How to Make it as an Owner-Operator

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Making your way in one of the most heavily regulated industries on earth can make you wonder if it’s worth it sometimes. And the increasingly expensive equipment required to be on the road may be sapping your revenue more than ever.

But there are drivers making a good living as owner-operators. How do they do it? One common thread among successful O-Os is their tendency to be business-minded tinkerers. They’re usually trying different approaches for being more efficient and cutting costs. They’re often studying up on the latest technology or on some new way to get better fuel economy. They talk to other O-Os to see how they’re dealing with challenges like detention time, new HOS rules, or getting good loads.

Know What It Costs You to Operate

Survival depends on bringing in more income than you spend. So the foundation for managing your business well is knowing what it costs you per mile to operate, including all your expenses and your salary. On the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association’s (OOIDA) website, you can find a spreadsheet that helps you calculate that number. Once you have numbers to work with, it’s easier to evaluate a load, track your profitability after you’ve hauled it and apply what you’ve learned next time a similar opportunity arises. Over time, having accumulated that kind of data allows you to make better business decisions.

Once you know what it costs you to operate, see if there are ways to reduce that number without making yourself miserable or driving your family crazy.

Understand the Regulations and Figure Out How to Do the Best Job Within Those Bounds

Before he drove a truck, Henry Albert drove stock cars. (He tells the story in this video.) He didn’t go to college, but raced stock cars in his early 20s and says that was his college. “The parallels between trucking and stock car racing are pretty interesting,” he says. “The people that made the racing rules usually didn’t even own a race track or a race car. Many of them had never raced a day in their life.”

These people changed the rules every year. So once a year, all the racers received the new regulations they had to follow. Albert says, “First, you decided if you wanted to keep racing with the new rules in place. If you did – it was the same rules for everyone – so you had to spend your time figuring out how you were going to make those rules work better than anyone else.”

There were always those who complained about the new rules, but other racers focused on how they could be the fastest within those boundaries. Pointing out the cleaner air we have thanks to unleaded gas, Albert says regulations have their place. “We all have to deal with the same rules. If you want to make it as an owner-operator, put your mind to work on how you can do the best job and still obey the law.”

A good place to start is to avoid the fines and delays that come from being a flashing beacon for FMCSA enforcement personnel. Click here to read How to Avoid Six Common CSA Violations

Become a Fuel Efficient Machine

Carlos Cruz, a struggling lease-operator, was ready to turn in his keys after a few months on the road. But as a last-ditch effort, he decided that on this final trip to the terminal, he’d follow all the advice about fuel efficiency he’d been hearing from trucking business gurus and see if it allowed him to recoup expenses and increase his take-home pay.
The experiment was a success, so much so that he decided to give his business another month. After 30 days his fuel mileage went from the 6.2 to 7.8 miles per gallon, a 1.6 mpg improvement that more than quadrupled his net revenue.

That was three years ago. Today Carlos continues his lease deal and can afford to live well on his income.

Details of his story are in Jim Park’s column on TruckingInfo.com, but the three habits he says make the biggest difference are:

  • Slowing down from 65 to 55 mph
  • Never idling
  • Becoming a “progressive shifting machine.”

More good info sources for boosting your fuel economy: