Q: I'm interested in starting a business from home because the start-up costs would be less. I've searched a long time to find the right one, and I see a need in my community for a service to prepare and deliver food to the elderly who are still living at home but need some meals to be brought in. What do you think of this idea, and what would be the best way to market the business? What problems, if any, do you foresee?
A: You are smart to want to start a homebased business: Statistics show homebased businesses have higher survival rates than overall business start-ups. And you're going about this the right way by trying to find the holes in the market. But you have a lot of work ahead of you, given the particular idea you're pursuing.
Homebased businesses are regulated at the local level throughout the nation. That means you and your business will be subject to local zoning ordinances. These ordinances vary greatly in what they allow people to do. And when it comes to food businesses, even more regulations apply (usually from your state's department of health).
So the first thing you need to do is find out what you are legally able to do from your home. In many cases, food for public consumption is not allowed to be prepared in home kitchens. Many localities and state (and/or city) departments of health require that homebased food entrepreneurs use commercial kitchens for food preparation. If this is the case in your area, you need to find a commercial kitchen to rent. Look in your local yellow pages or online for a commercial kitchen near you. (And make sure you figure the cost of kitchen leasing into your overall pricing strategy.)
Another potential area of concern for this type of business is liability. Since people will be eating food you prepare, you need to have adequate liability insurance to cover you in case anyone gets sick after eating one of your meals. And make sure you thoroughly interview not only the elderly customers, but their families as well. You need to know the details about potential problems like food allergies and dietary restrictions. In some areas, the health department may require certification for food preparers.
Targeting the elderly for this type of service makes sense. But the decisions to buy will likely be made by their families, and that's where you should target your marketing. Go wherever you think children of elderly parents might be. PTA meetings are a good start. Also, talk to the human resources departments of some of your area's largest companies. They frequently inform their employees about these kinds of services. But also check out senior living complexes (where no care is provided) and doctors' offices that specialize in gerontology.
To get the word out, you'll need to let the local media know about you and your service. You might want to deliver an educational message about the importance of healthy food intake for elderly. Once people see you're knowledgeable about the topic, they'll be more likely to become customers. I know this all sounds like a lot to be concerned about, but no solid business is built easily (or overnight).
Rieva Lesonsky is a small-business expert and a senior vice president and editorial director at Entrepreneur Media Inc.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.