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Starting a business is tough and expensive. As a business owner or potential business owner, you are always looking for ways to keep costs low while not compromising the quality of your services. One of the greatest costs is your space, and renting or owning it can be a considerable investment. You do not want to buy or rent more space than you need when you are starting, and you need to use the space you have or risk strange looks from customers who enter a half-empty business.

While you still need to have some space available to you, owning and using a shipping container to run your business can be a great option. They are relatively inexpensive whether you get one new or used, come in several different sizes, have various configuration options, and be more easily moved than other buildings. If you need more space after some success, in many cases, you can get another few containers and follow the same model. That makes them the perfect base for quite a few different types of businesses.

To give you some ideas and hopefully inspire you to start a successful business of your own, here are some of the businesses most suited to starting out in a container:

On Modifications

With very few exceptions, you will need to make some modifications to run the businesses listed below out of a shipping container. This can be expensive at times, so be prepared to pay for more than the container itself as a business expense. Investing more now can prevent problems down the road and, in some cases, bring in greater returns. People usually do not want to get goods and services from a cheap-looking business. Alternatively, they’ll expect cheap goods and services. You will also likely be spending more time there than anyone else, so ensure it is comfortable for yourself in terms of space, temperature, and lighting.

Something else to consider when picking out a container is the size. There are 10′ containers which are likely too small for most of these, the standard 20′ container, which most of these are more suited to, and 40′ containers which are extra long and can be used for more businesses. The 40′, however, can be more unwieldy and quite large, making it harder to place.

Furthermore, there are both standard and specialized shipping containers. We mainly talk about standard shipping containers in this article, but others might work, depending on your business. It will be up to you as to what to get, and we recommend you do further research and check out some containers in person before making any commitments.

1. Dog Grooming

Dog Grooming can be a lot of work. Yet, it does not take up all that much space, and you can only work on one dog at a time if you are by yourself. Using a shipping container as your base of operations lets you avoid renting unnecessary space. You also get a large enough space and create a place that has a style of its own. Since dog grooming often means a bit of a mess, you can use or install floors that are easy to sweep and keep clean.

We recommend the usual modifications such as a door and some windows. Also, make sure to create a space where dogs can be comfortable and perhaps a place or two where an owner can wait for their appointment if they arrive early. You may also want to install some cabinets or shelves to keep tools safe and out of reach of dogs when you are not using them. If you still have space left over, you can even include a small space where a dog can play once they are all cleaned up. Just make sure to leave room for all your dog grooming equipment.

2. Ecommerce Business

The world of eCommerce is a vast space, and there are so many ways to tackle it. However, what is consistent is that most of the work happens online, and if you want an office, it does not need to be too large and generally only needs to keep you (and perhaps one onsite employee) comfortable. While eCommerce work can and often is typically done from home, you might want to separate the spaces a bit, as many people in eCommerce have issues with work-life balance. A shipping container is also perfect for storing your goods if you handle shipping and packing. Do you need more space to keep goods? Just get another container and insert shelving as required. After a certain point, you might want to outsource inventory, but they are great for businesses just starting out.

Use whatever you are comfortable with for recommended modifications, and make sure you have suitable shelving and some space left over if you need to store goods and paperwork. Also, be sure to give yourself a nice office space, as you will likely be there quite a bit. The good news is that you can simply get another container if you need to expand, so long as you have the land for it.

3. Teaching Space

Have you ever wanted to teach an art or cooking class a few times a week but could not find the space or investment to do so? If so, you should know that a shipping container makes for a perfect makeshift teaching space for a small class, and many people already use them for this purpose. As long as you give yourself room to be the center of attention, you can arrange the space as you’d like and rearrange it based on the number of students at any one time. The container is also low maintenance when you are not using it for more seasonal courses.

If you want to create online courses, but there is no suitable space in your home, you can easily convert a shipping container into a small studio to film videos and classes.

For modifications, it will heavily depend on what you want to teach people. Getting an art teaching studio going will be all about the lighting, while teaching cooking might require quite a few more installations. See what other teachers use and work from there.

Finally, if you don’t think you can make full use of it just yourself, you might be able to rent out timeslots to other teachers to make back your investment and keep the lights on.

4. Art Gallery

Given the fact that art galleries often only need walls, good lighting, and a bit of visual flair (which you can undoubtedly provide yourself), turning a shipping container into an art gallery can be an excellent idea for people who are looking to bring a little more culture to their community. Reach out to local artists and art-lovers to see if there is a demand, and do not forget there are many types of art that a shipping container can serve.

You can stick with a single container if you want to show off one artist or a small amount of art. Still, for larger installations, we recommend that you use multiple containers, perhaps of various sizes and styles, but ultimately how you might want to set up and run your art gallery is up to you. You will also want to consider environmental controls depending on the local climate. You do not want excessive heat or cold warping or damaging the art in any way while it is in your care.

5. Gift Shop

Gift shops come in many shapes and sizes. Generally, they do not need to be huge, and they can be based around anything. A shipping container also fits into places around an attraction where space is limited and likely offered at a premium. If you know how to make the most of the space, opening a gift shop using a shipping container might be for you.

You will want your container to showcase the local environment or attractions, so plenty of windows are advised. You will also want to invest in some shelving for the container (either attached to the walls or free-standing) and perhaps some carpeting to make it more inviting, depending on the nature of your gift shop.

Additionally, note that most gift shops partner with some local attraction or event, so you might need to look into that or find your niche in the area. You do not want to be a gift shop without an apparent theme or purpose unless you are confident you can figure out something to get more people in your container.

Eatyard signage
Photo by Luca Ambrosi. The BFD

6. A Bar or Café

A shipping container is a perfect size for a small bar or café in the city or downtown. Perhaps even something on the side of the road to attract passersby. Just make sure it looks open and clean and that you have something unique to offer potential customers. You will need to stand out from the rest of the bars and coffee shops that open and close each year.

Depending on where you go with it, you will also need to invest in the proper machinery and furniture to make it work. Installing taps might not be too hard, but you will need to find a place to store all the drinks you have not served yet. Even for a small bar, one container might not be enough.

In modifying the container for this purpose, you may wish to remove one of the sides to create a more inviting view (more important to some locations than others) or make sure that the outside décor and perhaps seating showcases what you have to offer. You may also want to soundproof and properly finish the interior.

If you are willing to spend a little more time and money, you could get a few more containers for your setup. You might turn one container into a craft brewery and sell your own label brews to the local area. It would be a big extension but a potentially worthwhile one.

7. Salon or Beauty Services

The size of a shipping container is perfect for setting up a salon of some sort. If you are a hairstylist, aesthetician, or beautician of any kind, using a shipping container as your base of operations can be a great and affordable start, letting you settle down with your goods in a place of your own and bring in your clients.

If you want to partner with someone, you can put a couple of containers together and create a space where several people can operate their businesses side by side. For example, you might have a salon in one container and focus on nails the next building (container) over. Keeping things together can make your customers happier and drive business.

When modifying your container, you will want the space for equipment and obviously the necessary power setup. Similarly, lighting will be key, plus the plumbing for sinks, etc. You know what you will need, and there will certainly be ways to get it.

8. Urban Event Space

Space is hard to come by in the city, and yet so many people might want to host a party or event there. Using a shipping container as an urban event space, you can quickly set up a new business and at a low cost to fulfill a need as people come back into public life as the pandemic wanes.

Large halls can fulfill this need, but often people prefer smaller, more intimate gatherings, and a repurposed storage container could be perfect. You can partner with or provide catering, drinks, and more, and being a business that offers connections is just the job for some potential entrepreneurs.

When setting it up, make sure that you follow all local guidelines for a business and make it look inviting and comfortable for people. Word of mouth will be essential, and you want the space to speak for itself as much as possible. With success, you can expand with additional containers or even set up others around the area.

9. Self Storage

Perhaps the most common usage of shipping containers for business (outside of transporting goods, of course) is seeing them in self-storage facilities. While the containers may require some modification, they were literally designed for the job. Renting out space will get a great return on relatively little work after setup. This probably will not be an easy business to get going, but it certainly has its advantages, and you should check to see if there is a demand in your area.

This is a case where you will want to get more than one container unless you want no office and one rentable space (not a stable business model). This is a significant investment and will require at least a dozen containers and a lot of room to get going. As for modifications, you may wish to subdivide containers into several units and make sure they are completely secure and safe from the elements.

10. General Contracting

A general contractor or handyman will, for the most part, be going out to people’s homes to get the work done. That does not mean you do not need some base of operations to keep your paperwork, organize things, and meet with potential clients. A repurposed storage container can be perfect for this and keep you from operating out of your home. If you have some more complex equipment that you want to keep on hand but do not want to keep in your truck, an additional container for storage will not hurt either.

While you can certainly modify a standard container to your needs, this is one of those businesses where we would ironically recommend getting a prefabricated container, despite the business revolving around building or modifying things. You just need a basic office and some storage space, and such a container will work perfectly well.

11. Computer Repair and Sales

Many places that repair computers might also sell fixed or pre-built computers to the general market but do not necessarily need a vast storefront to do so. A shipping container can provide just the right amount of space for this. If you want one area as a workstation and another as a storefront, you might want to invest in a couple of containers. Still, many professionals will be able to make do with just one, especially if they are only working with a few computers at a time.

Modifications needed on top of the usual could include a secure space for computers when you are not working on them, room for spare parts, a steady power supply, and a way to ensure a clean environment.

12. Music Lessons

Similar to creating a teaching space, a shipping container is a great place to hold music lessons. Many people extol their virtues as a music studio, so why not a place where one can teach and learn music as well? Get yourself the container and the necessary instruments (though getting a piano in there might be a challenge), and then start advertising your services. If you know other people in the business, you can rent out the space for lessons for others when you are not using it.

For modifications here, outside of the usual, we recommend making sure the acoustics in the space are to your liking. Install soundproofing if you are in a densely populated area to provide for a more natural-sounding teaching space. You may want to see how you can adapt the space for group sessions if you think that will apply to your business.

13. Florist

While you might need to have some more space outside to grow the flowers, you can create a cozy indoor space for cultivating, storing, and selling flowers inside using a slightly modified steel shipping container. You can easily change the interior to your environmental needs, and you can use multiple containers to create various spaces for growing flowers indoors. Given how easily you can modify a container compared to a standard building, this might be the easiest and best way to go for many aspiring florists.

Depending on the type of container you use and the modifications you make, you can open the container right up and let passersby see the results of your beautiful work, ideally inspiring them to make a purchase. We are confident you will know precisely how to make the most of a container to fill the world with more flowers.

14. Rentable Pop-up Space

Sometimes you only want other businesses as your customers. In this case, why not get up your storage container and the surrounding area as a rentable pop-up space. This can be a great idea if you operate in an area with a lot of tourism or know there will be people and businesses looking for space in the near future.

Creating a rentable pop-up space for other businesses is a low-cost and low-maintenance way to use a shipping container. Perhaps people have a short-term plan for different business types listed here? There may be a traveling professional who needs an office for a few months. Whatever people need, you can provide.

You should make sure it is comfortable for people and can supply power and water to clients. Of course, also make sure you comply with local building codes and regulations. In short, the space is yours to design and modify, so experiment with and investigate what people want but don’t want permanently.

15. Gym or Yoga Studio

Much like a teaching space, creating a small gym or yoga studio out of a few shipping containers can be a great idea, especially if you anticipate classes to be relatively small. You do not need to have it open all the time; in some ways, it is low-maintenance, and you can modify or build it up as time goes on.

Gym equipment can be large and require a bit more space than a single container can take care of, so making it into a yoga studio is another option. The acoustics and space can be perfect for it, and people will still have enough room to stretch out.

16. A Hotel

While at first, you might not think that people will want to sleep in a steel shipping container, that is completely untrue if you make the right modifications to it, giving it a homey feel that will make people want to rest. Some major attractions and well-known hotels use steel shipping containers or similarly-sized spaces to give people a sense of privacy yet easy access to the outside world.

Note that this is another one of those situations where some heavy modifications might need to be made. You will likely need to get quite a few shipping containers to keep up with everything, but it can be worth the investment and the costs can still be much cheaper than trying to buy or build a more traditional hotel.

Conclusion

When properly placed and modified, a steel shipping container is one of the most adaptable and usable structures we have for the price. The options listed above are only the tip of the iceberg if you have an entrepreneurial mind and a sense for how to best use space. Whatever your future pursuit, we hope that the ideas above gave you some inspiration. We also hope that you find success and a relatively easy setup and startup process for your business. Good luck!

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16 Businesses You Can Run from a Shipping Container
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