When the company goes to the customer

Mobile businesses say they can cut overhead, extend their reach

Mobile Spa, launched in 2002 in Stoneham, saves its customers a trip to the massage therapist or the manicurist. Its services start at $200.

Mobile Spa, launched in 2002 in Stoneham, saves its customers a trip to the massage therapist or the manicurist. Its services start at $200. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)

Carolyn Labuda recently enjoyed her bachelorette party at home. The 27-year-old high school math teacher opted for a quiet afternoon with 11 friends instead of a night out on the town. Her guests couldn’t have been happier. Three technicians from Mobile Spa provided hot-stone and Swedish massages, manicures, and pedicures – transforming Labuda’s Lexington condominium into a spa.

Devika Mukherjee, chief executive of Mobile Spa, started the company in 2002 out of her Stoneham home. In 2003, Mukherjee decided to franchise Mobile Spa, launching operations in Chicago and Atlanta. Today, the company has 700 technicians in 50 states, and since 2006 its revenue has grown 300 percent. Services start at $200.

Mobile Spa’s success is being duplicated by other on-the-go companies. Eric Stites, president of Franchise Business Review, a franchise-market researcher in Kittery, Maine, said mobile businesses have become increasingly popular in the past decade.

“It’s consumers looking for more and more convenience, and companies trying to get smart about how they can better reach out,” Stites said. “If customers aren’t coming to them, they’re bringing their services to the customer.” Mobile businesses can often reach a broader market than those that do business only in buildings, he said.

“Ten years ago, it was the lawn service, then came food delivery and dry cleaning pickup and delivery,” he said. “Now there are scores of niche-market mobile businesses.”

One of the newer concepts is mobile storage. For example, a company called Smart Box, which has an office in Amesbury, brings storage units to customers’ homes. Once customers fill the units, Smart Box hauls them away.

It costs $99 for one unit to be dropped off and picked up, and $20 for each additional box. The units are five feet wide by seven feet high by eight feet deep, and the monthly storage fee is $59.

Mobile sports and recreation education services for children are also gaining in popularity. Jump Bunch brings fitness equipment and programs to schools or to town recreation departments, while Fun Bus converts school buses into mobile gyms.

“A lot of that trend is a result of school cutbacks on physical education or music programs,” Stites said.

And the health benefits of mobile businesses don’t stop at exercise. Some dentists do business by driving specially equipped vans to places with high concentrations of people – like casinos and department stores – primarily in the Midwest. Mobile Anesthesiologists, with bases in Texas and Chicago, created a niche by connecting with dentists who don’t have staff anesthesiologists.

Dr. Jake Tedaldi, a veterinarian who lives in Newton, was way ahead of the mobile trend. He opened his mobile practice, VetCall, in 1991, motivated primarily by the emotional stress his patients endured each time they came to the office.

“The animals had to be transported to the hospital, sit in the waiting room, then be dragged into an exam room for someone to poke and prod them before being kicked out the door,” Tedaldi said. “I thought there had to be a better way to do this.”

Tedaldi offers at-home services – at $150 a visit – from Framingham to Boston, as far north as Burlington, and south to Canton. It’s important for him to be able to reach patients within 30 minutes, he said.

There’s a benefit for Tedaldi, too: There’s no office overhead.

In general, mobile businesses are not expensive to set up, making them particularly attractive to someone who wants to start a business but doesn’t have a lot of capital.

They also attract people looking for flexible schedules, and business owners who want to broaden their markets.

For Gay Geiger Hughes of Natick, taking her show on the road solved a lot of business-plan problems.

After spending a few months looking at properties for a tea room, she decided to go mobile with a new service, Gay Grace Teas.

“I had a hard time finding a perfect match between location and community,” Hughes said. “The initial investment required to open a brick-and-mortar shop was pretty high.”

She worked with advisers from Clark University’s Small Business Development Center and from Service Corps of Retired Executives, which helped her put together a business strategy.

Hughes found a truck on eBay for $38,000 and invested $1,800 to rework its electrical system.

She works three days a week in the financial services industry in Needham and spends two days a week in her truck at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, and one day at Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton. She serves sandwiches such as goat cheese with grilled zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes, chicken salad with tarragon, and brie with apple chutney, which she buys from gourmet caterers. She also sells mini scones and 20 varieties of loose tea.

“I love the mobile concept,” Hughes said, preferring it to “taking the risk of having to pull people in to one location.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

Click here to see this article on Boston.com