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When you think of trucking, the first thing that comes to mind is likely truck drivers employed by a company. It’s in the namesake. However, there’s a whole other side of the trucking industry worth talking about: the side composed of Owner-Operators.
In fact, Owner-Operators serve a vital role in managing the many complexities of a trucking business, as well as performing the same type of work as a company-employed driver.
Therefore, to find out what exactly being an Owner-Operator of a trucking business entails, as well as how you can pursue the career yourself, we’ve gathered all of the most crucial facts about Owner Operator trucking.
In the Trucking industry, Owner-Operators are typically individuals who own a small business and run its day-to-day operations. However, this is usually in the context of being an independent contractor and not always as someone who manages other truck drivers.
For example, an Owner-Operator usually owns or leases their own trucks and uses that personal property to maintain a self-employed status. Owner-Operators can work for many different companies or work directly with regular shipping clients (without any third-party company involved).
This is very beneficial for the Owner-Operator, as they can set their own pay rate for clients, build their own network, and sometimes even manage their own employees.
Aside from that, though, an Owner-Operators day-to-day work can actually be very similar to a typical truck driver, trucking goods around with a bit of added management and paperwork. Plus, if they get big enough, they might even be able to have multiple drivers and trucks.
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To better understand the role of an Owner-Operator, here are two different examples of the role:
Thomas is an Owner-Operator without employees. He successfully leased a semi-truck two years ago and has his CDL license. Today, Thomas will be making two deliveries to his regular clients, one being a local grocery store and the other a hunting and fishing store.
John has been an Owner-Operator for many years and has created a successful small business. He has two other employees and owns four trucks. He currently has a contract with a larger company but also works with his own clients on the side.
As shown by these examples, there are different ways you can approach being an Owner-Operator in the trucking industry. Whether that’s becoming a larger business and managing multiple trucks and employees or simply remaining an independent contractor, you’ll have the freedom to do so.
There are many benefits that come along with being an Owner-Operator. To understand why someone would want to take on the responsibility of becoming one, here are some of those benefits:
Freedom. As your own boss, you can set your own schedule, choose your clients, and often choose your rates. This gives you a lot of freedom in your truck driving and can make day-to-day operations far more rewarding.
Networking. Working with various clients and companies will allow you to build a healthy network. In turn, this network can provide you with more benefits, opportunities, and upwards mobility.
Equity. If you own a building or truck for your operations, you can build equity in those properties. In turn, this can give you more options for future career changes or retirement.
Control. Similar to freedom, being your own boss means you have full control over your truck driving business. If you want to say no to a bad client or company, you can. If you want to change operating policies, no one is stopping you.
Prestige. As an independent contractor or business owner, you’ll have the respect given to a boss. And, as anyone who’s been treated poorly by an employer knows, this can be a huge positive.
Financial Gain. All of the money you earn from your business will go directly to you instead of being funneled down through a company as a paycheck. That means that when successful, you can stand to make far more money than the typical truck driver.
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As with any job, there are also cons that come with becoming an Owner-Operator. To understand what risks you’ll be taking if you decide to pursue a career as one, here are some things to consider:
Depreciation. Vehicles can be risky investments, and this is especially true for trucks that are constantly on the road. Over time, the truck will gain a lot of wear and tear, and repairing it can be expensive. This is one of the reasons why Owner-Operators sometimes lease their trucks.
Risk. Like depreciation, all small business ventures come with risk. You have to be prepared for setbacks, failures, and financial blunders if you want to become a successful Owner-Operator.
Uncertainty. Finding a good network of clients and companies to work with isn’t always easy, and there’s no guarantee these individuals or entities will remain clients forever. This uncertainty can be unpleasant to deal with and add to the risk.
Responsibility. The biggest con that comes with being your own boss is being entirely responsible for day-to-day operations. Instead of only worrying about making your deliveries as a truck driver, you’ll also have to worry about management and paperwork.
So you’re interested in becoming an Owner-Operator of a trucking business, but you’re not sure how to get started.
Luckily, there are several steps you can take to get started on your path to becoming an Owner-Operator. These include:
Access Your Situation and Finances
Being a business owner is a full-time job, and trucking, in particular, can be a pretty serious lifestyle choice. For instance, many truck drivers spend weeks on the road, which can equate to a lengthy period of time being away from friends and family.
On top of that, starting a small business requires emotional and financial investment. Consider your current financial situation and if you can handle taking on more debt. Additionally, it’s a good idea to ensure you have money saved up, just in case you face financial setbacks.
In general, we recommend creating a spreadsheet that outlines your current finances. Overview of where you stand, what your family needs, and how much time and money you’ll need to put into your new business.
Obtain a CDL License
If you’re interested in becoming an Owner-Operator but have yet to acquire your CDL license, doing so is an important step. After all, you won’t be able to drive most commercial trucks without one.
Here are some steps you can take to obtain your CDL:
Pass the Initial Requirements. Most states require you to be at least 18 years or older to earn a CDL. Ensure that you research this before you start the process.
Get a CLP. Find a certified truck driving school so you can acquire your CLP. This license will allow you to practice driving semi-trucks.
Attend a CDL Program. Often available at community colleges, CDL programs are typically six weeks long and consist of classroom instruction, followed by behind-the-wheel training. After you attend the program and pass the knowledge exam and skills test, you’ll be ready for the next step.
Provide Documentation to the State. To obtain your official CDL, you’ll need to provide a valid non-commercial driver’s license, your social security card/number, your birth certificate and/or passport, and the results of your knowledge test.
Pass a Background Check. Finally, once you pass a background check and any additional requirements, you’ll have earned your CDL license.
Form a Business
Your next step in becoming a business owner is to form a business. This process can vary from state to state, so it’s important to visit your state’s secretary of state website. Here you can also perform a search to check if your desired business name is available.
Next, you’ll need to decide what type of business you’re going to form. Typically, Owner-Operators who work alone will want to create a sole proprietorship or a limited liability company (LLC). Here is some valuable information about different business types:
Sole Proprietor. A single-person business with no employees. Essentially, you are the business. Under a sole proprietorship, you will be able to make every business decision you need to without anyone else’s input.
This gives you a lot of freedom, but the biggest downside is that you’ll be wholly responsible for all financial and legal aspects of the business.
Limited Liability Company (LLC). An LLC business grants you the same tax benefits as a sole proprietorship, with the added benefit of distancing you from your business. With an LLC, only your business is liable, and not you or any of your partners. The biggest downside is that an LLC costs more to form than a sole proprietorship.
Corporation. A corporation creates a business as a separate entity, which means you won’t get the benefits of pass-through income. However, a corporation may be a good choice if you intend to grow a large business and have many employees.
Overall, you should review the plan you have for your business before deciding. Then, once you’re certain about which business structure is right for you, simply complete an application and pay the registration fee to submit it.
File for a USDOT and MC Numbers
After you form your business, you’ll be able to file for a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) number. This number is given out by FMCSA and will identify you as a carrier operating in interstate commerce.
On top of a USDOT number, you’ll also need to obtain a motor carrier (MC) number. In this context, an MC number will identify you as a carrier for hire who can transport goods through contracts. Essentially, an MC number separates you from other truck drivers by informing clients that you operate on your own behalf as your own boss.
To apply for and receive your MC number, you’ll need to sign up through the FMCSA website or use a third-party website that can provide you with the same service.
Make Sure You Have Truck Insurance
As an Owner-Operator, you’ll be liable for anything that happens to your truck/s. This is true whether you lease or own the truck.
Therefore, it’s vital that you purchase Truck Insurance approved by the FMCSA. In general, the insurance must cover $750,000 in liability insurance for freight carriers. However, many shippers and freight brokers will require up to $1 million in coverage, so that’s the amount we recommend.
Additionally, you may also want to consider other types of insurance for your business. Some of the most common and beneficial include: roadside and breakdown coverage, cargo insurance, and personal property insurance.
Purchase or Lease a Truck/s
You can’t very well have your own trucking business without a truck, but once you’re at this step, it’s important to consider whether you want to lease a truck or buy it outright.
Of course, buying a truck will require you to pay substantial upfront costs, but it can be more beneficial in the long run. Plus, after you start making monthly payments, you build equity until you eventually pay the truck off. In that way, purchasing a truck can be very beneficial in the long run.
On the other hand, leasing a truck is far cheaper in the short term, but the vehicle will never be paid off. That means you might end up paying even more in the long run, even if your upfront and monthly costs are less.
Overall, the best thing to do before you make your choice is to consider how long you’ll be keeping the vehicle, as well as what your current financial situation can handle.
Create a Comprehensive Business Plan
At this point, you have almost everything you need to start your trucking business, so it’s crucial that you create a business plan that will guide your decisions. For instance, here are some typical sections to include in your plan:
Executive Summary. A brief overview of your business goals, who you serve, and other key pieces of information.
Company Overview. Crucial for obtaining financing, use this section to tell a story about who you are, your past and current successes, and why your company will be successful in the future.
Marketing Plan. How you intend to find clients through advertisement. This can include plans for a website, social media presence, physical and digital adverts, and other key marketing tactics you intend to pursue.
Goals. Detail any goals you intend to achieve so you can give yourself something to strive for (e.g., have X number of clients by the end of the year).
List of Staff. This won’t be necessary if you don’t have a staff or don’t intend to, but if you do, it can be valuable to detail everyone’s role in this section.
Financial Plan. One of the most important parts of your business plan; use this section to detail how you intend to manage your finances. For example, you can determine an invoicing strategy or estimate a potential profit ratio.
Before you start your business, consider some of the additional equipment you might want to have available to you:
Electronic logging device (ELD)
Warning device for stopped vehicles
Road flares and cones
Aluminum walk ramps
Is it worth being an Owner-Operator truck driver?
Yes, it can be worth being an Owner-Operator truck driver. For instance, Owner-Operators usually earn higher per-mile or percent-of-load rates than company truck drivers. This can also compound when an Owner-Operator has multiple employees or when equity is built on owned vehicles and properties.
On the other hand, Owner-Operators face more potential risks and losses when unsuccessful, as all business expenses will need to be paid out of pocket.
How much do Owner-Operator truck drivers usually make?
Owner-Operator truck drivers typically make over $200,000 per year, regardless of their home state. The starting salary for an Owner-Operator is generally $132,000, with the most successful business owners making up to $419,000 per year.
By state, Owner-Operators make the most on average in New York City, NY, where they earn an average of $237,036 per year ($19,753 per month and $113.96 per hour).
Who pays the most for Owner-Operators?
The company that pays the most for Owner-Operators is Covenant Transport and CRST Expedited. Owner-Operators who work for this company earn between $1.50 and $1.60 per mile or up to 30X more than the average truck driver.
Other companies that offer the highest pay for Owner Operators the most include: J.B. Hunt, USA Truck, and Warren Transport.
How much profit does an Owner-Operator make?
The average Owner-Operator makes $100,000 – $150,000 in gross profit each year. That equates to between 35% and 75% of total revenue being turned into profit. And, considering the fact that the average profit margin for large trucking companies is only 13-15%, these are very healthy numbers.
If you want to work as a truck driver but also be your own boss, becoming an Owner-Operator for a trucking business might just be a perfect fit for you.
If successful, you’ll get all the freedoms and financial gain that comes with being your own boss at the cost of added upfront expenses and responsibilities. However, given the fact that the average Owner-Operator makes an average of 239% more than the average truck driver, those cons may be well worth it.
Overall, if you follow the right steps to become a successful Owner-Operator and have the financial means and dedication to tackle setbacks, you can achieve a whole host of amazing benefits.