work day -  in an RV operated by San Jose-based Onsite Haircuts.

Founded in 2003, the company services many of the Valley’s major tech firms including Google, LinkedIn, VMware, and Yahoo.

The company’s mobile hair salons consist of a fleet of five large RVs that have been retrofitted to be a hair salon on the inside and are certified by the state board of cosmetology. Staff use iPads for a register and Square – mobile payment technology developed by a San Francisco startup - to accept credit card payments. They also take cash.

Onsite Haircuts is an example of a growing trend of small businesses that see the benefit of taking products or services on the road, rather than having customers or clients come to them. These days, many business owners need little more than a smartphone and social networking accounts to accept payments and advertise their offerings. Such businesses are able to operate with lower overhead by avoiding such expenses as high rent, costly utilities, and print advertising.

And it seems that more and more people are getting used to the idea.

Forrester Research predicts that over the next five years, the amount that U.S. consumers will spend using mobile payments will climb to $90 billion by the end of 2017, compared with $12.8 billion in 2012.*

Leanna Trombino, Onsite Haircut’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the mobile company was founded mainly to offer Silicon Valley workers more convenience.  Also, as companies compete fiercely for talent, they have been increasingly more creative with their perks.

Demand for such convenience is indeed growing. While Onsite Haircuts declined to reveal revenue figures, Trombino did say that revenue surged by 33 percent in 2012 compared with 2011.

BRINGING FOOD TO THE MASSES

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Valley, the number of food trucks is growing as retail rents continue to climb and companies seek lively ways to spice up workers’ days.

New Orleans native Dione Uht has always loved to cook and recently decided to take her passion to the streets – in the form of a food truck dubbed “Cajun Persuasion.”

Debuting in San Jose in early 2013, the bright and colorful truck features what Uht describes as “authentic” Cajun meals such as gumbo and etoufee. Being a mobile restaurant helps a restaurateur take control of his or her business in a unique way, she says.

“I started catering here and there and wanted to open a restaurant but that just wasn’t economically feasible,” she said. “So I thought what better way than to have a food truck and go to the people.”

The popularity of social media, Uht believes, is helping fuel the food truck industry as owners use social media to advertise where they’ll be next.

Jeremy Goldman, founder of Firebrand Group and author of the book “Going Social,” says the types of individuals who gravitate towards food truck, or other mobile, entrepreneurship are often inherently social, and as such “are great at conversations with customers.”

“That’s something Twitter is built for,” Goldman says. “The fact that these mobile businesses keep moving around gives them something they need to communicate on an ongoing basis, which gives an ‘excuse’ to communicate.”

The increasing number of companies trying to offer creative perks to employees is also helping fuel demand. Uht takes her truck to corporate campuses for Cajun lunches, among other locales.

But not all mobile business revolve around employee perks.

Charlotte Swancy’s family runs Riverview Farms in Atlanta, Ga., where it raises organic vegetables, pork and beef.

In 2011, it occurred to Swancy that instead of “freezing our tails off in the winter” at various farmer’s markets, that it made sense to create their own market – “Farm Mobile” where shoppers can pick up organic locally grown produce, cheese from local food artisans, free-range eggs and sustainable meats.

“We stop, You shop,” is their motto. “Farm Mobile” sets up shop at restaurant and church parking lots, and even at outdoor retailer REI’s parking lot. It too relies on social networking to get the word out.

Like Onsite Haircuts and Cajun Persuasion, “Farm Mobile” also accepts credit cards through Square. Customers can even pay with food stamps.

At minimum, having a mobile presence has helped the family get the word out about its farm.

“We’re not getting rich but the truck is keeping itself running,” she said. “And it’s serving as another outlet for our farm products.”

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