In 1996, Debra Cohen, a Manhattan publishing exec living in Hewlett, N.Y., had her first child. She gave commuting to work a try but found it "unbearable" to leave her baby every day. Her husband is a science teacher and basketball coach, and they didn't want to live on his salary alone. They'd just purchased a home "and we experienced how difficult it was to find reliable contractors to work on it," Cohen says. It gave her a business idea.
She started meeting with business consultants, lawyers, accountants, and contractors. She wrote a business plan and took out a $5,000 loan against her husband's retirement savings plan. A year after her baby girl arrived, Home Remedies of N.Y. was born.
HRNY screens and recommends home-improvement contractors (painters, plumbers, electricians, wallpaper hangers) free to homeowners. Workmen are charged an average of 15% of a job. Cohen advertised locally via direct mail, and after just a year in business she had 100 clients. Last year, working only 25 hours a week, she grossed six figures -- and didn't even have to pay for child care.
OFF HOURS. Is she human? Does she sleep? Cohen says she works at 5 a.m., during naptimes and after dinner, and that her high season -- summer -- coincides with her husband's school vacation. Cohen has also written a detailed manual, The Complete Guide to Owning and Operating a Successful Homeowner Referral Network. It sells for between $1,800 and $3,000, in various packages that can include hours of one-on-one consultation with her. She says it has helped launch similar businesses for 140 people -- mostly work-at-home moms.
One is Penny Spark of Los Angeles, a single mom whose Southern California Home Improvement Referral Service turned the corner to profitability last July after just four months. She divides her day between work and family, spending most afternoons with her 10-year-old son. Cohen "has consistently shared any and every little pearl she's learned along the way to help me out," Spark says.
But here's the catch. Spark is an experienced businesswoman. For 11 years, she owned a medical-supply distributorship that she sold in 1998 for $1.8 million. Most would-be mompreneurs are far less polished.
"I know [Cohen's manual] is on the up-and-up, but you have to evaluate your skills," warns Ellen Parlapiano, founder of the Mompreneurs(r) site on the iVillage Work channel. She's also the co-author of the forthcoming Mompreneurs Online: Using the Internet to Build Work-at-Home Success (Putnam/Penguin). "You also have to be very realistic about your time. Phone work is not doable when the kids are running around screaming they want a juice box. Lining up some kind of child care makes you a better businesswoman and a better mother," Parlapriano says.
OTHER OPTIONS. Cohen is the first to admit the need for self-evaluation. "You have to ask yourself some important questions -- what are my strengths and abilities? What am I willing to invest? I only recommend it to people who are organized, who enjoy working with people, and who have the discipline to work from home." There are also so many other potential options, notes Sally Murrell, director of the Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership. Says Murrell: "A referral service is a perfect example of what a home-based business can be, but there are so many kinds of home-based businesses one can have."
Murrell suggests visiting your local SBA office or a SBA Women's Business Center (for a list, go to the Online Women's Business Center for mentoring, technical assistance, and training in financial management, marketing, and procurement. It may give you a better sense of whether it's likely, given your skill set, that you'll reproduce another mom's success. Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan