Ask SCORE: Home-based businesses need licenses, promotion, planning


Question: I just lost my job to the recession. I have some pretty good skills and I think I'm ready to start a business from my home. What's the latest update on this, and what are some examples of home business opportunities, to get me thinking?

Answer: The whole home business area has grown enormously in the last several years. Lots of people who were in your same boat are now successfully running home-based businesses. Let's talk about this.

First off, and not to play "you shoulda," but consider a thought: Someone uncertain about their job's future might want to spend available evenings and weekends working to get their side business ready to go.

But back to your reality. The whole home-business situation got an enormous boost in the last couple of years from exploding technology. In particular, communication tech is now so good that your customer or client may have no idea that you are a small operation.

It's all about perception. A recent trend for many businesses that use live video heavily: using a "set" as a backdrop. For example, here you are, on camera, sitting at a desk. There's an impressive bookcase and some nice wall art visible behind you. Who's to know that you're actually in your spare bedroom?

Overall, home-based businesses have a pretty good success rate. Part of this is because overhead is low, and you're doing something you enjoy. Here are some brief dos and don'ts.

- First, be legal. Contact your local zoning department to make sure you can lawfully conduct business from your home. For Bellingham, check and click on "Services" and then "Doing Business in Bellingham."

- Realize that you'll need some business licenses. Start at; you can fill out the state's Master Business Application online.

- Be professional. For example, many successful home-office businesspeople get dressed appropriately, just as if they were leaving for work, and go to their home office.

- Promote yourself. Ask every customer or client for referrals. Word-of-mouth referrals are the least expensive and the most effective way of generating new business.

And, avoid these four common causes of failure.

- Bad planning. You'll need a written business plan. Get help with this; it's free.

- Not separating the financial aspects of the business from your personal life.

- Treating the business as a hobby (or a "jobby"), rather than as your real, full-time work.

- Forgetting to market continuously for new business.

There's loads of information available online. Start with this excellent site, for an introduction. Their "Business Ideas" tab has over 150 ideas, with specifics on each.

Now let's take a quick look at six diverse examples of businesses that could be home-based. These are meant to get you thinking of something that fits your skill sets.

- Local tour guide. Many cities like Bellingham have lots of stories to tell. People love to hear about local lore, view historic spots, and get the inside stories. Tours could be on foot, by bike, or on a bigger scale by a small bus you hire, with a driver. Other ideas: seashore visits; sports events; nature tours.

- Business inventory services. Most retail and wholesale businesses have some computer tracking of inventory. But in addition to that, they must also take a "physical inventory" - an actual count of what's on hand at a particular time. This service does the counting.

- Technical editing or translation services. If you are fluent in another language, including techno-speak, offer your ability to edit and convert documents that others have drafted.

- Visual presentation preparation. If you have basic skills using Microsoft PowerPoint, there's a pretty big market. Google "powerpoint training" and scroll down to the site appropriate to your version. You'll find free step-by-step training on how to optimally use the program. The new thinking about these presentations is: simple is better. Google "chartjunk" for a fun discussion.

- Craftsmanship skills. Example: wood furniture refinishing. This could be on-site for larger items, or pickup-and-deliver for smaller pieces. It's a custom business where you could attract a loyal following.

- Cloud migration services. For the tech-oriented, this service helps businesses convert from on-site data storage to the cloud. Larger companies have staff in-house for this function, but smaller firms need outside help. This is a growth business.

No matter what business you decide on, you'll need an excellent website. And for local operations you'll also need some attractive fliers or brochures to hand out at every opportunity. Good luck.


To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald's Sunday Business section by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to

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