Saturday, July 9, 2011

America's best home-based businesses

Entrepreneurship starts at home

The idea of waking up, putting on slippers and walking down the hall to "work" sounds appealing to a lot of people. But it's not the main reason more than half of the nation's businesses call home their office.
The contestants in Startup Nation’s 2010 Home-Based 100 competition demonstrate once again that in today's economic environment, homes serve as staging grounds for many an entrepreneurial dream. They nurture bold ideas and innovation.
Home-based business has always been a relatively low-capital way to turn a passion into a revenue stream. But in this economy, being able to work out of the home has kept many small businesses afloat -- and often made them profitable -- while some of their larger, overhead-laden brethren are going under.
Take a look at the winners in nine categories that comprise this year's Home-Based 100 annual list; for the rest, as well as ideas on starting your own venture, visit StartupNation.

Most glamorous: Once Wed

When most brides-to-be go shopping for the perfect gown, they're looking to buy -- and the idea of selling it is hardly a notion. Emily Newman, however, bought her dress secondhand on eBay with the full intention of reselling it after her wedding.
"For a lot of brides, 'dream dress' isn't in the budget and the idea of wearing a dress that's only been used once isn't a problem," says Newman, 25. But there aren't many options for resale. So, in 2008, she launched Atlanta-based Once Wed, a website for selling secondhand gowns. She then sold her used dress for the same price she paid for it.
As if working in the glamorous wedding industry isn't enough, the company's evolution is even more remarkable. The site now includes articles, photos, featured weddings, vendors and more, garnering more than 3.3 million page views a month. "I get to work with some of the most creative, talented people in the industry," Newman says. "It's like a dream."

Most Votes: CurlyQ

Stephanie Estrin's Cedar Park, Texas, home business tried but didn't make StartupNation's top 100 list of home businesses last year. So she pushed hard to get votes this year and topped our reader-selected category. "We didn't put a consistent effort or emphasis into asking people to vote for us (last year)," says the founder of CurlyQ Cuties, a company that sells made-to-order plush monsters that customers can design themselves. "But t Though she'd aimed for the top spot in the Most Innovative category, her efforts on Twitter and Facebook helped lift the 2-year-old company to 2,658 votes, which made it the highest-vote-getter of 2010.
All of that wouldn't have worked, of course, if the colorful little monsters she makes weren't cute enough to win a few fans of their own. Want to make a future list? Estrin, 41, emphasizes the importance of consistency and asking for votes regularly. "Leverage your followers," she advises. "Ask for their help."

Boomers back in business: Garden Tool Co.

Getting laid off isn't easy, especially for someone who's been in the workforce for a few decades. But baby boomer Blake Shreck found that getting the ax allowed him and his wife, Anne, to pursue an idea for a high-end gardening tool website they'd previously only talked about.
During Shreck's career in the carpentry field, he never imagined he'd start over as a business owner at this point in his life. "You go through life, and there's always a job because you have the skills," he says. "But when jobs become almost disposable, you start thinking about (your future) more. I didn't think we'd ever jump into (entrepreneurship) -- or do so well."
Today, Fort Collins, Colo.-based Garden Tool Co. is doing so well that Shreck has put the idea of a new job or retirement on the back burner: "I can't imagine not wanting to do this every day."

Yummiest: Moore's Vineyard

With the popularity and consumption of wine growing steadily since 1994, the United States is poised to become the world's largest wine-consuming market by 2012. While the industry's statistics are impressive, we didn't need the country's growing number of wine drinkers to tell us that Elizabeth Moore's year-old wine consulting business should be named this year's Yummiest Home Business.
Through her Smyrna, Ga., home-based business, Moore's Vineyard, which operates as a direct seller of wine under the Wine Shop at Home brand, Moore takes her expertise directly into her clients' homes. She helps wine rookies and connoisseurs alike experience the beverage through tasting and food pairings.
"Typical tastings can be very intimidating, " says Moore, 47. Standing around a kitchen island and swirling, sipping and sometimes swigging is much more fun and intimate, she advises. "My philosophy is to break bread with strangers as they drink good wine with friends."

Wackiest: My God Designs

To many people, religious or not, the idea of Jesus skateboarding, playing football or rocking out on the drums may seem plain wacky. Skateboards were still quite a few centuries away back then, right?
But Lance Brown and Drew Bowers are confident that Jesus would be into those things if he were here today -- the premise of their Hurst, Texas, T-shirt company, My God Designs, which they launched this year. "Jesus lives through us, so if he lived today, he would be into the same things we are," explains Brown, 32.
While this may be true, you're probably wondering why the pair thought people would want to buy their shirts, since combining humor and religion can be controversial. "Most Christian shirts are cheesy or too conservative," Brown says. "(Ours) have a unique message with great artwork, so we knew if we had the right product, we could steal a part of that business."

Recession buster: EpiLife Consulting

Like the other home-based winners, Kene Turner saves money by running his business, EpiLife Consulting, from his home. In fact, the 2-year-old company turned a profit in its first year, and revenue has been growing since. But that isn't the only way he's "busting the recession," or why we picked his New York City startup as the top in this category.
The nature of his product has kept him in demand over the past few years. Through training, education and support services, Turner helps companies reach their goals in terms of social responsibility. "Many organizations desire to help their communities, but they don't have the time or resources," he explains.
his year, we decided to change our methods."
The outsourcing trend has worked in EpiLife Consulting's favor, too. Hiring consultants, as opposed to putting employees on payroll, is a cost-management strategy that many businesses have leveraged during this economy. As layoffs and hiring freezes rolled across the nation, consultants were in demand, Turner says. "It's been a big opportunity for us."

Greenest: Joysacks

Since the season of gift-giving is upon us, we thought it fitting that the winner for the Greenest business category is one that makes and sells reusable fabric gift bags. Through her Hackettstown, N.J. business, Nicola Kinsella is working toward a world without disposable gift wrap -- and taking a piece of an industry that takes in $2.6 billion a year in the U.S.
After her baby shower in 2008, "I was dismayed by the amount of waste that was generated," says Kinsella, 35. "I only found a few boutique manufacturers of reusable, fabric gift bags, and they are a long way from becoming mainstream. I wanted to accelerate the process and felt that the current wave of green consumerism was a prime environment for this product."
Today, Joysacks sells several lines of bags, including organic ones, and the packaging is made from 100% post-consumer recycled cardstock. Joysacks also recycles any paper waste and fabric scraps.

Most Innovative: Blank Label

Selling men's custom dress shirts may not sound terribly innovative. But when Danny Wong talks about his Boston-based startup Blank Label, you have to remind yourself that he's talking about apparel and not the next must-have tech gadget.
When he and co-founder Fan Bi launched the company last year, they wanted to let customers design their own clothing through an easy-to-use website.
As is often the case with innovative thinking, the founders really didn't know if people would embrace -- or even understand -- their concept, says Wong, 20. "We were trying to flip customization on its head and revolutionize the way people were shopping."
And that is why Startup Nation picked Blank Label as this year's most-innovative business. The forward-thinking pair took a basic garment and weaved it into a business model like no other.

Savviest in Social Media: Sex with Emily

Emily Morse launched her sizzling but mainstream sex advice podcast, "Sex with Emily," in 2005. Since launch she's proved to her mostly male audience that sex sells, and proved to us that great content sells. It's the good-girl-explores-taboo-topics subject matter that has made her brand and her business soar. That's meant bringing more than 250,000 listeners monthly to her Sex With Emily podcast -- one of iTunes' most popular in its category.
She also has the usual fan page on her Facebook page and she tweets about a dozen times each week to her Twitter followers. But that's nothing new these days. To distinguish yourself and earn the No. 1 spot in our Savviest in Social Media category, you've got to provide real value and give people a reason to join in a continuing dialogue with you. Emily Morse has mastered that.

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