Starting a Mobile Locksmith Business
One of the best decisions I ever made in my 62 years of life on this planet was to become my own boss in a field that is never dull, always challenging, and intrinsically interesting. It was not an early decision. In fact it did not occur to me to enter this field until after I’d already spent ten years as a professional photographer. It came about in an odd way, as many serendipitous things do. But regardless of how it came to be, I consider that decision the one that paved the way for me to spend the rest of my working life in comfort and with a good measure of security.
I’ve since discovered that many people follow a similar course, turning to locksmithing only after finding themselves unhappy in other jobs. I’m not sure how or why so many discover this particular business when looking for an interesting career. In my case it was a natural progression from a rather unique part-time career I had fashioned for myself: That of installing simple door viewers and doing this door to door. Many times my customers would ask if I could install deadbolts for them while I was at it, and after turning down money a dozen or so times I finally got wise and visited a local locksmith supplier who sold me an install kit and a book of instructions. From what I can tell, others come across this idea by doing Internet searches for home businesses, because ultimately this qualifies as such if you, like I do, run it out of your home and structure it as a Sole Proprietorship. In any case, it is obvious that locksmithing has become a popular choice for a chance at self-employment.
After tiring of door to door selling (which didn’t take long to do) I hit upon the idea of cold calling. I was still thinking too small, but at the time I didn’t know it. Lesson Number One: Don’t do this. I was doing it back in 1981 or so when the stigma attached to such endeavors wasn’t quite so strong. I’m afraid that calling people out of the phone book and asking if they’d like to have deadbolts installed just would not fly in the present era of terrorism and business rip-offs.
Still, I owe to this period of hard knocks a good deal. I became efficient at installing locks, rekeying locks, and duplicating keys. It was during this one year period that I scrounged together enough money to purchase a small key duplicator and also a lock rekeying kit. I carried these items in the trunk of my car and carried them into my customer’s home when needed. I also purchased several boxes of the most common domestic key blanks and by the time I’d accumulated all this stuff my car’s trunk was crammed and I was wishing for more room. Also, and most important, I came to realize that driving around in an unmarked car and working out of the trunk was not lending itself well to my credibility.
Lesson Number Two: Start out with credibility. Purchase a small work van, or a large one if you can afford it. Buy signs or have signs painted on it. Use whatever lending power you have, may it be with banks or with family, to locate a used vehicle and have signage made up, even if this is in the form of magnetic signs. Of course all this suggests you start out as a legitimate business, and this is just my point. Create a name for your business (think long and hard about this, as you’ll lose any credibility you might initially gain if you keep changing it), have signs and forms and letterheads made up, and dive in.
There is, too, the question of legality. This is a hard subject to field, because the legality of doing business from one jurisdiction to another can differ widely, and even wildly. It is incumbent upon you to do the research and determine whether or not your jurisdiction requires a locksmith be certified, bonded, and/or licensed. You’ll almost certainly discover that licensing is the fundamental hurdle, and that is usually taken care of with the signing of a few forms and the payment of a small annual fee. Certification is something else. Not all jurisdictions require this. In my case I found that the state in which I was then living — Utah — did not require it. Nor was I required to be bonded, though I chose to do so for the added protection (it is widely and incorrectly thought that bonding protects the locksmith’s customer, whereas in fact it is the locksmith that is protected by the bond).
Lesson Number Three: Do the homework required to determine if acquiring a business license is all that is needed to establish your locksmith service. One phone call to your state’s Attorney General office will likely answer that question.
Once you have lined up an affordable vehicle and put a reasonably professional sign on it, you must begin outfitting it. This should, and must, be done before you begin advertising your services because if you are like I was at this point you know next to nothing about the business and not much more about the work. We will endeavor at this point to educate ourselves. Locksmithing is in point of fact one of the few professions left in this world in which a formal education is absolutely UNnecessary. I have spoken to very few professionals during my career who got to be that way through going to a ‘locksmith school’ or a college. This is certainly not to say that a formal education isn’t desirable. If you can afford it, if you have the means, then by all means take that route. This article is for those of you who can’t.
The vehicle you purchase will in large part determine how it is to be equipped. I’ve always preferred a full-size van (I’ve owned Ford, Chevy and GMC models during my career), but there are many locksmiths who just love the Astro Van or Safari Van made by GM. These minivans are popular with many different professions and are ubiquitous. You can undoubtedly find one in your price range. Either way, the first order of business is to erect a work bench that will give you as much space as possible. Best to have the bench on one side of the van and leave the opposite side for shelves or storage bins. Make it sturdy! There is nothing worse than a wobbly bench when you’re trying to rekey locks. Make it level for the same reason.
You’ll need a power source. It is excusable to string extension cords until you can afford something better, but bear in mind that this detracts from your professionalism. The ultimate is probably having a RediLine Generator that runs off your van’s 12V power. This is not a power inverter, it is actually a generator and it kicks out 110-115V power. They are wonderful sources of AC power and you can even run a bank of fluorescent lamps off one of these for your interior shop lighting. There are several models to choose from with varying outputs, but they are expensive. If you can locate a rebuilt, so much the better. A good inverter might do the trick if you can’t afford a RediLine, but be careful. Some key machines (and you’re going to have to have one) will not run with an inverter.
Power now available, you need to start out with at least a key duplicator on your bench and preferably, as well, a good code cutting machine. The latter is desirable but not necessary in the beginning unless you plan to launch directly into automotive locksmithing, in which case you’ll find it hard to get along without one. We’ll touch on that in a moment. Key machines are almost impossible to find used. You’ll likely end up buying a small HPC Speedex because they’re pretty much the least expensive good key duplicator around. Expect to pay around $500. Best if you include this in your initial loan. A key duplicator is bread and butter for any locksmith, mobile or otherwise, so don’t even think about starting up until you have one.
Equip yourself with a good rekeying kit. I’ve always preferred ‘universal’ kits because they do the work of dozens of other keyway-specific kits and they are easy to use. LAB makes the best of these, hands down. If you have the space, try to get a metal Classic Kit. If you don’t, you can start out with one of LAB’s Mini-Durex kits or, better, the miniature version of the Universal Kit (LMK-005 or LMK-003). You simply can’t rekey locks without one, and if you get a Universal you won’t be confined to keying up one or two brands . . . you’ll be able to handle them all. Don’t know how to rekey locks? Pick up an instruction manual on the Internet or at Amazon.com. They are available and this is one of the quickest locksmith skills to pick up. While you’re at it, buy at least one plug follower, a pair of pin tweezers, and ideally a pair of TruArc pliers. Over time you’ll accumulate more rekeying tools but these fundamentals are nearly essential.
Even before I was making money rekeying locks, I was being called to open cars. If you intend to advertise yourself as an emergency service, you’re going to have to take in this kind of lucrative work. Let me tell you now, this will be the easiest money you’ve ever made. It is well worth learning the skills required to open vehicles even if it means spending a couple of hundred dollars on tools and a good manual. Lockouts, at least in my case, virtually supported me for years. If you live in a medium to large city, count on getting lockout calls day and night even if you have only a tiny ad somewhere (a subject for later). There are many good lockout kits available online, to suit any budget, and the same goes for lockout manuals. Do a Google search for ‘car opening tools’ or ‘lockout tools’ and you’ll have no trouble finding suppliers. Are they legal where you live? Again . . . this is up to you to determine. The supplier cannot and will not endeavor to police this aspect of marketing, as it is simply not possible. I’m not advocating the purchase of anything that is not legal where you reside!
House and business lockouts are likewise lucrative sources of income for the locksmith, but these require different skills, different tools. Here is where it becomes necessary to learn the skill of lock picking — probably the most fundamental skill of the trade. It is not as easy to learn as car opening and lock rekeying, but it is by no means difficult, either. It requires practice and patience, and it requires good tools. Do not get stingy here. There are lots of cheap lock picking tools for sale. You’ll find them in automotive magazines, even. Stick with tools from the established firms like HPC, SouthOrd, Lockmasters, etc. Purchase a beginner’s set with a few picks and one or two tension tools for start, unless you have a big budget, then go for a set that will last you a while. Choice of spring steel or stainless steel is largely a matter of personal choice. Whichever one you start out with will likely be the kind you’ll stay with, because you’ll form an attachment to that type and you’ll train yourself to make the best of it. More important is the concept of practice. Buy Practice Locks. Once you’ve picked all the locks in your home you’re going to need more challenges, and now that Practice Locks are an accepted training aid in this field you’d do well to pick up a few of them. Practice until you can repeatedly pick the most challenging of your Practice Locks and then practice some more.
Did I mention that servicing lockouts will likely be the single most lucrative service you offer your customers? I thought so. Good!
There are other aspects to providing a locksmith service and among these is the ability to install locksets on homes and businesses. Primarily you’ll be asked to install deadbolts, but later on, as your business gets bigger, you’ll want to offer commercial business and real estate companies the option of replacing all their old lock hardware for newer more secure hardware. Again, practice is called for and you should be prepared to install a few unnecessary deadbolts and knobsets on doors in your own home that don’t need them. After doing this a dozen or so times, it will be easy to go to that first installation with confidence. You’ll need to add a few essential tools to your toolbox, such as a 1/2 inch drill, a couple of hole saws (2-1/8 inch and 1-inch), a 1/2 inch boring bit, and a good wood chisel. With these tools, you can install deadbolts in metal or wood doors. Complete installation kits are available and are the best choice if you can work them into your budget. Need instruction? Books galore available on Amazon.com or at any large scale bookstore in your city.
Once you’ve accumulated vehicle and the tools, and some knowledge gleaned from practice and reading, you can start thinking about getting your feet wet. The best way to start is the old fashioned way and that is to appeal to family and friends for work and for referrals. Network. Talk to everyone you know and let them know you’re serious about this and that you are available. Step two is to advertise and this is absolutely necessary, even if you start out only as a listing in the Yellow Pages. This is where 99% of the people who need a locksmith will look. Newspaper ads, flyers (Yucchhh!), direct mail and radio ads don’t work for locksmiths unless you have one enormous budget. Try to justify a small one-eight or one-quarter page Yellow Page ad if at all possible. Even in the face of huge competition, you will get calls and over time your name will be spread around, if you do a good job. Well, it will get spread around if you don’t, as well, but you’d do well to avoid that.
That’s how I did it. That’s how thousands of others have done it, give or take a detail or two. Be sure to cover the legal bases, because if you jump into it and find later that you’re acting outside the law, don’t come to me! This is part of your research. It is not that difficult to acquire a certification and satisfy local laws that may pertain to this business. If you keep the business small, and maintain yourself as a sole owner, you’re going to be profiting right off the bat because overhead with a mobile service is nil.
It’s within your reach whether you’re 18 or 58.