Owner-Operator Trucking: The Definitive Guide
There’s a lot to think about when you’re considering becoming an owner-operator in trucking. It’s a huge decision – one that could impact your life in a big way. But it can also be a very rewarding career move, both financially and personally.
What does it mean to be an Owner-Operator in Trucking?
An owner-operator in trucking is a professional driver who operates their own truck. They may have a truck lease or financing agreement. Or they may own the truck outright. As a business owner, the owner-operator is responsible for all aspects of their trucking business. This includes aspects from the day-to-day operations to marketing their services. By entering into an Independent Contractor Agreement, they can legally deliver cargo independently without working for a trucking company.
Owner-operator status is more liberating and has more responsibility than being a company driver. And it also comes with more opportunities for income potential and control over your own career.
Owner-Operator vs. Company Driver
There are several differences between company truck drivers and owner-operators. For example, these include who:
- Owns the truck
- Selects the freight
- Runs the business
- Pays for fuel and maintenance
- How they get paid
Commercial truck drivers, also known as company drivers, are employees of a trucking company otherwise known as the Carrier. Further, company drivers may have some say in what freight they haul. But the company ultimately decides what loads the company driver transports. Also, company truck drivers are paid for the miles they drive. And their pay is usually based on a flat rate, hourly, or salary plus accessorials.
Owner-operators own or lease their trucks and run their own small businesses. Through the Carrier, they conduct multiple activities. For instance, they do the following:
- Contract with the owner-operator
- Select the loads they want to haul
- Are paid either a rate-per-mile or a percentage of the loads they run
Also, owner-operators pay for their own fuel, maintenance, and repairs, along with any other business-related expenses.
The Benefits of Being an Owner-Operator
There are many benefits to being an owner-operator in trucking. Some of the most notable include:
Increased Income Potential – As an owner-operator, you’re in control of your own destiny. As with any small business, being an owner-operator means you can make more money than the average company truck driver. To do this, they work harder and are smarter with your business decisions. Also, you have the ability to take on more loads. As a result, this can lead to an increased income stream.
Greater Job Satisfaction – When you’re in charge of your own business, you can make your work life more fulfilling. In fact, you can set your own hours, choose your own loads, and work as often as you want.
Increased Independence – One of the best things about being an owner-operator is the sense of independence it gives you. You’re your own boss, and you have more decision-making opportunities. This can be extremely rewarding, especially if you’re someone who likes to be in control of your own life.
Using Your Own Vehicle: Another benefit to being an owner-operator is the ability to conduct your business from your own vehicle. No more sharing your truck with others as many company truck drivers experience.
Being Your Own Boss: One of the best things about being an owner-operator is the sense of being your own boss. You make the decisions that are best for your company. This can be a great feeling, especially if you don’t like having someone else telling you what to do. The challenge is making the best decisions for your business and your customers (either a Carrier or shippers).
The Duties and Responsibilities of an Owner-Operator
As an owner-operator, you’re responsible for all aspects of your trucking business. This includes:
Booking Loads – If you are running under your own authority, you’ll need to find loads to transport and book shipments with companies. Usually, this happens through public trucking load boards or through freight brokers.
Maintaining Your Truck – You’ll need to make sure your truck is in good condition and is properly serviced. Proper truck maintenance is your responsibility and your friend because a truck well maintained will save your business money.
Paying Taxes and Bills – You’ll need to pay quarterly taxes on your income and bills for things like fuel, repairs, and tolls. If you are running under a Carrier’s authority a number of expenses are fronted by the Carrier, then deducted from your settlements. If you are running under your own authority, more of the expense responsibility falls directly on the owner-operator to manage, such as maintaining permits and registrations.
Managing Employees (If Applicable) – If you have employees, you’ll need to manage their schedules, duties, and payments.
What Does it Take to Become a Successful Owner-Operator in Trucking?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the requirements for becoming an owner-operator will vary depending on your experience and qualifications and whether you choose to run under a Carrier’s authority or your own authority. However, there are a few things that all potential owner-operators should have:
The Right Vehicle – You’ll need a truck that meets the requirements of the Carrier you’re working with. The truck should also be in good condition and pass a DOT inspection and able to handle the demands of the type of hauling you plan to perform.
The Right Licenses and Certifications – You’ll need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and any necessary endorsements for your specific load types. You may also need to complete additional training or certification courses, depending on the type of trucking you do.
The Right Mindset – It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be successful as an owner-operator. To be specific, you will need the following skills:
- Willingness to learn truck industry best practices
- Ability to manage your own business effectively
The Right Financial Situation – Owning or leasing and operating a truck can be expensive, so you’ll need to have a good financial cushion in place when you first start out until you can create a positive cash flow. Rule of thumb is with dedication to performing a high volume of loads early on, it will take roughly three weeks to start to achieve a consistent level of cash flow when running under a Carrier’s authority. If you chose to run under your own authority – if you have access to steady loads bookings – the three-week rule of thumb works as well; plus you’ll also need to be able to cover the costs of repairs, maintenance, fuel, and other expenses associated with running a trucking business.
If you have the right vehicle, licenses, and certifications, as well as the necessary financial resources, then you’re ready to become an owner-operator in trucking. But it’s important to remember that this is a big decision that should not be taken lightly.
The Steps to Becoming an Owner-Operator
There are a few things you’ll need to obtain before becoming an owner-operator. If you are going to run under a Carrier’s authority you will need a commercial driver’s license and most likely a minimum of one (1) years’ worth of experience in similar hauls. If you are going to use your own authority, you will need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and any necessary endorsements required for your load types, along with US DOT and MC numbers and the required minimum liability insurance as required by the FMCSA.
In order to obtain your MC number, you’ll need to complete the Unified Carrier Registration (UCR) process. This is a one-time registration that all motor carriers are required to complete. The UCR process is done through the UCR Registration website at https://www.ucr.gov, and it takes about 15 minutes to complete.
To get your CDL and any necessary endorsements, you’ll need to take the appropriate training and certification courses based on the city, county, and state requirements of where you live. These courses can usually be taken at local truck driving schools or community colleges.
Once you have all the required licenses and certifications, you may need to find a Carrier to work with if you are not going to run under your own authority. There are many different Carriers out there, so you’ll need to do your research and find one that’s a good fit for you.
Once you’ve found a carrier that matches your experience, choice of haul locations, and compensation structure, you’ll need to complete their application process. This usually includes submitting an application, and other required documents.
After you’ve been approved by the carrier, you’ll need to go through their orientation process. This is a mandatory training program that all new operators must attend.
The final step in becoming an owner-operator is getting insured. If you are hauling for a Carrier, you will need physical damage insurance, non-trucking liability, and either occupational accident or workman’s compensation insurance. If you are hauling under your own authority, you will also need to have auto liability insurance and cargo insurance in order to transport goods. You can get quotes for both of these types of insurance through trucking insurance providers.
Minimize Expenses as an Owner-Operator
As an owner-operator, it’s important to minimize your expenses as much as possible. This will help you stay profitable and increase your chances of success.
Here are a few tips for minimizing expenses:
Get Good Deals on Equipment – When buying equipment, such as a truck or trailer, do your homework on what specifications you need and shop the truck or trailer as there is a great deal of information available online. This homework will allow you to identify good value from reputable sources. Leasing a truck is also a viable option as it frequently requires less up-front money and leases can be obtained from either a truck dealer, a finance company, or a lease purchase program.
Use Fuel-Efficient Trucks – If you’re using a tractor-trailer combination, make sure that the tractor is fuel-efficient. Saving money on fuel costs by using a quality, late-model truck with good fuel mileage is very important to maximize your net income.
Manage Your Maintenance Costs – Make sure you have a maintenance schedule for your truck and stick to it. This will help you avoid costly repairs and unexpected down time. Anything that takes you off the road unexpectedly means less money in your pocket.
Shop Around for Insurance – Get quotes from different truck insurance providers to find the best rates.
By following these tips, you can minimize your start up and running expenses and aid in keeping your business running smoothly.
Purchase or Lease the Best Vehicle for Your Business
When choosing a truck to operate your business, it’s important to choose one that is reliable and fuel-efficient. You don’t want to waste money on a truck that does not meet your needs.
Here are a few things to consider when purchasing or leasing a truck:
Type of Vehicle – There are many different types of trucks available, so you’ll need to decide which one is best for your business. Do you need a tractor-trailer combination, a tractor only or a straight truck?
Size of Truck – Make sure you select a truck that is the correct size for your haul type needs. You don’t want to get one that’s a poor fit for the type of hauls you and/or your Carrier expect.
Fuel Efficiency – Look for a low mileage, late-model truck that gets good fuel mileage so you can save money on fuel costs.
Reliability – Make sure the low mileage, late-model truck you select is, if not new, within trade-term condition with a fresh DOT. Note that trucks in excess of 4 years of age with miles at or above 500,000 miles will require extensively more down time and maintenance than new or lightly used trucks.
Comfort – Choose a truck that is comfortable to drive so you can stay safe and productive on the road.
How to Qualify to Purchase a Truck
In order to purchase or lease a truck, you’ll need to meet certain financial qualifications. Here are the requirements:
Be at Least 21 Years Old – You must be at least 21 years old to operate a commercial motor vehicle.
Have a Valid Driver’s License – You must have a valid Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
Pass a Physical Exam – You must pass a medical physical exam through a qualified clinic in order to qualify for a CDL.
Pass a Drug Test – You must pass a drug test in order to get your CDL.
Complete the UCR Process – If you plan on running under your own authority, you must complete the Unified Carrier Registration (UCR) process in order to get your MC number.
Take the Appropriate Training and Certification Courses – You must take the appropriate training and certification courses in order to operate a commercial motor vehicle and qualify for a CDL.
Have Good Credit – You must have good credit in order to purchase or lease a truck. Typically, you will need a credit score of at least 650 for approval consideration. Plus, you can make timely payments and a stable work history, like-kind finance experience, and the required down payment or security deposit. Many lease purchase programs allow individuals with less strong credit to be considered to lease a commercial truck.
Have a Permanent Address – You must have a permanent physical address in order to purchase or lease a truck.
Strong Work History – You must have a strong stable work history in order to purchase or lease a truck. This can be in the form of verifiable employment, prior verifiable business history or military service.
By meeting these qualifications, you’ll be one step closer to owning your own trucking business.
Tips for Succeeding as an Owner-Operator
As an owner-operator, it’s important to be a skilled trucker in order to stay in business. Here are a few tips for success:
Stay Focused – Stay focused on your business goals and work towards those goals daily.
Make a Plan – Have a business plan and stick to it. Seek outside advice from reputable sources to fast-track your success. There are a number of reputable businesses that focus on operator success.
Network with Experienced Drivers – Network with other professional drivers to learn from their experiences and get advice.
Stay Safe on the Road – Drive safely and avoid accidents. Excessive speed destroys your fuel economy and exponentially increases repairs, maintenance, and potential accidents.
Establish the Safest and most Efficient Routes – When you’re an owner-operator, it’s important to establish the safest and most efficient route between destinations. This generally will help you save time and money, but if you are hauling for a Carrier make sure your routes fall within their paid lanes. Running outside their lanes will cause you to lose income on the load.
Keep your vehicle healthy – Make sure you keep your vehicle in good condition by performing regular maintenance and repairs on scheduled time off the road. This will help you avoid costly repairs and unscheduled downtime.
Don’t let it idle – Don’t let your truck idle for long periods of time. This will waste fuel and money.
How to Find Work as an Owner-Operator
As an owner-operator, you’ll need to find work in order to make money. Here are a few tips for finding work:
Look for Opportunities Online – There are many opportunities for owner-operators online. If you are running under your own authority, you can find loads on trucking websites, freight matching services, through brokerage services and social media platforms. If you are looking to run under a Carrier, most Carriers have social media platforms and recruiting departments you can find online. You can connect with them digitally or call to interview for the best fit. Some finance companies also offer referrals to Carriers and lease purchase programs.
Attend Trucking Shows and Conferences – Attending trucking shows and conferences to meet potential haul sources or Carriers.
Network with Other Professional Drivers – Network with other truckers to learn about new opportunities.
Offer Services Locally – If hauling under your own authority, offering your services locally to businesses in your area could help you build relationships with customers. Providing excellent service in your community would help establish a good reputation for your small business.
As an owner-operator, it’s important to be proactive in finding work. By following these tips, you’ll increase your chances of finding success in this rewarding industry.
Owner-operator trucking is a great way to be self-employed and productive on the road. By meeting the qualifications, taking the necessary training courses, keeping informed on best practices, and networking with other professional drivers, you’ll be well on your way to owning your own successful trucking business. Get informed, stay focused, make a plan, and you’ll be profitable in this exciting industry.
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