From the August 2000 issue of Startups

Thousands of miles and a world away from those twin meccas for designers--New York City and Los Angeles--Tracy Porter runs a multimillion dollar business from her farm in Princeton, Wisconsin. A kind of Midwest Martha Stewart, 32-year-old Porter is an industry unto herself. Her eponymous line of home furnishings has grown faster than you can say "dinner party," with her creations--including fabrics, wallpapers, hooked rugs, dinnerware and books--being sold in more than 15,000 stores.

Porter and her husband, John, new parents of twin boys, have found it unnecessary to leave their 26-acre paradise, often referred to as the "Fantasy Factory," in order to grow the business, which employs 13 others. "We talk every day about the wonderfully unique options we have to run this company in any way that suits our lifestyle," Porter says. "Believe it or not, because I was bed-bound for so much of my pregnancy, the girls [her staff] and I would have meetings right in my bedroom, as often as we felt like it."

Although her financial success is exceptional for a rural homebased business, Porter is just one of thousands of people running their ventures from beyond suburbia, according to Lisa Rogak, author of The Complete Country Business Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Become a Rural Entrepreneur (Williams Hill Publishing, $24.95) and the owner of a publishing company in Grafton, New Hampshire.

Tethered to the "real world" by an array of affordable technology--everything from cell phones to sophisticated Internet hook-ups--these entrepreneurs are free to float above the maddening crowds while pursuing their dream of financial independence. Statistics aren't available on exactly how many people are operating businesses at the end of a country lane, but recent improvements in technology--as well as the millennial trend toward "cocooning," or focusing on home and simplifying your life--have sparked a thriving economy amid the trees and cows.

"Moving to the country and starting your own business have combined to create the one kind of lifestyle that, to many people, represents the most perfect kind of life possible," says Rogak, who has been running her business from tiny Grafton since 1988. People with rural businesses generally fall into three categories: those who grew up in a rural setting and left, returning later for personal or lifestyle reasons; those who never lived in a rural area but fell victim to urban burnout; and those who've always lived in a rural area and wouldn't dream of moving their business anywhere else.

Some entrepreneurs run businesses that are oriented around the rural lifestyle--a bed-and-breakfast or a business selling homemade jams, for example. But many more are professionals whose businesses could be run equally well from an office in Manhattan or a home office on the outskirts of Lone Tree, Iowa.



Pamela Rohland writes from a home office in tiny Bernville, Pennsylvania, where sometimes the birds chirp a little too loudly.

Leaving The Stress-As Well As The Crowds And Expensive Rent-Back In the City

Joan Schweighardt, owner of 18-month-old publishing company GreyCore Press; Jeffrey Rose, co-founder of XpressTrack Inc., an 18-month-old software development company; and Michael and Uli Belenky, owners of Zutano, a designer of upscale baby clothes, have all discovered that where they work is not nearly as important as how they work: conveniently, flexibly and with minimal stress.

The Belenkys started Zutano from their kitchen table in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1989, but the strain of trying to raise two young daughters in the city, coupled with the apartment's space limitations, prompted their move to Michael's hometown of Cabot, Vermont, two years later. This village--which boasts a population of less than 1,000 and contains a hardware store, a general store, a garage and a creamery--welcomed the new business, which the Belenkys operate, along with their 17 employees, out of three dairy barns on their property. The move hasn't hurt the business, which grew 50 percent last year and supplies about 1,000 boutiques, and Michael, who is 40, claims he never feels out of the loop. When the couple needs to tap into urban resources, they can easily travel to New York City, Boston or Montreal from their headquarters.

"So much of what we do doesn't matter where we are; we're all working in this virtual world," Michael says. "We do our knit production in Armenia and Macao, and all the communication and corrections are done by e-mail." For the Belenkys, the big advantage of being in the country has been the ability to expand their facility at will simply by building another barn.

They've also been enriched by building personal relationships with people in the community. "[New York City] was incredibly impersonal, especially in the area of banking," Michael says. "Here, there's support for growing businesses. The bank president, Alice, comes to our farm and has coffee. It's nice to be a bigger fish in a very small pond."

Jeffrey Rose, the 39-year-old president of Wildhack, a 6-year-old Web development company, and XPress Track, a company that develops software for academic journals, believes he's more productive working from his home office in Cochecton, New York (population: 1,300) than he was five hours away in New York City. "I needed the fresh air and the country lifestyle," says the long-time urbanite. "I saw there was no need to be around all those people all the time."

For Rose, the benefits of the move have been monetary: The mortgage on his 6-bedroom farmhouse, situated on 15 acres, is the same as the rent for his apartment in the city. But he's also found that the relaxed lifestyle helps his frame of mind and, ultimately, the quality of his work. "Coffee breaks are vastly more fun," he says. "I can get completely out of my work environment without going far, and I can get right back to work quickly."

Hummingbirds And No Commuting Vs. Mud Fields And The Difficulties Of Finding Employees

Joan Schweighardt didn't need to rediscover the joys of running a rural homebased business. She's worked for years as a freelance copywriter and a novelist from her house in Pine Bush, New York, a town 90 miles north of the Big Apple and known as the UFO capital of the Northeast. GreyCore Press was launched when Schweighardt met author Julie Mars at a party. Before Schweighardt knew it, she offered to publish Mars' novel, The Secret Keepers, with $10,000 in savings and the help of a team of friends who donated their talent to the project. The book has done better than anyone, including the publisher, expected, eliciting excellent reviews in Publishers Weekly and numerous other publications. Schweighardt is about to publish a second book, and she's beginning to wade through a stack of manuscript submissions.

The publishing company is a way for Schweighardt to keep her hand in fiction writing, while at the same time continuing to write copy, her main source of income. "Twenty years ago, before the technology was available to make homebased business a reality, if I had wanted to live in the country, I would've been working as a grocery clerk," she says. "I have neighbors who think I eat Bon-Bons all day, but I wouldn't give this up to work anywhere else.

"I can look out my office and see trees and hummingbirds hovering over flowers. No one knocks on my door, other than the UPS man. Working here is very centering. I can stare out the window, and it's almost like meditating. I'm not lonely. I'm on the phone or the Internet all day, so I'm always communicating with people." Working from Pine Bush also allows Schweighardt to walk three miles at dawn and be in her office by 8:30 a.m., when many commuters are still stuck in traffic.

Despite the many benefits, running a business from the country isn't always idyllic. Early morning deliveries don't make it to Porter's or Rose's house; they have to wait until later in the day to get the packages they need. Because the outdoor environment is so beautiful, both Rose and Schweighardt admit that it's difficult to focus on work at times. The Belenkys have to fight "mud season" in Vermont. In the early spring, the roads become mud fields, and they've had to rent jeeps to carpool their staff to work. Michael Belenky and Porter agree that finding staff can also be difficult when you're working from a remote area. That challenge has forced Porter to run a very efficient operation. Belenky says he's hired other ex-urbanites who are attracted to Vermont because of the lifestyle advantages.

Despite the challenges, all the entrepreneurs agree with Dorothy's famous assessment: "There's no place like home." "When I leave here and come back, I think what a stressful world we've made for ourselves," Michael Belenky reflects. "How could anyone have any creative energy after sitting in a traffic jam for two hours in a tunnel listening to talk radio? It's mind-boggling how anything can get done in the city."