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Get Help Starting Your Home Based Business If you want to get started quickly and cheaply, a franchise or training program might be the choice for you.

By Margie Zable Fisher

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Starting a home business sounds like a terrific idea, until you realize all that's involved in getting it up and running. So getting some assistance really helps--especially if it doesn't cost a lot of money.

Three successful business owners explain how they found the right opportunity, through a franchise or training program, and made it work for them.

Name of business:Homeowner Referral Network (HRN)
Year founded: 1997
Total number in existence: 300+

Description: The Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) is a contractor referral service that can be operated from home on a part-time or full-time basis. HRNs pre-screen and refer local home-improvement professionals, ranging from painters, plumbers and electricians to floor refinishers, carpenters and general contractors. Each HRN operates independently and earns a pre-negotiated commission from contractors in the network for any work secured.

History: After the birth of her first daughter in 1996, Debra M. Cohen left a career in corporate America to be a stay-at-home mom. She was soon faced with the all-too-familiar challenge of finding a way to remain productive while staying at home to raise her family. At the same time, she and her husband had just purchased their first house and--like most homeowners--were struggling to find reliable home-improvement contractors. When they finally found a responsible contractor, Cohen felt compelled to share his name with other homeowners, friends and family. It wasn't long before she decided to launch Home Remedies of NY Inc. to help other homeowners in her community.

After her first year in business, she had more jobs than she could handle, and she realized that there was a universal need for the services she offered. Rather than try to expand too quickly, she decided to document the HRN business so that others could duplicate her model and launch similar businesses in their communities. Over the next several months, she systemized her business and wrote The Complete Guide To Owning and Operating A Successful Homeowner Referral Network. Then she created additional parts of her training program.

Total cost to start: $1,995 to $6,495, depending on the package you choose. Items include the HRN business manual, one-on-one consultations, HRN Management Software, an HRN web package, subscription to the HRNewsletter, business forms, HRN Graphics CD, customized promotional items and leads.

Owner observations: "I read about HRN in Working Mother magazine in 2004 and saved the article so I could contact (HRN founder) Debra," says Jill Barber of Richmond, Va. "I had recently taken a voluntary severance package from my corporate job with FedEx and was looking to get back into housing in some form after having our baby. My degree is in interior design from James Madison University, and I've always loved the housing/construction market. I was already keeping a list of good/bad contractors for my neighborhood, and this seemed like a natural extension."

What led Barber to decide to work with Cohen? "Of course I checked with the Better Business Bureau of New York and made sure that the business was legitimate," Barber says. "Then I realized that Debra did all the legwork and got the industry started, and we get to reap benefits of her experience. Because we're not a franchise, you can get started with Debra's help and tweak the business as you see fit. Debra was so helpful and responsive, and still is. I couldn't ask for a better mentor. I would--and have--recommended it to many others. In fact, three people I have recommended it to have signed on."

Barber chose the Metro Richmond Virginia territory and took on her first client in January 2005. Her business has been growing each year, and this year Barber's sales are expected to exceed $50,000. She expects to reach more than $100,000 in annual sales within the next five years.

Name of business:AssistU
Year founded: 1997
Total number in existence: 1,000

Description: A comprehensive training program on how to set up and run a virtual assistant business. Virtual assistants (VAs) are micro-business owners who provide administrative and sometimes personal support while working in long-term collaborative relationships with a handful of clients. Using phone, fax, e-mail and other emerging technologies, VAs support their clients' needs, across the board, without ever stepping inside the clients' offices.

History: "I was running my own successful virtual assistance practice from my home," says Stacy Brice. "A journalist did a piece about my work, and hundreds of women came out of the woodwork asking how they, too, could do this work. I realized that it could be a viable business opportunity and, more, a profession, and so I founded AssistU, wrote a curriculum for our virtual training program and put it out to the world. Twelve years later, we're still training, coaching, certifying, supporting and referring top-notch virtual assistants, and I love it!"

Total cost to start: $2,695 to $3,595 (choose group or one-on-one program).

Owner observations: "I listened to a $19 introductory call with Stacy, and her style, philosophy and personality really resonated with me," says Sydni Craig-Hart of Emeryville, Calif.

Craig-Hart did some research to make sure it was the right move for her. "I talked to several past graduates, and kept hearing the same comments over and over again. How they wouldn't be even half as successful as VAs had they not gone through the AssistU program. How the program changed their lives. The wealth of knowledge and unwavering support offered by the community. These were the same benefits I was looking for."

AssistU has an ethics section on the website that offers the following information, useful to anyone considering a home-based franchise or training opportunity:

"It's important, as you evaluate companies online with whom you could do business, that you feel secure that they really offer something of value, and that people are not being scammed or ripped off in any way.

Because our integrity is of vast importance to us, we welcome you, and urge you to check us out as thoroughly as you need to before deciding whether our virtual training program is right for you.

If you want to see if there have been any less-than-stellar comments made about AssistU, there are several ways you can go about that:

  • Call the Better Business Bureau.
  • Call the Attorney General's Office for Consumer Affairs in Maryland, where AssistU is located.
  • Call or visit the NetCheck Commerce Bureau, which was established to promote ethical business practices worldwide and to increase consumer and corporate confidence in purchasing products and services on the internet.
  • Check our WebAssured Business Background Report.

Most of all--go with your gut.

Feel free to visit our Alumni Verification System, where you can verify our current AssistU graduates, CPVAs and CMVAs."

In 2006, Craig-Hart signed up for the AssistU program; she had$75,000 in sales that year. In 2008, sales totaled $169,000.

Says AssistU founder Brice, "Sydni isn't typical. Nor has she hit any sort of proverbial ceiling. An average full-time revenue for a graduate of our program with a few years of experience in her business would be $65,000 to $70,000 per year."

Name of business:NuBarter Inc.
Year founded: 2002
Total number in existence: Seven up and running, five in process

Description: A barter network that allows businesses to provide products and services to members of the network and receive products and services from members of the network.

History: Says founder and CEO Gary Field: "I was in retail most of my life, had done some bartering here and there for both personal and business. I was approached in 1993 to join a commercial barter exchange. It seemed like a good idea, a good business decision. I ended up belonging to four different exchanges. Once I learned how to use it, it became beneficial, but along the way it was an expensive education.

"So, I had previous experience in the barter industry and I had been unhappy with the system commercial barter companies were using. I thought I had a better understanding of the economy (having studied economics at Emory University) and more experience in running companies (having run a restaurant, two art gallery/frame shops and managed a division for Lanier Worldwide--A Ricoh company--in Dallas, Texas).

"I was intrigued [by] the potential barter could have in fulfilling excess capacity and downtime in any economy and how, if used correctly, [it] could really benefit any business. I knew the barter industry could be run better--more efficiently to match buyers' needs and wants with sellers' excess inventory and services. I also knew it could be run more ethically and with a higher level of customer service. So I created the network."

Total cost to start: $25,000 and up

Owner observations: "Initially I was skeptical about this, but then I went to the 2007 annual meeting of NuBarter, and I was blown away," says Karen Roumay of Boca Raton, Fla., who bought the franchise territory from Deerfield Beach to Delray Beach, Fla. "I was impressed with the organization of the group and the quality of the members."

She bought the franchise in June 2007, and her sales that year exceeded $60,000. 2008 sales were $80,000, and she anticipates annual sales of $500,000 within a few years.

"It's all what you put into it," she says. "I work 45 hours a week and am always trying to connect and help people while looking out for business opportunities."

Margie Zable Fisher is the president of Zable Fisher Public Relations and founder of the Women Business Owners American Dream program. Get her free Special Report, Top 10 Publicity Ideas that Will Grow Your Business."

Margie Zable Fisher, president of Zable Fisher Public Relations, recently launched theprsite.com, a free PR matchmaker service that helps small businesses locate the right PR resources.

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