By Ellie Kay
I was inspired to start my first business when I found a hand buzzer in my corn flakes cereal box at age seven. I began charging my classmates for handshakes at five cents for girls and 15 cents for boys (the agony of touching a boy's hand - yuck). I earned $10 in the first two weeks, and I was hooked.
Many military spouses get hooked too, finding that owning and running a business helps provide continuity through frequent military moves and, of course, a supplemental income. But before you jump in with both feet, consider these seven steps:
1. Find your passion - and your talent. Jane Pollack, author of Soul Proprietor, wrote, "The most necessary skill is the ability to show up." This businesswoman took an egg-decorating passion and turned it into a successful business. But don't confuse passion with talent - both are needed to start a real homemade business. So is the ability to handle bookkeeping, time management, marketing and everything else that comes with maintaining a business.
2. Focus on people's needs. Sometimes a successful small business owner finds a need and a niche, and it just so happens to also fit a need and an area of interest for the business owner. That certainly was my case; my family had a financial need and I wanted to help meet that need while also staying at home with my babies - so I started writing and speaking about saving money in household finances. Then I discovered that many families had the same need, and I was in a position to offer help and resources to help meet those needs.
3. Get used to rejection. Rejection often is your unwelcome partner in the early stages of a business: the client hates the way the scrapbook turned out, the cake wasn't the right flavor, the desktop project took so much time that the "profit" was little more than 50 cents an hour. Rejection is common as you establish your business, and the successful entrepreneur must learn to live with it and learn from it.
4. Test the business idea first. Your mom may love your chocolate truffles, but it doesn't mean that you can sell enough of them to make it a business; it could cost more in time and supplies than it is worth. It's critical for the future business owner to test the idea among a sample market. For example, get last year's phone book, go through the yellow pages and call similar businesses to see if they still exist. This gives a hint of whether the goods or services are viable for the community. Invest the time and energy in research. Visit SCORE, the Service Corporation of Retired Executives operating in conjunction with the Small Business Administration (www.score.org), for a treasure trove of research and help from local business development centers and networking groups.
5. Stay in touch with trends. The party planner needs to know what kids like. The photographer needs to maintain an eye for what the marketplace wants. The personal shopper needs a constant fashion update to remain viable. Editors want writers who know the demands of their readers. Desktop publisher clients want cutting-edge materials. A virtual personal assistant was unknown a decade ago, but busy working moms and corporate execs now want someone to see that the household bills are paid. By keeping up with trends, your new business can capitalize on the needs in the marketplace and provide you and your family with the maximum return for a minimum time investment.
6. Consider servicing established businesses. In times of layoffs, the first people to go often are those who provide peripheral services in areas such as administration and information technology that may be outsourced to an independent contractor. Some companies hire non-benefit-earning consultants to replace them while working from home. With appropriate skills and an eye toward market trends, a savvy small business owner can service those companies.
7. Get the family on board. Once you have gathered enough information, it's time to have a family council meeting - first with your spouse, then with the entire family. During this meeting, it's important to discuss all sides of the issue. Sometimes a person with a different perspective may see certain advantages and disadvantages you may not notice. Start by considering the types of home-based businesses you want to research, then discuss the pros and cons of each, as well as start-up costs, realistic time commitments (don't fudge here) and a realistic projected net income (really don't fudge here). Once you are on the same sheet of music, you have the foundation to launch a successful homemade business.