Startup Businesses: Organic Plant Nursery, Chinese Cooking Classes, and More

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LEFT: A dollhouse  built by Sue and Bob Brooks. RIGHT: An Al Cornett art print.

The following are startup businesses that readers came up with after reading articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

Making Dollhouses

Not long ago I began looking for a way to replace the salary I’d relinquished by giving up the nine-to-five grind… so my husband suggested that we take a look at some of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ back issues.

There were a number of articles on woodworking, but Bob and I were particularly taken with several toymaking projects: “The Art of Making Wooden Toys,” “Old-Timey Toys From Christmas Past,” and “Old-Timey Wooden Playthings.”  In fact, my husband and I were so inspired with the idea of producing handmade toys that we promptly withdrew to our workshop and came up with a design for the construction of a dollhouse.

Bob already owned a table saw and a jigsaw, so the only tools we needed to buy were several paintbrushes and a utility knife. Next, we scrounged or–in a few cases–purchased an assortment of building and finishing materials (scrap lumber, nails, glass, fabric, paint, and accessories) … for a total investment of $15. Then Bob set to work creating the five-room structure (complete with movable windows, miniature wooden furniture, and a stone hearth made from pebbles)… and when he’d finished, I started working on the shingling and interior decorating. I painted, papered, arranged furniture, and added all the necessary trimmings (such as bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances, accessories to complement the fireplace, wall hangings, floor coverings, and potted plants).

When our labor of love was completed, my husband and I could no longer put off the task of pricing our masterpiece. So we embarked on a survey of the quality and cost of commercially made dollhouses, and discovered that there were structures selling for $70 to $90 each… models that were not nearly so durable as ours, required the addition of a number of accessories, and–for the most part–came in kit form (to be put together by the purchaser). Nevertheless, Bob and I decided to set our fee below the going rate–with the cost depending upon the size and degree of detail desired by each individual customer–and our most recent dollhouses have sold for $50 to $70 apiece.

My family and I have finally managed to establish a home-based enterprise that’s been successful, rewarding, and–in short–exactly what we’ve been looking for… and we owe MOTHER EARTH NEWS our thanks for the inspiration.

Sue Brooks

Lake Odessa, MI

Organic Plant Nursery

Like many MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type folks, my husband and I dreamed of breaking away from the tedium of the workaday world, but we didn’t know how or where to begin. I’d taken a temporary leave from my job to give birth to our daughter Jessica–and had decided to make my voluntary unemployment permanent–but our family finances were beginning to get tight. Although Irvine and I had pared down our expenses as far as we could in order to make ends meet with only one salary, it soon became apparent that we were in need of another source of income.

At the time, we’d both been MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers for quite a few years, and had seen numerous reports from folks who’d solved their money problems by starting small home-based businesses. In fact, one of Irvine’s co-workers had just begun a little side business selling houseplants at swap meets… and word of that fellow’s undertaking called to mind an article entitled “The Organic Home Nursery” that we’d read in one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ back issues.

As a consequence, Irvine and I searched out the issue and gave the story another perusal … and when my husband’s next payday rolled around, he cashed his check and purchased a truckload of beautiful green plants. Then–after spending $14 on local licenses and $10 on a tankful of gasoline–we carted our $60 worth of wholesale stock off to a nearby farmers’ market and set up shop. That first day’s earnings paid back our original investment and cleared a small profit to boot: The “Proteus Nursery” was in the making!

It’s been only five months since Irvine and I became seedling salespeople, but we’ve made quite a bit of headway in that short period of time. As a result, we’ve been able to sell our house and purchase 3.5 country acres. Our plant-marketing enterprise is still a small-scale operation, but the business’s success has been our family’s key to independence.

Chris Knapp

New Smyrna Beach, FL.

Chinese Cooking Course

Back in 1975 I decided to offers a Chinese cooking class in my home. I’d completed a course in the culinary art myself, and I’d read MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ “How to Teach Almost Anything at Home,” so I felt fairly confident that I could instruct others.

Since I had a large collection of recipes from which to choose, I gathered together the ones that had proved to be most successful. Then I invested a few dollars in two newspaper ads, and–before long–an impressive number of students had signed up for the class.

I charged $18 for four three-hour sessions (held once a week for a month)… and I supplied my proteges with copies of the recipes they were to learn, as well as with the opportunity to sample a delicious meal at the end of each lesson. My initial investment included $12 for cookbooks, $5.00 for paper and stencils, $17 for an extra wok (I already owned an assortment of cooking utensiIs and serving dishes), and about $80 for groceries (though I’ve recently cut down on that expense by using less costly and more healthful homegrown ingredients, such as fresh beef and pork).

After I’d acquired some teaching experience, I raised my fee to $20 per person… and established a class minimum of ten students. And–for the past few winters–I’ve been giving instruction at various community colleges throughout Saskatchewan, for which I’m paid $10 an hour, plus food and lodging for the duration of the course. (During 1977 I taught in 22 schools… and netted $3,080 from the college circuit alone.)

At the moment I’m gathering material for an advanced course in Chinese cuisine… and I’m considering a class in Italian cooking as well. I’ll always have plenty of room to expand my enterprise… after all, there’s a whole world of culinary diversity out there!

Liz Hartsook

Eston, Sask., Canada

Art Print Reproductions

About five years ago–while working for the IBM Corporation–I joined a fellowship called The Kentucky Heritage Artists… a group which was to represent the Bluegrass State at a centennial art show in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, one of the paintings I displayed at the presentation proved to be a fairly popular piece, and my colleagues encouraged me to have it reproduced.

I’d been selling original art for a number of years, but I wasn’t earning enough money from my creations to support myself… so I decided that peddling reproductions was worth at least a try. My initial investment totaled $2,700 for 1,500 prints. Cardboard (for packaging) and shipping costs brought my expenses up to about $3,000 … but, fortunately, my stockpile of artwork sold well and I was able to recoup that expenditure within only two months.

I wasn’t quite satisfied, however. I wanted complete independence, but I was still–for the most part–living the big-city life… working full time at IBM and part time on my bootstrap enterprise. Then one day I read a Dear Mother letter by an artist named Richard von Hoorn, who recounted the story of his successful mailbox-print endeavor in a rural Connecticut town… and I became inspired to take my business back to the land.

I moved onto a 30-acre farmstead and set up my home-based operation. The market was extremely competitive, and I had my share of failures before learning “the tricks of the trade.” But, after a while, I landed on my feet and gathered my hard-earned knowledge into a booklet entitled Survival Guidelines for Limited Edition Reproductions. This past year I reproduced two of my paintings … printed in editions of 1,250 each. Eight hundred from each collection were numbered… and then priced (wholesale) at $12.50 apiece. The remaining two groups of 450 were signed but not numbered, and tagged at $10 a print.

Time will tell, of course, just how much of that particular inventory will sell… but to date my artistic activity has kept me busier than I’d sometimes care to be. In fact, I’ve been so preoccupied with my new career that the bugs have overtaken my garden, and a longed-for pond and waterwheel may never get out of the planning stage. Nevertheless, I somehow manage to postpone a full day’s work each and every time THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS hits my mailbox!

Al Cornett

APD Box 34

Slade, KY. 40376