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Story Last modified at 12:02 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Local home business owners abound
Area entrepreneurs branch out without leaving the house

By Sean Manget
Alaska Journal of Commerce

photo:News

Ben Schneider and son Leo, 4, examine a wooden puzzle on June 21 at the family's Eagle River home. Ben Schneider makes puzzles like this one as part of his home business, Eagle River Puzzles, which he started in 2009
PHOTO by SEAN MANGET

Ben Schneider has pieced together a way to make a few extra bucks from home.

Schneider, a stay-at-home dad, runs Eagle River Puzzles out of his family's yurt in the Eagle River Valley. And while he makes only a couple thousand dollars a year off of his home business, Schneider is part of a larger national trend toward more home-based small businesses.

The 200,000-member National Association for the Self-Employed took surveys of its members in 2007 and 2009 to see how many of them were home-based, said association spokeswoman Kristin Oberlander.

In 2007, 55 percent of members had an office in their home, Oberlander said. In 2009, that number was 59.2 percent.

It's hard to zero in on clear indicators for home-based businesses in the Eagle River area. But Susan Gorski, the executive director of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, thinks there might be a good number of them.

"I know the last time we pulled business licenses for (zip codes) 99577 and 99567, and that's the Chugiak-Eagle River area, there (were) approximately 2,000 (business licenses)," Gorski said. "And if you look at downtown Eagle River, we don't have 2,000 businesses."

Gorski estimates there are between 400 and 500 businesses with actual store fronts in the Chugiak-Eagle River area, though she admits that number may be generous.

"Then that would leave three-quarters of (businesses) basically at the home-based level," she said.

Among tips for those looking to start a home business, Oberlander suggests that people think of themselves as business owners. This means developing a business plan, she said, being aware of what's going on in your industry, and keeping an eye on national policies affecting small businesses.

She said this "big-picture view" is "something I think a lot of self-employed folks maybe don't think about at first, but it is important in starting a successful small business."

Another tip: choose the right structure for your business, be it a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited liability company or a corporation.

"Many small business owners are shocked" at the number of actions needed to open a business, she said.

She also suggests making sure you know your tax responsibilities. Oberlander recommends that business owners find tax professionals who understand the industry the owner is operating in to help with tax questions, and perhaps to talk with other business owners before getting started.

Isaac Vanderburg, associate state director with the Alaska Small Business Development Center, added that prospective home business owners should check with a certified public accountant to see which, if any, of their home expenses can be written off as business expenses.

As a stay-at-home dad, the money Ben Schneider makes – though a small fraction of what it takes to keep the household running – still allows him to contribute monetarily, he said.

"It pays for more tools, and it pays for skiing," he said.

He started the business in the summer of 2009, beginning by selling his works on www.Etsy.com, a website that allows people to sell homemade items.

He's also sold puzzles at stores and craft fairs, and word-of-mouth has led people to contact him looking for puzzles, he said.

Lisa Symmes, another home business owner in Eagle River, runs a health coaching service called Just Nourish. Over the phone or in person, she tries to help clients integrate healthier nutrition choices into their daily lives.

"So it's using the tools they already have to introduce whole foods into their life," she said.

Symmes has been training as a health coach by taking a distance-learning course from a New York-based institution. As a student in the program, she's required to start up a business and see clients, she said. She's helping her first four clients now.

Symmes, who works as a manager at a pharmacy and runs her home business on the side, said she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2005 and began working with a health coach.

The symptoms went away, she said, and she now has "more energy than ever."

"And so that was what got me into health coaching. So I'm still a pharmacist, and I do this on the side because I want to get this out there," she said.

Registering for a home-based business license is fairly painless in Alaska, Symmes said. And she's found the Eagle River area is supportive of home-based entrepreneurs. She recently hooked up with the Chugiak-Eagle River Women in Business organization, where she gave a talk at one of their women's shows.

She also gives workshops, which she said further helps to spread the word about her business.

Ray and Jan Holmsen, the husband and wife owners of local business Northbooks, have been in Alaska for decades. Their business is dedicated to publishing and editing books, from memoirs of longtime Alaskans to fiction stories, cookbooks and more.

Though their business isn't strictly home-based, they do work at home from time to time, the couple said. Jan does copy editing; Ray does the pre-press work, including photos, scanning and putting the content into a book-page format.

They then outsource the printing to digital printers.

"We do a minimal amount of distribution," Ray Holmsen said. "That's a very difficult, almost thankless arena."

But most authors have networks of friends, family and others and can move a couple of hundred books themselves, he said.

Ray said he has a hard time imagining hiring someone else into the business, because having that special connection with his client base requires a life experience of having lived in Alaska for as long as he and Jan have.

"It's such a special niche. You couldn't hire anybody that would have the same connection with the old timers," he said.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget@alaskajournal.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.