Home Run

Ask Nathan Root or Lisa Price about the commute to work they face during the wintry months in West Michigan, and they'll likely just smile. For these home-based business owners, the trip to work is measured in a few footsteps.

Root, Price and others in metro Grand Rapids are part of the estimated 18 million people who are engaged in home-based businesses. Referred to as homepreneurs in some circles, this new breed of entrepreneurs represents a fundamental shift in the way Americans earn their livings.

Big deal, you might say, they're just a bunch of telemarketers with a garage full of snow globes. Not so. What makes Price and Root -- and countless others like them -- different than the stereotype is the sophistication they bring to their enterprises. Root's company is now selling its door bracket invention through the Menards hardware store chain, and Price's home décor products have been featured in Real Simple magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, and on the Food Network.

Opportunity knocks
Nathan Root, 31, is a general contractor whose expertise is putting up or remodeling buildings. It never occurred to him that he might someday step outside his comfort zone and create a product for the home hardware market -- one that large corporations often find tough to crack.

But the inexperience didn't prevent Root, one-third partner in Express Products in Grandville and inventor of the Quick Door Hanger, from making a run at the big time.

His inspiration came while he was working on a commercial installation.

"I had a trimmer, but when times were slow I did the work," Root recalls. "He always warned about interior doors, but my arrogance preceded me. I hacked my way through the first door -- then had him come and do it."

The experience got Root to thinking there had to be a better way. He checked out some building information on line and came across an exterior door installation that used a metal flange. He thought the same idea could be applied to an interior design.

"The old way -- using shims and nail gun -- is labor intensive," Root explains. "Guys who do it all the time take 12-15 minutes; homeowners need an hour to an hour and a half. With our bracket system, it takes 3-3-1/2 minutes for contractors, 10-20 minutes for homeowners."

He met with the Gill brothers, Dennis, 43, and Mike, 45, the proprietors of Digital Tool & Die in Grandville. The three had struck up a friendship from an earlier job Root had completed for Dennis.

Root laid out his idea and the Gills developed some prototypes. Root also started doing research, and the group put together a business plan. With an initial investment of around $20,000, Express Products and its first brainchild was born.

The product worked, Digital Tool built a die to stamp the part from sheet metal, and the Quick Door Hanger was ready to promote. The easy part was done.

Finding the market...and the market spaces
Root and company quickly discovered that having a working idea is not winning even half the battle.

"With anybody the challenge is where to start," Root explains. "The hard part is not a huge investment...but knowledge; you need defined research: who is the target market? You're always asking yourself -- marketing? advertising? which first? You have to answer these questions."

This proved to be an adventure that sorted itself out over the first few months of the Quick Door Hanger's life.

The product a was a big hit at a wholesale builder's show in Florida and was later placed with a door manufacturer in Iowa that includes a Quick Door Hanger with each of its doors.

But long-term success, Root decided, would come by focusing on distribution to the do-it-yourself market. Their first target: Menard Inc., a regional chain based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that met Express Products' model.

"We figured it was best to work with a regional Midwest store than a national chain," Root says. "Menards has proven they aren't scared of working with single-source vendors and they had an invoicing system that worked for us."

Menards also provides drop ship delivery, an easier option for smaller manufacturers because they don't have to ship to regional hubs, and the company stocks its own stores, eliminating the need for vendors to handle that task.

The group made a hands-on presentation to a group of 500 managers representing the company's 252 stores at a product seminar. Root remembers the Quick Door Hanger was so easy to explain and demonstrate that he and his partners fell short of the requisite 25-minute presentation period. They were advised to use the full amount of time. They did and the product had a home.

Root and his partners pressed Menards to allow placement of more product in-store, carrying the inventory burden themselves because they wanted the exposure. They also introduced some marketing and merchandising materials and, at Menard's request, some different types of packaging until the right design was completed.

Riding the wave you create
Now it was time to optimize momentum.

"We hired someone to do our web site and videos," Root says. "We had a contact trying to break into the market and we worked with them. We have nine already."

The group also solidified its home operation. Every component is fully manufactured in the U.S. and shipping and packaging has been streamlined.

"We're still a start-up," Root insists. "It's part of the reason I still work out of the house. We're not profitable yet, but we're close."

Express Products is looking at plans for 2010 that will include looking for some additional financing and introducing an advertising component to its promotion. The company also plans to initiate talks with Lowe's.

Through it all, Root says the group remains practical.

"If we fail, we're only out about six to seven grand apiece," he offers. "Part of learning is adjusting and changing."

Among the changes may be a couple of new products -- no official word yet -- and the knowledge that Express Products' has a future about which its principals are starting to feel right at home.

Throwing in the towel
For Lisa Price, 32, the decision to work from home came during a career shift in 2005. She was living in Portland, Oregon and just lost a job -- the second that year -- and decided that she was "sick of looking at jobs I didn't want anyway." She had been working as a sales rep, and while that afforded the opportunity to travel, it wasn't the life she'd envisioned.

Price wanted to work on her art. She had a printmaking degree from Grand Valley State University and wanted to put it to use. Her idea was to produce hand-made home décor products, starting with custom-print towels. Her dream became artgoodies.

"It was always an idea of mine, so I just took a giant flying leap," she says.

Price turned to the internet for ideas.

"I knew I needed more designs, product lines...I knew wholesale terms so I just started to Google certain things," she recalls. "I did a lot of researching of stores. I started e-mailing. My unemployment ran out in three months so I had to make it go."

She learned quickly how to source supplies, packaging, distribution...her retail experience providing a helpful head-start here. She also got, and still gets, advice and help from her family and from other entrepreneurs with whom she occasionally collaborates. And it all happens in her in-home studio.

Price tried out artgoodies at a local farmer's market and received an enthusiastic response. She then checked out some consignment web sites, etsy.com being the most prominent.

"So I put a few tools up...within 30 seconds I had a sale," Price remembers.

It has been a wild ride ever since. artgoodies are now in demand on on-line sites and in consignment stores around the world.

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow
Price continues to investigate new avenues for exposure on sites, such as Design Sponge, and now maintains her own web site and blog. And she even squeezes in a little time, although not much, for gardening and vintage collectibles (she sells those, too).

Her advice to entrepreneurs?

"It's a different kind of work. It's not for everybody. It's a lot of solo time," she admits. "You get up really early; you work -- I'm kind of a workaholic, anyway -- and try to knock off around 8 or 9 at night."

And you stay humble. "One of the things about being a home-based business is that it's a 24-hour marketing lesson," she explains. "There are always things coming up that you just don't know about yet."

While continuing to enjoy success, Price is not yet contemplating a bid on Nicolas Cage's summer home. She did not reveal numbers but indicated she was producing more than 1,500 pieces a week during the holiday season.

"I don't envision slowing down," she concludes. "I think about what comes next -- I've started landing bigger accounts and I think there's room for expansion."

More new joiners
While there are many permutations of what constitute a home-based business, research data -- from U.S. government sources and independent national job study research firms -- are in agreement that the numbers are growing. According to a recent report produced by Steve King, partner of Emergent Research in Lafayette, California, home-based businesses now employ more people than venture-capital based companies and are vital contributors to the U.S. economy.

While this may seem an overreach, local observers see the home-based economy as a legitimate growth opportunity.

Nancy Boese, a business tools specialist for the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center located at Grand Valley State University, suggests that the technology that triggered and supports the outsourcing of services also supports more ambitious projects.

"It's easier for people to start up businesses," she explains. "They don't have restrictions, they know how to better use resources, such as the internet, and they can be a full-blown business without bricks and mortar.

"Among other things we have seen is that they form collaborations with other people, all self employed, so that their services complement each other," Boese adds. "I think most people are getting into it long-term as a primary source of income. I think it's a trend that's here to stay."

Ron Visscher, assistant professor of business administration at Aquinas College, points to nuances within the home-based movement that increase its chances for long-term success.

"There are various forces that make it more and more popular," he observes. "Things such as the Local First movement encourage smaller businesses. I see that people are also finding that they can use their trade skills in different ways, that there are creative ways to make things at home on a smaller, custom scale. People are taking these ideas seriously and finding a niche for their businesses."

Going to the head of the class
There are also niches popping up to support the niche-inclined.

Perhaps the best indicator that home-based businesses are expected to remain a driving force in the economy is the attention they are getting in the classroom. Local colleges and universities are adding classes in entrepreneurialism to their curricula. They're also branching out to encourage competition.

In November, 2009, the first West Michigan Regional Pitch Competition was held at GVSU. The competition involved students from GVSU, Aquinas, Calvin College and Davenport University, each making 90-second business pitches analyzed on the quality of their idea and presentation by a panel of judges.

Organizers of this event plan to hold a West Michigan Regional Business Plan Competition in early 2010.

Recent attention notwithstanding, the myths about home-based businesses persist. One of the more common ones is that most of these ventures are short-lived. Research data says otherwise. According to an IDC study the average home-based business has been in operation over 10 years.

All it takes is a leap of faith...and a little more faith that you will land on your feet. Just ask Lisa Price.

"It never occurred to me that this wouldn't work," she says.

G.F. Korreck is a free-lance writer, editor, and voice talent living in West Michigan.


Lisa Price, owner of artgoodies

Nathan Root, 31, one-third partner in Express Products in Grandville

Hand-made home décor products, artgoodies

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved