Self-employment is a dream shared by many people, but finding the right work-at-home job can be daunting. We asked our readers to tell us their successful home-based business ideas. Despite their different ways of making money, these home-business veterans offer similar advice: Be creative, be patient, listen to your customers, learn from your failures, and have a backup plan for dealing with the inevitable setbacks.
Their stories provide inspiration for other start-ups. Many of our readers’ home-based business ideas grew out of a hobby, and these entrepreneurs urge you to choose something you have a passion for. They’re convinced that a work-from-home business will be rewarding if it provides a way to do what makes you happy.
I always describe my home business as a hobby that grew out of control. When I bought my current home, there was a handmade greenhouse that had become a giant litter box. I cleaned it up and started a huge garden. Friends began buying my pepper and tomato plants, and they encouraged me to sell the extras at the farmers market. So, I did.
People are always passing through Bloomington because it’s a college town. Out-of-towners asked how they could buy my exotic chile and tomato plants from their homes, and my mail-order business was born. I’ve operated it for more than 20 years, shipping pepper, tomato and tomatillo bedding plants across the country. My business, now at The Chile Woman, grew beyond my dreams and has become my full-time occupation. There is nothing more satisfying than the one-minute commute to my greenhouses.
Internet Food Sales
A family friend gave me some chickens after I bought a 4-acre farm in 2009, and it was off to the races from there.
I have a background in business and look at everything from a profit perspective. When I got my chickens, I turned to the Internet to research, which put me in touch with local farmers who were already doing what I wanted to do. I began selling chickens, eggs and heritage-breed hogs through a dedicated website, via Craigslist and on Facebook. I also maintained a newsletter and blog. My online presence was like having a 24/7 salesperson. I raised products specifically for my customers. When I needed more customers, I sold eggs below market cost as an introduction to my products. My market was suburbanites who wanted to experience the finer things in life. And which is finer: meat bought in a grocery store, or meat raised on pasture, just for them?
Things were looking grim when my job was eliminated in 2004. Putting our heads together, my business partner and I planned a getaway destination in an under-served tourist area: the Mountain Loop area in western Washington state. Our goal was to open a guest ranch that offered yurt camping for hikers. We like to say we were heading for the hills but taking the public with us!
We bought 17 acres, built a log home, yurt and barn, and established pastures for alpacas. Paca Pride Guest Ranch opened in 2010. We’re online at Paca Pride Guest Ranch, and offer yurt bookings and retail sales of alpaca yarn, hats, scarves, socks and more.
Granite Falls, Washington
After coming through a long and difficult divorce, I returned to live alone in the passive solar home on my 8-acre organic farm. My place was 2 miles from an amusement park that attracted many overnighters, so I converted the house into a bed-and-breakfast that accepted small children. The kids would gather eggs from my chicken house, pick blueberries from my patch and fish in my pond. I advertised all-you-can-eat breakfasts and guests getting to “sleep on sun-dried sheets.” I gradually worked out of extreme poverty. I sold the farm at age 76 and later married a lady who had once said, “I could never sleep with total strangers in my house!”
I took up weaving because I wanted to have a retirement hobby. I started by gathering yarn and introducing myself to a wonderful local woman who owns beautiful alpacas. I helped her with shearing, and she taught me all about processing fiber.
I became such a passionate weaver, spinner and crocheter that my friends started ordering my shawls and hats. I booked myself to appear at local fairs and craft shows, calling my business Woven Wool Wear. Now I give lessons on basic weaving, spinning, crocheting and knitting, and I sell fiber and yarn on Craigslist. It’s been a wonderful journey, and there’s always something new to learn.
Courtenay, British Columbia
In my small work-from-home business, B. Iles Harness, I make and sell equipment for working goats — harnesses, pack saddles and other tack. I got started 15 years ago when I needed a proper harness for the 17 working goats I use to do jobs around the farm. When I couldn’t find a goat harness on the market with proper breeching, or one that was adjustable for various goat bodies, it led me to make my own. I use the equipment almost daily, so I know what works.
The best advice I can give to people hoping to start a home business is to find a niche and do what you know. If you have a passion for what you do, it won’t be such a daunting task. I love working goats!
In the hopes of living more self-sufficiently, we ended up on 2.5 acres with a chicken coop, root cellar, large garden and an orchard. We acquired 18 chickens from a friend two weeks after we moved, and a week after that, we got three bred Boer goats. While researching home-based business ideas, we learned that our state didn’t regulate from-the-farm sales of honey, fruit, veggies, eggs, broilers (less than 500) and livestock. An accountant told us that most people are so scared of the paperwork and regulations that those stop them from starting a work-from-home business. The Rural Enterprise Assistance Project hooked us up with someone who taught us to use Quickbooks, an accounting software. We also connected with SCORE, an association offering free advice from local mentors. All told, we did about six months of research before we began selling goat’s-milk soap at Udderly Naked.
Ken and Wendy McKenzie
For years, my wife told me I should start a business because I know how to fix things. About five years ago, I started Honey-Do-List. What I like best about my work-from-home business is that I can make my own schedule.
Always find out which permits, licenses, certifications and insurance certificates are required in your area. When you’re having a good month, remember to plan ahead for the bad months. Don’t go overboard on buying tools — rent an expensive tool that you’ll use only once a month or less.
Don’t spend all your profits on advertising. Visit local real estate offices to leave a business card, and post your cards on bulletin boards at local diners and coffee shops. Place an ad in your local free press. Give discounts to senior citizens or offer a free half-hour of work in return for referrals.
Brasher Falls, New York
So many people are looking for organic, local food these days. There’s more demand than I can meet with the small community-supported agriculture (CSA) program I manage from our urban backyard, Ivywild Farm Home. I also consult, teach classes, run a blog and operate an urban farming organization.
I’ve had my share of disasters. In 2012, I endured blistering heat, hail, the Waldo Canyon fire and a plague of flea beetles — all in one month. Lesson learned: Always have a Plan B in case you’re skunked by Mother Nature.
The consulting has been challenging, because every future backyard farm is so different. My classes cover all aspects of urban agriculture — backyard chickens, meat rabbits, honeybees, water management, and miniature orchards and vineyards. I’ve zeroed in on urban farming along the Front Range of Colorado, where the weather is brutal and every tomato is a small victory.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
I started as a backyard beekeeper, eventually increasing my number of hives to 200. Now, I rent my top-bar hives to farmers for pollinating their fields at 200 Top-Bar Hives: The Low-Cost Sustainable Way. I can build a top-bar hive from recycled wood for as little as $5. My overhead is low — mostly just gasoline for a pickup truck and sugar for feeding the colonies during winter.
To start a home business involving beekeeping, you’ll need to know how to move hives and keep colonies healthy. Build a good reputation by renting out only strong colonies and getting them to the fields on time. Don’t overcommit.
Dr. Wyatt Mangum
Bowling Green, Virginia
My desire to start a home business, combined with my boyhood love for woodcraft, helped me decide to make and sell small wooden toys. I started with simple, animal-shaped pull toys, and I contacted tourist-based gift stores about selling them. I learned some bitter lessons when store managers mocked what I had to offer, but some of them suggested improvements and gave me ideas for items that would appeal to people looking for unique, educational toys. By learning to accept criticism, I have built up a successful work-from-home business with about 20 items. My biggest buyer is Lehman’s, which ships our handmade toys to 152 countries.
Fultonville, New York
Goat Cheese and Milk
We bought our first goat to have fresh milk for our table in about 1979. After retirement, we decided to expand our herd and try cheesemaking. Today, we can’t keep up with the demand for our goat cheese, milk and yogurt. We sell to restaurants, supermarkets, specialty food stores and farmers markets, and we also do direct-to-consumer and Internet sales (Goddard Farm).
Making goat cheese is profitable and exciting, and we encourage anyone who has the desire to get into the business to give it a try. You don’t have to milk hundreds of does to make the business profitable. Two dozen healthy, well-managed, productive does will pay their way.
Sue and Noah Goddard