By Vicki Hillhouse
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The U.S. Census Bureau shows that at least 52 percent of businesses operate primarily from someone’s home. For many, it’s a great way to get started and build the business without the overhead of a storefront, a commute or an inflexible schedule. Of course there are plenty of downsides too…like managing a balance between work and life
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.
Jeff Watson came to his home-based business through another galaxy.
Like a lot of fans, he started collecting “Star Wars” cards as a kid when the movie franchise launched. Unlike most, he never stopped. Not for too long, anyway. He amassed enough that when demand came more than a decade later for the souvenirs of his youth, he had duplicates he could offer for sale. He started selling so many he set up an account with a distributor.
When the 1985 Walla Walla High School grad went to work as a computer programmer at a major insurance company after college, he carried on a side venture from his cubicle, selling trading cards, comics and collectibles to his co-workers.
Pushing three decades later, his business, Digital Heroes, has grown into the largest dealer of entertainment cards in the Northwest and one of the top 10 for nonsports cards in the country.
And – as with more than half of the businesses in the U.S. — it all started at home.
Ideas come to life behind the doors of residences all over the community, from traditional services, such as event planning, accounting and consulting, to creative companies that offer tours, performing arts training and personal chef services.
Exactly how many home-based businesses operate in Walla Walla is almost impossible to know. Permits are issued all the time to those launching professions from their pads. Whether they get off the ground and stay off the ground is a little trickier to track.
Nevertheless, business organizations point to U.S. Census Bureau data showing that at least 52 percent of businesses operate primarily from someone’s home.
For many, it’s a great way to get started and build the business without the overhead of a storefront, a commute or an inflexible schedule.
Getting it done
Holly Nelson initially started her plantable paper business, Recycled Ideas, through creative e-commerce site Etsy. There she found an audience for her handmade paper creations, an idea that first indulged her artistic side while juggling her day job in an office.
At her Sharpstein-area home business, Nelson adds seeds as she crafts her handmade paper, which she then cuts into an array of shapes sold and used as gifts at weddings, baby showers, memorials and corporate events to celebrate milestones.
Last month, Business Insider chose her herb seed planter kits as its No. 1 Mother’s Day gift under $50. Recycled Ideas has been featured in Brides magazine, and the products have been used by Comedy Central, Nature’s Path cereals, spas, wineries and charitable organizations such as the American Cancer Society.
The visibility she’s gained further bolsters exposure to national and international clients. The business has grown in revenue 10-20 percent each year since 2012, when revenue tripled after the release of new product lines the previous year, Nelson said.
She now has her own dedicated site, and as an established shop with strong sales still gets a lot of visibility through Etsy.
More importantly, the growth allowed her to be self-sustaining and move on from a traditional workspace.
Around the time she started, Nelson was a new mother to a little one. Being able to work from home meant she could be with her daughter at the same time.
The freedom from an office saves the time of a commute, getting ready for work, planning for lunch and more.
“I don’t need to waste time attending meetings and don’t have distractions from co-workers,” she said. “If a problem crops up, I can solve it wherever I am, whatever time of day (or night) without having to go somewhere else.”
In her home, she has the benefits of some of the most celebrated workplaces: “A fully stocked fridge with treats that you can go eat anytime, a pet-friendly workplace — I love being able to have my dog around while I work — a game room etc.,” she explained. “I love being able to listen to whatever music I want, at whatever volume. When my now school-age daughter is home for the summer, we can do projects together and work side-by-side. It’s pretty ideal.”
On the flip side of the ideal moments: when the grocery shopping hasn’t been done and the fridge isn’t stocked or the dog barks in the middle of a conference call. The blur in the work/life balance by combining both in one space is one of biggest considerations for those contemplating a home business, said Walla Walla Small Business Development Center adviser Joe Jacobs.
“Running a business out of your home is probably one of the best models there is if you can manage the work/life balance,” Jacobs said.
“There can be just this onslaught avalanche of paperwork that invades your space, and there also is this tendency to work too much. People think romantically about putting on their slippers and going to work, but the opposite is that it can have negative effects on work/life balance.”
That doesn’t mean it can’t be ideal, he clarified. It means operators should prepare to be organized and clear on their expectations.
Whether home or in a traditional out-of-the-home workspace, the questions to ask when starting a business are the same: Why am I doing this? Who is my customer? How much money will I need? Do I need a loan? How will I market my products or services? What taxes do I need to pay? Will I need employees?
The latter is a big one when it comes to potential growth, as Nelson can attest.
With revenue for her business comfortably in the six figures, she thinks about what it would take to elevate her business to the $1 million-a-year level. Expansion to that degree changes the dynamic.
“One drawback to a home-based business is expansion, both in terms of space and the amount of help needed to do the job,” she said. “City code permits me to have only one employee at a time, so if the business grows to the point I need more help, something’s got to give.”
If Lane Avery could go back in time before the launch of Catherine Street Spanish-language school Abundable, there might have been a bit more exploration first on the benefits of social media. Pleased so far with the reach of Facebook and the video posts that incorporate mini-Spanish lessons, Avery plans to use other social media sites to reach potential clients.
Learning on the job has been par for the course since opening earlier this year.
But if there’s one thing Avery’s adjusted to, it’s seizing opportunities as they come.
That’s how it is that the Spanish lessons for students look so different from group to group. Abundable’s varied audience has included 20-somethings learning vacation Spanish, high school students navigating their course curriculum and elementary students brushing up on Spanish over summer break. Avery even designed and taught a custom curriculum — “Spanish for Beauticians” — and taught it at Impress Salon.
The custom nature of Abundable — a word also custom-made to express the natural overflow of goodness in life — made it perfect for working from home.
“My business runs primarily on ink and paper, so all I need is a quiet corner in my home to turn out stellar custom lessons,” said Avery, a Walla Walla University graduate who studied Spanish and speech communication.
Coming full circle
For card, graphic novel and collectible retailer Watson, home is now home and business is in a brick-and-mortar building.
His now 25-year-old business, which started him as a vendor and seller, has grown out of house and home in a vision Watson couldn’t have imagined.
After returning to Walla Walla in the early 1990s, he opened Digital Heroes in a Boyer Avenue strip mall. That was back when the Internet was so new it mostly contained bulletin board-type postings. For a computer science expert, it was perfect.
Watson found a marketplace there for loyal collectors. The storefront, he felt, sometimes distracted from where the bulk of sales were taking place.
So around 1997 he closed the physical shop and moved the business to his home. It stayed there, continuing to build clients and business for more than a decade until Watson hit another snag.
“Honestly, our basement is full,” he said. “I was maxed out on what I could do from my house on my own.”
He needed space and he needed help — two things he couldn’t get where he was.
Now located at 1617 E. Alder St. in the space he remembers from his youth as the home of Hot Poop, his square footage is packed with graphic novels, sports and nonsport collector cards, action figures and other collectibles.
His hours are filled with sorting, scanning and data entry. He continues to ship anywhere from five to 25 packages a day.
“Any day the post office is running, I’m shipping,” he said.
But now he’s got Anthony Elia, who knows more about the contents of comics than Watson does, and Marcus Kisling, who knows more about “Magic: The Gathering” for games.
For Watson and his years in business, what that ultimately means: a long-overdue vacation. Far, far away.