You don't need an MBA and lots of cash to create a successful home-based company. Meet five moms who did it on a shoestring budget.
The Professional Organizer
Mother of Taylor, 7, and Lindsay, 4
Business: Organize to Optimize (organize2optimize.com)
Job description: Keeps clients well organized
Start-up costs: $2,500 for business cards, liability insurance, and software training
Annual income: $30,000 (charges by project, based on a $100-per-hour rate)
Back story: As a child, Bickett never lost Barbie shoes or game pieces. "I'd always been organized, but once I had kids, I found myself drowning in clutter," she says. Since she no longer had the time to take a Saturday to rearrange her closets, she taught herself shortcuts for managing all the paper and kids' stuff that was accumulating in her home. Once she reorganized herself, she figured others could benefit from her tricks. She researched professional organizing on the Web, got training in an organizational software program called the Paper Tiger, and quit her job as a human-resource manager. Then she told everyone she knew about her service. Her first job was sorting financial papers for a friend's mother-in-law. Then she started helping people rearrange their playrooms and kitchens. But now she's focusing primarily on helping organize small companies, which she finds more challenging -- and lucrative. "Almost all my business comes by word of mouth," says Bickett, who works while her kids are in school.
Best advice: "Think about the kind of organizing you like to do, and stick to that specialty." Hot niches include organizing for families with little kids and for adults with ADHD.
Biggest challenge: "Helping sloppy people learn to stay organized. If they're messy by nature, it's usually because they feel perfectly comfortable being surrounded by chaos."
The Gift-Basket Designer
Mother of Adam, 10, Nicholas, 5, and Erin, 3
Business: Bon Vivant Gift Solutions (bonvivantgiftbaskets.com)
Job description: Creates and ships themed gift baskets for corporations and small businesses
Start-up costs: $3,500 for inventory, business cards, brochures, and Web site design
Annual income: $22,000
Back story: While working as a real-estate paralegal in Chicago, Stenson noticed that real-estate agents often bought thank-you gifts for home-buyers on closing day. So she found picket-fence planters and house-shaped boxes and filled them with gourmet goodies. They were such a hit, she was soon spending every spare moment filling orders for colleagues. Gift baskets remained her sideline business for two years, until the family moved to Kansas in 2001.
Instead of job-hunting in her new city, Stenson joined Olathe's chamber of commerce and the local chapter of Business Network International. By exchanging referrals with fellow business owners, she landed her biggest account -- an insurance agency that sends thank-you gifts to clients around the country. Now clients include financial advisors, sports agents, software developers, and doctors' offices. "People think I spend my days sitting at home putting pretty things in containers," she says. "But 75 percent of my job involves face-to-face sales."
Best advice: "Don't overspend on inventory." Budget $500 for basics that can go in any basket, and then personalize the gift to the occasion with themed containers and ribbon.
Most unusual order: "When major-league ballplayer Jim Thome hit his 400th home run, a client hired me to send him a basket filled with 400 packages of beef jerky."
The Personal Trainer
Mother of Kaya, 2
Business: Team Millar
Job description: Trains clients in their homes and at a local studio
Start-up costs: About $1,500 for liability insurance, basic exercise equipment, and certifications in personal training and CPR
Annual income: About $27,000 (hourly rates range from $25 for gym/studio training to $65 for in-home clients)
Back story: An aspiring actress, Millar started her fitness career five years ago after taking a Pilates class. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to get certified to teach it at a local studio. When a coworker left and passed along her private clients, Millar got her personal-training certification from the American Council of Exercise. The flexible hours as a trainer gave her freedom to go on auditions and pursue her master's degree. When she got married and then pregnant a few years later, she realized that the job was ideally suited to her new role as a mom. She now works about 20 hours a week while her mother watches her daughter, Kaya.
Best advice: "Start at a gym that lets you work as an independent contractor. It's a great way to build your professional reputation before you strike out on your own."
Greatest satisfaction: "I love the fact that I can change someone's life for the better. When I can help a client get stronger or when I can get him to increase his range of motion, I feel like I've accomplished something."
The Virtual Secretary
Spartanburg, South Carolina
Mother of Kaleb, 4
Business: Virtual Accuracy (virtualaccuracy.com)
Job description: Provides administrative support to small and home-based businesses
Start-up costs: $1,500 for computer and software
Annual income: $75,000 (hourly rate is $45)
Back story: While working as a TV producer, Noles earned extra money creating spreadsheets and doing other administrative tasks for friends in business. But when she adopted Kaleb in 2002, she decided she wanted to work at home. "My son was born with serious health problems, and it was hard to find daycare for him," Noles explains. At first, she did any administrative work she could find, but she's since begun specializing in providing support for executive coaches. Her husband joined her in the business after he was laid off in 2004. He took over marketing, graphic design, and technical support for the company, and together they've expanded their virtual firm. They've nearly quadrupled their number of clients in the last year by word of mouth, cold calls, and setting up a booth at a local trade show.
Best advice: "Target real-estate agents: They need help creating flyers for open houses and preparing marketing analyses. Send prospective clients a letter and brochure describing your services, and follow up by phone."
Toughest day at the virtual office: "Our business is completely dependent on our Internet connection. One day last winter, we had an ice storm and lost power for a few days. I had a deadline coming up, so I had to pack up my computer and go to a hotel where I could get online and work."
The Errand Runner
Mother of Aaron, 13, Taylor, 12, and Jonathan, 8
Business: Angel at Your Service (angelatyourservice.com)
Job description: Does shopping, returns videos, picks up dry cleaning, pet-sits -- even waits for the cable guy
Start-up costs: $300 for licenses, a sign for the car, and bonding (similar to liability insurance)
Annual income: $175,000 (after seven years in business)
Back story: Nine years ago, Wilder became a stay-at-home mom after the medical office she worked at closed down. Suddenly, working friends and relatives began asking her to run their errands. "I realized I could get paid for doing the things other people have no time for," she says. She networked at the iVillage.com errand-service message board, made her own cards and brochures, and left them at neighborhood establishments. She landed house- and pet-sitting clients by advertising at Pet-Sitters.biz and Housecarers.com, and she boosted exposure by donating errand-service gift certificates for prizes at school fairs. At first she worked alone, but her business grew quickly. Now she hires independent contractors and pockets a percentage of their fees. Her car sports a sign with her business name and phone number, and "people are always pulling up next to me and asking what I do," she says. "I tell them we can run any errand in Southern California."
Best advice: "Talk about your business everywhere you go. I was shy at first, but now I can insert the phrase 'errand runner' into any conversation."
Most unusual request: "I had a client who was getting married and wanted her two dogs, a male and a female, in her wedding. I picked up the pets, dressed them in a veil and tuxedo, and kept an eye on them while they participated in the ceremony."
5 Ways to Get Your Business off the Ground
1. Do your homework. Ask potential clients and customers what they need from a business like yours, and how much they're willing to pay for it. Research the competition in your area, and figure out a way to set yourself apart.
2. Check legalities. Call your state, city, or town government to see whether you need licenses or permits to operate.
4. Line up childcare. You can't expect kids to nap reliably or play quietly at your feet while you work. Explore budget options like drop-in programs, mother's helpers, and trading off with friends.
5. Create a business plan. Write down your goals, your earning expectations, and the hours you're available to work. Understand that it may take a year or more to become profitable. For business-plan help, go to sba.gov and score.org.