Courtesy John Howard/Photodisc/Thinkstock
Before quitting your day job for a work-from-home career, consider your skills, research legitimate job prospects and start saving money.
Well, you’ve moved to the country and now, not surprisingly, you want to spend more time there, but your day job is far away from the fresh air and natural sounds of the farm. The ads in the newspapers and online look tempting, all those "work at home” invitations. The question: Can you really make six figures sitting in front of the television—or computer—all day?
The answer is no, but careers are becoming increasingly open to rural dwellers. Corporate cultures have changed, so options such as telecommuting and flextime are now available. And running a small business is still one of the most popular choices for those who want or need to stay close to home. The key is to finding a career that fits your needs and to do it without a loss of money and pride.
Make the Right Choices
Most of us, when we think of farm-based businesses, generally picture colorful fruit and vegetable stands, fresh meat products or beautiful textiles made from animal fibers. Fortunately, for those who don't have these opportunities (at least not yet), there are ways to build on your unique circumstances.
The first, and perhaps most realistic, option for home employment is to bring your career with you. If you can work out flextime or telecommuting arrangements with a current employer, you’ve already reached your goal.
The skills and education you possess, along with contacts and relationships from your former jobs, can also be great launching pads for contract work. Accountants, lawyers, writers, graphic designers, web developers and programmers might be able to solicit short-term work assignments that can be managed from a farm office. Even beyond past employers, you might have professional skills that are in demand by corporations, small businesses and nonprofits looking for someone to supply them with temporary or short-term assistance.
Before you quit your day job, consider what skills you have that are mobile and think creatively about who would be willing to hire you. The possibilities are broad: tutoring businesses are always looking for teachers, home health care agencies are frequently in need of medical personnel, and most companies require the services of administrative and technical staff.
The most important consideration if you are interested in moving from full-time work to a part-time or contract position, is to maintain strong relationships with co-workers and others in your industry. As you transition, don’t burn bridges, make sure your work quality stays top-notch, and join others for lunch or after-hours social gatherings. Also, don’t be shy about asking for recommendations. If you’ve done good work for them and another job won’t steal you away, your professional colleagues should be happy to pass your name along.
Beware of Job Scams
One of the most tempting options, when you want to work from your farm, is to answer an Internet or newspaper ad for a "work from home” job. They promise to pay thousands for never leaving your house. Unfortunately, those few words don’t tell much about the businesses behind the ads and whether they are reputable. Most websites do not provide reliable sources of income, and to avoid becoming a scam victim it’s imperative to do some investigating before communicating with them.
To educate yourself, one of the first things you can do is talk with sources in your own community. Visit business owners and managers you know and inquire whether they hire work-at-home employees. If they do, ask how they get their workers, and what their requirements might be. This is especially important in career areas like legal and medical transcription, where confidentiality is expected. Many websites claim to provide medical transcription jobs, for example, but clinic administrators and doctors are much better sources of information if you are looking for that type of work.
Also, when you search the Internet for work-at-home options, take time to read articles that warn about specific scams. Check with the Federal Trade Commission or Better Business Bureau to locate offenders and steer clear of them.
During all phases of your research into work-from-home pitches, use the "common sense” test. Ask yourself a couple of questions: Is the business honestly looking for employees, or is it really just trying to sell a product you probably won’t use? Are they likely to take your money before you can realize a scam? Also, if a company is promising to send you materials to make products for them, think about whether you would send expensive supplies to a stranger. Real businesses protect their own costs and always have some type of employee-screening process in place.
Learn from Other Self-starters
Of course, you could follow the lead of others, like Sherry Schmidt, who used their former careers or particular passions to start a home-based business. Schmidt became intrigued with the idea after her mother brought turquoise jewelry home from a bead show.
"I’m kind of an independent person and decided I wanted to own my own business,” she says.
Right away, she started creating jewelry influenced by her years in rodeo, and began selling the western-style necklaces under the name Whoa, Cowgirl! in March 2005 from her ranch near Flasher, N.D.
Schmidt says she appreciates "the freedom of time” that working from home provides, as well as the opportunity to be near her daughter, husband and their extended families. At first, she promoted her jewelry, made of semi-precious stones such as turquoise and coral, at local craft shows and retail fairs but quickly discovered that North Dakota alone could not provide a large enough customer base to sustain her business.
"The girls in rodeo were buying and the rest weren’t,” she says.
Those observations prompted her to move more strongly into wholesale marketing, and she now sells in stores catering to "the western experience,” no matter where they are located. Her business also became more efficient. Although she now has product in more than 15 states, she benefit from technology that puts her in touch with potential buyers no matter where she is geographically.
Her primary advice for women considering a business in product sales is to spend time investigating sources of materials and their costs. "Find the best places to buy supplies and at the best price,” she says. Her biggest problem was getting reliable information about retail and wholesale pricing structures, but once she did, everything fell into place.
Schmidt also warns women against pricing their items too low and not paying themselves for the time they spend on production.
"If you have a wonderful product that’s well-made and in-style, people are going to pay,” she says. She acknowledges that she is still educating herself about the business and her markets. "I still have a lot to learn, but so far I have some great people to talk to when I have to.”
Seek Out Existing Corporations
If you are interested in a home-based business, but want the security of an established corporation, you might consider another one of the most popular choices for women: becoming a home-based sales representative. Cindy Reel runs her business as a homestyle specialist for home décor maker At Home America from the her acreage just outside Conrad, Iowa.
Reel didn’t grow up on the farm, but recognizes how a country location helps her concentrate on her work without neighborhood interruptions or unnecessary travel. "You’ve got privacy,” she explains. "I can work at my computer in my pajamas and no one will bother me.”
As a young mother in 1993, Reel signed up with At Home America to get out and see other adults, admitting, "I was all about the social and the flexibility.” In retrospect she wishes she would have realized the paycheck potential for her household much earlier. "It could have been immediate,” she says. "I wasted a lot of time not taking it seriously and I missed out.”
She strongly advises women considering home-based sales to go into it without bias. Reel built up to having 150 to 200 homestyle specialists under her in the organization and is impressed with the success of women who join the company with high expectations. "The girls who go into this as a career are really flying.”
Becoming a home-based sales representative is probably the easiest at-home business to establish, but it requires taking an honest look at your own personality and skills. Reel agrees that selling product only becomes a strong income source when combined with a pleasant demeanor, a professional orientation to administrative work, and lots of energy with a desire to succeed. It also helps to like what you represent. Also, women who have difficulty keeping track of important paperwork, or introverts uncomfortable with lots of face-to-face contact probably should choose an alternative career.
There is good news, though, for women who are not social butterflies but might be still interested in sales. According to Sue Rockman, listing products on auction sites can be quite profitable for women who know a particular product niche well. Rockman has been sells collectibles online from her home in Illinois, and she says there are three important things to do before selling turning to an Internet business. The first is to learn the value of the items you want to sell by spending lots of time consulting reference books, so you're aware of their values before you go hunting.
"Make sure you know the product you’re selling or you can lose a lot of money,” she warns.
Rockman's second recommendation kicks in during shopping. When searching out potential treasures, she reminds buyers to go beyond guesswork, instead looking for distinguishing marks and making sure the product or manufacturer name is clearly visible. Her final piece of advice is to browse the Internet frequently, visiting various auction sites before you list to see how much competition is out there. "Research and find out what people are buying,” she says.
Rockman has been successful in her own small enterprise, but she's also learned from others how fruitful educating yourself can be. One of her close friends once bought a pair of old jeans at a local store, and, knowing how rare they were, sold them on an auction site for $3,000. This same friend also bought an antique bowl for seven dollars online and sold it for $17,000!
Selling via the Internet has become big business for folks across the country and can be done from any location, but one final possibility for rural dwellers with a taste for risk (and deep pockets) is to buy an existing business and relocate it to the farm. Again, because of the Internet, many companies do all their transactions online and have customers around the world. If you have the financial ability and interest, it may be worth pursuing. The possibilities range from selling children’s books to establishing a home office-based foreign language franchise to buying an entire retail store inventory and selling it online from your extra outbuilding.
In It For the Money
One of the most challenging aspects of working from home can be the change in cash flow. Unless you are bringing home full-time contract work from a previous position, you’ll probably have to adjust your expectations.
The best thing you can do before putting in your letter of resignation is to plan ahead. Put more money into savings while you are getting a regular paycheck, and research affordable options for healthcare and other benefits you might lose.
Also, begin paring down your lifestyle. Some costs, such as gasoline, restaurant lunches and work-specific clothing, will automatically decrease when you spend more time at home. If you are accustomed to lots of little treats ($4 mochas, designer clothes, the latest gadgets) you might want to try life without them or find less expensive alternatives.
Remember, most work-at-home jobs build income slowly. It takes time to book parties, find clients, set up websites and find rare collectibles, so be prepared for a long curve up toward higher income. You will make some trade-offs when going home to the farm to work, but if you’re prepared you’ll probably find they are worth it, just for the freedom to stand outside anytime and breathe in the scent of the country.