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Do: Start Your Own Business

Don’t: Let Your Fear Stop You
So you’re interested in starting your own towing business? No?  Just getting a job as a tow truck driver?  But I thought…?  Anyway.

What way you choose to get in this business depends entirely on your ability to deal with adversity.  What do I mean?  I’m glad you asked.

The second definition in Webster’s Dictionary says that adversity is a “calamitous event” and every day as a tow truck employee, owner or employer is filled to the rim with calamity.  From changing a tire in traffic that won’t get over, recovering a rolled over tractor-trailer to dealing with irate customers and unscrupulous motor clubs, the towing business is rarely boring.

Where ever you are in your thinking consider the following before making a decision:

  • You could work for someone else as an employee, selling your time to them which they sell at a higher rate to the end-user.
  • You can start your own one truck business and sell directly to the end-user cutting out the employer.
  • You can become the employer and purchase time from employees selling their labor to the end-user


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Here are some of the challenges for each;

To be a tow truck operator (employee) you must be aware of everything happening around you and anticipate the worst.  I know it sounds horrible but if you don’t expect the driver of the 24 foot F-650 box truck to be texting while you’re attempting to loosen a lug nut in interstate traffic you’re going to be road kill. This type of awareness and understanding of what could happen at any given moment can cause you to become somewhat paranoid and pessimistic but don’t let that bother you you’ve got more things to worry about.

Especially if you decide to go into business for yourself (one truck business).  As a one truck owner-operator you’ll reminisce about the good ol days as a tow truck driver with fondness because your responsibilities as an owner will have increased 10 fold.  Not only will you need to worry about wayward texters you’ll now be saddled with the bills.  Ahh the joys of entrepreneurship.  Every month you’ll need to bring in enough cash to cover the fuel, the repairs, the insurance, and advertising not to mention something left over to live on and put away for that new truck.

If you are able to put enough away for a new truck you might have the right stuff to be able to hire some help (employer).  Then you’ll be in the position to gain more business.  A one-guy-one-truck operation can only do one call at a time and most customers want it now.  But be careful when you get in that position. When you hire help it becomes a whole new ball of worms.  Not only will you have to be concerned about yourself and the bills but you’ll have employees to think about.

You’ll drive yourself crazy wondering if they’re doing right by your customers: Are they treating them right? Are they handling their car properly?  Are they trashing your tow truck?  Will they do damage to your customer’s car?  Will they damage your truck?  Are they courteous drivers as they flash your name in public?  All valid concerns…

And what about your rates? You’ve got to charge more than you did when it was just you. Did you take into consideration the taxes and insurance that must be withheld and remitted regularly for these employees?  Do your rates cover all additional expenses and allow you to continue to save for that new truck?  They should or you’ll be a flash in the pan.

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

Yes it can be overwhelming but what isn’t the first time out?  The first time you drove a car, the first time you kissed a girl, the first time you shot a gun- all had learning curves, some more than others, but the point is fear of the unknown didn’t stop you.  You were undoubtedly apprehensive and cautious, which are natural protective measures aimed at preventing us from screwing up, but you overcame.  Think about the old guys you know and respect who own towing companies.  Can you picture them at 20 years old?  Probably geeky awkward kids with no direction trying to get a handle on anything and towing just stuck. Do you think they were scared when they started out on their own? Sure they were but they were pursuing what they wanted to do.

If you want it, it can stick with you too.

So what does it take to put it all together? You’ve got to start somewhere and the best place to start is at the bottom and work your way up.

If you have no knowledge of the business, and no money to invest in equipment and training then working for someone else is probably your best bet.  Don’t be discouraged this is the best place to learn about the industry.  Most everyone in the towing business has either worked for someone else or grew up in the business.  To your advantage, towing companies must properly train their employees in order to survive and be successful.  This means that when you get hired on you’ll be exposed to structured, professionally developed programs aimed at increasing knowledge and expertise, not to mention the on-the-job training, which is priceless.

But you will be required to put in long hours and the work isn’t easy.  You’ll have to start at the bottom and be called out at all hours of the night but if you’re eager to learn, and you better be if you’re going to take this any further, then opportunities for advancement will appear.

Compensation as an employee ranges from straight commission to a salaried plus commission position depending on the company and the amount of business.  Some motivated operators in large markets make upwards of $80,000 per year but they really go after it, being available 24/7.

If you’re coming at this business from the outside don’t worry about not knowing anything most employers would prefer someone who’s trainable rather than a know-it-all whose dad used to own a tow truck.  Most towing companies, especially the larger ones, are always looking to either increase their workforce or fill a vacancy so if you really want to be a tow truck driver don’t wait until there’s an ad in the paper.  Take the initiative and contact the hiring manager and if you have any driving experience, and look respectable they might give you a shot.

There are a few things you can do to kill your chances at being hired.  If you’ve ever seen the 1987 movie “Adventures in Babysitting” with Elizabeth Shue there’s a couple of scenes with a tow truck driver.  He’s a crazy looking guy with bad teeth, a long beard and a hook for a hand. He’s dressed in a dirty jump suit and keeps a shiny 45 revolver in the glove box of his truck which he uses to shoot at a guy caught with his wife.   This is not the image that tow company owners want for their businesses.  This and other more recent depictions of tow truck drivers like “Lizard Lick Towing” are not reality they are a fiction fabricated by Hollywood types who must grab our attention with outrageousness in order to sell advertising.  So if you really want to be a tow truck driver put these negative images out of your head.

A few do’s and don’ts when applying for a towing job.

  • Do dress nicely- I know when you’re out there crawling in the mud looking for a place to hook onto a car you’re going to get dirty but don’t be that way when you’re job hunting.  They’re probably going to let you go home and get changed before you start anyway.  The term “nicely” is subjective so a little on that.
    • Where a clean button down shirt or polo, really any shirt that doesn’t have your favorite Nascar driver’s face or an advertisement for alcohol plastered on it, and tuck it in.
    • Jeans or slacks without dirt or holes that are pulled up so that you can tuck your shirt in.
    • Boots or shoes that cover your entire foot- Sandals or flip-flops tell everyone you’re not serious.
  • Don’t bring your phone in with you.  If you start off a relationship with your potential employer by holding up a finger mid-sentence asking him to wait while you take a call or respond to a text in the middle of an interview you will not get hired.
  • Don’t have more holes in your head than what you were born with.  What I mean to say is if you have piercings take them out, let them close up and get on with your life.   Look back on that time and those decisions as your misspent wild rebellious days but please don’t come in expecting to get hired unless they’re gone. I know this may sound insensitive but you’ve got to understand that the towing business is a service based business with customers that employees must deal with on a face to face basis.  And if an employer has a choice, he will choose to have his customers interact with someone without excessive piercings.

The towing business can be a difficult field to get into:  There are no franchises available, rarely do you see a successful towing business for sale, and towing 101 is not a college elective.  Even with barriers for entry high and membership into the “fraternity” exclusive towing is a business with opportunity for growth well into the middle of the century.   The question remains how to break in?

To break into the towing business you must have all of these: The ability to learn the skills necessary, Resourcefulness, Persistence and Efficiency.  I know it sounds like the same tools needed to be a doctor or a lawyer and you’re right.  Towing is a constantly changing business and the competition will leave you in the dust if you can’t keep up.  This type of career decision should not to be taken lightly.

So if you’re serious about getting into the business that I love then you’re going to have to start somewhere and I suggest you start as an employee.  Where else can you learn about the inside dirty details of a business than by taking a position as the low man on the totem pole? As an employee you’ll learn why they don’t ask customers involved in accidents “who was at fault?” Or why asking the nice lady on the phone exactly what’s wrong with her car is something to be avoided when time is tight. But most importantly, if you pay attention, you’ll slowly learn how the whole business works.  The first step is getting the job.

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time helps but your good fortune won’t save you if you’re lazy and have poor communication skills.  If you are given an interview consider yourself lucky and communicate to the interviewer your availability and if you’re still unsure what that is just remember that you want the job and they need someone who wants to work.  So you’re available to work evenings and weekends and “when I’m trained in” you’ll say “I’ll gladly take after hours on-call duties”.

The more you understand their needs and ask questions that pertain to what the interviewer and business owner are looking for rather than self-serving matters like: “How long is lunch?”, “What benefits are offered?” and “How many sick days do I get?” the better your chances are of getting the position.

Your first few weeks are crucial when starting out so you’ll want to pick up all you can. Giving 100% and being available whenever needed is only fair since you’re essentially using them, taking their job for the express purpose of starting a business of your own.  Learn the rules and why they’re in place.

Do they require you to live within a certain radius of the business?  Why?  Are you required to work evenings and weekends?  Why?  All this information is important and should be viewed through the eyes of a future business owner not as an oppressed employee.

Within a short period you should be able to gather enough information and skill to properly perform every light duty call from jump starts, tire changes and unlocks with no problem.  You should be able to easily tow cars and trucks with either a wrecker or a rollback.  You may have the chance to respond to a few accidents but most likely you won’t be on your own unless dispatch has no one else to send.

The good news is if you’re a go-getter, you’ll catch on fast.  The bad news is you’ll never learn it all.  There are so many variables in the towing business that even a 40 year veteran comes upon something new on occasion.  Something rarely seen they’ve forgotten how to deal with or a manufacturer upgrade that renders an old trick useless.

So if you’re serious and stick with it you should be ready to go out on your own in about a year.  If you live in an area where the winters are fierce or they traffic count high and you’re able to get more experience sooner you may be ready do your own thing a little quicker.  That is if you don’t decide to chuck the whole idea after you get too big a taste.

Just remember that just because you start your own business the learning doesn’t stop.  You will continue to learn until the day you die.  And although it’s not a federal requirement that you become certified as a Tow Truck operator it’s still a good idea that you do, besides some cities, states and municipalities require some form of certification to participate in their towing contracts.

The only nationally recognized certification course for tow truck operators at this writing is the Towing & and Recovery Association of America’s (TRAA) driver certification program. It’s recommended by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Even with all the training and experience in the world there may be something you come across that doesn’t look doable.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone no.  That is, if you don’t feel comfortable performing a recovery that you either don’t have the right equipment or training refer them to someone else rather than take a huge risk that could possibly kill someone.

But don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you from making the leap from employee to self-employed. It’s done all the time by people who are no smarter than you who put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you. They had to start somewhere and so do you.