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10 ideas for starting home-based business

Posted Saturday, February 15, 2003

Ready to join the pajama set — that is, the millions of people who run businesses out of their homes and can work in their pajamas until noon or later if they feel like it?

Yes, trading the early morning rush hour for a commute from your bedroom to your home office does sound appealing. But running a home-based business isn't for everyone. "You have to have the personality for it," says Jeff Berner, a San Francisco-area author and consultant who has worked from his home for 33 years. "If you like to work in groups and need to interact with people on a daily basis, it may not be for you."

Such warnings haven't stopped a growing number of people from joining the home business set. The number of home-based businesses in the United States surpassed 20 million this year, and is expected to eclipse 25 million by 2003, according to the research firm International Data Corp. (IDC). The average household income of those with home businesses topped $57,000 in 1998, says the IDC. Think about this as you consider entering the home-business world: Nearly 8,500 new home businesses start every day, and there are no signs of a slowdown.

The Internet is largely responsible for this "no place like home" trend, offering more ways to do business at home than the telephone ever could. In 1996, only a quarter of the home-office households had Internet access, according to IDC. Three years later, more than 65% were hooked up. Last year, as a group, small- and home-office workers spent $52.2 billion on technology, a figure that will jump to $78.8 billion in 2002.

What kind of a home-based business will you start? Here are 10 ideas from Microsoft bCentral, compiled from interviews and from a host of lists by other writers and publications. The criteria to make our top 10 were based on high ease of entry, relatively low cost, high future demand and potentially high return. See if one of them sounds like you:

1. Internet sales and marketing. Yes, indeed, there are dot-com failures around us. But the Internet train keeps gathering steam. If you have a product to sell, this is very likely the way to sell it (or auction it). If you don't have a product, you can sell someone else's from the confines of your home. "Opportunities such as e-stores, e-auctions and site selling have moved this category into the No. 1 position — that and over a billion dollars in sales last year," writes Brian Delaney in HOMEBusiness Journal. Get a Web site built and you're off and running.

2. Children's products and programs. From toys and furniture to educational programs, this category sizzles with possibilities. The U.S. birthrate is stagnating, but median family incomes are rising and so are parents' efforts to do more while having less time for their children. "With so many working parents, after-school and summer programs with substance are desperately needed," says Marcus P. Meleton of Home Business Magazine. Children's furniture, painted murals and training and exercise programs are other items that will be in demand, he says. Profit potential is moderate, but you will be doing something important.

3. Information detective or researcher. Have a bit of Sherlock Holmes in you? You can make good money by sleuthing for information that corporate executives and others need but don't have time to search for themselves. Government regulations and intelligence regarding competitors are but two areas to pursue. Technology has made information gathering easier, but also has stockpiled the amount of information to plow through. "Solve someone's time problem by offering to locate and retrieve the information they need and you'll have people knocking on your door!" Delaney says.

4. Home inspector. Home sales are increasingly dependent upon the results of a professional inspection. The inspectors generally are independent contractors who are trained and certified, many also having past experience as homebuilders or in the construction trades. While that experience is helpful, it is not mandatory. But certification is necessary if you want to move beyond having your mother-in-law and best friend as clients. Not only do buyers need home inspectors, but real estate companies, insurance firms and banks do, too.

5. Internet webmaster. Get started by developing Web sites for your church, your child's school PTSA or your politician friend. But building sites for businesses is where the money is. Training is available through the Web (naturally) at low cost, but you will need a scanner, additional disk storage, a faster Internet connection and other equipment. But if this is a labor of love for you, and you know how to market yourself, you will never be out of work. "You can earn $50 and $100 an hour and hire out as a contractor to businesses for large [Web site] developments," says Meleton.

6. Personal assistant. For many business people today, time is more precious than money. You help them, not by unplugging their clocks, but by doing their shopping, running errands, chauffeuring children and doing other tasks that effectively give them more personal time. The most ambitious here will also see ways to become virtual business assistants by providing services such as word processing, newsletter writing, even digital photography or Web site design. "Serve your clients in as many ways as you know how," Claire Liston, 28, tells Entrepreneur magazine. Liston turned her in-between-jobs stint into a service business that could gross $70,000 this year.

7. Event planner and organizer. Life won't become one big party, but it could become many little ones. Talented organizers for weddings, bar mitzvahs, morale events and the like are in high demand if they are strong marketers as well. But it takes a creative bone, an entrepreneurial spirit and an indifference to the traditional workweek. Startup costs? Antonia Calzetti and Brenda Yagmin spent less than $500 to begin their home-based business in New York in October 1999. The two, who met at a small catering company, have helped build their clientele through direct mailings, press releases and other marketing efforts. Their new company's sales should reach $100,000 this year, they tell Entrepreneur. "We party every day," says Calzetti.

8. Home repairs and landscaping. Delaney, in his HOMEBusiness Journal article, calls this category, "Home equity enhancement." Cute name, but the real words here are "cleaning," "painting," "repairing" and "landscaping." The more you can do in increasing the value of a home in the real estate market, the more you can make. Selling yourself to real estate agents is a good first step. How can a PC help? New technology allows you to provide potential clients with a look at their home — with your improvements added.

9. Personal coach. Corporate chieftains, entrepreneurs and most everyone else could use an objective listener to identify and correct weaknesses. The key here is that you must possess the ability to help someone, from skills and experience you have developed in your own life. You also must be a good listener and a good self-marketer. Talane Miedaner used a personal coach in her job at a Manhattan bank — then followed his lead, enrolled in a training program and became one, too. She now has a business that works with 40 clients a month and is generating $150,000 a year in sales. "I love the commute," she tells Entrepreneur, referring to her home in New York's Catskill Mountains. "I roll out of bed and I'm coaching away."

10. Technical support. Those who troubleshoot computer system problems at businesses big and small will never be out of work. But you can build a similar business out of your home, offering training and support (even security consulting) to small offices, home offices and residential customers with PCs. Prerequisites (besides a demonstrated knowledge) include a passion for technology, a customer service bent, hourly rates and a flexible — but not too flexible — schedule.

But here's a caution from Azriela Jaffe, a noted author and nationally syndicated columnist on home-business psychology: "Individuals and couples must exercise great caution in pursuing home-based business opportunities simply because they show up on a top 10 list. The first and foremost thing that should be leading you to choose a business is your love for it and your skill in doing it."