You're (already) Working at Home!

by Kim DeLauro

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As an at-home mother of five young children, I spend my days sorting laundry, assembling sandwiches with the crusts removed, and cleaning messes. To keep sane and happy, I also have hobbies, some of which I have transformed into income. Currently, I work as a free-lance writer, but for three years, I also ran a successful online and print catalog business selling cloth diapers and natural parenting products.

Before I began that business, I researched many different ways to make money from home. I bought books and spent hours online. I talked to other mothers about the possibilities, but ideas seemed tired, old. Someone else had already done it. Yet, the newer ideas seemed crazy. Why would anyone trust me as their Certified Mother's Helper or their Personal Shopper?

I had nearly abandoned the idea of starting a business when two of my interests merged themselves into a possibility. First, I had recently taught myself basic HTML and had designed a simple web page to showcase my newborn son. Second, I loved cloth diapers and found myself posting often on parenting bulletin boards, offering advice on the most absorbent materials for cloth diapers and the best methods of washing them. These combined interests evolved into an online diapering guide I created, with links to the best diapering sites I had found, along with plenty of how-to articles I had written myself. My site received positive publicity on the bulletin boards, and after many compliments on my content, I decided to launch an actual business, the Homespun Baby Catalog, selling the products I had promoted on my site.

In my experience, the best businesses start with hobbies that bloom out of control. With two years under my belt as a cloth-diapering parent, I knew and enjoyed my products. As a parent, I knew my customers. As a person who enjoyed playing with computers, I loved building my web site. I used Microsoft Publisher to create a 20 page line-art paper catalog, which I printed on earthy-looking paper and mailed to customers who requested them. From my cloth diapering interest, I saw a demand for my business. At the time, there were only 26 companies similar to mine in the United States and Canada and parents found it daunting to locate quality cloth diapering products. Three years later, however, that number grew to over 300. If I had jumped on a full bandwagon, my business might not have succeeded. The lesson? Be original.

Start small. Have a solid business plan and keep expenditures down so you won't be afraid to test the waters. Because I sold products online, I had a toll-free number. I accepted credit cards, which was my largest expense. But because I did almost everything else myself (web page design, printing the paper catalog, packaging and shipping products), I had low overhead. I stored inventory in a closet cleared out for business purposes. After a few months, I also ran small ads in one local publication. I researched new products and added them only a few at a time. Some were flops. Some I could hardly keep in stock. I learned through trial and error. I told myself that at worst, I would have learned something from the experience.

The number one question at-home parents ask me is how to think of a novel business idea? My response is to find something you enjoy doing and just do it more, do it larger. Like to sew? Make some business cards advertising yourself as a seamstress. You don't have to take on half the town at first, but start by sewing one skirt for a friend, at cost. Do a good job and your business will grow. A good friend of mine decorates cakes. She started small, just doing birthday cakes for our kids' parties, but now she has a schedule filled with wedding cakes. Or find a unique skill or circumstance you have and become a consultant. And you'd be amazed who can consult on what! I met a woman the other day whose business card marketed her as a "Time-Management Consultant." As a mother of triplets, people tend to listen to her when she helps them organize their lives. Some truly oddball ideas evolve into successful businesses, so consider your ideas carefully before you toss them aside as too bizarre, too weird.

You'll find that idea (your niche), and when you do, sit on it a few days. Write a business plan, no matter how simple. Outline your goals, both immediate and long-term, but then put your plans into action. Don't wait too long. You'll miss out on all the fun!

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