From the July 2000 issue of Startups

You've dreamed about it for years. You fantasize about chucking the corporate life for the decidedly noncorporate homebased existence. Perhaps you're even checking this site out on the sly while at work. Maybe you want to stay at home so you can have more time with your kids, maybe you want to ditch the rat race and the commute, or maybe you just want a turn at being the boss of your own life. Whatever your reasons, you're ready to take the plunge. But what, exactly, can you do from home?

The answer is, just about anything. We receive news of homebased businesses catering to clients and customers in industries ranging from consumer foods and e-commerce to daycare and corporate consulting. If you dream it, there's a good chance you can run it from your home office. But in case you need a little help on the idea side (and don't worry, most people do), we've come up with a list of 10 hot homebased businesses. While our list is by no means definitive, it'll give you a great idea of what's new and hot on the homebased horizon.

10 Hottest Homebased Businesses for 2000

1. Online Auctions

2. Virtual Human Resources

3. High-Tech Public Relations

4. Technical Writing

5. E-Commerce

6. Doulas

7. Business Coaches

8. Home Inspections

9. Mediator

10. Computer Trainer

Online Auctions

Going once, going twice, sold to the bidder in.not the third row, but halfway across the globe. Online auctions have redefined the concept of the garage sale for tchotchke hawkers everywhere, and they've also redefined the ease of entering the e-commerce arena. Forrest Research calculates the online auction market will grow to more than $19 billion by 2003, and with the ease of online auction site use, it's no wonder sales are skyrocketing.

Think of the pains of traditional brick-and-mortar sales: paying rent, hiring salespeople, merchandising, maintenance, advertising. Now consider online auctions: Scan a photo of your item, write enticing copy, and wait for the customers to flock to your virtual doorstep via eBay, Yahoo! Auctions, Amazon.com Auctions or one of the myriad other online auction services. Of course there's a bit more to it (there always is), but not much: Answer e-mail questions, notify auction winners, arrange payments and ship products. It's time consuming-all businesses are-but few are as laid out and easy to enter as this one is.

"Probably the biggest advantage [of online auctions] is that you immediately fit your sales items into a preexisting system," says Greg Holden, author of Internet Auctions for Dummies (IDG Books, $19.99) and CliffsNotes: Buying and Selling on eBay (IDG Books-CliffsNotes, $8.99). "You don't have to worry about anything other than which items you want to sell, how much you want to charge for them, and how you're going to present them online. Then the auction house does the 'marketing' in the sense that it puts your things on its site."

To start, you need little more than a good PC, an uninterrupted Internet connection, a scanner and a good monitor (you want to see your auction as well as potential bidders will). Holden suggests that auctioneers become proficient with display graphics, since this is really the only technical aspect of the business. "In almost all cases, good clear images make sales. A little rudimentary training in cropping and retouching graphics files so they appear quickly will help your sales presentation."

Other tips Holden suggests are:

  • Be responsive and courteous with answers, feedback and shipment. You may get several questions regarding each auction item, so be prepared to take the time to thoughtfully answer them. After the sale, you'll have to notify the winning bidders, accept payment and ship the product.
  • Describe items fully and enthusiastically. Stress the positive, but be honest about any flaws as well.
  • Keep reserve prices low. Don't be reluctant to offer desirable items with no reserve price because this can increase interest.
  • Network with other auction sellers.
  • Display expertise in your field. Create a Web site that's separate from the auction site and link to it from each auction.


-Laura Tiffany

For More Information

  • AuctionWatch. This service allows you to launch several auctions on different auction sites (eBay, Yahoo! and Amazon, currently) and schedule them to begin and end during peak traffic times. The site's partnership with I-ship allows you to use their online shipping tools.
  • PayPal. Accept credit card payments from buyers via e-mail with this service.
  • WorthGuide. This site helps you price your items using historical data from actual online auctions as pricing guides. You can also check out the top 20 auction categories to get a grip on what's currently hot.

Virtual Human Resources

The need for human resources outsourcing firms is steadily increasing as more small-business owners realize that managing HR functions-from negotiating complex benefit plans to maintaining employee records-for 15 or 20 people isn't as easy as it might first appear. If you've got a knack for 401(k) plans and putting together employee manuals, then why not consider capitalizing on the newest trend in human resources: virtual HR.

HR is just one of the latest industries to jump on the online bandwagon, but unlike other companies, they seem to have found their audience by providing resources that actually make running a business easier. By offering entrepreneurs online access to such HR tools as recruiting materials, benefits packages and employee record maintenance, virtual HR firms are providing the solutions their clients need to keep up with the increasing demands of their growing companies.

"Smaller businesses [often] don't have the knowledge, time or resources to address HR issues completely within the organization," says Dennis Abraham, president of Abraham & Aaron, a human resource consulting and outsourcing firm in Pleasanton, California. "An awful lot of our clients became clients because they're now in trouble."

According to International Data Corp. (IDC), U.S. companies spent $7.3 billion on HR outsourcing services in 1999. IDC predicts that amount will reach $10.2 billion by 2003. "More businesses are realizing they can manage their businesses better, cheaper and easier without an in-house HR department," says Andrew Kurtzig, founder of eBenefits, a provider of online human resources services to small and growing businesses.

The cost and complexity of managing employees is increasing due to new laws and regulations employers must comply with. Employees also want more benefits, training, policies and support. According to the SBA, the annual cost of regulation per employee is about $5,500 for a company with less than 20 employees. The cost is significantly lower for businesses with more than 500 employees-$3,000 per employee. As a result, small-business owners are looking to HR firms as a cost-effective solution to handling employee issues and concerns.

The Society for Human Resource Management offers a certification program to help you get the experience you need. "If you come into it with an HR background, you're probably going to be ahead of the game," says Abraham. "If you have a business background, you're going to have to hire the HR knowledge."-Lori Francisco

For More Information

Society For Human Resource Management
1800 Duke Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314 USA
(703) 548-3440
www.shrm.org

National Human Resources Association
c/o Judy Huschka
JH Association Management
6767 W. Greenfield Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53214
www.humanresources.org

Virtual HR: Human Resources Management in the Information Age
By John W. Jones
Crisp Publications, $17.95Outsourcing Human Resources Functions : Strategies for Providing Enhanced HR Services at Lower Cost
By Mary F. Cook
Amacom, $75.00

High-Tech Public Relations

Even though the nouveau-riche glamour of launch parties, onsite masseuses and the fast-paced lifestyle of the high-tech and dotcom set seemingly sells itself, products don't. Part of any intensive marketing campaign is a hard-working PR agency that's hired to handle media requests and press campaigns, and with new high-tech products outdating their predecessors every six months, specially-focused and skilled PR agencies are in high demand.

If you have good writing and communication skills and you're tech-inclined, this may just be an opportunity you'll want to pursue. Although many tech companies have been using advertising to make a name for themselves, they've also been focusing much of their marketing efforts on public relations as well.

According to Jack Bergen, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, PR firms are receiving more business these days because they reach out to customers and investors, bring credibility to a new business in a new industry, and are more cost effective than traditional marketing and advertising tools.

PR firm revenue grew 32 percent last year across all sectors, and high-tech firms led the growth with a 47-percent increase. "I think we'll see at least another 50-percent [increase in] growth for 2000. Despite the falloff in the NASDAQ, we're still seeing tremendous demand from that sector," says Bergen.

Start-up costs range from $3,500 to $11,000. This includes a computer, printer, fax machine, cell phone, office furniture and marketing funds. Bergen suggests that you market your services by developing relationships with those in the high-tech start-up circle-venture capitalists, investment bankers, attorneys focusing on start-ups, and executive search firms-to capitalize on word-of-mouth marketing. As for experience, a background in public relations is recommended, but most local colleges will have courses or a certificate program. You may also want to obtain experience by interning at an agency or with an established freelancer.-Lori Francisco

For More Information

Council of Public Relations Firms
11 Penn Plaza, Fifth Fl.
New York, NY 10001
1-877-PRFIRMS
www.prfirms.org

Technical Writing

Have you ever found yourself putting together a bookshelf or installing software and getting frustrated because the directions included in the box are only confusing you? If you've ever felt like you could do a better job of writing the instructions, there may be a future in technical writing for you.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for technical writers is expected to increase because of the continuing explosion of scientific and technical information and the need to communicate it to others.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC), the world's largest professional technical communication organization, has several indicators that point to growth in the profession of technical communication. One is the membership of the STC itself, which has grown by 73 percent during the past 10 years. Also, only 50 schools had technical communication courses in 1986; that number had grown to more then 160 by 1996.

One major change that's contributed to the increased demand is the growth of the Internet. With more companies involved in online activities, technical writers are needed to write technical content for Web sites and instructional and promotional materials for Web-related technology and tools.

To succeed as a tech writer, you'll need a good base in the popular tools being used such as FrameMaker and RoboHELP, and a thorough understanding of how people want the information delivered. If you don't have a technical writing background, you may want to consider taking a class at your local college. Start-up costs range from $2,500 to $10,000, which includes a computer, printer, fax machine, office furniture and marketing budget.

"I work with cutting-edge tools, and I write about really interesting products," says Deborah Sauer, a homebased technical writer with more than 20 years of experience in the technical communication field, who finds work through placement agencies, networking and word-of-mouth. "With the business climate the way it is, there's a lot of work. It seems like I never have nothing to do. If you're thinking of getting into this right now, there's a lot of work out there for you. It's a very exciting time to be involved in this profession."-Lori Francisco

For More Information

Society for Technical Communication
901 N. Stuart St., #904
Arlington, VA 22203-1822
(703) 522-4114
www.stc-va.org

Untechnical Writing: How to Write About Technical Subjects and Products So Anyone Can Understand
By Michael Bremer
Untechnical PR, $14.95

The Tech Writing Game: A Comprehensive Career Guide for Aspiring Technical Writers
By Janet Van Wicklen
Checkmark Books, $22.95

E-Commerce

It's official: E-commerce is here to stay. Slowly but surely, consumers are accepting the idea of point-and-click shopping and ordering everything from umbrellas to underwear online. In 1999, business-to-consumer e-commerce drew in $33.1 billion in sales. That number is estimated to reach $61 billion this year-an 85 percent jump, according to Shop.org.

And though media outlets love throwing the names eToys and Amazon around, small players are still entering the industry. How are they competing with those multibillion dollar sites? Niche offerings and beyond-excellent customer service.

"Our philosophy is different from the larger, more established e-commerce players in that our goal is not to offer as many brands as possible, but to only offer high-quality lines and back it with extensive product knowledge," says Carolanne DiSalvo-Ghee, who, with partner Darryl O'Donnell, runs 3Graces.com, a retail beauty site, from their separate homes in Fairfield, Connecticut. "We credit our high volume of repeat customers to our personalized customer service. Although we're an e-commerce business, we've come to know many of our customers personally."

If you want to start an e-commerce business, focus on the business side as well as the technical aspects, advises Greg Holden, author of Starting an Online Business for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, $24.99). "A course on business management or marketing would be useful," says Holden. "So many people simply plan to jump online with a Web site, and they don't have any background in traditional customer service or promotion. If they would take such a course, they'd have an enormous advantage over the competition."

Holden also advises e-commerce entrepreneurs to advertise in newsgroups and mailing lists. "Generally speaking, this is more effective than banner advertising. Be a presence: Answer lots of questions; write articles for free and submit them to online magazines."

3Graces.com has had luck using search engines and press releases. "We were surprised to see how quickly the orders started coming in," says DiSalvo-Ghee, whose sales figures reached $24,000 last quarter. The partners began the company with just $2,500 in 1998, having already owned their computers. Holden suggests starting with a well-equipped office (including accounting software), a dedicated Internet connection, lots of memory and storage space on your PC, and a logo created by a professional graphic designer.

Holden warns that not all e-commerce companies will be successful so soon. "If you're trying to go it on your own with a quirky niche product," he says, "be prepared to try for many months or even more than a year before you see success."-Laura Tiffany

For More Information

  • Whatis.com An enyclopedic site with more than 2,000 computer- and Internet-related definitions and several quick-reference pages
  • BigNoseBird.com Offers tons of tools for Web authors, including tutorials, free tools and a section for beginners

Doulas

Having a baby can be an overwhelming event, especially in today's society where family and friends may not live nearby. So where can an expectant mother turn for additional support and assistance? Doula, a Greek word meaning woman's helper or "one who mothers the mother," may be the answer. Doulas are trained and experienced women who provide continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a woman before, during and for a short period after childbirth.

Doulas typically specialize in either pre-natal or post-partum care. Before and during the birth, pre-natal doulas offer personalized, nonclinical care, which may mean everything from providing educational materials to massaging a mother's back during labor. Research from the trade organization Doulas of North America (DONA) shows that labor is 25 percent shorter with a doula present and the need for pain relief is 60 percent less.

For several days to a few weeks after the birth, post-partum doulas focus their attention on caring for the new mother-by running errands, cooking, cleaning or doing whatever else is needed to ease the transition-so she can attend to her newborn. Doulas also educate mothers on baby care, health matters and changes in family dynamics.

Although this is a relatively new field in the United States, the number of doulas nationwide is growing, from 85 in 1992 to about 2,800 currently. "Basically, doulas are an extra pair of eyes and ears in the home to alert new parents to budding problems," says Chris Morley, a doula and the owner of Tender Care, a Valencia, California-based business that sells a doula training and curriculum program to hospitals around the country.

Like most doulas, Morley started her homebased business with less than $5,000, much of it used to promote her services at Lamaze classes, in parenting publications and directly to physicians. Most doulas make do with basic office equipment, which keeps start-up costs low. Because there are no licensing requirements, providers can enter the profession easily, but Morley recommends they receive training from another experienced doula before accepting clients. Local midwifery centers may offer training, as does DONA, which runs moderately priced 14-hour workshops to train and certify doulas.

It's important for would-be doulas to get some training in business and to make sure there's a market for the service in their area. Clients normally pay doulas between $15 to $23 per hour and, on average, use the service for about two weeks. Since doula services aren't covered by insurance, successful doulas typically operate in middle class or wealthy communities where clients can afford to pay for the service out of their own pockets.

For More Information

Doulas of North America
13513 N. Grove Dr.
Alpine, Utah 84004-1863
(801)756-7331
www.dona.com


Pamela Rohland, a writer from Bernville, Pa., is continually amazed by the types of businesses people run from their homes.

Business Coaches

You don't need a whistle to become a business coach, but you must have the ability to play a variety of roles-advisor, confidante, psychologist, cheerleader and more. Business coaches usually work with clients who are entering a new career, starting a new business, climbing up the career ladder or looking to make a transition. Only in existence since the early 1990s, the field is still evolving, but coaches say they're different than consultants or counselors because their approach is more conversational and more directed because they ask clients strategic questions and offer objective feedback.

Coaches usually interact with clients by phone or e-mail once a week or several times a month, charging between $50 and $300 per hour. Some specialize in working with particular types of professionals, such as the self-employed, executives or writers, or they focus on specific areas, such as time management or overcoming shyness. Coaches don't need a license to practice, but it's recommended that they complete an intensive certification course at a professional organization such as Coach University, located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In addition to a training course, which costs between $500 and $2,500, start-up expenses include basic office equipment, as well as a marketing budget.

One of the biggest initial hurdles for those who are starting out is explaining why clients need the services of a coach. "In one sense, no one needs a coach," acknowledges Talane Miedaner, owner of Talene Coaching Co. in New York City, and author of Coach Yourself to Success (Contemporary Books, $22.95). "People have been getting along forever without one. But having a coach helps you go from ordinary to extraordinary. Why do Olympic athletes pay a coach, someone who they can run circles around? They hire someone who can offer an objective perspective and who is committed to their success."-Pamela Rohland

For More InformationCoach University
P.O. Box 881595
Steamboat Springs, Colorado 80488
(800) 48-COACH
www.coachu.com

Home Inspection

If you don't mind climbing ladders and slithering into tight crawl spaces, home inspection might be the right business for you. A booming housing market is creating a demand for inspectors nationwide the country, says Don Crawford, former president of the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) and owner of Crawford Inspection Services in Hillsboro, Oregon. Realtors and lenders are calling on home inspectors to satisfy the requirements of their clients, who usually don't welcome unpleasant surprises like leaky basements in their new homes. And while the federal government doesn't yet require inspections as a condition for obtaining FHA and VA mortgage loans, it's strongly recommended. As a result of these factors, the vast majority of homes sold in the future will be inspected.

Little capital is needed to launch the business-$1,000 for basic tools (such as ladders, flashlights and screwdrivers), work clothes, safety gear, business cards and a business phone line should get you started. A home inspector's biggest annual expense is liability insurance, which can cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

States vary in their licensing or certification requirements; check with your state's department of labor before opening your doors. But even if licensing isn't required, Crawford suggests that to be competitive, home inspectors should take a training course offered by NAHI or a local community college. Experienced home inspectors charge about $250 per job, and perform between three and eight inspections every week with each visit lasting about two hours.

Thoroughness and attention to detail are important characteristics of a home inspector. Just as essential, though, are good communication skills. Inspectors generate most of their business through referrals from realtors, attorneys and contractors, so they need to be able to network well. In addition, they work closely with home buyers who aren't always noted for their calm, relaxed attitudes. "This is a stressful time for customers," Crawford says, "so you need to be professional and keep your standards high."-Pamela Rohland

For More Information

National Association of Home Inspectors
4248 Park Glen Rd.
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55416
(800) 448-3942, (612) 928-4641
www.nahi.org

Mediator

An overloaded court system, along with the desire speedier and less expensive dispute resolutions, has created a demand for mediators that should continue well into the new millenium. In some states, mediation is not simply an option for the parties involved in a dispute-it's required. Only if a resolution can't be reached does the case go to court.

The nation's 20,000 mediators, who often have professional backgrounds as teachers, social workers, clergy, counselors and lawyers, help opponents find common ground, make compromises and settle their claims. Mediation is most often used in business, insurance, labor relations, environmental disputes, public policy, real estate and other legal issues where both sides typically have equal bargaining power. The results of mediation are final and binding.

The first step in becoming a mediator is to attend a basic mediation skills training course approved by the Academy of Family Mediators (AFM). This will help you decide if you're suited to the job. After that, many seek additional training in the field or through an apprenticeship with an experienced mediator. Currently some states and courts are offering certification for mediators, which requires a certain amount of training and expertise and, often, specifically-accepted professional backgrounds. AFM recommends you contact mediators in your area to determine whether your state or court system offers certification. Only a dozen states require mediators to be licensed and only Florida requires that mediators be attorneys.

Beyond their professional qualifications, mediators need to be calm, diplomatic, objective and creative problem-solvers whose opinions aren't easily swayed in the heat of the moment. Mediators usually market their services and perform administrative tasks from home offices outfitted with standard business equipment. Mediation sessions themselves are held in a neutral location, like the community room at your local bank or library.

Developing a full-time mediation practice can be a slow process and may take several years as you establish credibility and a system of contacts. Mediators usually build their business through referrals gained by networking with lawyers, accountants and mental health professionals. Mediators charge between $50 and $250 an hour, and can average between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. But, according to AFM, most mediators have additional sources of income, so it's difficult to assess how much comes from mediation alone. AFM recommends you talk to mediators in your area about the range of fees locally.-Pamela Rohland

For More Information

The American Arbitration Association
335 Madison Ave., Fl. 10
New York, NY 10017
(212) 716-5800
www.adr.org

Academy of Family Mediators
5 Militia Dr.
Lexington, MA 02421
(781) 674-2663
(781) 674-2690
www.igc.apc.org/afm

Computer Trainer

As long as new software packages are being created, there will be a need for computer trainers to provide instruction to businesses, schools and individuals.

The first step in starting your own computer training business is to determine whether you want a specialized practice-working only with professionals in the legal field, for example-or a more generalized clientele. After that, take steps to master one or more types of software used by your potential clients. A college degree in information technology is helpful but not necessary. Computer training centers offer a wide variety of workshops at different skill levels, which should provide you with enough information to teach others. Some training centers also award certification, which gives new trainers an edge in a highly competitive field.

It's a good idea for independent computer trainers to have been employed as teachers at a training center before going solo, says Arlene Watkins, vice president of Heritage Computer Consulting & Services Inc. in Lenexa, Kansas. Doing that allows them to fine-tune their teaching skills and get a clear sense of what students need from each session.

Trainers usually do marketing and administrative tasks from their home office and conduct the training at the client's site. Trainers generally charge from $35 to $125 per hour, depending on their location, their experience and the extensiveness of the training, and earn between $25,000 and $100,000 annually. In addition to charging an hourly fee, trainers may also include one follow-up visit within the standard rate or may charge an additional fee if more training is needed after the standard sessions have ended.

Start-up costs for a computer training business range up to $10,000. Expenses include fees for workshops; standard office equipment; desktop publishing and presentation software to make your own overhead transparencies, charts and graphs; a binding machine to bind handouts; the necessary software to serve your clients' needs; and insurance against the loss of hardware and data.

There are many ways to market a computer training business. In addition to networking and word-of-mouth advertising, trainers who are certified can get referrals from the manufacturer of the software they intend to teach. You can send direct mail to companies that have purchased particular software packages (the names are available from software vendors) or subcontract with vendors or integrators who install the computer systems. The key is to be creative. Instead of focusing only on businesses, consider going after the at-home market with family-friendly workshops like "Family Fun on the Internet."

Trainers need to be very careful about accepting contracts from companies that make no guarantee of the number of classes you'll be hired to teach and that want ownership of the training materials used in your class, Watkins cautions. Always keep ownership of your materials, and be sure the contract specifies the number of classes to be taught. Watkins believes it isn't enough for a computer trainer to have technical knowledge. It's equally important for a good teacher to be patient, to be able to clearly convey the information to students and to be able to adapt your teaching style to different learning styles.-Pamela Rohland

For More Information

Independent Computer Consultants Association
11131 South Towne Sq., Ste. F
St. Louis, Missouri 63123
(800) 774-4222
www.icca.org