Home Business Entrepreneurs: Making Wood Signs, Cleaning Houses and Raising Rabbits

The Bootstrap Businesses column showcases home business entrepreneurs: This issue covers making wood signs, cleaning houses and raising rabbits.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
May/June 1978
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A home business making wood signs can bring in a decent income for a homesteader.
Photo By Fotolia/picsfive


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Home business entrepreneurs enter into new businesses, including making wood signs, cleaning houses and raising rabbits.

If you now operate, or have ever operated, a successful home business that was inspired by an article you read in MOTHER, tell us about it in around 500 words (write to THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS Hendersonville, North Carolina): Be sure to mention when and where you started your venture and with how much "seed money"; what you make (net), and anything else that might be of assistance to other entrepreneurs. If your story is used in this column, you'll receive [1] the satisfaction of knowing that you may help someone else start a business and [2] a free two-year new or renewal subscription to THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

We'd have written in sooner, MOTHER, but ever since we first read the two-part article ("Dimensional Wood Signs . . . How to Make 'Em and Sell 'Em") in Issue Nos. 36 and 37 about making $10,000 a year with a wood sign business . . . we've been too darn busy making signs to stop and write!

Back around January of last year my husband and I began thinking seriously about starting our own home business making wood signs. I'd become disillusioned with my dead-end outdoor advertising position (too much work for too little pay) . . . and I was ready to quit my job, escape from mediocrity, and drop into something more challenging.

I thought back to our college days when the two of us operated an art-and-design service. We painted murals and super-graphics, drew ads, lettered posters, even silk-screened T-shirts! It all helped supplement our tuition costs each quarter. That work was certainly appealing, and the experience was useful . . . but I didn't think it would be substantial enough financially to provide us with a solid means of income.

That's when we came across MOTHER's wood sign business article! Now this really seemed like an exciting home enterprise for us to attempt. And we already had contacts — local architects, contractors, business owners — who could help! So, after talking to some of these people (and getting a couple of large orders), we decided there was a definite trend — and market — for wood signs in our area. As a result, I quit my job and my husband remained at his architectural office on a freelance-only basis.

Our total grubstake was only large enough to carry us through a month or so of the usual personal expenses. And when we applied for a bank loan we were promptly told we couldn't qualify because we lacked a credit rating. In other words, we didn't owe anybody anything! We'd expected this, though, and weren't discouraged. The important thing was to get started.

Our first signs were made with borrowed and/or leased tools. We required a down payment (on work to be done) which would more than cover the cost of any raw materials needed for each job. As we were paid for each completed job, we then channeled nearly all of the money toward the purchase of new power tools. This equipment made the subsequent signs easier — and quicker — to construct. And the better we outfitted our shop, the larger and more complex projects we could handle . . . which, of course, meant more income. And so on.

We took photos of each completed sign and produced a small brochure of our work. The brochures (along with our business cards) were then passed out liberally in order to generate still more business. And — whenever we could afford it — we placed a professional-quality display ad for our services in the local paper.

The increasing workload which resulted from this promotion soon forced my husband to devote his skills almost full time to our new business, and we converted the garage into a full-fledged woodworking shop. Worktables were built and tools were organized . . . all designed to help us produce signs accurately and efficiently.

Our bootstrap business is over a year old now and we consider it a (growing) success. MOTHER's article said we could make $10,000 a year and, frankly, we've made a bit more than that. Although most of our money so far has gone toward the purchase of quality tools, we've still earned enough income to keep us going. And we're really looking forward to facing a new year with the tremendous advantage of experience and — finally — being completely prepared. Naturally, we expect to do well again this year.

Setting up our own business obviously required a lot of persistence. The only thing "easy" about it, in fact, was that we enjoy what we're doing. We even enjoy the inevitable hassles of business because we know we're going through them for ourselves, not for some indifferent boss or company. And even though we were already familiar with some of the information in MOTHER's story, just knowing that there was somebody else out there making a living and having a good time at it gave us just the boost we needed.

So — now that we can speak from experience — we encourage anyone who's tired of working for someone else to stop for a minute and take an inventory of his/her personal resources, talents, and potential. Unless you think about it, it may be easy to overlook a set of circumstances unique to you . . . circumstances that are just waiting to be developed into something useful. With planning, hard work, (play), and a little luck, things tend to fall in place. And then you're on your own free way . . . as far as you want to go.

Ron & Midori Werner
Knoxville, Tennessee


While looking for an inspiration for something I could do to earn some extra dollars and still keep up my chores around the house . . . THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS arrived. And there among the pages of Issue No. 47 was Andee Carlsson's beautiful — and inspiring — article about freelance housecleaning.

As I read Ms. Carlsson's story it occurred to me that this kind of housecleaning-for-profit could be fun to do with a friend. So I called a neighbor who I knew was also looking for part-time work, told her about MOTHER (I tried to anyway . . . she already knew!), and we agreed to work together.

My previous experience selling cosmetics provided help — in the form of a customers list — and we were able to offer our services to a group of women that,   I knew, mostly worked full time. Two of the ladies needed help right away . . . and within a fortnight we had six clients, were working two full days each week, and were making $18 to $20 per house! (Since most people prefer to have their homes cleaned for the weekend, we work only on Thursday and Friday . . . exactly the "dream schedule" we'd wanted!)

When a prospective client contacts us we arrange to meet at her home one evening. This way we get to know each other and also get a better idea — together — of what needs to be done to the house. We then have all the information we need to quote a fair price estimate.

Our usual fee is $20 for each of the first two cleanings. For an average three-bedroom, two-bath house, the price then remains at $20 . . . but for smaller houses — and less work — we lower the charge to $18 after the initial two jobs. Also, after the first cleaning, I always call each new customer on the phone and make sure that our work was satisfactory. In addition I ask that the homeowner leave a note whenever there is anything special that she wants done.

Our workday begins at 8:30 a.m. We live eight miles outside of the town where we do most of our jobs and take turns driving. My friend and I clean one house in the morning and another in the afternoon, and we work straight through till we finish the job. All but one of our customers are teachers . . . it's so much easier to work when no one else is in the house.

We keep all the woodwork, kitchen cabinets, etc. clean by washing them down and/or waxing them. Whatever's necessary. We also clean windows, dust, vacuum, wash floors, clean the refrigerator, freezer, oven, just about everything! One of our customers is in the process of moving and we even helped her pack.

Our housecleaning operation has worked out well for all concerned. We're happy and the ladies we work for are too. It's a good feeling . . . thanks to Andee and to MOTHER!

Irene Mangold
Grants Pass, Oregon


Well, MOTHER, as a direct result of the informative article on chimney sweeps ("Chimney Sweeps Are Cleaning Up!") in Issue No. 49, my friend Bill and I are headlong into our own private enterprise.

Although we couldn't advertise on a large scale (there's only one paper in town . . . but everybody reads it!) we did do a chimney scouring for the owner of that one local paper . . . and he had us written up in a fine article. And — since our first jobs were monumental successes — many of the housewives we worked for lined up additional work for us with their friends. Word-of-mouth advertising put us over the top!

Our initial investment was about $145, and that could've been pared down by $25 or so if we knew what was going on. The biggest single expenditure we had was a $35 dry-pickup shop vacuum cleaner from Sears. Brushes and other general cleaning gear accounted for the rest of the money we spent.

We start our jobs right at the customer's front door by unrolling old newspapers (taped together into a walkway) from the door to the hearth. Next, Bill and I clean out the ashes from the firebox and cover the opening (again, with recycled newspaper) to prevent any soot from escaping. Then it's up the ladder for a thorough cleaning job on the chimney. Since most of the flues we clean are only 10 to 14 feet high, we use a scrub brush connected to a 12-foot-long pipe.

We then scurry back down the ladder to scour and vacuum out the firebox, and (the only halfway hard part of the whole process) vacuum the shelf. Finally we roll up our paper walkway and the job is finished. Our average total time is one and a half to two hours and our patrons are more than happy to pay the $25 fee.

As an added bonus to those we serve, we give a $5 cash referral fee to any customers who supply us with new chimneys to sweep. So, though we're only really making $20 per job, it's certainly worth it to us.

Bill and I would be more than happy to offer advice on our bootstrap business to anyone wishing encouragement or general information. It took us exactly two weeks from the discovery of your article to when the first check came in. Not too bad!

Again, thanks MOTHER, for getting us started.

Joel Baldwin & Bill Lannon
Grants, New Mexico


During the spring of 1971 we bought some back issues of MOTHER at a yard sale. Along about the same time we became interested in the ideas of the back-to-the-land homesteading movement. Little did we realize at the time, however, that those magazines would guide us into a home business that would endure for nearly three years!

The versatility of the rabbit had long intrigued us, and we decided to try raising some of the critters ourselves. But we needed plans for a rabbit hutch. Lo and behold! MOTHER — as usual — had the answer. Issue No. 6 contained J.N. Peterson's dandy "Pequoda's Rabbit Hutch". We modified J.N.'s ideas a bit, changed the diagrams to suit the lumber we'd scrounged, and built four nice hutches. (One for the doe, one for the buck, and two for that enormous number of rabbits we just knew were on the way!)

Well, seven months came and went and our "pair" still hadn't reproduced. Turns out we had two does! So we located a rabbit raiser some 10 miles from us who then sold us a "guaranteed, genuine male" for our two ladies.

Thirty-eight days later we had 16 adorable baby rabbits on our hands. And, although a chilling rain struck the rabbitry while we were gone (over the Thanksgiving holidays), we didn't lose a single bunny. Come Easter we sold every animal . . . and had orders for more!

Repeatedly we were asked "Why is your rabbit so much sweeter and tastier?" The little lettuce munchers were fed as organically as possible, and we tend to believe that's why they tasted so good. Apparently our customers agreed, because they returned again and again.

Bad luck (in the form of some neighbor's dogs) finally put us out of the bunny business some three years later. That was the only sad episode, though, in our entire rabbit-raising career and, thanks to MOTHER's initial help, we had a better, more interesting way of life. A way of life, in fact, that we intend to go back to this summer (we've still held onto Pequoda's plans!).

Rosemarie Randolph
Paris, Tennessee


When Foxfire (my golden retriever) and I read "It Pays to be an Old Sew-and-Sew" by Edith Kilgo in MOTHER No. 48, we had to agree that it sounded good. I already owned all the equipment needed for a home-sewing operation, so — by simply placing an ad in the local paper — I was sure I could be in business. That'd be especially nice for that time in the far-off future when we (Foxfire and I) might need some extra money.

For the time being, though, I tore myself away from MOTHER and went back to being a conscientious college student. Apparently Foxfire read the article again . . . a couple hours later a wet nose poked my ribs to remind me about dinner. And when I plunged the dog dish into the food bag all I got was a clunk as the pan hit bottom. Empty again! As Foxfire and I dined together that evening on bean sprouts and oatmeal for two, I decided that maybe the "future" wasn't as far off as I'd reckoned.

The following day I placed a $2.00 ad in the local paper announcing "Sewing done for the holidays". The calls started coming in the very next morning. Alterations, choir outfits, blankets, dresses . . . you name it!

Being a bit over-enthusiastic by nature I accepted two choir outfit jobs with an over-the-weekend-Monday-morning deadline. For help I resorted to one of our most precious commodities . . . good ole mom. (Folks, don't ever throw 'em out. Even after you've declared your independence, your mother's value doesn't depreciate.) Mom helped me finish the choir outfits and I was able to sew a blouse and do three additional alterations as well.

I'm afraid I didn't start out as a very hardnosed businesswoman . . . at least not by Edith Kilgo's standards. For those three days, we (my mother and I) cleared $70. By Edith's price list recommendations we should've made at least $125. The problem was basically that of the beginner's who-would-want-to-pay-for-something-made syndrome. After seeing happy, satisfied customers, though, I am definitely improving.

Within a month I've made enough money to "stock the larder" for my next quarter's scholastic haul and I've also kept as many customers as I can possibly handle and still go to school. I'm trying not to get too excited about it all . . . but this could-thanks to MOTHER-mean a new pair of Levi's!

Lisa Laursen
Murray,Utah


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