Dale Sequera worked for a Wyoming construction company as a cabinetmaker, but his real love was designing and building log furniture.
He’d thought about starting his own business, but couldn’t figure out how to sell enough products in his hometown of Kemmerer, Wyo. (population 3,000) to make a go of it. Then, he hit on an idea. Why not use the Web to reach customers beyond Kemmerer?
He launched his company, Sequera BILT, where he designs and builds log rocking chairs, beds and tables from his home. He quickly launched his Web site, and a year later he’s shipping products to customers across the country and even overseas. He credits the Web with the bulk of his sales. “Somewhere between 60% to 70% of my business comes off my Web site,” he says.
Sequera’s story is not unique. Many entrepreneurs are finding the Web gives a powerful boost to their work at home business. It can definitely boost your business too, no matter if you have a home based or a different kind of business — a Web site can attract customers from any location. Here are three other home businesses that have found the Web useful in attracting customers.
A virtual assist from the Web
The Web has been similarly pivotal in allowing Andrea Pixley to build and boost a new business working from home as a virtual assistant. With three children, and a husband whose job involved frequent relocations, she needed a part-time business she could run from the house and pick up and move with her.
In February of last year, she started her company, Andrea Pixley Virtual Assistant. She handles a wide range of research and administrative tasks for her clients, from preparing presentations and gathering information to creating Web sites and doing word processing and editing.
Her family already has moved once since the company’s inception, and they are planning another move soon. Her clients, most of whom are not local, will easily “move” with her. Since she communicates with them primarily via e-mail, the move doesn’t affect them much, if at all. Pixley notes, “This is such a great profession for me since we do move around a lot.”
The Web is also her No. 1 source for clients. “I find 90% of my clients over the Internet,” she says. Most of her clients find her through search engines, and she’s focused significant effort to ensure she has good placement. When you search for virtual assistants on Yahoo!, for example, she is the first one listed. She has also found clients through several online association sites for virtual assistants. Without her website and the Internet, she was not able to create and boost such a business.
Real quilts in a virtual storefront
Craftswoman Carlene Raper took her business to the Web when health concerns made it difficult to continue traveling the art show circuit. She opened her Colorquilts Web site to showcase and sell her handcrafted quilts, pillows and wall hangings.
Since she creates a relatively small number of pieces each year, the Web offered the best way to have a perpetually up-to-date catalog of her work. She both accepts commissions for new works and sells completed quilts on the site.
Raper strikes me as a savvy online marketer. It was second nature for her to move her marketing skills from the art fair world into the online world. In addition to her high-end art quilts, which can run $800 to $1,500, she offers lower-priced items such as pillows and greeting cards, so she can appeal to customers who love her work but aren’t quite ready to commit to an $800 quilt. Another tactic is a monthly contest (prize: a set of her quilt greeting cards) to capture e-mail addresses of interested customers — she can then send out e-mail notices when new pieces are available or she is holding a sale.
She also shares photos and stories about how she creates her art in a section of her Web site called “Studio Tour.” I’ve suggested before that smaller companies on the Web can benefit from including photos and brief descriptions of the owner and team so potential buyers can know they are dealing with real people in cyberspace. Raper takes it a step further, giving potential customers a look at how she creates her quilts. “It sure does give me a real kick to think that someone in New Zealand can look over my shoulder while something is in progress,” she says.
It has not, however, been a piece of cake moving her business to the Internet. It’s been a slow build, and she says that for today, “I doubt the Web would support this as a fulltime living.” But it does provides sufficient business for the part -time hours she currently wants to work, and she thinks it might grow enough over three or four years to support a fulltime venture, should she want one at that point.
Slated for success
Skip and Kathy Price fell into their business, Slatecraft, almost by accident. They make switchplates and outlet covers from weathered, aged slate. The idea came to Kathy while they were tearing down some old, slate-roofed buildings four years ago. It took Skip months to figure out how to boost his business and cut the slate just right, but when he finished, the slate switchplates were such a hit with friends and colleagues that the Prices decided to try selling them.
They quickly were featured in Log Home Illustrated magazine, which got the business off to a strong start. About nine months later, they launched their Web site, which now drives about 60% to 70% of their business. Skip thinks the Web works well for them because their customers tend to be computer-savvy, high-income people, building relatively expensive homes. “I’ve gotten a call from Canada for $1,700 worth of switchplates,” Skip noted. That was for one home. The Prices sell single switchplates for as little as $14.95, so needless to say, this was not a small home.
Kathy has taken over the business, which she currently manages in addition to home-schooling their three school-aged daughters. Skip says it works well because “it’s almost a full-time paycheck,” even though she works at it only part time. They started making the switchplates in their basement, and are just finishing a new work studio.
Like many other business owners, the Prices find that search engines are by far their best source for online customers. “Seventy-five percent of them are going straight to (our Web site) with a search engine,” says Skip. Skip spent a great deal of time listing their site with search engines and refining which keywords people used to look for products like theirs. “Switchplates” is a clear winner, but Skip tried many others before learning which ones drove most of the traffic.
Slatecraft doesn’t take credit cards, or online orders. Customers usually call to place orders, and the arrangement seems to work well for everyone involved. People often want to talk about colors or special orders. The Prices make each piece to order. Skip believes that without the Web, people would still have found his business, but he thinks the Web makes for easier and more direct access.
Flexibility, income, passion
People start home businesses for all sorts of reasons — a need for flexibility, a desire to do something they are passionate about, or just an interest in making a bit of extra money. Regardless of their reasons for starting a home business, these companies found the Web to be a useful tool to boost their business. It didn’t skyrocket them to overnight success, but it’s helped them reach customers beyond their local region and given them a forum to share their work with literally millions of potential buyers.