By Rosalind Resnick
Small is beautiful.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Inch by inch, row by row, that's the way my garden grows.
While such homespun wisdom might be fine for common folk, it can be awfully frustrating for an ambitious home-based business owner determined to take his company to the next level of growth and profitability. Sure, a thriving one- or two-person service business with no inventory, rent or employees can seem like an easy way to make money at first, but when the phone starts ringing off the hook and customers keep coming back for more, home-based business owners who fail to plan often fall victim to their own success. Either they burn out trying to juggle everything themselves or they spend so much time and money hiring people to help them that their profits go down the drain.
Fortunately, there are some ways to take your home-based business to new heights without sacrificing your business's profitability or losing your peace of mind.
Focus on a single product or service, and then market it, sell it, promote it-do everything you can to increase sales of that one product or service. While it's tempting to swing for the fences and try to be all things to all people, it's often less risky and more profitable to pick a product or two that you can execute really well and just try to get on base.
Richard Roy, a Sparta, New Jersey landscaper, started a home-based dog-waste removal business called Dr. Pooper Scooper when he got tired of picking up the dog poop from his customers' lawns. Instead of splurging on a retail storefront or an expensive Yellow Pages ad, Roy decided to use his truck as his primary advertising vehicle. Says Roy, "I decorated the truck as a Dalmatian, used full signage and put magnetic business cards on it. By using the truck as my moving billboard, by joining community groups and through word of mouth, I've turned what was once my nightmare into a thriving business serving 100 customers and making 1,100 pickups a week."
Thanks to Dr. Pooper Scooper's success, Roy is now planning to phase out his landscaping business and focus on his new venture full time. "When I scoop the poop, I do it 12 months a year and never have to fix or replace equipment," Roy says. "It's also three time easier than landscaping, and I can do it until I can't walk anymore."
Expand your product line to offer complementary products or services. Once you've hit on a product or service that customers really like, don't miss the opportunity to bring out related items to diversify your product line. Not only does that give your customers a wider selection, but it also makes your products more appealing to retailers who typically like to stock a line of products as opposed to a single item.
Meredith LiePelt, who runs a company called Contemporary Baby out of her home in Dublin, Ohio, started off making colorful burp cloths for newborns. Now she's expanded her line to include such "go along" products as receiving blankets, bibs and gift baskets. Says LiePelt, "Our retail customers have enjoyed having more gift-giving options, and our wholesale clients are able to offer their customers a wider selection to choose from.
Find ways to increase sales to your existing customers. It's a lot cheaper than finding new ones. Even if you can't expand your product line, you can boost revenues by selling more of your existing product or service to the clients you already have. One easy way to do this is through volume discounts. Especially if your products cost little to produce, offering your customers the chance to buy, say, two T-shirts for the price of one lets you ring up additional sales without sacrificing much profit. Another common practice is to reward loyal customers by giving them a punch card that entitles them to a free product or service for every 10 items they buy. This technique is common at hair salons, car washes and arts-and-crafts stores, but home-based businesses can use it, too
Hire someone to help you out-an employee, a freelancer, an intern, an independent contractor, even your kids. Not only does this free up cash flow by adjusting your expenses to the level of work you bring in, but it also enables you to cultivate a large network of talented people you probably couldn't afford to hire full time.
Marc Kirschner, a neighborhood directory publisher in New York City, employs 50 to 75 writers-all of whom are freelancers-to develop his directory's content. This way, Marc saves on payroll taxes, medical benefits, employer liability insurance and all the other costs of hiring full-time staffers. There are other benefits, too. "Bringing in outside help gives you someone else to bounce ideas and strategies off of," Kirschner says. "It prevents you from feeling you're going it alone.
Create a website to advertise your company or sell products online. Thanks to the Internet, it's no longer necessary to open a store to reach retail customers. For marketers of specialty products like rare books, collectibles and gourmet foods, a Web-based boutique lets you reach millions of shoppers around the world without paying for rent, utilities or garbage collection.
And while creating Web sites once required a big investment and the skills of an experienced Web designer or programmer, do-it-yourself websites are now available for less than $30 a month with no technical knowledge required. Typically, the companies that help you register your domain name (Web address) will provide online templates you can use to build your site, host your Web pages on their server and provide you with multiple email addresses as well. E-commerce capabilities can often be had for an additional charge. You can also set up low-cost Web sites through Web hosting companies and search engines
Join forces with another business to promote your company. Partnering with a company in a related industry is one of the cheapest and easiest forms of marketing that you can employ. If you make spa products, for example, you may be able to convince a local health club to carry them in its store by offering a discount to its members. Likewise, you can send a free, one-day health club pass to anybody who buys your lotions and scrubs.
Nancy Tamosaitis, a home-based publicist, says her New York firm, Vorticom, has partnered with a graphic design firm to provide creative services such as Web design and brochures to her corporate PR clients. From time to time, she also joins forces with specialty PR firms to assist clients in fashion, finance and other industries. "Now that I'm working from home, my clients receive infinitely better service and results-at much lower cost-than when I managed a $3 million profit center at a top PR agency," Tamosaitis says
Target other markets. If you sell to teens, start marketing to college students. If you sell to working moms, maybe your product will work for stay-at-home moms with a few modifications. Another strategy is to take a retail-oriented product or service and sell it wholesale. For example, a homebased catering business that specializes in cakes, pies and other tasty desserts can contact local bakeries to sell its goods on a wholesale basis. While the price you get from the bakeries will be lower (because the bakeries need to mark it up to their customers to make a profit), you'll sell more products and generate consistent cash flow that you can bank on
Find new and different ways to market your business through email newsletters or by doing guest-speaking gigs or by teaching a class. Marketing your home-based business doesn't need to involve spending big money on newspaper ads, Yellow Pages listings, or TV or radio spots. Grassroots marketing techniques cost far less and are often much more effective. Most chambers of commerce and community groups are more than happy to provide a forum to a local business owner who's willing to share his expertise at no charge. Sending out a weekly newsletter is also a great way to get your name out in front of new and potential clients. Thanks to the Internet, you can send out your newsletter via e-mail using online templates and automated delivery systems
Expand to another location. That could mean renting "virtual" office space in a business center or by sharing office space with another growing business. Brad Taylor, a CPA in Springfield, New Jersey, spends most of his time at home preparing tax returns, developing tax-planning strategies and revising his clients' QuickBooks files. But when he needs to come to New York City for a meeting, he sometimes rents space at a Manhattan business center operated by HQ Global, a national provider of temporary office space.
For a monthly fee or a la cart, business centers like these offer everything from conference rooms and receptionist services to remote-access voicemail, high-speed Internet connectivity and tech support, offering home-based business owners as much or as little outside office services as they need. Taylor pays just $10 an hour to use the space and is able to bill the cost to his client. "While I still want to run my business from home, this has allowed me to pursue new opportunities and network with other professionals," Taylor says
Think about turning your business into a franchise or business opportunity. While most home-based businesses remain small, yours may have the potential to hit the big time through franchising, licensing or wholesale distribution. The key question to ask yourself is if your business can be converted into a business format that somebody else could operate (a franchise) or if you have a standardized product or service that someone could resell multiple times (a business opportunity). While you may think that expanding your business requires raising capital, hiring employees, buying equipment and leasing office or warehouse space, it's often more profitable-and less risky-to license your product to a big corporation with manufacturing capabilities and an existing sales force to do the work for you.
Rosalind Resnick is president and CEO of Axxess Business Centers, Inc., a boutique consulting firm for startups and small businesses. She can be reached via her Web site at www.abcbizhelp.com.